Novels, MFAs, and the “Story Problem.”

Alerted by the lit blog HTML Giant, I recently read this great essay on creative writing classes and contemporary writing: The Story Problem, by Cathy Day, which begins with this harrowing self-question:

Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?

Without a doubt.

It’s a really great essay. Either there is or there should be a growing and increasingly well-equipped group of people questioning how creative writing is taught in the United States, and their points, from my reading of the debate, keep getting better. More vitriolic and less productive are Anis Shivani’s recent posts, about “rules” for writers, and his list of authors he considers frauds, but reading those pieces brings the pleasure of knowing one could have composed something more compelling and considered oneself: no such pleasure is granted by reading Cathy Day. Shivani seems like a mad person aiming in the right direction; he reveals the existence of a problem, but his solutions and philosophies feel off, whereas Day’s essay moves from insight to insight, each of them good. What I think she gets perfectly right is the sensation that being taught creative writing gives: an enabling shame, a self-limitation that empowers, or seems to empower. A grueling seriousness. And she’s right that the workshop method of instruction is far better at teaching how to write short stories than how to write novels.

Workshops do not, in my experience, do the bad things people say they do: they do not produce uniformity (sometimes I wish they produced more of it), they do not merely nit-pick, although they do a lot of that, and they do not merely beat writers down. I have watched others experience, and I’ve felt myself, the genuine praise a workshop can bestow, which comes not because you are a unique snowflake who is forever interesting, not because you are a good human who simply deserves encouragement, not because all stories are worthy in their own private ways, but because the fellow workshoppers, having become rigorous in their reading, skilled in their craft, recognise in your work new success, new skill, the achievement of effects you have long been striving for, and they are only too happy to point this out to you.

What is insightful about Day’s essay is how the workshop model is creative and productive, but perhaps in a warping way. It forces reassessment from the writer; it promotes a certain kind of work. Here’s an additional idea from me on her subject:

Novels are to a large extent dependent on what happens outside the text; workshops can only deal with texts; (therefore) workshops are not very good at advising on novels. Novels rely on much stuff having happened before the first page, and the course of the novel reveals and complicates and perhaps resolves that foregrounding information. The first chapter of Gatsby, for instance, introduces us to characters who all already know each other: the drama of the novel is utterly dependent on this back story. The Crying of Lot 49 is the investigation of some massive, pre-existing conspiracy. When we read a first chapter, we want hints of that mystery, and implied promises that it will be revealed.

I don’t want to be too dualistic. Many short stories rely on back story, and many novels, such as Rabbit, Run, do not. Perhaps, instead, the difference is in the demands of technique. It is possible, for the writer of a ten or fifteen page short story, to notice how dirty the sink has become, and have the first sentence of a story appear in the mind, like this one,

“I live with two flatmates, Sarah and Marcel, and when Sarah’s boyfriend stays for the weekend, as soon as he arrives, he cleans our bathroom,”

and it is possible, if the end of this piece is coming twelve pages later, to drink a mug of coffee, start writing from that sentence and finish the tale, inventing little details as one goes about the narrator’s past, about Marcel, about Sarah, presenting the coming conflict between boyfriend and housemates, because there’s a limit to the information presentable in that small space. But in a novel, starting without an insight or a plan is going to be much tougher, because there are three hundred pages in which events that meaningfully relate to that first sentence can happen. That bathroom needs, as a result, to be much more significant than it first appeared; it can only become significant because the writer has imagined much more stuff about it. Without a lot of this thinking, readers may say, around page thirty, page fifty, page seventy, “Yeah, it’s good writing, but, I don’t know, I don’t get exactly what’s…”

With novels, planning sessions feel far more valuable than workshops. What a teacher should do is read the first chapter, and then ask the student: “What’s coming next?” “What came before?” Or, outside of the classroom setting, if you want feedback, put the draft away, go to a bar with a good friend, and start explaining what’s going to happen in the story, and why. But if you hand chapter one to a workshop, their advice will probably seem bizarre. I offer a very specific example why: many stories, throughout human history, have depicted a character out of balance, suffering from some personal flaw or past mistake, stuck in-between worlds, whom the story then shows either getting better or worse.  Therefore, in the opening of a novel, the main character is probably going to appear doing and thinking some odd things, and if a workshop is asked to view the first chapter as an aesthetic whole, it will likely notice that the main character is being weird, and point this out as a flaw. The writer, in the orthodox workshop environment, cannot respond, must remain silent, and so the workshop has no way to interpret the work’s peculiarity other than as a personal tic of the writer’s, not as a fundamental piece of the story’s design, and says that something’s not right. Unless the writer is very clear on his or her novel’s design, it is easy to use this criticism poorly, and begin rewriting the beginning until classmates like it.

I haven’t read The Program Era, and perhaps it makes this very point, but the other thing to point out, on a theoretical level, is that if Day and McGurl are correct about the motivating / wounding power of shame in university creative writing classes, then, and I suspect many readers will groan at this, the central literary critic for describing that process must be Harold Bloom, and the central text his The Anxiety of Influence. While Bloom uses his key terms, like “belatedness,” in a very specific, limited sense (increasingly limited as he keeps writing, in that very Bloomian tendency to self-narrow with time), he is clearly on to something about how writers guard themselves, how they “swerve” to create a space where they can write, altering themselves in response to pressure, and how, bloodied and damaged, they nevertheless struggle on to produce great work.

One thought on “Novels, MFAs, and the “Story Problem.”

  1. Very interesting post, Daniel. Am planning to apply for a PhD in Creative Writing. Gives one a lot to think about. I think you made a very valid point about the how the workshop might view the first chapter and how planning is more helpful.

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