Home » Cultural Comment, December 2008, Literature

The Other Writers’ World

27 November 2008 850 Views One Comment author: Tracy McCusker

I say without reservation: it is a fantastic time to be a writer. From the rise of small-print publishing online and off, to the celebration of writers in some of the most influential television programs (Oprah and The Daily Show come to mind), the paths to becoming a published author have never been as varied as they are today. Whether you NaNo1 or AWP; whether you sit down with a strong cuppa in front of a keyboard on weeknights and weekends; or whether you cram pages of prose in at the cafe as you jostle elbows with fellow patrons — living in the world of writers is open to all who wish to pursue it. But beyond the down-home figure of the cardigan-wrapped writer tapping solitary words admist stacks of empty take-out containers, there exists a culture of writers of which, chances are, you are only dimly aware.

If you’ve picked up a collection of contemporary American short fiction in the past five years, read a best-selling novelist’s first or second eye-on-the-prize attempt at carving a name in the literary world, or watched a multi-million dollar superhero blockbuster with strangely-leaning poetic tastes — chances are, you’ve imbibed the MFA lifestyle without even realizing it. Like Romantic ideation of the tortured poet-savior, Freudian rivalry and ego analysis, and Marxist terminology about the redistribution of wealth, most people toss around the idea of the MFA workshop writer without realizing where, or how, the concept of such a thing took root.

The Rise of the MFA

Spurred by the swelling ranks of college-attendees and the growth of the publishing industry, several seismic shifts in what it meant to be a writer have occurred since the end of WWII. The growth of the university heralded a shift towards the campus as an academic and artistic hub of contemporary American culture, competing quite often with conservative norms of cultural alignment: the pre-War the family, the neighborhood, the church. The expansion of publishing in response to the rise in disposable income increasingly spent on entertainment led to an increased demand for writers. This first round of cultural shifts in the make-up of writers included, in the California scene, more female writers, more Spanish-American writers, and increased awareness about the rise of “minority” literature. Postmodern thought pushed back against the swelling writers’ ranks with theories about the “death” of the author, authorial intention, and the rational self and increasingly focused on formal, clinical aspects of texts that attempted to divest “the author” of meaning within literary circles.

Rather than stifling the role of the author this debate between newly-empowered writers and their pomo critics, a new vista for writers opened within the universities with the establishment of academic writing programs. Unlike academic writing tracks, rhetoric, or journalism — the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing was established on two principles (resembling a hybrid arts / humanities program) : studying the great modern/contemporary literature from a writing craft point of view and producing creative content in order to train up professional writers.

While many writers’ workshops have existed since the 40′s on (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest and most prestigious of MFA workshops, began in 1936), the public’s image of writers has notoriously lagged behind the times. The Beat-poet, scribbling half-lucid notes in his slim Moleskine journal or slamming out sestinas on his worn Underwood, has gradually faded from the public mind. The hard-drinking, solitary hawk on the outskirts of society — the ex-pat in thought, if not deed, fertilized by the nigh-on sainthood of Hemingway – has yet to fade completely from the public eye.2 Yet, very noticeably pushed through by the prose in the past thirty years by the swelling ranks of post-grad writers, the image of the writer has been remade in the image of suburban malaise: the middle-class, not always bespectacled, young grad (or in another variation: post-grad) who has the tools of the English language laid out at her feet, but goddamnit, has no experience to tap for her jaunty Pyncheonesque perambulations. A spate of films at the beginning of the ’00s — Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant 2000), Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson 2000), Orange County (Jake Kasdan 2002), Adaptation (Spike Jonze 2002)– can be credited with finally pushing the image of the academic writer front and center.3

This image, steeped in the deep anxieties of production, resembles, more or less, my own experience with writing. Yet the image itself tells you nothing; it is an empty caricature without insight into the actual process by which scores of young writers are minted in universities today. In order to understand the writers and the peculiar anxieties that percolate through even something as far-removed from the world of the writer as Spider-Man 2 4, you need to understand the workshop.

The Workshop

“Workshop” refers specifically to a type of creative writing class that is quite unlike any other experience you may have had in high school or university. The workshop is an exercise in group-feedback on creative work. Each one involves a small number of writers (12 to 15 is a fairly standard number) who enroll based purely on interest in writing for beginning workshops or who are selected from a pool of applicants based on the quality of their work for more advanced classes.

Each week, two or three writers are tapped to produce short stories for the group. 5 Stories for workshop are distributed to the class a week before they are due to be critiqued in-class. On the day of workshop, each of story is dissected, criticized, ridiculed and complimented, as the workshop attempts to deconstruct the work, see what makes it tick, and figure out what gears may be missing. The instructor may start out the discussion or guide the process; however, once the workshop consists of a group of fairly competent critiquers in command of their craft, the leader might be silent for the entire ‘shop, as the fledgling writers cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. By design, writers are not allowed to defend their work. It’s crucial for workshopping writers to have something to distract themselves during this phase. As helpful as the suggestions may be — if you have any love for your work — the experience will be painful.

These ‘shops are not as rough-and-tumble as this fairly romanticized, unspecific portrait suggests. As in all things, structure prevails. The basic workshop starts with, if it is a poem, a reading of what the poem means; or if a short story, an elucidation of what each person considers the main theme / epiphany / action to be. Next, the work’s strong points. Is there a particularly interesting character? A certain technique well-executed? Whether impatient to rip into fellow workshop peers, or to valiantly take up the banner of fixing what’s before us, the workshop inevitably segues into the critique/suggestions phase.

Anesthetizing oneself with note-taking or doodling is a time-honored tradition.

Anesthetizing oneself with note-taking or doodling is a time-honored tradition.

Each participant in the workshop acts and speaks as a potential reader, overlaying her own perspective onto the story. The give-and-take of workshop is this: if you have sympathetic readers and outspoken critiques, a brilliant play of literary debate. Before your eyes, you can watch your work torn down and reassembled into something your turns of phrase absolutely never intended to convey. Here, too, ideas of authorial intent die on the vine. If your writing isn’t communicating, you’ve failed. You can’t turn away. You can’t ignore it. But neither can you, as a critic, soft-pedal your criticism to the author; workshops run on the currency of honesty. The workshop naturally adjusts for ability level of the author/critics; your peers’ ability to manipulate and respond to the subtly of prose inherently limits the discussion. If you produce shoddy work in a beginning level workshop, you’ll often be told to shape-up gently. If you bang out a story the night before the due date in an advanced workshop, you’ll get the high hat for an hour-and-a-half.

The High Hat

Liles : oh hell. So this was about four years ago: there was this story that was written for workshop — these are usually 15-page things. We got 8 single-spaced pages of poorly written, mechanical porn. It wasn’t in the least erotic or even revealing. We didn’t even care about the characters. It was all “he puts his hand on her thigh. She positions her body for him. He licks her lips. She grabs his cock.” –Except, that was better then what he wrote.
Liles : and we had to talk about this shit for a whole hour and a half — since it was the only story up for workshop that day.
Dan : Oh man.
Liles : It was painful. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen a workshop leader cuss out an undergrad. LOL
Dan : what did he say?
Liles : well, okay. So this workshop was led by a grad student who I’d say is one of the most generous readers I’ve come across. He was just fantastic for encouraging students to express themselves thematically in their prose; and there was some pretty great work done in that class, in part because of all of his feedback. And this wasn’t your usual intro to fiction writing workshop. This was a second-level workshop. The intermediate stage. By this point, you have a handle on the basics of critique. You know, broadly speaking, what works and what doesn’t. That said— he starts off the class. He’s rubbing his chin, he’s shuffling through the pages of the story. He looks over at me (I’d had him before), and he asks, “what did you think of the story?” in a low voice.
Liles : “Uh–it was — different,” I said pretty lamely.
Liles : “Right, right,” he said. All of the other students file in, sit down, shuffle their papers. Class starts off with silence.
Liles : and it’s dead silence. For a good three, four minutes.
Dan : hahaha
Liles : “So this story–” the TA begins — “what was the fucking point?”
Liles : “And I say this, not as a pun, but to ask a question.”
Dan : LOL
Liles : The student gives a pretty lame response.
Liles : The TA replies: “Okay, I get that. And you know, I sit down with these stories, and I’m optimistic. I love reading what you guys write. It’s always a joy to see students hone their craft (yadda yadda).”
Liles : “But this story hurt. This story — made me ask ‘so fucking what?’ Was this a waste of my time? Yes, it was.”
Dan : man…
Liles : I mean, woah. In all my years of workshop, I have never seen anything else like that.
Dan : damn.
Dan : I can believe it though. I mean, eight pages of fucking.
Liles : yeah. And it was fucking footnoted in this really snobby, arrogant, brattish narrator. And the ending was a complete WTF? –Out of nowhere: “and then the police show up!”

The Cult of Skaro: Writers in Residence

The pressure and response demanded by workshop is an unforgettable experience. Within the trenches of critique, you find like-minded writers. Perhaps your writing and theirs don’t match up, but your expectations of prose and your approach to criticism do. Not only must you respond to the (usually heavily line-edited, and food-stained from late night editing sessions) text in front of you — you must also defend, refute, or modify the criticism offered by your peers. And since you must all face each other the next week, you learn quickly how to reconcile differing opinions, how to dissent without distracting from the issue at hand, and just how damn hard it is to create a working text that comes alive even for the most technical and jaded of observers.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that writers from workshop often end up hanging around other writers all-hourly. That participants often end up dating fellow writers from workshop. That the underlying dialog of personal attraction / repulsion is an ever-present component to workshop discussion. For some, the workshop is not simply a class, or even a tool for improving prose. It is an inculcated way of life. From workshop springs the poetry / fiction readings that dot the literary landscape. From these readings spring an entire culture of literature — the short fiction writer and the literary poet — whose work is as technically precise and specialized in its execution as it is accessible and universal in its theme.

The I-Effect : The Iowa / Irvine / Idyllwild Workshops

Three big programs: Iowa, Irvine, Idyllwild. Three disparate philosophies towards writing. Three programs that sustain the MFA bubble.

Irvine’s MFA workshops are hosted in a two-tier system, fiction and poetry, and accept only four to six new writers into either track each year. The split, as program lore explains, wasn’t an original feature of the workshop which imagined cross-genre talk between poets and short-fictionists. Rather, the split was affected when a core group of already-accomplished poets ran roughshod over the fledgling production of the short fiction writers – whose hands were tied by short weekly deadlines into producing mediocre stories at best. In this image of competitive arrogance and demanding workshop, find the seeds of the academic writer’s first anxiety.

As an undergraduate, the lowest and mid-level workshops were directed by these graduate students (usually in their second year). Upper-division workshops, which were admission-by-work only, were directed by the same cadre of novelists and poets that taught the graduate students in small, intensive seminars. Thus you could at Irvine, as an undergraduate, horn in on one of the country’s most selective graduate programs simply through foresight and talent alone. And what a program it was. I spent roughly four years in workshop at Irvine in both poetry and fiction, vainly attempting to situate myself in the world of words. First, poetry. Then, short fiction. Then: a creative writing thesis. Poetry. No: a short story collection. How about a novel. I’ve got it: a novella. “Have you considered screenwriting?” my thesis adviser questioned at the conclusion of a year of harrowing prose production, my novella resting uneasily in her hands. “Journalism?”

The normally stratified tracks of prose / poetry / literary journalism meant that you were trained up in a single discipline. You were introduced to the literature of your track only; and by degrees, as you moved deeper into the contemporary world of that discipline, you increasingly lost touch with the professional output of others. In a word: you specialized. As, at one workshop, we considered the prosody of a single line for several minutes “….and fish” — one of those moments of revelation that knock you on your ass showed me just how specialized our focus had become. 6

Iowa fares little better. The program is larger; eight faculty members to Irvine’s four — a faculty that has at some point included Louise Gluck, Mark Strand, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth. Despite some of the extremely well-noted graduates from the program — Flannery O’Connor and John Irving — it is a point of fact that you can tell an Iowa Writers’ Workshop collection from the pack. “Is the last sentence the same as the first?” I ask diffidently when a writer friend gushes about a new book. “It’s an Iowa book.” As much respect as I have for an Ethan Canin — when you can accurately predict the shape and form of the final page from the first line of a story, it’s not ranking high on the creative interest list. The brief: Iowa earns points for its stellar teaching crew and its desire to encourage a larger base of writers, but loses points in the wash of rather bland graduates.

Idyllwild doesn’t succumb to the same professional pressures; the workshops conducted at Idyllwild arts aren’t the same kind of intensive apprenticeship programs with intensive selection processes. Rather, it runs week-long workshops during the summer for those willing to pay good money to work with some of the country’s best poets for intensive workshopping and poetry reading evenings. Summer 2008 saw BH Fairchild and former Poet Laureates Ted Kooser and Rita Dove as visiting workshop advisors. The evening readings were the highlight; Cecelia Woloch and Ted Kooser both reading selections from their newest work. Yet when the students took the mic — poem after poem sounded like the same poetic voice fractured amongst many throats. The I-voice of the 60s confessional poets, updated with a modern attention to syntactic rigor. Buried in the earth, etc, my white dress, etc, the roots of my body, etc.

The Word-Eater

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

–Mark Strand

Yet a wall remains between the achievements of the literary writers and the general reading public. My alma mater, the Univeristy of California Irvine’s program has its noteable graduates: Yusef Komunyakaa and Ai in poetry; Alice Sebold, Malie Meloy, Glen David Gold, and Michael Chabon in fiction. Yet I can say with fair confidence that you might recognize only one of these names.

What is it about MFA workshops that create their self-sustaining bubble? For one, the very set-up of most workshops breeds insularity: a small group of 15 meeting in close-contact for weeks, months, years on end doesn’t just create a comfort zone for writers to express themselves, it also encourages an exclusionary group mentality. Yet the involution of writers’ workshops, and the literary world in general, is perhaps encouraged on both sides. Not only is the general reading public content to stick to the shallows of literature — and who can blame them, with such a bewildering array of options? Who amongst us goes bravely forward into new territory without some kind of guide? — but the programs themselves I’d argue encourage insularity of style.

Questions as to the causes of MFA insularity are thus two-fold: is it that the public is equally uninterested in the imaginative as it is in the re-packaged poetic voices of the past; or is it that the literary workshop refuses to write to public sensibility and taste, preferring to reach toward the models of the Great Modernists; crowned T.S. Eliots of their own introverted wastelands?

Both questions are unfairly loaded. The truth intersects somewhere in the middle. Not only has the reading public for the most part turned down avenues of consumption that don’t match the aims of the literary fiction writers, literary writers do themselves no service by spending a great deal of their time in such intensive, remote workshop experiences. Inevitably, when that first novel is published, it’s the Post-Grad Learns To Overcome Malaise and Love Again — a.k.a. “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” 7 The specialized anxieties and experiences that workshop create a very strong, lasting impression on the mind of young writers. The sheer number of stories that we read in workshop about workshop is too many to relate.

“Wonder Boys,” which was an indie-sized hit in its own right in film circles, was an adaptation of Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, similarly titled. It is a story about a professor who is unable to finish his second novel, the “proving ground” of a professional literary fiction writer. Through this metatextual lens, readers and viewers can see the dilemma of the literary fiction program writ large. We are unlike any other single group of writers deeply trapped in the anxiety of production. Workshop hits it home: you’re only worth as much as your most recent piece. If you have nothing in ‘shop, you are nothing. And so we do what we must: we churn prose about what concerns us most deeply. Post Grad Learns To Write And Love Again, And Has An Epiphany About Life And The Meaning of Words, Finishes An Article For a Ridiculously Short Deadline — Audience Wonders Why The Hell It Should Care. But despite the skepticism from our audience, the word-eaters romp with joy in the bookish dark. And I say without reservation: it is a fantastic time to be a writer.

Edited by Matt Schneider.

  1. If you haven’t already, check out Dan Swensen’s excellent Nano addiction piece, “The NanoJunkie Diaries“.
  2. thanks in no small part to the drunken prose heroics of our remaining larger-than-lifers: Christoper Hitchens, or the archtypical deconstructionist rake Jernigan from David Gates’ eponymous first novel
  3. Although Adaptation doesn’t deal with the academic writer specifically, the self-referential, “pointless” nature of the narratives that are written are fairly post-modern and academic in their production angst.
  4. Michael Chabon, whom I’ll discuss later, penned Spider-Man 2. Do you think the film would have celebrated T.S. Eliot at the expense of particle physics had it been written by the usual Hollywood glad-hander? If I could footnote this footnote, I would point out contrary to my snark, USC and UCLA writing programs churn large numbers of Hollywood hopefuls through their professional screenwriting programs.
  5. Due to time constraints, fiction workshops treat short fiction almost exclusively. There is little hope of workshopping an entire novel, though some writers choose to submit chapters of an in-progress longer work.
  6. The quality of the writers that come out of Irvine is, to me, unquestioned; yet the strange magical-realism of Aimee Bender and the warm urban pastoral of Andrew Winer doesn’t seem to find much mainstream appeal. If I seem ambivalent about this point, it is because I struggle to impute the proper value to “appeal” with “achievement in craft.” No writer likes to starve for their craft.
  7. As much as it pains me to take a stab at one of my favorite Irvine grads, Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh deserves a poke for its navel-gazing.

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