Andre Dubus loved baseball. For years, when I was in my 20s and early 30s, we would get together to watch Red Sox games, and our conversation—often over beer and steamed clams—would turn to what we were writing, to what we were reading, to the thing we loved even more than baseball: the short story.
Fiction was a religion for Andre (he published 11 books during his lifetime) and I believe his entire being was devoted to the pursuit of the story. It didn’t matter if he was talking about the Sox or about a problem with his car: He was always really talking about stories—how they were made, what they meant, where they came from. He often referred to them as “gifts.”
Andre was a splendid mentor; he would read my early attempts at fiction and we’d talk about them at great length. And because I was young, I would usually express some frustration and disappointment with the pieces. He once responded with one of the most useful “theories” about writing I’ve ever heard, one that over the years I’ve frequently passed on to my own creative writing students in the Master of Fine Arts program at Northern Michigan University. It was his belief that there was no such thing as a failed story; every story you wrote served a purpose. He demonstrated this in baseball terms.
Most fiction writers, he believed, are .200 hitters, meaning they hit successfully twice out of every 10 at-bats. A .300 hitter is often a candidate for an appearance in the All-Star Game, but a .200 hitter can still be productive. It goes like this:
If you start five stories and complete a rough draft of one, you’re successful. False starts, ideas that just don’t work—my mentor believed you just had to work through them to find the ones that you should write.
For every five completed rough drafts, you’re lucky if you find one that you can develop into a finished short story, one that you feel is as good as it can be, one that you feel is ready to be sent out to editors.
For every five stories you send out, you’re lucky if one of them is accepted for publication.
At each level, a successful writer might maintain a batting average of .200—which leads to a rather daunting, if not horrifying, realization: It takes 25 stories (ideas, false starts, abandoned drafts, not to mention all the pages that end up in the wastebasket) to make one story that is good enough for someone else to read.
I can attest to the accuracy of this theory, for after decades of writing stories, I have no doubt that those figures are right on the money. Andre didn’t tell me this to discourage me, but to alert me to what it really takes to write stories, and it’s for the same reason that I pass this on to my students—not to dash their hopes and dreams, but to prepare them for the realities they must face in the years to come.
The hardest thing a writer has to face is the sense of failure that comes with such an ambitious enterprise. In other fields of endeavor, most progress is measured in increments of success, whereas an MFA student (or any other aspiring writer) has to face a very different future. Too often I’ve worked with student writers who believe each story they write has to be flawlessly brilliant, and they’re crushed by the slightest hint of criticism (even “constructive criticism,” an oxymoron if there ever was one). Of course I want them to succeed as much as they want to, but it’s essential to give them a realistic perspective on what they’re attempting to do. Ironically, one of the things I hope my students learn while they’re working with me is not how to fail, of course, but how to see “failure,” how to put it in the larger context of their life’s work. In short, how to put it to use.
A fiction writer in an MFA program is expected to produce a book, sometimes novellas or a novel, but most often short stories. When considering a student’s collection of stories, one sees stylistic patterns and unifying themes, but often one can’t help but come to the conclusion that some stories are simply better than others. Students are keenly aware of this, the inconsistency of their work, the inexplicable failure of some stories to reach the level they intended. They don’t know what to do about such stories; they can’t find the flaw (or flaws) and provide a satisfactory fix.
Perhaps they shouldn’t try; perhaps they should view these weaker stories as the attempts that buttress the stronger pieces in the collection. Instead of declaring such stories failures, I urge my students to consider them as experiments that were not entirely successful—and to look for what did work within them. Maybe it’s the voice of the piece, or the dialogue or a narrative passage. Or maybe it’s a particular scene where a minor character suddenly comes to life (and if so, maybe the student should try another story, one focusing on that character instead).
Writers are, by nature, inclined to look at the dark side (some might say it’s what we do). At Northern Michigan, we often refer to our students as “emerging writers,” which is an apt phrase. One does not learn to write fiction by writing a story—or even by writing two or three. The idea that someone can attend an MFA program for a few years and graduate as a writer at the height of her powers is about as realistic as—well, in baseball terms, expecting a rookie to win the batting title his first year. Certainly it’s possible, but it’s more likely (if one is to play the percentages) that given time to mature and learn the game, so to speak, an emerging writer will, with discipline, sustained effort and not a little luck, produce stories that are worth reading.
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