DH: I read a novel recently that had some scenes set in a creative writing class. I remember laughing at a joke where one of the students writes a story where “rigor mortis has set in” in the first person. Almost no student in this fictional class had real talent and those few who did were subject to the jealousy of everyone else. Even the instructor was struggling to get recognition for his unpublished novel as he had to endure watching some of his students move on to professional recognition while he remained a promising failure. Later in the novel, the lead character goes to a writing workshop in Iowa. Apparently, one reason that Iowa works as a teaching venue is the isolating geography. You are sequestered in a class or workshop with a group of extremely talented peers. Maybe that’s a little like being thrown into a fish tank with a bunch of fellow piranhas and being told that you have to feed off each other. Or maybe I’m exaggerating the competitiveness and aspiring writers excel at helping each other. Which is it?
So I wonder about the aptness of writing classes and workshops…both for the beginner and the more advanced writer. For the beginner is the best that can happen is that their writing is purged of obvious errors?
For the accomplished writer, I wonder if work-shopping a first novel or a novel that doesn’t have a publisher yet is an excellent idea? And what’s the best way for a writer to teach themselves something?
JE: First of all, I almost peed my pants at the first-person reference to rigor-mortis setting in–that’s funny! I’ve taught some workshops, but enrolled in very few. I did do one workshop with Carol Glickfeld at Field’s End, and I sat in on a Stegner workshop at Stanford many years ago as a guest. I always hear about the competitiveness of these programs, but I’ve never experienced it firsthand. The only writer I’m competitive with is myself. Workshops are like anything else in life, you get out what you put into a thing. One observation I’ve made about workshops I’ve been involved with is that they tend to encourage spare, “safe” writing– safe, because the sparer and leaner the work, the fewer glaring mistakes for peers to pick up on. Because of this, I’d describe a lot of the writing I’ve experienced in workshops as rather direct and unadorned, and often austere, and dare I say, Carver-esque. I do believe feedback is good, but only when the artist knows specifically what he (she’s) trying to accomplish. The feedback should help achieve those objectives. So I guess I feel like a workshop is not a great place to learn, but a great resource for a writer who already knows what they are doing, and looking for ways to sharpen focus, etc. I don’t think a bunch of other writers who are groping around themselves trying to get a handle on craft, are apt to provide that service. I mean would you take a carpentry workshop from a bunch of people who didn’t know exactly how to frame a house? Great editors, and in some cases great readers, can provide that feedback, though. Good editorial guidance, and a fresh set of reliable eyes, is the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. And in my experience, most professional editors provide excellent feedback, albeit wildly dynamic, which, again underlines the importance of the writer knowing exactly what he’s trying to accomplish. The key is sticking to your guns, persuading readers and editors to help you write the book/ you/ want. With “West of Here” I had lengthy phone conversations with five different editors who were interested in acquiring the book, and every single one of them offered great suggestions (and they were /very /different in some cases). I noted everybody’s feedback furiously during our conversations,and will consider closely during my rewrites, even though I’m only “working” with one of those editors. I’m talking about great feedback from some of the very best editors in the business, all of whom were willing to listen to my objectives, and offer me suggestions on how to make the book I want to write better. Hell yeah, I’ll take that! But I’m not going to listen to just anybody.
As far as the best way for a writer to teach themselves something, in terms of craft, that’s easy: repetition, practice, commitment. As far as teaching themselves something as people, I’d say the best way to learn is by throwing yourself at life every day, getting outside of your comfort zone, and always always always being aware of the details, conditions, and human dynamics you find yourself in.
JR: I’ve never done a writing class or workshop, and have had almost no feedback, of great significance on a book I’ve written,, sure, some encouraging comments, and some guidance (mostly cheerleading), albeit small, but worthwhile just the same. When I say significant, I mean seismic and something that will really change the way (for the better) of what I’m working on. It’s probably more accurate to say that a writer learns from what he’s written, you know the old Carnegie Hall joke. A difference maker has got to be an editor, someone who has read the whole book, and not just an excerpt and can guide the writer down a path towards greatness. But there is a moment when I’m writing a book where I know it works, where I feel that tingling in my chest, those rush of nerves, sort of like when you know you’ve fallen in love, and of course when you read it out loud and it works, it sounds good, and you don’t stumble or stop what you’re reading. One day I woke up and realized I had something to say, and the best way to say it, or so I thought, was to write a novel. But if you don’t have an editor then I guess you just have to trust yourself, and be committed. I get one line rejections, “I didn’t like the execution” or, when an editor read a passage where the main character talks about writing bad books, and filling the world with them, how the world doesn’t need another bad writer, and that he should stick to selling bibles, this editor said, “Jason, you don’t really feel that way do you?” I guess there is no good writing, just good rewriting. I’m not the first writer to say that.
JC: Twice this week I either heard or read an author say that the best education for writing is reading (Nick Laird on NPR and A.S. Byatt somewhere I can’t recall, if you must know). I don’t think I would agree or disagree as much as say that’s only half the picture. We are all readers and at least occasional writers so we can see the value of cutting a wide swath through great books, classic or contemporary. The more different and effective variations you experience of characterization, plotting, or whatever aspect of writing you want, the greater the reservoir of knowledge you will have on how to construct that key scene, or reflect that key emotion. The broader that initial education, the more options you’ll have, and the greater capacity you’ll have to take something you’ve seen and try something new with it.
Then the other shoe drops. Another author who comes to mind is Robert Olen Butler(whose Twitter page is something to behold), he prescribed practice and repetition much in the way you do JE. Butler said that he wrote (forgive my inevitable misquote here) something like a quarter of a million words before he wrote anything good. That’s 2 or 3 novels, a long pile of stories, a bunch of essays and probably some bad poetry. Diligence and practice: You’ve got to hone those chops over pages and pages of work, where you are taking that vast framework
you developed in our reading, and learn to make your story come out like you envision it.
So, once you’ve done all this, can writing be taught? In a sense, I think yes, but the writer does not come to the teacher as a tabula rasa, to be inscribed upon and “educated”, i.e. told how to do it. As above, writing is such an experiential process that, at a formative level, it’s a matter of “try this” and see how it works, focusing the aforementioned practice in Socratic dialogue, where the writer brings his conceptions to the group, mentor, or whomever. The education is in the dance of defending one’s work on the one hand, where one thinks the critique is wrong, and , on the other, recognizing and implementing good advice when he hears it.
We’ve all heard the stories of young writers whose first book was released, and they hardly recognized it. You’d better be able to stand by your guns when it matters, or that book will no longer be the vision you had, but a pasty compromise.
JE: Amen to R.O. Butler. There’s that old saying about how it takes ten years to get good at anything– in Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers (yes, I love his consumable brand of beach blanket pop sociology) he uses the number ten thousand hours as a benchmark. I’m not sure I know any debut novelists whose “debut” is there first book, and in most cases, not even their second. My advice to the overwhelming majority first times novelists: first, finish the fucker, even if you sense it’s not working on any number of levels– you’ve got to get into the habit of seeing things through, or you run the risk of being a serial starter, or worse one of those people that has “a novel in them” who spends more time talking about it, than laying bricks. Second, bury the fucker when it’s finished, forget it ever existed, and start another novel. Chances are you’ll be burying that one, too.
I think a natural part of the process of learning, in art as in sport, is emulation. This comes pretty early in the game. As a little leaguer I fashioned my swing after Steve Garvey. The stories I was writing when I was seventeen were little more than Vonnegut knock-offs. Doc Thompson used to type classic works (whole novels) from Fitzgerald and other writers verbatim as an exercise. But what happens when the people you’re emulating are your actual teachers in a classroom environment? It seems like this might happen in some programs, and the result might be that a lot of the writers coming out of that program sound a lot alike. I think eventually, if left to our own devices, we stop emulating and strike upon our own unique voices and approaches. Then again, I remember reading an interview with Jonathan Lethem in which he said he still emulates, that sometimes when approaching a scene, he’ll say to himself: I’m gonna’ handle this like Delillo, or I’m gonna’ handle this scene like Roth would handle it. I always thought that sounded a little self-conscious. My goal is to forget anybody is writing the story at all, to let the story come to life, let the story use the writer as the instrument, instead of vice versa. One of the problems I have with all these beautiful sentence writers that are coming out of writing programs is that the glare of their shiny sentences sometimes seems to blind them to the mechanics of story. When I read Jack London, I forget he’s there. That’s what floats my boat. To use a rock n’ roll analogy, at the heart of most great bands is a kickass rhythm section. Sure, it’s sexier to be a front man or a lead guitarist, but I’m here to tell you that Charlie Watts pushing that beat almost invisibly in the background, and Bill Wyman walking that dog, has every bit as much to do with the Stones great sound as Mick Jagger with all his pouty swagger, or the litany of lead guitarists from Brian Jones to Mick Taylor to Ronny Wood. If I ever teach another writing class, it might be called: how to be invisible.
DH: Even most people who listen to classical music don’t realize that Beethoven’s First Symphony and First Piano Concerto are not the first ones he composed but the second. The ones called “the Second” were really written first. You can tell this by experience in listening to them. The ones officially called “First” are tighter, more focused and energized. Then his publisher stepped back and published the earlier efforts which were called “the Second”. Also in deference to the J’s points about working and revising, Beethoven revised the coda of his 5th Symphony several hundred times. That part of the work takes about a minute to play.
I like JE’s artist’s cloak of invisibility. It bothers me about some contemporary fiction that the writer is calling attention to themselves, calling attention to their skill. Successful writing focuses the attention on the story. This is true even if the writing is “interior”. I recently reviewed a Mary Gaitskill essay about her lost cat. Talking about the cat gave MG a bridge to a discussion about how she was approaching issues. But the essay focused on what gripped her, not herself. So even though this kind of writing is very self-referential, her ego was not imposed on the reader.
The poetry of Frederick Seidel, which I recently discovered, the string quartets of Shostakovich, which took me a long time to love, are all about those artists. If you went into Starbucks feeling that intense, they would have to arrest you. So be invisible….but you can scream your head off and be invisible if the art counts for more than your screams.
Old Viennese saying from the world of music: Quality is luxury and luxury is quality. Quality doesn’t scream. It’s understated. Admire most what is well-made. So what side am I on? Both.
JC: Is this the topic of the week in the book world? I’ve read about 4-5 more interviews that at least touch on this subject since we started talking about it. First there was the New Yorker article a couple of weeks ago. I’ve just read a Martin Amis interview where
he is asked about it. It’s worth noting part of his response as a teacher of writing:
I don’t believe there’s any undiscovered talent around. With the volume of publication now, there’s no Mute in Glorious Milton on this planet. Anyone who’s any good will get published. You can’t create talent. Talent is originality. I don’t mean innovation, I mean having an individual voice that hasn’t been heard before. Of course, we’ve all got our individual voice, but it’s a sort of resonant one. By clearing away all the second hand stuff — the cliches, the dead sentences — I think you can make people a lot more alert, and if talent is there, it will emerge quicker if the surface is very strictly attended to.
. . .which I think fits in very nicely with several statements above. If you’ve got something to say, then you don’t want to write like Amis, or Delillo, but rather like someone else, no matter how instructive those other authors are in recognizing your voice. What’s the pleasure of replicating someone else’s work, even stylistically? Paraphrasing JE from some distant conversation, the good is in the work itself. And the work is all about the practice. Joe Meno
In order to write one good story, you’re going to probably write ten badones. You have to actually in this weird way enjoy or accept that that’s the process. You should approach each story as a kind of experiment, and you try it, and if it works it works, if it doesn’t, you move on to the next thing. Writing is like every artistic endeavor in that it’s entirely about practice. If you can’t enjoy being in front of the computer for a couple of hours and writing something and throwing it out, you’re probably not going to enjoy being a writer. That’s all I do every day. The least interesting thing to me about writing is that it’s immortal or that it’s bound in a hardcover book. That’s less interesting to me than the part where you’re building the story. The most fun for me is the actual writing.
I guess this is always the subject at hand for all of us.
JR: You’re all right, if you have something interesting to say, then sayit, and if you can write, then write it. But you have to be good at it,and that takes practice, a lot of practice. It’s a solitary act, writing, you can’t play with your child, and write at the same time, you can try, but it doesn’t really work. I think it you find your voice, and then you can say whatever you want. Read it aloud, and it sounds good to you, then you’ll know it. But the world of book publishing is one way, are there people out there who want to read good writing? Of course. But will good writing pay the bills…at these publishers? People tell me nonlinear narratives are a tough sell, yeah, tough for them, some of the greatest books ever written are done that way. Everyone says today’s novel has to have an engine, a where are we going feeling. JC, you’re right, if you’re good, people will find you. JE always talks about the act of writing, and it’s different for everyone. For me, I think about it all the time, take inspiration from different things, but my writing has to be read out loud, and then if it’s good…I’ll know. But then the trouble is…finding someone who agrees. But that’s a conversation for another day, or maybe we’ve had that conversation…As James Frey told me…oh, wait, I told you that already.