I'm taking a writing class right now, for the first time in a zillion years. Okay, twelve. It's terrific fun, even though it's pretty mellow as writing classes go and aimed more at generating material than the usual thing, which is tearing other writers to shreds. Ha ha, I joke! Also, it's taught by my friend, and that puts a strange spin on things.
There is an oft-mumbled idea in the literary world that the problem with fiction today, and particularly with the short story, is writing workshops. Writing workshops, the popular wisdom says, make all writing the same -- they beat the originality out of people's work and reward unambitious mediocrity and pretentiousness.
How true is this? I don't know. It's hard to tell what the larger dynamic is when you're so caught up in the thing, and my experience of MFA school was intense and wonderful. I think about the writers in my classes and their work, and I honestly don't feel as if I, or anyone else, attempted to beat the originality out of them. But of course I don't feel that way! I wouldn't.
One of the most original writers in my classes then was (the beautiful and talented) Andrew Sean Greer. I remember grappling hard with his writing -- it was different and brilliant and sometimes difficult, partly because he wrote so damn much of it. I recall being quite critical of some small stuff: point of view changes in particular, and places where I thought he was being deliberately confusing. And enough time has passed for me to realize that part of my criticism had its roots in jealousy. But in those days we didn't think much of being supportive and encouraging in class; all that was for after class at the bar. I wonder if Andy felt as if his originality was being challenged, though? In any event, he's a great writer today, so we didn't do too much damage.
And I know that the criticism I received of my own work was, if anything, painfully legitimate.
So I can't argue that writing classes, in my limited experience, bring the quality of writing down -- I just never saw it. But do they help? And if so, how, and how much? This is harder. I often wonder what kind of writers I and JRL and our friends would be without those two years, and it is just impossible to say. I do know that we got at least as much out of our fellow students as out of the teachers, and probably more out of reading the work of others than we got from being read. In other words, it wasn't school that made the experience what it was, so much as the collection of incredible individuals we found there. Even more important was the two years of time and focus. Who ever gets that, in real life?
Another of the strongest and most geniusy writers I know, Brian Hall, never went to graduate school and as far as I know, never took a writing class. In fact, it's hard to imagine him in one.
You know what those workshops do? Suddenly I get it: they give people a chance to try out being a writer. Lots of people who get an MFA would have quit writing if they didn't get into a program -- lots of people wouldn't write at all without a class. And so, perhaps, the world is a bit overstocked in writers, and that's where the sense that writing workshops somehow bring the quality of writing down comes from. If it weren't for this plethora of classes, the only writers would be the Brian Hall type: self-taught, self-motivated geniuses who don't need the feedback, don't need the support system, don't even need the two years of free time.