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 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.

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.

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