Now that you’ve done all this research, if you yourself were a student just graduating from college and wanting to go into creative writing, which program might you choose to attend and why?
Funding would definitely be a crucial factor. At a well-funded school like Texas or Michigan or Virginia or Brown, you can spend a good deal of time focused on your writing and then when you come out you don’t necessarily have to get a “legitimate” job in order to pay off your loans. It just makes things easier. And in my own situation, when I was getting out of undergrad, money would have been really important.
It’s hard, even for the students at a place like Iowa; you have to kind of sell this idea to your family and friends—that you’re going away for a couple years and that you’re going to try to write poems or short stories. There are an awful lot of people who don’t get that. I talked to one student at Iowa who previously had been working at a small newspaper. She said that the people at her newspaper were mystified as to why she’d give up a paying job to go study creative writing. To say that that’s what you want to do and that even after you get out it will probably take years to have any kind of real success, that’s a tough sell.
Can you speak a little bit about some of the strengths of the low-residency programs?
Those were fascinating. One of the most important strengths is that they’re for the most part drawing older students. I visited Bennington and Goddard during the week that they had their residencies. The students tended to be in their 30s and 40s and they tended to have far more diverse interests in terms of what they wanted to write about. They seemed to look at this as a wonderful opportunity to kind of—I shouldn’t say “legitimize”—but to kind of honor the writing that they otherwise do quietly after work or early in the morning or whenever it may be. These people have stories to tell. When you’re in a room with a bunch of people who have had some life experiences, it’s going to produce a different type of writing.
Interviews: "Sentence by Sentence" (April 17, 2006)
Short story writer Amy Hempel talks about forensics, seeing eye dogs, and her new Collected Stories.
The other big advantage of the low-residencies is the faculties that they’re able to assemble. I look at Bennington’s as an example. They had some tremendous people there because they teach at other programs during the year but they’re able to come up and be there for this set period of time. At one of the workshops I sat in on at Bennington, David Gates and Amy Hempel co-taught the workshop, and it was just a pleasure to sit back and listen to what they had to say about writing.
You mention in the piece that some programs are selling themselves by getting big-name writers. It seems to me that there could be pros and cons to that.
I remember a story about Bobby Orr, the great hockey player back in the 70s. Bobby Orr tried coaching at one point, and he said, “Well when the puck goes down here, just do this.” And all the players just looked at him dumbfounded and said, “But you can do that because you’re Bobby Orr.” There are some very talented people out there who just do what they do almost unconsciously. And then there are others who succeed by examining what they’re doing and breaking it down to its elements and really understanding the process. There are great writers of both types. But one is going to be a better teacher than the other.
One of the teachers who just seemed to have the absolute unanimous affection of his students was Michael Cunningham at Brooklyn College. It takes a lot of his time to be able to devote himself to those students. You can’t always guarantee that. There were professors at some other schools who barely seemed to show up. So I think that there are two questions to ask. One: Is this person, apart from being successful, really able to articulate what it is that works? And two: Will this person, who obviously wants to continue producing good work, put the brakes on that work to some degree in order to really spend time with the students in the program? It’s always a difficult balance.
I wonder whether having a lot of big name writers also perpetuates the myth that that’s how you make it as a writer—that it’s a direct and easy path with a dramatic payoff.
Well, considering that there are fewer opportunities these days to make significant money publishing serious fiction, then any given writer is either going to have to a) do less serious and more profitable types of writing or b) take some sort of other job that will keep them solvent. There are some, but not many of the John Updike model, who make a living day in and day out by writing. So an appointment to a well-paying, prestigious university that allows you the time to write is sort of a plum. And the question then becomes: what do they do with that? Are they comfortable teaching? Do they enjoy teaching? Is it something they look forward to doing? Or would they rather just not?
What do you teach?
I primarily teach journalism. But I do teach some creative writing classes.
Do you use the workshop format?
Rarely. The courses I do tend to be more craft courses, and since it’s undergraduates, it’s a different ballgame. A student doesn’t get as much benefit from the perspectives of folks who aren’t as well read. If someone writes a certain type of story, a lesser-read person might say, “Oh that’s wonderful, that’s brilliant.” But a better-read person might say, “You know, that’s a rip off of Tobias Wolff. You’re mimicking.” That becomes an important distinction.
There’s also a common criticism that the workshop turns out cookie-cutter stories that are distinguishable as “workshop” stories. I’ve heard people say they can identify the workshop story. Is this a phenomenon you’ve seen? In the piece, you do mention the “generations of Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson imitations.”
As I talked to people for this piece, what I kept hearing was that there really isn’t a “workshop” type story, but that there is to some degree a twentysomething story. It’s not so much the workshop that’s producing this work; it’s more the point in life at which the student is writing.