The Art of Fiction:
What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing!
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
I have an MFA in Writing. I don't say this in order to justify my qualifications, but rather to explain what follows. I'm just back from the Associated Writing Programs conference in Austin, and what I saw has me rethinking many of the things I previously believed about writing classes, writing programs, and writing itself.
My friend Beth and I shared the airport shuttle with five young MFA candidates, one equally young Ph.D. in writing candidate, and a flight attendant who'd taken an unexpected detour to visit someone in the hospital. The kids, none over thirty, were talking about the panels and pedagogy forums in which they'd be taking part. The flight attendant, between cell phone conversations about the person in the hospital, gave tour guide descriptions of the shuttle route.
I wanted to know who was in the hospital. But instead, Beth and I listened as the younger set discussed various teachers' workshop methods, their own short stories, and how others' short stories had stood up in workshops. "What we talk about when we talk about writing," I whispered to Beth, paraphrasing Raymond Carver's classic story title and not realizing that I'd inadvertently divined the theme of the conference before we'd even arrived at our hotel.
"All agreed it was best to be gentle but that sometimes a story just wasn't going to work." —Lenard-Cook
A Panel Discussion . . . About Writing
The next morning, I browsed the book-length conference catalog, looking for a panel to attend. I selected Teaching Fiction because (a) I teach fiction, and (b) one of the panelists was the writer Erin McGraw, whose story collection Lies of the Saints I consider a classic of the genre. When I slipped in, the session was already in progress and the room was overfull. I leaned against a wall next to the door, and tuned in as a passionate and amusing bearded writer explained how he let a student know when a story wasn't working.
Other panelists chimed in. All agreed it was best to be gentle but that sometimes a story just wasn't going to work. Hands shot into the air and the moderator pointed. "How do you tell someone they need to work on ___ ?" someone asked. The blank is intentional—this question was asked, in varying ways, about character, plot, setting, and point of view. The answers, by and large, involved what a writing teacher writes on a manuscript and/or says during a workshop.
I began to sense that sinking in my gut that signals a discussion going in a direction with which I don't agree. Do I say something? Do I eavesdrop and make my comments later? More hands shot up with each dialogue. I knew that I, a short, middle-aged woman far back by the door, wouldn't be noticed by the moderator even if I did raise my hand. So I didn't. I merely listened.
". . . here's what I would have asked: Do you use the literature— both classic and contemporary— to teach writing?" —Lenard-Cook
But here's what I would have asked: Do you use the literature —both classic and contemporary —to teach writing? When a student is having trouble with point of view, do you point her to Jeffrey Eugenides? When a manuscript's pacing is off, do you suggest reading Alice Munro? Have you ever assigned Anna Karenina or The Sun Also Rises? Have your students read Homer and Jane Austen and Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf? Have you now or have you ever reminded students there's a canon that can teach them more about writing than a thousand workshops?
". . . there are two big problems with the current MFA approach. The first is that the only writing being discussed is the students' own." —Lenard-Cook
What Young Writers Write About
If that panel (and a number of others I attended) was any indication, there are two big problems with the current MFA approach. The first is that the only writing being discussed is the students' own. I overheard more than one conversation that weekend during which the classics were disdained without ever having been read. The second is that the large majority of twenty-somethings attending the conference went from high school to an undergraduate writing program to a graduate writing program. So what do they write about? Being writers. No wonder post-modern novels have protagonists who share names with their authors: The authors haven't lived enough to figure out that there are interesting lives outside their own.
There are exceptions to this. Nicole Kraus's The History of Love, while about writers and a story from the author's own family history, transcends its limitations because Kraus is the real thing. And non-residency MFA programs at schools like Vermont College, where I received my MFA, are attended almost exclusively by adults who have other jobs, families, and a real-world existence before they admit that writing still calls to them. The stories that these students write are far more often about people and events outside the authors' interior lives: Witness graduate Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone and Jo-Ann Mapson's Bad Girl Creek books.
". . . because creative writing programs have largely become a self-perpetuating mechanism for spitting out more creative writing teachers, many MFA-holders aren't the real thing." —Lenard-Cook
What Young Writers Write About
But because creative writing programs have largely become a self-perpetuating mechanism for spitting out more creative writing teachers, many MFA-holders aren't the real thing. Many are One Book Wonders, who, once they've written their thinly veiled autobiography, can't find another story to tell. That one book, though, assures them tenure in a creative writing program, where they lead workshops and talk about writing and help other writers discover their own one book. And so it goes.
"The real stories, I would argue, are the ones outside us. Yes, they resonate for us in very personal ways, but they're not
our own stories." —Lenard-Cook
Where the Real Stories Are
The real stories, I would argue, are the ones outside us. Yes, they resonate for us in very personal ways, but they're not our own stories. That flight attendant, for example. When only she and Beth and I remained in the shuttle that first evening, I turned and asked her who was in the hospital. Her grandfather, she said. In answer to my next question, she said that it wasn't unexpected; she just wanted to say goodbye. I asked her if she was from Austin, how long she was staying. In her answers, I knew, were some story seeds. When we got off the shuttle, we wished her good luck. Her story —not about a writer and not about me — is still percolating. I sent it over to right brain.
Lisa Lenard-Cook Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.