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Writing Programs and Group Minds

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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Well, I don't know if I can speak for the group mind of Red Room, but it seems to me the only thing any of us have in common is that we make little black squiggles on a white background.  (I'm not even sure if THAT is  a given. any more).

I've never been too subject to peer pressure.  In fact, I have a tattered T-shirt emblazoned with the declaration:  "IF IT'S POPULAR, IT SUCKS."   Of course, I might be forced to modify my opinion slightly, should I ever produce a best-seller.



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but Eric--

you're just the kind of person who won't cave...

 you're the kind of writer we need! 

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I didn't get an MFA

.., and one of the main reasons was my concern that I would NOT be able to "unhook," that I would be too swayed by group voice and not be able to distinguish the useful critique from the mundane, and that I would not be able to trust my own authority. Sometimes I miss that I never had that MFA experience, because I missed the opportunity to build a certain kind of nurturing community and support network for myself. I also missed a lot of great teachers. But, as in most areas in my life, I find I've moved sideways into getting what I need: community, teachers, sense of my own authority and voice. Sidle, sidle, sideways... I shoulda been born a cancer, I'm so crablike....

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me, too, Ericka---

I turned down a fairly cool fellowship at (ohmygod) The Iowa Writer's Workshop. And I've had similarly mixed feelings. Yet I know I never would have found my voice or my story if I'd gone there. (I went to visit before I made the decision in the summer. And it was the midwest and flat and special and I couldn't imagine imagining :) )

Confession: I teach in MFA programs. But it's mostly about how it can't be taught.  

 (We should form our own school and create a big group mind (!))