Writers and Mentors

The author of The Ice Storm and Demonology thinks back to his earliest years as a writer, and the kind of teaching that helped or hindered him

I wrote to please Angela Carter, and I wrote to please John Hawkes, and this may seem like a callow, naive motive for writing, especially since they were both astringent, complicated people. But the fact is that I got better by writing in order to please them, and their responses made me excited to go back and work, and excited to learn more.

After Brown I took a year off, a year in which I wrote probably as many would-be writers have done—desperately, while working nine-to-five in a sequence of horrible jobs, which for me included selling recorded tours at a museum. I was worried about the possibility of lapsing in my writing. I was worried about not writing because I was overwhelmed by the idea of paying the rent and living day to day without—because of my English major—professional skills of any kind. Hawkes had always said that we should write a thousand words a day, but I wasn't even writing a thousand words a week, so I made the decision others have made: I applied to graduate school, to get my M.F.A. In the fall of 1984 I entered Columbia University.

I didn't want to go to Columbia. I wanted to go to Johns Hopkins, in fact, to work with John Barth. But I got turned down. I got turned down by a number of places, including (it must be said) the Iowa Writers' Workshop, so I went to school in New York, where at least I felt at home. I'd been born there, and had lived within its shadow most of my life.

It seems to me that part of what happened in the seventies (and in some cases even earlier), even as I was beginning to be mentored by the experimental writers of Providence, Rhode Island, is that the University of Iowa's success as a venue for instruction in creative writing began to spawn similar venues. Suddenly a lot of places had not only workshops but M.F.A. programs: Syracuse, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Arizona, UC Irvine. Close on their heels were others, like the University of Alabama and the University of Virginia. These early programs all had pretty good reputations. Among them, of course, was Columbia, where Susan Minot had gone, and Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson, and Jill Eisenstadt.

What I found in graduate school, however, was a notion of how to run a class in creative writing completely different from the one I had experienced as an undergraduate. A reductive way of describing this would be to say that not a mentor was in sight. Columbia was famous for commuter professors—men and (less frequently) women who came uptown from apartments in the seventies and eighties on the Upper West Side, or from farther afield, and who were in one or two instances observed correcting student papers on the subway.

A lot of the students commuted too, from downtown or elsewhere. These students were paying a lot of money to be at Columbia; as a result they believed themselves to be, in essence, in charge of the form of the classes. They selected a new workshop instructor each semester, and the instructors represented very different flavors. These instructors were not celebrated, not in the way that the writers at Brown had been. They were often teachers who wrote, rather than writers who taught, and they were often carrying heavy course loads, and they were therefore attracted to formula, predictability, a certain way of clocking in and out. The students seemed to have agreed to this. They agreed, that is, that the classes should be run in a certain way, in order to streamline the results. The writing program at Columbia enrolled a lot of students, almost a hundred of them, and they wanted quality control. Who can blame them?

Also, Columbia was a place with very considerable competitive pressure. People could be heard to say "I'm the only real southern writer in this class!" and so on. They would eviscerate their enemies and lionize their friends. I was often among the eviscerated. And because of this competitive pressure, the Hawkesian tendency to play favorites—the imposition of completely partisan meritocracy—had to be discarded in favor of something far more predictable.

I don't know if the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the first great American laboratory of creative writing, experienced a similar streamlining, though I know that Iowa has often been a very competitive program. At Iowa, even more than at Columbia, students compete for fellowship money. Whether this is the origin of competitive nonsense among writing students I don't know, but I do know that at Columbia the writing workshop had been scoured of anything extraneous, until what remained was something resembling a focus group, or the test screening of a Hollywood film.

W hen you go to a test screening these days, you are often given a checklist and a pencil and encouraged to rate aspects of the film. Did you like the ending? Did you like this character? Would you tell a friend to see this film? Right away we begin with the broadest questions. And the problem with such a test screening is that you never actually get to ask the narrowly focused questions. What does light signify? Why doesn't the filmmaker use more of the color red? What if the heroine wore black throughout? What's with all the bird imagery?

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