The MFA Question

Something a lot of aspiring writers struggle with. Between MFAs, certificate programs, workshops, conferences, retreats, and now the doctorate programs some schools are offering: creative writing (as opposed to uncreative writing?) has become big business. The merits of which are debatable. When asked if the (even then) proliferation of writing courses was destroying a lot of promising young writers, Flannery O’Connor said, Not enough.

Which is not to say writing workshops and even degrees don’t have value. If you want to teach and get paid reasonably for doing so, an MFA is probably essential. An MFA can provide time, space, and structure to focus exclusively on writing. Aside from the prestigious programs like Iowa and Stanford, it will not help you get published. If you’re lucky it connects you with a peer group and community. A lot, in fact, rides on chance. As with any experience, who you share it with is crucial–you may end up with a great group of classmates and you may not. You may choose a program for a particular writer and not get to study with them, or you do and they’re a lousy teacher.

If you know you don’t want to teach, there’s a lot to be said for cobbling together your own custom MFA with a variety of classes, workshops, conferences, and private study. You’re spreading the risk: you’ll encounter your share of mediocrity, but sometimes you’ll strike gold. You’ll cross paths with a lot of writers from a lot of different backgrounds. I’ve taken many classes (both on-line and in-person) through the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program. That and the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon are my mainstays. Tin House isn’t cheap but my custom MFA still comes in well under the standard one. If you’re set on going the MFA route, you can start your search HERE.

Other Formal Study

The UCLA Writer’s Program attracts students and teachers from around the country, even the world. Every city has a range of schools and centers offering classes. The editors of the literary magazine Mid-American Review have recently begun offering their own on-line workshop which attracts a high-caliber student.

You can find a listing of retreats and conferences in the Writer’s Market, as well as in Poets & Writers. I’m biased but to me the line-up at Tin House is unmatched. Bread Loaf in Vermont is the oldest and probably most prestigious conference, but has a reputation for being hierarchical. Squaw Valley in California is another well-regarded conference.

Reading as a Writer

No amount of formal study and workshopping can replace learning (largely on your own) to become a close reader. The first UCLA course I took was a class by this name with Lou Mathews and I like to think it got me off on the right foot. It seems obvious that a writer should read and many do, but a lot don’t–not widely, not deeply, not closely. UCLA segregates its writing classes in its Extension Program because in the undergraduate school they found writing classes siphon off students from literature classes. Everyone wants to write. As for digging deeply into literature… not so much.

There are dozens of books and lists to help you on your reading way. I won’t even try to list them. There’s also a lot to be said for just going to the library or bookstore and just starting somewhere. Then there’s seeing which books and stories that have made an impression on other writers, and reading those works ‘with’ them. Francine Prose has a recent book, Reading Like a Writer, that I’ve only glanced at because I want to read the novels as I go along. Ditto with a Nabokov collection, Lectures on Literature.

For the short story writer, Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice is a treasure. He offers his own general ideas about the form in an introduction and epilogue–between which are eleven chapters, each devoted to a different writer. The writers he chooses are largely older writers, and you have to work a little to track down the stories he discusses. It’s worth it. For me the big finds were Turgenev and Babel. There’s also You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen: thirty-five writers each introducing a story that marked them in some way. Finally, check out the Ray Carver/Tom Jenks-edited American Short Story Masterpieces.

Books on Writing

A dangerous topic. Because there are a lot of them, too many of them, and a lot of aspiring writers spend too much time reading them. But there are a few that, for me, stand out.

I’ve already declared my affection for Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a slim meditation that doesn’t seek to explain writing so much as evoke the state of mind necessary for it. See the excerpts included in Wisdom, and you’ll either be sold or you won’t. I greatly prefer this book to the vastly more popular Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Not that there aren’t useful things in both. But I prefer Dillard’s more oblique approach. And I guess I’m distrustful of writing books that seek to inspire. A good writing book should be sobering. It should say: if at all possible, don’t write–but if you insist, here are some thoughts…

The excerpts in Wisdom from Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery & Manners should be enough to sell you on this book if you don’t have it or don’t know of it. If not we should just part ways right here. This is essential, required reading for any serious writer.

I’ve also included a number of quotes from Ron Carlson Writes a Story, another slim volume. He walks you through the day he wrote the first draft to “The Governor’s Ball,” a story I happen to like a lot. Even if you don’t like the story; even if you don’t believe he wrote something close to the published version in one day, or find it depressing that he might have–this book gives you a rare over-the-shoulder look at a writer and his process.

From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler (best known for his Pulitzer-winning collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain): bad title, really good book, maybe essential. In addition to the bad title, the book (actually a collection of lectures) is, as Janet Burroway points out in her introduction, peppered with New Age-sounding terms like trance and yearning and white-hot center. But it may be essential.

He’s sobering: he tells students that before he wrote his first published novel, he wrote a million words of dreck (five awful novels, forty dreadful stories, a dozen terrible plays), and assures them they are almost surely making the same fatal errors in their writing and will continue to do so for some time. Tough love. Not a popular message in a business built on encouragement and inspiration.

He nails perhaps the central paradox of writing: trying to create a visceral experience by means of a medium that is inherently abstract. Unlike music, film, painting, theater, the spoken word: language on the page is not innately sensual. Black marks on a white page do not actively bump up against the senses. These symbols play in the theater of the mind, where they can only suggest sensual experience. All too often words on the page slide into abstraction, and it takes constant vigilance to guard against that slide.

He has a fascinating chapter called “Cinema of the Mind” that fundamentally changed the course of my creative study. He talks about how movies (maligned in some literary circles) have changed the way we read and write–and in some good ways. We no longer tolerate long digression and exposition (a mixed bag), we demand immediacy (good). He goes on to describe how the seminal (if vile) director DW Griffith (widely credited with inventing modern film language) learned his technique by reading Dickens. Butler then analyzes the ‘cinematography’ of a passage from Great Expectations. I’d never thought of fiction as having camera-work but it does.

Butler’s background is in theater and that plays into all the above. He’s essentially describing what might be called Method writing. I came across the book when I was first feeling the stirrings of discontent with reading too much fiction that seemed to come out of the head–especially the self-conscious narrator who always seems to know what he or she is feeling. That’s not a world I recognize. I have ever since been on a path to write characters from the neck down instead of from the neck up (to cop the name of a UCLA class I highly recommend taught by Leon Martell). The fiction writer has much to gain from the study of drama in theater and film.

One of the first books on film I read is Robert McKee’s Story. It is not strictly a film book but he’s known as a “film guru” and not a lot of fiction writers read him or take him seriously. That’s a shame because there’s much to be learned here. I confess here to breaking my own rule about inspiration: as in most film writing books, there is the feel-good affirmation of a revival meeting. And again, as with most film gurus, there is the scent of gimmickry in the air. But if you can get past all that there is a serious engagement with the stuff of vital drama. A man who puts forth Ingmar Bergman as the greatest screenwriter of the 20th century is not peddling snake oil.

I first became aware of Story in a fiction class at UCLA, a two-day course on Scene taught by Aimee Liu. Up to that point, I was not familiar with the concept of a beat–a term bandied about (maybe too much) in film but with its origins in the theater. It is not about rhythm. A beat is a unit of action and response. It is the fundamental building block of dramatic scene. Aimee walked us through passages of The Great Gatsby and Turn of the Screw with this in mind and it was eye-opening.

The final book I would call essential mainly for one particular essay is Bringing the Devil to His Knees, edited by Charles Baxter. There are a lot of good essays here–including Richard Russo’s defense of the omniscient point-of-view; and Jim Shepard’s insightful analysis of the Robert Stone story “Helping.” And then, though it wanders, there is one essential essay: Susan Neville’s “Where’s Iago?”.

Her fundamental thesis is that within every human situation, within every person, is a hairline crack, a fault-line. And the action of the story must function as a wedge that forces that fault-line open in order to explore what happens next.

And what happens as the rock is breaking, until the new order is restored as two rocks or as one or as unrecognizable rubble: that’s where the story is located. Without the wedge, there wouldn’t be this story. There would only be the baseline story, which can go on and on interminably, all of its illusions intact, with its minor daily tensions and conflicts.

All too often I read (all too often I write) fiction that tracks this baseline story, never forcing that fault-line open and getting to real drama.

There are certainly other worthy books and articles, and I’ll try to get to some of them as the site expands. Earlier I mentioned Janet Burroway, and after having a number of people recommend it to me I finally picked up her pricey text Writing Fiction, used in a lot of writing programs. It looks and feels like a textbook, which makes me wary. But it’s a decent reference book. I’ve heard good things about Charles Baxter’s essays in Burning Down the House, and he edits the Art of series by Graywolf Press, including his own The Art of Subtext. And every writer should have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style on hand.

But for the most part I’ll stick by my earlier caution not to get too caught up in books about writing (often by those who haven’t produced anything notable themselves) and instead concentrate on the core activities of writing and reading.

Finally a quick note to encourage the crossing of disciplines. I’ve already made clear my belief in the benefits of studying drama through theater and film. In that vein, acting and improv classes can be eye-opening. Read any good book about acting (say, Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting), substitute writing for acting and you’ll take away a lot. Flannery O’Connor strongly advised every writer to draw, however badly. I took a week-end drawing course and the instructor said I can’t help you draw better in two days, but I can certainly help you see better–isn’t that what it’s all about? A successful film editor believes in the importance of studying dance–Duke Ellington’s dictum, It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, applies to just about everything. And don’t be afraid of poetry. It’s all there: rhythm, storytelling, persona. Lou Mathews reads a poem before and after every class. Eventually he wore me down and I took an on-line UCLA poetry class I highly recommend, an introduction to forms with Anna Maria Hong. If you can’t take the class check out the text she uses: Strand and Boland’s The Making of a Poem. Fall in love with the villanelle and you’ll never be the same.

Published on May 25, 2008 at 1:36 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I am shocked not to find Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott on your list. I have read it at least six times (I use it for many classes) and always find something new inside. You may be beyond the advice of the one-inch picture frame, but it had helped a lot of people get over the terror of a blank page. Plus, her snarling attitude makes it okay to have a love-hate relationship with the craft that gives us equal parts of hysterical joy and abject despair. (Did I also mention that it’s funny?)

    • Hey Nicole… Someday I will have to give Bird by Bird its due and read it closely. But it seems it and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones pop up in just about every list of books on writing, and I wanted to feature some other works. Plus I have some issues with Lamott’s embrace of the “shitty first draft”–that’s probably a future blog post. But I do like the way she tackles spirituality and motherhood; and I know the book has been helpful to a lot of people, and there’s no arguing with that.

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