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 studied in writing workshops from age fifteen to age twenty-six. The first was in high school, where a benevolent chemistry teacher, Mr. Burns, who read a lot of John Cheever on the side, presided over us. We were a group of misfits and outcasts, yet he almost never criticized us. This was before the writing workshop—a regular meeting in which writers-in-training read and criticize one another's work—hardened into the structure we know now. It was the mid-1970s, and writing workshops were not so numerous as they are today.

After high school I was lucky enough to go to Brown University, a wellspring for the experimental or so-called postmodern school of American writing. And there I chanced to study in workshops with three of the great voices of experimental writing: Angela Carter, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes.

On the first day of my workshop with Angela Carter, in my sophomore year, Carter was charged with reducing the number of would-be participants in her class to fourteen. Maybe thirty people were in the room, and she simply stood before us and tried to take questions. Some young guy in the back, rather too full of himself, raised his hand and, with a sort of withering skepticism, asked, "Well, what's your work like?"

You have to have heard Carter speak to know how funny the next moment was. She had a reedy and somewhat thin British voice, toward the upper end of the scale, and she paused a lot when she spoke. There were a lot of ums and ahs. Before she replied, she cocked her head and said "um" once or twice. Then she said, "My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis."

The room emptied out at the break, and I'm not sure a quorum of fourteen returned. Maybe only eleven or twelve.

Carter did not conduct her workshop in the manner now familiar. She didn't care if anyone brought in work, and she was content to give disquisitions on how Mozart's The Magic Flute made it impossible to imitate folkloric material in fiction. She was proud of having seen Pink Floyd play back in swinging London, she liked the Doors, and she thought Franklin Roosevelt was the only American president worth talking about. I remember that she also once boasted that she rarely made eye contact.

I thought, This is the teacher for me.

For those who had ears to hear—only four or five of us took her class both semesters she taught at Brown—the Angela Carter workshop was an amazing experience. I felt not only that I grew as a writer but that I improved as a person. Carter had the audacity to tell me that drugs were not good for my work and that I was reading crap; she said she would be happy to give me a reading list. I read every book she told me to read, and these included The Thief's Journal, by Jean Genet; Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs; and everything by Bruno Schulz. In fact, I did more or less whatever Carter told me to do.

Angela Carter's class was important to me because it relied on a completely alien tradition of writing instruction—alien, that is, to what we more often experience here in the United States. Were I compelled to name this alternative style, I think I would call it mentorship. I don't think that Carter, if she were still alive, would admit to having mentored me—to having explained to me how to live a little bit, and how to act like a writer, instead of merely dreaming of being one. But she did all these things, regardless of how much or how little work I turned in, or how bad the work was.

When Carter, who had just a one-year appointment at Brown, went back to England, John Hawkes returned from a sabbatical. I spent three of my next four semesters at Brown studying with Hawkes. (I also took a literature class with Robert Coover.)

Hawkes favored mentorship too. If he liked you, he kind of loved you. He could be both lacerating and challenging—or, on the other hand, completely devoted (even so, it was sometimes hard to believe that he had read the piece of junk you'd handed in that week). He had a nearly photographic memory for people's stories, which was particularly amazing because he was so scattered in other areas. Months after you'd handed it in, he could recite specific sentences from your work and discuss them in detail.

The goal of Hawkes's class was to induce us to think like writers. He sometimes didn't seem to care whether a specific story was made fit for publication. He had a low opinion of professionalism. He wanted us to think about language and dramatic structure, and how these worked in literature, and he wanted us to delight in these things when done well. He wanted us to believe in literature. He felt he had done his job if we could explain why The Real Life of Sebastian Knight was a masterpiece, from the standpoint of language and construction.

Hawkes played favorites, which was bad; and he loved women a lot more than men, which was bad too; and he allowed us to drink wine in class, which in my case was an incredibly bad idea, since I was developing a drinking problem. All these things were inadvisable, but what was not was the idea of emotional commitment to the process, a strong relationship between student and professor. These worked for me despite the difficulties.

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?

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.

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.