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They’ll Make You a Writer!


This past summer, as every summer, well-known writers were teaching in creative writing seminars, workshops, conferences, and residential programs, and hundreds of people attended, at Bread Loaf and Sewanee, Sun Valley and Squaw Valley, and dozens of other places. This fall, thousands more students will be enrolled in long-term writing programs leading to master’s degrees and doctorates in fine arts. Given the number of people who want to write, these programs are lucrative for the universities that sponsor them; but one wonders why, apart from the profitability, our institutions continue to foster what Mark McGurl explains as

Iowa Digital Library
A writers’ workshop on the lawn in front of the Old Capitol building at the University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1940s
for the most part a rather low-tech and quaintly humanistic, if increasingly sprawling, affair whose role is rather to give something back to the student which the perpetual displacements of modern life…might seem to take away. It is easier, in other words, to see creative writing as one of the forms of obsolescence conserved by the university than as part of its R&D wing.

McGurl’s book on the rise of creative writing programs at American universities calls attention to this peculiar and suggestive phenomenon, though it’s not clear what all that writing means: he points out that the teaching of creative writing, and indeed even the whole concept of “creative writing,” are relatively new, and originally American. Why do these programs thrive? Is the wish to become a writer peculiarly American? Do people of other nations throng as eagerly to situations that require them to do what most of them hated doing in high school?

Nowadays the writing program also seems to be catching on in some other countries, though study abroad may still be predominantly for American students who happen to have the money and time to travel to some pleasant city in Italy or France or the Czech Republic, with the wish to become a writer, and at a minimum the hope of finding a satisfying means of self-expression. A typical blandishment:

Come write, study, and explore the literary life in Paris this summer with the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. During this intensive month-long program, creative writing students will focus on the mutual influences among French and English-speaking writers from Modernism to the present moment while writing their own fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, inspired by this storied cultural capital and one of the most important literary traditions in history.

The cost for Columbia’s month is about $9,000.

Writing programs, around since the 1930s, were founded first at the University of Iowa and then Stanford, in other words far from the New York fount, a circumstance that McGurl (who teaches at Stanford) doesn’t make as much of as it probably means; and according to McGurl, there are now more than 350 such full-time, accredited writing programs in American institutions. Most of them offer the ubiquitous and valued MFA, and often the Ph.D. in creative writing. The original impetus coincided with early-twentieth-century so-called Progressive Education movements, which encouraged “creativity” in reaction to old-fashioned educational methods of learning by rote:

Creative writing as we know it is the product of a historical moment when traditional conceptions of formal education as an occasion either for externally imposed mental discipline or the conveyance to the student of standardized subject matter came under sustained attack.

During this period, Thomas Wolfe epitomized the ideal of the untrammeled creative artist. A second proliferation of MFAs after World War II grew out of a big national investment in higher education, with the GI Bill and other efforts drawing vast numbers of people to college who before then wouldn’t have been able to go. Today, when about half of Americans go to college, it can seem that half of those want to be writers.

Part of McGurl’s contention is that now—because except in a few cases, study at a university is a requirement for a job teaching writing—American writers have been co-opted into a system of professional formation that, far from encouraging creativity, could perpetuate the opposite, a paradox they live with. He goes on to point out that most modern American authors, even ones you think of as free-spirited, daring loners, say Ken Kesey or Thomas Pynchon, have been attached to writing programs as students and/or have taught in them, from Flannery O’Connor to Allen Ginsberg to John Barth to Kurt Vonnegut to the many that work within institutions today. Because most writers and teachers of American literature have been exposed to the same foundation concepts of creative writing and teaching, and writer-professors can by constructing the canon create a market for their own wares, American writing has developed certain defining characteristics.

McGurl goes on to hold that our writing has come to have certain qualities in common because writers and readers and teachers will all have probably been promulgating three dicta familiar to us all, which he takes to be fundamental to creative writing programs, if not to literature itself:

1. Find your voice.
2. Write what you know.
3. Show don’t tell.

Are these dicta derived from what we can see to be common properties of literature we admire, innate properties of all good writing? Are they sound? These three laws or precepts, right or wrong and however unconsciously promulgated and practiced, probably do guide much American writing.

Therefore, McGurl contends—and most would agree with his examples—the qualities that owe something to the dominant pedagogy, in particular to reliance on the first two dicta—write what you know and find your voice—together have produced a literature of solipsism, an inward turn toward first-person narratives and parochial, self-involved subjects, American narcissism. By comparison, we can see that French and English fiction and Middle European literatures are not shy of telling instead of showing, and employ the first person less often, Proust excepted. These dicta also reduce and simplify the variety and complexity of available writerly stances, so that writing that should give us the celebrated frisson that Nabokov described as a sensation between the shoulder blades increasingly often doesn’t.

Take the business of dialogue instead of exposition: “Show don’t tell” is so ingrained in the American writing seminar orthodoxy that it almost seems futile to question it, especially as it seems to be the instinctive practice of great natural writers, say Chekhov or Graham Greene, who did not, however, elevate it into a law laid down by some Gordon Lish of their day—Lish the legendary editor who performed extensive pruning operations on Raymond Carver’s prose, to remove any evidence of “telling.” Today there are some signs that his dictate may be losing its power—a recent New Yorker had a story by Ben Marcus that is entirely “told,” not shown, narrated from the point of view of Julian, the protagonist:

Julian could only walk faster, wincing, until the shopkeepers released him from eye contact. Had anyone, he wondered, ever studied the biology of being seen? The ravaging, the way it literally burned when you fetched up in people’s sight lines and they took aim at you with their minds? He wanted to summon a look of kindness and curiosity in return, a look that might make them forgive his miserly ways, his trespass on their ancient, superior city. But his face lacked the power to convey. He’d stopped trying to use it for silent communication—the gestures you tendered overseas, absent a shared language, to suggest that you were not a murderer. Such facial language was for apes, or some mime troupe in Vermont. Mummenschanz people who emoted for a living. He ate with his face and spoke with it. Sometimes he hid it in his hands. That should have been enough.

And so on through several pages, with very little dialogue. You can imagine the screams from a contemporary writing class.

As to writing what you know, what we know best is ourselves, so writing in our own voices about our own experiences is easiest, and this, McGurl says, has led us to the use and maybe overuse of the first-person voice. If American literature relies on the first person much more than other literatures do, still its use has always been perfectly traditional in novels, used to establish veracity, as in Wuthering Heights or Moby-Dick, when a speaker testifies to having seen or heard of the events that are described. The first person is engaging, intimate, allows the writer to skip around in a story with the logic or illogic of psychology, is not bound like the orderly third-person narrator to plod from event to event in roughly chronological order. The first-person narrator is free to reveal more of the real self or the fictional self, and if self-revelation is our aim, the best way to do it is to tell our own story in our own words.

The first person is also good when you have an exciting story to tell, of something that happened to you, but of course, in our privileged comfort, we mostly don’t, hence the rise of the abuse narrative and the prevalence, practically amounting to a convention, of molester fathers and violent drunken moms. It’s easy to see why Henry James disapproved of the first person, but also fun to imagine him in the modern confessional mode, because he really had plenty of material—fraternal rivalry, the slightly mad and bitter sister, the pain of his sexual ambiguity, and above all the mysterious Wound. What an affecting memoir he could have written, if only he had been interested in the drama of his own life. Instead, he was too busy writing and dining and sightseeing and visiting and leading the calm life of a sociable gentleman in easy and civilized circumstances.

Perhaps luckily, he was interested in others, in their moral dilemmas, and in how their lives revealed the times, and the moral and political climate of certain societies—for which he recommended the more authoritative third-person voice. James was a social novelist of a sort that we aren’t used to now. It’s true that the effect of the first person, with its confidential, natural tone and indifference to plot, can seem very American, in the sense that Europeans say American friendliness is a disguise, our candor a mask behind which, because we omit familiar social rites, we are unknowable.

Finding your voice and writing what you know have led us into fascination with autobiography; and our preoccupation with fame and celebrity is in a kind of permanent tension with high-modernist craft, for which McGurl has produced three further interesting descriptive categories, with diagrams: (1) technomodernism, which “emphasizes the all-important engagement of postmodern literature with information technology” (sometimes called postmodernism, an example being Don DeLillo). (2) High cultural pluralism, which “will describe a body of fiction that joins the high literary values of modernism with a fascination with the experience of cultural difference and the authenticity of the ethnic voice,” including regionalism, and other forms of cultural pluralism central to the development of the writing program. This overlaps with “multiculturalism,” with everyone looking for their hyphen: African-American, Jewish-American, Asian-American, Lesbian-American, Veteran-American, Convict-American. (3) “Lower-middle-class modernism,” sometimes known as K-Mart realism, along with ethnic stories the preferred and privileged category of “serious” writing at present, reflecting the fact that when we look toward others, we have been taught to admire and somehow elevate stories that are about poor, working, and rural people, preferably ethnically distinctive.

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