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October 17th, 2011 / 1:04 pm
Behind the Scenes

Inside an MFA: Call & Response #1.5

Last week, I put up student responses to the following questions:

Can you teach creative writing? How? How would you teach creative writing that is different from your MFA? How would you “innovate” or “renovate”? What have you “learned” from your MFA? What has been the biggest surprise? Disappointment?

Here is a long response, penned by Jeff Pickell. Enjoy. & read it all. It’s worth it!

  1. Shitty syntax begets shitty phrases. Shitty phrases beget shitty sentences. Shitty sentences beget shitty paragraphs. Shitty paragraphs beget shitty sections. Shittiness begets shittiness begets shittiness.
  2. The MFA enrolls in a creative writing program. He does not enroll in a written creations program. Asked what he studies, the MFA replies “creative writing” or simply “writing.” He doesn’t reply “creative.” This is because the MFA doesn’t have a creative deficiency. He has a writing deficiency. He should know this, too. A lot of MFA’s—the shitty MFA’s—don’t. The shitty MFA is a strange creature. More on him later.
  3. Many contend writing can’t be taught. This is absolutely false, as any MFA with a journalism background knows.
  4. The shittier the story is, the harder it is to revise.
  5. The first-year MFA submits a story twice a semester. A week later, an outfit of equally inexperienced writers discusses it for an hour and issues vague, contradictory, and often moronic recommendations. But to leave it at that amounts to cynicism. The shrewd novice does exist, though he is elusive; one must scribble down his sound insights before the room’s ambient banality swallows them. For his part, the teacher moderates, trying his best to confine the discourse to the germane. At his most heroic, he squashes the more asinine notions, though his comments never have sharp teeth. He caters his observations to writer of the hour. Some students actually prefer sharp criticism.
  6. The rookie reporter is just as shitty a writer as the first-year MFA.
  7. The rookie reporter files twelve or fifteen pieces weekly, each receiving nearly immediate feedback from an outfit of experienced editors.
  8. With such rapid feedback, a reporter might revise a piece three or four times in a day.
  9. With such inconstant and directionless feedback, the MFA decides revision is impossible. Maybe he’ll take a stab at it a few years down the road, as his thesis comes due.
  10. The reporter improves. He has to. If doesn’t, the editors will fire his ass. If they don’t, the publisher will fire their asses. If he doesn’t, people will stop buying the paper and this jeopardizes everybody’s money.
  11. Maybe the MFA writer improves. If he doesn’t, oh well.
  12. Good syntax begets well-organized phrases. Well-organized phrases beget well-organized sentences. Well-organized sentences beget well-organized paragraphs, well-organized paragraphs beget well-organized sections, well-organized sections beget well-organized stories.
  13. On his first day, the rookie reporter writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” After six weeks, he writes. “Lightning struck the shed around 9 p.m., sparking a blaze that quickly spread to another shed in an adjacent yard.”
  14. In his first submission, the MFA writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” Six weeks later, he writes “The shed burned to the ground after it was set on fire by a bolt of lightning, which struck it around 9 p.m. Thursday night.” Why would he write it differently? Nobody marked the sentence on his copy, and the class’ discussion mostly concerned whether the narrator’s girlfriend was a “fully-rendered character” or too much of a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” type.  Well, one guy marked the sentence but he marks up everything. Everyone hates him.
  15. Of course, the submission editor of a literary journal wouldn’t get to the narrator’s girlfriend. The story’s first sentence is sufficient for rejection.
  16. The newspaper’s corrective model succeeds because feedback is direct, dependable, and ongoing. The MFA program’s corrective model fails because it isn’t.
  17. The short story lives and dies at the syntactic level.
  18. A well-organized story is likely good. Well-organized stories that are bad are more easily revised.
  19. The MFA program’s corrective model requires modification because it does not adequately foster improved sentence-level writing.
  20. This isn’t to say the MFA program should abandon its corrective approach. But it should supplement the corrective with preventative instruction.
  21. Most obviously, each workshop should include a reasonably-sustained discussion of syntax.
  22. The teacher might also break from the discussion format and spend ten or twenty minutes a class lecturing on some element of process. One day he might lecture on description, the next day on transition. He might focus on interiority or crafting dialogue.
  23. It’s important, too, that the teacher shoot down imbecilic comments and suggestions. Not every idea is a good one. Not every point of view is valid. The workshop environment should indeed promote acceptance, by which I mean the acceptance of short stories for publication. Not the acceptance of stupid, deleterious notions.
  24. The student who doesn’t give a shit will never be a good writer. It’s hard to know whether a student gives a shit. Sometimes a student doesn’t give a shit and isn’t even aware of it.
  25. The student who does all the readings, attends every class, and nods at the teacher’s comments doesn’t necessarily give a shit.
  26. The student who drops by office hours and converses earnestly with the teacher does not necessarily give a shit.
  27. The student who is devastated after a bad workshop does not necessarily give a shit. If he gave shit to begin with, maybe the workshop wouldn’t have been so bad. Of course, he knows this and that’s why he’s so devastated. He’ll have a rough few days. Afterward, he’ll go right on back to not giving a shit.
  28. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The writing proves whether the student gives a shit.
  29. Even the best teacher cannot force all of his students to a give a shit, but with well-conceived assignments, he can make them better writers whether they like it or not.
  30. “Write a story” is not sharp instruction because it requires the mental rigors of conceiving an idea, plotting it, figuring out characters, devising the logistics releasing information. None of these are relevant if the student can’t put together a decent sentence. The goal is to get students thinking about sentences.
  31. The sentences don’t even have to be the student’s own. It’s useful to type out, word for word, the writing of an established author. This forces the student to actively, physically engage the text. The student who types each word engages each word. The student who types Hemingway learns to navigate the continuous present. The student who types Alice Munro learns about interiority, phrasal arrangement. The student who types Carver learns about dialogue, succinctness. The student who types Nabokov learns about images, rhetoric.
  32. Prompts are useful, so long as they are specific: Write a paragraph in which a character spends an hour waiting for something. Write a paragraph that moves organically from present narration to recollection, then back to present narration. With exactly 200 words, write a paragraph that begins with a character waking up, ends with him five hundred miles away, and explains why he made the trip. Assigning low word counts forces the student to address wordiness and arrange sentences as economically as possible.
  33. Many students are terrified of revision because they think it entails solving all of a story’s problems with a single rewrite. The teacher can dispel this fear by assigning transitional drafts. The transitional draft focuses on rectifying a single, uncomplicated issue: Cut the word count by fifteen percent. Eliminate all passive constructions. Add a vivid, specific detail to every other paragraph. Eliminate fifteen extraneous details. The teacher can gear the assignments toward a class-wide issue, or vary them from student to student according to specific weaknesses.
  34. Vocabulary exercises are especially useful. Smart diction reduces vagueness, amplifies cadence, and fosters concision. Students with enhanced lexicons write more easily and with greater confidence. They spend less time poking through the thesaurus, more time focusing on other issues, like not being shitty. Some MFA’s may complain that vocabulary exercises are childish and have no place in graduate level instruction. The teacher may reply that inarticulate sentences are childish and have no place in graduate level submissions, and yet…
  35. However useful the above suggestions are, the teacher is still only fractionally—like five percent—responsible for turning the student into a better writer. Everything else depends on the student. If he is a self-directed hero MFA, he’ll get better. If he’s a shitty MFA, he’ll…well, he’ll stay shitty. He might even get shittier. I’ve seen it happen.
  36. The hero MFA and the shitty MFA are worst enemies.
  37. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish the hero MFA from the shitty MFA.
  38. With the exception of Kelsie Hahn, every hero MFA occasionally acts like a shitty MFA, and vice versa. This partially explains why MFA’s are prototypically tortured creatures.
  39. The shitty MFA appears attentive when the teacher outlines common usage and line-level errors. Two weeks later, he submits a piece lousy with those same errors.
  40. The shitty MFA packs his belongings, bids his friends and family farewell, and moves to a strange city half-way across the country to fulfill his life’s ambition of being a writer. He begins typing his first submission the night before it is due. Three semesters later, he begins typing his last submission the night before it is due.
  41. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. Rushing to finish, he commits the same common usage and line-level errors the teacher outlined two weeks earlier.
  42. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. He turns in a shitty and obviously incomplete piece prefaced with a note in italics. It reads, These are the first pages of a novel I’ve been working on. My main question is: Does it stand alone as a chapter or perhaps as a shorter, self-contained piece?
  43. The shitty MFA spends nine days and a combined seventy hours on a lit paper discussing plague imagery in the first-person narratives of post-Mariel Cuban exiles. Psychologically worn out, he begins typing his submission the night before it is due.
  44. The shitty MFA begins typing a submission the night before it is due. The piece is predictably shitty, as is his workshop the next week. The shitty MFA pays little attention during the discussion, and later that night pitches his end comments and return copies without reading them. His next submission is lousy with the same common usage errors, line-level follies, and structural oversights his teachers and classmates identified in his previous submission.
  45. The shitty MFA bristles at vocabulary words he doesn’t understand. He’s an MFA. He should understand them. If he doesn’t know how to spell the “dictionary” part of “dictionary.com,” he should leaf through the D section of the dictionary until he stumbles across “dictionary.” Alternatively, he could skip the troublesome word.
  46. The shitty MFA lists David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon as his favorite authors, but complains of jarring incongruity when the words “dipshit” and “perspicacity” appear in the same sentence.
  47. The shitty MFA habitually turns back less than a single double-spaced page of end comments, then wonders why his classmates have so little to say about his thesis submission, a several-hundred page novel.
  48. In his end comments, the shitty MFA insists a submission is about five pages too long, but doesn’t suggest any cuts.
  49. The shitty MFA doesn’t practice for his thesis reading. He stumbles through his piece in a shitty, boring monotone while the audience of two hundred thirty prays for death. The reading lasts thirty-five minutes. Now let’s see: two hundred thirty times thirty-five is…if we carry the two…cross out the remainder…multiply by one over x…That’s five and a half days humanity will never get back. The shitty MFA killed an entire workweek.
  50. The shitty MFA encounters a shitty sentence in a classmate’s submission, rolls his eyes at how bad it is, but writes nothing on the copy. Later, the classmate reviews his copy notes, finds that only one guy marked the shitty sentence, chalks it up to anomaly, and goes right on writing the same sort of shitty sentences.
  51. The shitty MFA spends two weeks brainstorming and jotting notes…about the next tattoo he’s going to get.
  52. The shitty MFA complains about the typos riddling an otherwise strong submission. A few weeks later he turns in his own piece, a true monument to diligent copy-editing. Despite this careful attention he somehow overlooked how shitty the story was.
  53. The shitty MFA announces that he’s not big into process.
  54. The shitty MFA thinks two revisions, three revisions tops and he’ll be dealing with finished product.
  55. Can it be taught? Can it be learned?  Discussion of whether creative writing is teachable often proposes a fundamental disconnect between the earnest teacher and the earnest student. There is no such chasm. The simple truth is that good students succeed and bad students fail. Can creative writing be taught to bad students? Can eighth grade geometry be taught to bad students? Can carpentry be taught to bad students? Can anything be taught to bad students? The shitty MFA is a bad student, and there are a lot of shitty MFA’s out there. But there are good students. And there are hero MFA’s.

A Detroit native, Jeff Pickell studies writing at New Mexico State University.