Saturday, October 27, 2007

Do Writing Classes Work?

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.

11 comments:

Mr. Saflo said...

I've never taken a writing class, and my mom still says I'm the best novelist of my generation.

the individual voice said...

Hey, this is an unfair advantage for NaNoWriMo. Oh, no, never mind. Writing workshops try to make you more SUCCINCT. I hope that doesn't interfere, either with the other actually.

E.W.J. Mulch: said...

I'm sorry, this comment doesn't pertain to this particular post ... I'm just getting impatient, since W6's B-List includes Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, for one of you to say something--anything!--good or bad--about Tree of Smoke.

ed said...

Tree of Smoke? Good. Stayed up for two nights reading it. Strange stuff, original, spare. He of course went to workshops & writing school, but for poetry not fiction. John, it reminded me of Connell's The Patriot in how it follows a war narrative for a while and turns away from it on a dime. The style, following multiple characters' points of view, is handled like Pat Barker's Regeneration, with no exposition, often you don't know whose experience we're experiencing until several pages into a section, & it wallops you. And then, at the end, it turns into his earlier novel Angels, sort of. It's his best novel. Has little in common with Jesus' Son.

ed said...

Back in our school for writing, Johnson came & gave a reading etc & in the hallway at the party afterward he said about the finest piece of advice I've heard about writing, and perhaps living--some kid was complaining about how hard it is to write a good story, the expectations of workshop peers etc, and Johnson said, wearily, "Just lower your standards, man."

rmellis said...

Thanks for the save, Ed -- T of S is sitting uncracked on the endtable, still.

jrlennon said...

Yep, Tree of Smoke is definitely next on the list to read. And Ed, I think you and I are the only members of our generation to have read The Patriot...

rmellis said...

I read it, loooozer.

Jon said...

I'm not too sure what they accomplish.

The best teachers I've had spurned good writing out of me long after the class was finished. So maybe the results aren't immediately verifiable.

The worst teachers got my best writing right away, because I was concentrated on pouring my effort into refining an aesthetic that was displeasing to the teacher or TA. Not necessarily to spite them, but to try to force the issue of quality vs. aesthetic, i.e. writing a poem that plays fast and loose with forms for a stern traditionalist, to try and force some kind of meaningful response. Because if you're a experimental poet or fiction writer, it doesn't help to have a teacher who blanket refuses the validity of modern attempts at it.

The community of writers in those classes is, I think, the most worthwhile bit, and the best teachers I've encountered are the ones that are aware of that body as meaningful. I'm not at all trying to be down on all writing professors, they're almost always wonderful - Lyrae at Cornell in particular had a hugely positive impact on my ability and career as a writer, partially because she was so maddeningly right and clairvoyant, but still let the students try to figure it out amongst themselves.

The end result, I think, is positive either way, provided the writer is determined to gain some kind of real education from the class, regardless of teaching style. I also know that generally that's the only way education takes place, but I think that in a lot of cases, the bullshit detector needs to be on overdrive in these kinds of classes.

I hope that makes sense - it's been a while since I tried to communicate in any sort of formal way!

E.W.J. Mulch: said...

Thanks Ed ... and Rhian and John, I will eagerly await your T-of-S posts. I picked up Jesus' Son the other week in part because I saw it on your B-List (1 down, 19 to go) and it left me in tears, bloody, ecstatic tears. But I wasn't sure whether to grant the guy permission to make me wade through a fat Vietnam novel. Sorry for derailing the comments of your post on Writing Classes.

jrlennon said...

jon, I am with you that a good teacher needs to know when to shut up and let the class do its thing. I had some great teachers, but it was my peers (Ed and Rhian, particularly, and also Andy Greer, Dave Gilbert, a bunch of others) who shaped my work the most. A good writing class doesn't assume it knows what it's doing. It creates its own authority. This can be tough for undergrads because they have so much other stuff they have to do...and so some workshops never quite take off. But I think a good teacher understands how tightly to hold onto the reins.

Rhian, you read The Patriot? I totally forgot...did you like it? If I remember right it was the art collecting Connell book you loved...I can't remember the name.

and mulch, digression's what it's all about, no worries...