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

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?

The reason you never get beyond the broad questions is that for the purposes of the Hollywood test screening, you have become part of a demographic sampling. You are essentially voting on what to do about the film. When Ang Lee, who directed the film that was made of my novel The Ice Storm, screened that film, he (or so I was told) wound up with a big stack of written suggestions from studio executives and others as to how he might "fix" it. As the story was recounted to me, he turned to James Schamus, the producer, and said, "What should I do with these?" The two of them thought about it for a while, and then they just threw them all away.

The creative-writing workshop that is shorn of all ornament, that pre-emptively restrains the eruption of personality, that simply goes about its business—photocopying stories, handing them out, collecting responses, handing back the responses—is, similarly, creative writing by committee. And because it is creative writing by committee, it hews to the statistical mean, which is to say the mediocre.

If the mentorship model of instruction is based on the Socratic method—a model that has existed throughout the history of education, in such strongholds of Western civilization as the monastery and the Renaissance painters' guild—the contemporary workshop comes to us more from the organizational or corporate theories of the 1950s. The workshop is, in fact, about sales and marketing. It is about pitching your story or poem or essay to the audience in such a way that the response will be predictable, measurable, and easily understood. It is about making your story do exactly what stories (or poems, or essays) have always done.

As may be evident, I disliked graduate school. On the first day of class at Columbia my workshop instructor, a now successful novelist of something like popular thrillers, remarked that he had dropped out of Stanford because he had been required to read several novels by John Hawkes. This was a red flag for me, and I was right to perceive it as such. During a workshop the same guy said of one of my stories, "I don't have anything to say about this story, so I'm just going to let the rest of you talk about it." Later in the semester he told me and one of the few others in the class who went on to publish that we would "never be writers."

Everyone has anecdotes like this. I have more of them. In my second semester I watched a professor fall asleep while reading aloud from a student's work. In my third semester a professor asked for a hand count of class members who thought my work was boring. I spent almost my entire fourth semester drinking, without any ill effects on my day-to-day life at Columbia. And so on.

Admittedly, I was not writing in the prevailing style of 1984: the style of Raymond Carver and, soon enough, of Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, and others of the dirty-realism school. These are writers I occasionally enjoy, so I am not denigrating the genre. I am merely pointing out that with an apparatus as inflexible as the corporate-era writing workshop, students will rarely have the chance to discuss approaches and ideas that lie outside a prevailing orientation, an already agreed-upon list of influences and/or values. Indeed, Carver and Ford are products not only of this corporate era but also of the Reagan-Bush period, so in a way the preference for them in a workshop setting is tautological: the system selects for itself, for its own kind of product.

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