Writing Programs and Group Minds
Group minds--collections of people who think about various things in the same way--are everywhere. And the fact that they exist in art, which is supposed to be original, is a paradox that all writers face. There are many facets to this paradox. They concern readers, editors, publishers, and writing groups. For the moment, I’m going to limit myself to the problem that students face in MFA writing programs.
Students come to such programs with the belief that their voice--who they are, how they express that artistically, and how they connect with readers--will become more accessible to them: They will not only improve the flow of individuals lines, but will write a story, poem or novel that has their imprint--larger than the sum of its parts, and never mistaken for any other writer.
Students, however, need to be prepared for the fact that writing programs consist of groups and even with the best of intentions and diversity groups cohere around convictions. An experimental program tends to respond to short prose pieces and unstructured narratives. A more traditional program tends to respond to structured narratives. If a prominent writer on the staff favors realism, surrealism and magic realism have less cachet. The list of examples is numerous.
Fiction writing in particular is hard to teach because, unlike any other art, fiction must use what is apparently its own media to talk about itself. (What if you had to draw a picture in order to give the artist feedback about it? Or write an opera to critique a musician? And even poetry is visually different from prose.)
What isn't always apparent is that language of literary crticism is a very different language from the language of creative fiction. Truly creative criticism (for example, the writing of the critic James Woods) is rare--and when this happens the prose reverberates with voice. But most criticism is like tempura paint--a language of secondary process thinking. Creative writing in its first stages, however, is like oil paint--primary process thinking-the stuff of dreams, dissonant images, surprising strings of words. However these two languages often co-mingle when writers talk about writing. And this co-mingling confuses the writer: Narrative (what's that anyway?) is de rigeur. Characters (what are those?) must have backstories and descriptions of their faces. Interiors (places inside characters) are essential. Writers must learn by writing a memoir. Or: They must at all costs avoid memoir. A Clean Well-Lighted Place is definitely part of the cannon. But perhaps Arrowsmith isn’t.
Because it's a group, the opinion can seem louder than the voice of just one reader and the writer may feel their work suddenly defined by a powerful frame of literary standards, modes of interpretation and various forms of discourse. Suddenly the writer doesn’t how to think about his or her own work. Indeed, it can feel co-opted.
In addition to various opinions of the group, writing programs always have particular readers, including students. And all readers have specific tastes as well as a literary canon they refer to, whether or not it's the literary canon of a particular program: If a writer of historical fiction had Marguerite Duras in a class she might tell her to write more detail--which is exactly the opposite of Duras’ style and sensibility. On the other hand, a spare writer, like Coetze might encourage a writer of historical fiction (even the Nobel Prize winner, Sigrid Undset) to take out long descriptive passages.
Usually one or two voices from this chorus say something that feels right. The writer may hear the voice immediately or five years from the time it’s spoken (or, more likely, scribbled on a manuscript in a workshop). But the rest of the time--like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Jack Kerouac or George Saunders or Edwidge Danticat or Zadie Smith or John Cheever or Charlotte Bronte (can you imagine all these people in workshop together?) you're stuck with your own sense of authority--which is what writing is about to begin with.
Unhooking from all the opinions can be hard. You have to trust yourself to be selective about what to hear and what to politely ignore. But perhaps the hardest part of unhooking is having the courage to abandon a sense of awe. It's a bit like the moment when you understood that your parents were inventing a lot of the world as they went along and it was up to you to invent it, too. So are the people who teach in writing programs and so are the students who may speak with great authority. Once you get unhooked, though, an MFA program can provide the same sort of freedom that made you want to write in the first place. And it will toughen you for the publishing world.
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