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

The present-day growth in creative-writing programs at universities around the country surely reflects corporate pressures at the university level. Unlike, say, a chemistry program or a pre-med program—which requires significant capital investment, not to mention government grants—a creative-writing program requires only one piece of apparatus: a photocopying machine. Moreover, most of the faculty members who staff these workshops attempt to avoid full-time commitment. In fact, the more desirable a creative-writing instructor is, the less likely he or she is to want a tenure-track position. As far as hiring goes (I'm trying to think like a dean here), you can make do with part-timers and adjunct faculty. And since a lot of students want to go to grad school in writing, schools with such programs can reap a hefty tuition income while keeping costs down. As a corporate investment, creative writing makes good sense.

Columbia has treated its writing program this way, on and off, for decades. Good corporate governance is evident at the topmost levels of Columbia University, and its ethics must certainly trickle down into individual departments. Streamline, simplify, avoid complexity, avoid ambiguity, avoid heterogeneity: these are the hallmarks of such a philosophy.

Now, once an audience begins to experience itself as a community with power, it begins to ask certain questions about stories. I'm sure that analogous questions are asked about poems and essays in workshops every day, but I have less experience with those forms. Pardon me, then, if I confine myself to the kinds of questions that are a commonplace of the contemporary fiction workshop.

This is just off the top of my head. Many other such questions can be imagined. To the extent that a student comes to expect these questions, or to the extent that he or she writes in expectation of them, the likely product will be stories (or poems or essays) that reduce the chances of innovation, that ratify the workshop as a system, and that ratify the idea of the university but do little for the development of the form or for our language as a whole.

If I had it to do myself, I might instead ask questions like these:

I am not suggesting, of course, that traditional workshop questions are entirely without merit (though I personally will have no truck with the idea of likeability, which is the hobgoblin of small minds), nor am I suggesting that even quite innovative stories are without conflict or character (although one does recall John Hawkes's famous remark that "the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme"). What I am suggesting is that a workshop structure that becomes oriented toward what is easy to say about a story will, by its very nature, default on its responsibility when faced with two kinds of work: the very good and the very bad. What gets lost, therefore, is what is at the margins of convention, and that is potentially catastrophic, because a literary form is defined in part by the marginal, by what is impossible, by what is grandiose and revolutionary, whether in the good sense or in the bad.

If all the houses on the street were gray, you would never know if gray was a better color than lavender.

W e need to be alert in the workshop setting to the problems inherent in the very structure of the workshop. We need to ask in workshops exactly where workshop blindness sets in, and we need to be alert to the possibility that some ways of reading literature are quite different from the way we read in workshops.

For example: In general, we read alone. In general, the bond between reader and writer is a bond between two people, and it is therefore an intimate bond. In general, a story is read in the way that one listens to a friend whisper. A story is not read in the way that one listens to a lecture, or to a PowerPoint presentation. When you listen to someone whisper, you accept him or her according to certain assumptions—the assumptions of intimate exchange—and these are more in the forefront of our reading consciousness when we are not writing comments in the margin of a piece or preparing to say something about it in class.

For example, one way to read in a workshop would be to read as though you were going to trust the story, no matter how idiosyncratic, rather than as though you were going to distrust it.

What would happen if we understood the workshop to be not tidy and orderly but large, unpredictable, and uncertain? What if long monologues about German metaphysics could sit right beside arguments from the stylebook of Flannery O'Connor? What if the worst story of the semester were subjected to a half hour of sentence-diagramming exercises? What if no one turned in a story for three weeks, and all you did was sit around talking about the ugliest kid you knew in childhood, or the worst job you ever had? What if all you did in class was assignments? What if you rewrote one sentence all semester? What if everyone got a chance to be the instructor, and everyone got a chance to be the student?

Then, I think, we'd be getting somewhere.

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