I used to be a band geek. Except at my high school, it was sort of cool to be in marching band, if only for the fact that our marching band was ranked #1 in the state of California. When you rock what you do, no matter how uncool it is supposed to be, then you rock it to coolness.
We practiced everyday, in the concert room and on the street. Synchronicity was the key. I practiced so much that my walking stride was a perfect 18 inches. I learned to walk by striking the pavement with my heels with a glide that kept a book balanced on my head. I hated our band uniforms, and having to wear a panty-hose top hairnet and gobs of Dep hairgel to keep my hair under the helmet, but that was part of the pride of synchronicity.
That is where synchronicity belongs, in a marching band.
Not in art. But sometimes I feel like MFA programs just churn out these formulaic writers and writing. It kills me. Anything different gets lambasted in workshop. I mean, how would Haruki Murakami or James Joyce or William Faulkner or anyone else who’s trying to do something different with their writing, fare in an MFA workshop? I’m sure they would be told to get in line. Murakami’s dream sequences and unresolved narrative arcs would be criticized. James Joyce would probably be trashed for his revolutionary stream of consciousness. Faulkner would suffer a similar fate.
The workshop is about appeasing the masses. As I approach my last few months in my own program, I ask myself, “What am I rewarding with my comments? What is this work trying to achieve in the larger scope of things?” Too often, I see work that is middle-of-the-road be lauded, and work that is trying to do something different cast aside in a cloud of confusion.
Howard Junker, one of my favorite editors and a crusader for “The Different Kind of Writer,” says it best on a comment on this very blog:
the writers i don’t hold in much reverence are the established ones, esp. the so-called creative writing teachers who write such uninteresting stuff, the stuff that stuffs most litmags.
I agree wholeheartedly. Some of my favorite literary journals publish these very neat, well-crafted stories that read like a perfect, hairsprayed, helmet hairdo. I admire their delicate balance, but it’s an uncomfortable read. And more often than not, they are a result of multiple workshopping experiences, and oftentimes from the workshop leader (the creative writing instructor) him/herself. Where is the bravery in this balancing act?
Who is teaching us in the MFA programs? Are the instructors who teach us still writing anymore? Or are their days of churning out fresh writing over? Are we just supposed to write in their image? Is our own writing so crafted and polished that it lacks life and luster? I think we are creating a template out there, a “formulaic MFA short story.”
I’ve been to MFA readings and readings by artists who have never been in an MFA program–there is sometimes a crystalline difference between the two. The latter has a freshness to it that I cannot deny. And the MFA readings usually exhibit work that feels like it had the life pounded out of it (probably in workshop, trying to appease the masses). (Oh, and don’t even get me started on the very scary but ubiquitous Poetry Voice). Who are we writing for? I think we should write for a particular audience, not everyone as we are so often trained to do in workshop.
Hard to do, I acknowledge. We are there to learn, how can we be so arrogant already as to rebuff the “helpful” advice we receive from our peers and our teachers?
Even the most accomplished writer can get burnt out as a teacher and take the easy road: appease and patronize the student with overly kind comments, take the road of least resistance. And besides, why create more competition for yourself? As I wrote before on writing friendships, the writing pie is very small and the number of writers is very large; we are all very hungry so why help someone else eat? Is the writing teacher not jealous of the student? As a result, true writing mentors are rare.
The consequence of all this is that we are told to “step in line.” Creative writing instructors don’t have the energy (or maybe even the capacity) to help us do something different, because doing something different expends more energy and requires more skill to really execute. Doing something different also requires more confidence–we already know this, how many of us had to render up all our courage to say “I’m going to be a writer,” and then actually go ahead and do it? Doing something different takes more time.
Doing something different is hard to do in an MFA program.
That’s my dilemma at this point.