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Anxiety about a book about writing? Am I Missing the Point?

From PublicDomainReview.org, this is kind of what it feels like in early workshops: you are clueless and vulnerable and cut wide open.

I have to read books about being a writer before I head off to the residency next month.

I’ve nearly finished Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

But it makes me nervous about this program I’m entering, because the book seems to be written for people who’ve never thought about themselves as writers much more than as a passing fancy.  It’s great on teaching people how to train their minds for obsession, and I’ve been enlightened on a few points.  More on this later.

But Writing Down the Bonesthough also a really swell book, that can be inspirational at any point along the way, is designed for beginning writers, too.

First, I would hope that by the time a person is pursuing an MFA or other advanced degree in writing, she’s got a pretty good idea about herself as a writer, and she’s heading on in school to put the polish on previously discovered habits, skills, and self-awareness.  I think that already knowing oneself as a writer is totally integral to success in a low-residency program, too.

I will also say that I hope a person who intends to procure an MFA is already writing every day, has already figured out her way over the humps of “block,” and inertia, and waning ambition in the face of critique, and rejection, dismissal, scheduling, and all the other things that writers must bear up under.

Now, I will say that I have found the book to be–more than anything–utterly affirmative that I’m on the right path.  At times, I’ve had to put it down to go write.  I love when books do that, when they get me so excited about writing that I can’t put it off.  It’s also given me a vocabulary to discuss things that I knew about myself–Brande calls it the Dual Personality (the way writers have two distinct selves who must cooperate, but who must also know when to butt out: writer and life-liver, essentially)–that I hadn’t really named beyond calling it “Academically Sanctioned Schizophrenia.”  Which, it turns out, E. L. Doctorow said first, or at the least many moons before I did.

I also encountered a new (to me) notion that was then echoed in Cathy Day’s blog, which was something kind of pedagogical (that’s fancy for college teaching theory) that wouldn’t have occurred to me: workshopping ain’t always great.  Or at least, not in the traditional, round-table, everybody involved in the discussion method.

Brande says (in 1934),

Here I should like to add a footnote for other teachers, rather than for students of writing.  I think that holding up the work of each pupil in class for the criticism of the others is a throughly pernicious practice, and it does not become harmless simply by allowing the manuscript to be read without assigning its authorship publicly.  The ordeal is too trying to be taken with equanimity, and a sensitive writer can be thrown out of his stride deplorably by it, whether or not the criticism is favorable.  It is seldom that the criticism is favorable, when a beginner is judged by the jury of his peers.  They seem to need to demonstrate taht, although tthey are not yet writing quite perfectly themselves, they are able to see all the flaws in a story which is read to them, and they fall upon it tooth and fang.

I will say that there were some queer, interpersonal consequences to the workshops I’ve been in, but they have been, largely, very well-controlled and the instructors were totally tuned in & monitoring the conversation.  In grad school effort I, the greatest antipathy was toward the professor.  But I always found  workshops to be helpful, once I figured out who my best readers were, and frankly, I learned some really great lessons about having thick skin and separating my sense of myself from my work–the Dual Personality of critique.  It is simply no good for self and work to be inextricable.  I am not the story.  Still, Brande’s particularly strongly worded passage on the practice got me to thinking.

Then, I encountered the following in Cathy Day’s blog when I was linking her in the blog post I wrote yesterday.   She says (in 2012),

Remember: on the first day of class, I tell my students 1.) to write the book they want to write—no genre or subject matter restrictions, and 2.) they won’t have to show this manuscript to the whole class, just to me and a small group of sympathetic readers.

This upticks + the removal of the “all-class workshop” indicates to me that my students took risks because they felt safe doing so.

Huh.

Would I have taken more risks if I’d been workshopped by a smaller group?

I don’t know!  For me, a lot of the fun was helping my peers with their drafts, engaging on the sensitive stuff, getting down and dirty with the text.  But I’m a Scorpio, and would be intense regardless of my sign, I imagine; and I’m not sure that so many people find such unilateral thrill in every process and procedure at all connected to writing as I do.  Also, I get a huge kick out of conquering my own less-savory impulses, like those of the desire to hurl pettiness at anybody who’s fool enough not to think I’m awesome.  I also love finding out that I’m not as awesome as I think I am.  I’d be insufferable if  humility & self-doubt were not in the my writer’s psychological/self-awareness tool box.

I also hope that I’m not the only person entering the program who thinks of herself as a writer, has been a practicing writer for years, and is finding this preparatory reading to be–though delightful as all reading is–a touch worrisome.

I was hoping we’d read some delicious, but challenging (narratively) novel like Josh Russell’s Yellow Jack, which, if you haven’t read you should.   And that we’d be asked to analyze it, and write about it, and then when we got to the residency, we’d talk about that book and other great ones, and about how we best use our writer selves.

I was not hoping that we’d talk about how to reach the writing self.  I think we should already know.

I hope I’m getting it wrong.  I hope that these books are meant specifically to resonate and encourage and to give us insight into our selves, not as stepping stones into the writing life.

Am I being ungenerous?  I know some of you subscribers and readers are MFA/advanced writing degree teachers and students.  Am I expecting too much?  Do I want more commitment to this life from adults entering a low-residency MA/MFA than is reasonable?

4 comments on “Anxiety about a book about writing? Am I Missing the Point?

  1. No MFA here, but I taught writing workshops for many, many years and am the author of six published books, and I have to say: I heartily disagree with Brande. I taught my students always, always to say something good about a person’s writing, even if it was only, “I can see your passion for the subject,” or something equally generic. No slamming was allowed–if they couldn’t say something nice first, they weren’t allowed to say anything at all. Second, I taught them the difference between criticism and critique–there is a difference. The first was NOT allowed in my classroom, the second. was. Third, if prospective writers couldn’t handle critique from their peers, who had the same dream/desire to be a writer, how were they going to handle rejection after rejection when they got out in the real world. And if they were fortunate enough to get their book published, the poor reviews nearly every author receives mixed in with the good ones? And just as an aside, my own publisher is very leery of authors with MFAs. She feels they’ve had their passion and heart taught out of them, and it is reflected in their writing.

    • Hey Smoky,

      I think I agree with you re: workshop. I’m the same in my workshops: People must always lead with the positive, and analyzing the story is totally different from criticizing the author of the story. :-) But I see how Brande came by her pedagogy. I think people have to write and teach and learn how it works for them individually.

      And I’ve heard it both ways re: what publishers, agents, and editors think of MFAs. I read an agent say in Writer’s Digest that she is more likely to look at work from an MFA. I’ve heard a lot of hate toward MFAs, too, especially after The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht came out and scored the Orange Prize, undeservedly by some perspectives. Tons of people think that MFAs are what’s wrong with the literary world.

      Personally? I think that people go into MFAs for wrong/weird reasons, and that the maybe real danger of the MFA workshop is that people don’t figure out how to take critique? That they can’t figure out how to stay true to themselves as writers while taking solid critique from people who’re sensitive readers for them. ?? I also believe that an MFA can’t ruin a writer who doesn’t want to be ruined. But perhaps that’s my pre-MFA idealism. I guess we’ll see!

      Thanks for weighing in, Smoky. I appreciate and am honored that you’re such a regular reader of my blog.

      -April

  2. [...] This is not to say that I feel like I’ve got nothing to learn.  The contrary in fact.  I’ll learn more in Wilkes’s program than I could’ve possibly predicted. [...]

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