ROBERT FLANAGAN is a retired army officer now working as a consultant at E-Systems, Inc., a Falls Church defense electronics firm. He is also the first Master of Fine Arts graduate of George Mason University's fledgling graduate writing program. "In 1979, with my military retirement and my children out of school," Flanagan says, "I decided I had reached the point where I could sit down and write the great American novel."

Flanagan enrolled in the MFA program to see if he has what it takes to be a writer. Now he spends his lunch hours and evenings bent over a word processor, writing and rewriting. He's halfway through his novel, which is about Vietnam, and chapters have been published in two university literary magazines, Sou'wester and Phoebe.

Flanagan is one of thousands to take advantage of a small but flourishing cottage industry that has grown up within American universities in the past few decades. Lawyers, Bell Telephone employes, high school teachers, restless housewives and undergraduates in search of their identities are enrolling in more than 250 creative writing programs around the country. Some appear to want nothing more than the stimulation of working with famous authors and fellow aspiring poets and novelists. Others are more serious and are eager to devote a year or two to studying literature and perfecting their craft.But a great many applicants have aims the programs cannot possibly satisfy, says Rosanna Warren, a John Hopkins Writing Seminars graduate who taught there the year after she received her degree. One told her he hoped to be accepted because he wanted to be in the Norton Anthology in 10 years.

If prospective writers are deluded about the kinds of rewards they will reap in creative writing programs, it is because the programs often justify their existence in contradictory ways. They are bastions both of idealism and enterprise. Whereas the romance of writing was once nothing more than a popular pipedream, now it is a self-sustaining institution.

Creative writing programs offer a ready-made salon society, a sheltered environment where writing is respected and ideas are freely exchanged among a coterie of the talented and ambitious. But most creative writing teachers concede that the programs tend to be too homogeneous and inbred. Students are hired back as faculty, and they teach the same techniques and theories to the next brood of young writers. Applicants are right to assume that participation in a program may pave the way to the elusive world of publishing and may provide the vital credentials for the few cherished teaching posts available each year.

Program directors, however, deny they are in the business of training pre-professionals and say they warn applicants that studying writing at the graduate level is not a practical step. Poet Gregory Orr, who teaches in the University of Virginia's MFA program, says that if the students aren't realistic when they enter his classes, they are by the end of their first week. "I don't want their disappointments on my conscience. I let them know that fame and glamour are not going to be theirs. You might as well be realistic if you're going to be a poet."

Yet creative writing programs sell themselves on the merits of illustrious writers-in-residence, who more often than not are themselves graduates of one program or another. Popular and successful writers like John Irving, Ann Beattie and James Dickey are invited to give public readings and lectures and to direct intensive workshops on their craft. Programs sponsor writing conferences and symposia where writers mingle and gossip and offer each other tips on how and where to get published.

The model frequently used to describe writing programs is that of the Renaissance painting workshop. Students are apprentices who derive practical experience as well as inspiration from close contact with the master. Skeptics deride the notion that creative writing is a discipline that can be studied and taught like any other. But novelist John Barth, who teaches at Johns Hopkins says, "This is the only art about which we ask, 'Can it be taught?' In music, painting, and sculpture students practice and balance their ideas against a talented instructor." Novelist Stephen Goodwin, the director of George Mason University's creative writing program, says that he chose to attend the University of Virginia's master's program so he could study with Peter Taylor. Orr apprenticed under Stanley Kunitz at Columbia University's MFA program, and their working relationship has continued for the past 11 years.

According to the Associated Writing Programs, a nonprofit service organization for writers and writing programs, about 20 colleges and universities in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia offer classes and full programs in creative writing for undergraduates and graduates. The Johns Hopkins Masters in Writing Program was accredited in the fall of 1980. Other universities in the Washington area -- the University of Virginia and American University -- have offered master's degrees with a concentration in writing for many years, but recently added MFA programs to their curricula.

"The MFA is recognized as a 'terminal' degree. We felt we wanted our students to be recognized as young professional writers," says Orr. But degree-granting programs are turning out more "professional" writers than the market can absorb, says Rod Jellema, who directs creative writing courses at the University of Maryland. For that reason, the university decided against instituting an MFA program when it was considered eight years ago. As more MFA graduates drift off to pursue careers in law or business, where the rewards are more substantial than an occasional poem accepted by Shenandoah, the characterization of the MFA as a "terminal degree" seems particularly appropriate.

Creative writing programs bring welcome recognition to universities as well as to budding writers. Four years ago the University of Virginia's creative writing section was the lucky recipient of the $600,000 Henry Hoyns bequest. About $28,000 a year is parcelled out to seven Hoyns Fellows, who are free to take advantage of the university's full curriculum and facilities, as they recast their novellas and study Chaucer and Baudelaire. Hundreds of hopeful writers, amateurs and professionals alike, clamor to apply for Hoyns fellowships each fall.

Private colleges and universities suffering from declining enrollments have found that many students who don't care much about studying the classics are drawn to creative writing. Others, says poet Myra Sklarew, the director of American University's one-year-old MFA program, are eager both for a grounding in traditional literature and for the opportunity to study with experienced contemporary writers. Students will cheerfully pay more than $500 a course at American University for the privilege of having their poems dissected by Linda Pastan or their novels criticized by filmscript writer and novelist Arnost Lustig. People will drive hundreds of miles to attend a week-long workshop headed by Peter Taylor or to hear John Irving talk about what it's like to be a successful American writer today.

When these programs are maligned for producing only a certain kind of writer -- one who is technically competent but short on vision -- directors point to the distinguuished alumni that have emerged from some of the reputable, established programs: Ken Kesey and Ernest Gaines from Stanford; Kurt Vonnegut and Flannery O'Connor from Iowa; and John Barth and Russell Baker from Johns Hopkins. But these industrious and gifted writers brought their talents with them. What they got in return was a fine teacher or two, perhaps a teaching fellowship, and an atmosphere conducive to writing and studying literature.

Critics of creative writing programs say that anyone with real talent and ambition who wants to become a writer will produce good work, without a special degree or a smattering of workshops in "Directions in Modern Fiction" and "The Craft of Nature Writing." James Atlas, an associate editor at The Atlantic, says that there are excellent writers to be found today, but that this has nothing to do with the academy. "It's impossible to learn anything substantial in these programs. What you learn is a certain style. You buy the zeitgeist and learn the prevalent idiom. This trend is deleterious to the literary health of the country, and it's bad for the writers. Our first-rate writers -- Mailer, Roth, Styron -- are not in the university. It's the second-rate writers who are." Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Peter Klappert, who teaches at George Mason University, says, "You find a specific verbal structure repeatedly turning up in the literary magazines. It is formulaic; it has been learned."

"There is a tendency of the programs of produce, and temporarily inflate, mediocre writers," says another poet, Jay Parini, who teaches at Dartmouth College. "But water seeks its own level. The 'great' poets of the 1960s who emerged from the programs and were temporarily stars couldn't sustain themselves. No one reads them today." How do they make their living now? They are the gurus at creative writing programs, opening young minds to the tricks of the trade.

Creative writing programs may not be responsible for churning out major new talents, and as John Barth says, perhaps as many as "nine-tenths of the programs are amateurish or ideologically quirky," but they are at the heart of a marketplace where one's work is put on show and often directed to the right buyer. "If I were 22 and wanted to publish at all cost, the practical way would be to go through a writing program," one poet and editor says. "You're shown the public relations side of writing; you learn how to crack the market."

As commercial publishers have become more involved with subsidiary rights and author book tours, and less interested in taking a loss on promising young poets and short story writers, creative writing programs have helped to develop new outlets for their teachers' and students' work. Literary magazines are a common outgrowth of campus writing programs. Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars program, like many arrangements at schools around the country, has established a fiction and poetry series with the university press. The Associated Writing Programs has had its own Award Series. Its list of books includes 27 volumes of fiction and poetry published by participating presses.

Novelist Russell Banks, himself a co-founder of a small press and a literary magazine, warns in the September 1981 AWP Newsletter, "We ought to become more alert to the dangers of participating in the care and feeding of a true literary academy, a beast, in which the students, teachers, writers, editors, crities, and judges are all the same people."

Yet the feeding of this beast accounts in large part for the huge success of writing programs. In many cases students couldn't hope for better literary agents than they have in their teachers. As a result, uninspired work may sometimes find its way into the American Poetry Review or Ploughshares or Antaeus, and sometimes reportedly even slips by a nodding editor at The New Yorker.

Many writers, however, who scorn creative writing programs admit to a certain ambivalence about their own involvement in the phenomenon. Those who would previously have languished in obscurity are the first to admit that they enjoy the exposure they receive as teachers and lecturers. As for the students, every writer needs to have his or her work evaluated by someone other than a loving spouse. And though writing is essentially a private act, most writers also want their work aired in public. "Once you publish something," says George Mason University's Goodwin, "the only people you're likely to hear from are the prisoner who writes to say you haven't lifted up his heart and the guy who calls to tell you the medical details are all wrong." At the very least, writing programs offer nothing more sinister or salutary than a forum for criticism and modest publicity.