Thursday, June 11, 2009

“My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.”

This article in the New Yorker, which discusses a book about the impact of creative-writing programs on American fiction, is timely food for thought for me as I consider writing programs and the next stage of the process. Yes! I'm looking into MFA programs! A waste of time and money when I should just be writing? Maybe.

When I worked for a creative-writing program, making coffee, fetching snacks, and listening to MFA students enviously snipe about best-selling visiting writers who they saw as undeserving hacks--the whole enterprise seemed to me to exist to create teachers who could support their writing by training the next generation of teachers who could support their writing, and so on, ad infinitum. And my experience an undergraduate taking a class from one of these jaded MFA students didn't change that perception: we students read each other's work--giving either ostentatious and overbearing suggestions or vague and meaningless praise--and got vague scribbled feedback from our teacher. As I think I've mentioned, it was enough to send me screaming into more concrete endeavors, like accounting.

But my recent experiences with fiction-writing classes have made me much more open to the prospect of how writing can be "taught." One of the things that I had to power through was this idea that writing was something that just happened: you're either a superstar, or you're someone who's wasting time that could better be spent learning something concrete and productive, like, um, accounting. If you're not dazzling them on your first efforts, you might as well give it up. But the thing is, writing is about practice and trial and error, just like any other creative endeavor. Part of what you learn in a class is to treat writing like a process. Not everything that is given life by your keyboard is going to set the world on fire, but if you pick up some tips from people and books you love and plug away at it, your writing's going to improve. Having a class structure gives you permission to start somewhere and end somewhere better. So when I see something like this
Most readers of “The Program Era” are likely to be persuaded that the creative-writing-program experience has had an effect on many American fiction writers. Does this mean that creative writing can, in fact, be taught? What is usually said is that you can’t teach inspiration, but you can teach craft. What counted as craft for James, though, was very different from what counted as craft for Hemingway. What counts as craft for Ann Beattie (who teaches at the University of Virginia) must be different from what counts as craft for Jonathan Safran Foer (who teaches at N.Y.U.). There is no “craft of fiction” as such.

I'm sympathetic, but at the same time, I think that teaching writing isn't that different from teaching any art. Talent is talent, but "craft"--where you take it and synthesize it from--is most definitely learned. Whether it can be imparted by a teacher, as opposed to learned by reading is probably arguable. I can't say that I've picked up specific mechanics from my teachers directly through the example of their work, but I absolutely learned from them to be aware of aspects I can learn from. Perhaps this was a feature of being in a program that emphasizes "finding your own voice" over doing it the [Fill in your pet methodology] way. And the things that we learn from other students, who have different influences, can't be discounted. Mr. Experimental Fiction in my last class, for example, may not have been offering me a whole lot of useful advice on setting up my scenes or introducing my characters, but damn, did I pick up a lot from his way of describing how his characters felt.

But I thought this was awesome. It makes me want to work on an affect, you know?
Writing teachers may therefore cultivate their own legends. Once, on the first day of class, Angela Carter, who taught at Brown, was asked by a student what her own writing was like. She carefully answered as follows: “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.”

1 comment:

erik said...

in animation we have a term for learning our craft through countless hours of trial and error--pencil mileage. feel free to use it to describe your own process.