Learning to Be a Writer

Part of my job as director of a Master of Fine Arts program is to answer questions from students—current, prospective and former—all of them writers, but many uncomfortable being called by that name. Writer, after all, sounds like an occupational title, such as physician or plumber. It suggests a command of the art that few of us feel we have, since the process of writing is anything but linear, clean or predictable. 

Already having this in common, all of the questions I hear can be boiled down to three.

The first usually comes to me as an earnest (or sometimes offhand) announcement made by a prospective student as she settles into the blue easy chair in my office—or, more likely, as she taps out her e-mail. “I’m thinking of applying to the MFA program,” she says, though it seems what she’s really trying to say is, “How do I know if an MFA is a good idea for me?” 

It is, I suggest, if she feels compelled to spend the next two or three years (1) writing more than she has ever written before; (2) reading widely and deeply; (3) listening to smart people—who make no pretense of plumping anyone’s ego—describe how her writing disappoints and/or pleases them; and (4) offering reciprocal commentary to others like herself. I also explain that admission is competitive—even though the number of programs in our country is approaching 300, there are many more applicants each year than spaces for them. And that while an MFA is a terminal degree that might lead to a position teaching English at a college or university, such positions are few and the competition fierce.

My goal is not to scare anyone off. In fact, those who contact me in the first place tend to know what they want already, and nothing I could say would change their minds.

The second question, more difficult, comes from students who have joined the program and are beginning to wonder what they got themselves into. They’ve just staggered out of a workshop where a story or poem or essay of theirs has been methodically deconstructed, and they’re feeling as if their internal organs were plucked out and vivisected on the conference table. Not only that, they’re looking at me as if I’m an accessory to the crime. The second question goes something like this: “What exactly am I going to learn in this program?”

Most important, MFA students learn to think of themselves as writers. Likely for the first time, they belong to a writing community. They take courses taught by writers and filled with writers. Significantly, they are not told by their professors what to write or how to write it, but rather are asked to find their own subjects and develop their own ways of treating those subjects—a rigorous undertaking.

Creative writing is an established discipline and, as such, has its own pedagogy. This is not to suggest every program is the same. Some emphasize traditional forms, some the experimental; some require more academic course work than others do. But all introduce students to a predictable range of techniques, skills and discipline-defining issues. Fiction writers, for example, learn methods of constructing scenes, manipulating point of view, designing plots and creating multidimensional characters. Poets explore the boundaries of metaphor; they study and experiment with a number of verse forms; they examine the ways in which image conveys meaning.

The tensions and questions that comprise the discipline are investigated in literature courses, form courses and craft courses. Primarily, though, they are encountered in workshops, where discussions of student-written pieces allow student-writers to discover the gap between their intentions and the reader’s experience, between what they’ve tried to do and what they’ve done. Focus should be directed toward the words on the page, not the readers’ individual tastes. Readers should describe the experience of reading a piece, instead of holding forth on how they believe it ought to have been written.

Student-writers must come to grips with their bad writing habits, blind spots and flaws, and there is no painless way for this to happen. It can’t be taught in lectures or even in one-on-one sessions with a brilliant critic. The workshop method holds that student-writers benefit most from a thoughtful, honest readership, and that over time they develop the objectivity needed to stand on their own feet.

Which brings me to the final question, one most writers ask themselves: “Do I have what it takes?”

There are indicators of talent, naturally: a command of diction; resistance to clichés in language, subject and treatment; an affinity for rhythm and sound; an original, authentic voice. But no matter which of these qualities are present in a writer’s work, it’s impossible to say for sure whether that person “has what it takes,” because it—the combination of talent, persistence and luck that allows a writer to mine whatever gold she may have—can remain hidden for long periods of time.

I like to tell the story of a classmate of mine in the MFA program where I earned my degree. His stories were filled with stick figures moving through textureless settings and interacting in predictable ways. They were supposed to be funny but were not. His prose was clumsy, careless and overwritten. Although our class was filled with critics who were honest to a fault—brutally, sometimes—they seemed embarrassed to address the flaws in this writer’s stories. I wondered what the admissions committee had seen in his work.

Years later, I picked up a writers’ trade magazine and was stunned to see his name. A book he’d written had just been published and, moreover, had received a prestigious literary prize. Soon enough I learned the prize was no fluke—his book was a masterful, honest work of fiction. It was funny, too.

I’m still ashamed of how I judged that writer’s potential, and ever since, I’ve been careful not to make the same mistake. But it’s not a matter of simply withholding judgment. Learning to write well, and to help others write well, requires that we embrace a difficult and often chaotic enterprise. I’m convinced that our failures—our false starts with unfruitful subjects, our flailing, unreadable rough drafts—are productive, necessary stages in a messy process we had better learn to live with. The important thing is that we commit ourselves to putting words on the page, to working tirelessly at rearranging those words, to keep pumping the handle until the water runs clear. 

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