“step in line.”

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.



Filed under Abstract Thoughts, MFA, Writing

7 responses to ““step in line.”

  1. I hear you there. Me, I got a little funding all the way through grad school, so I guess I got paid to write, sort of. But I was writing SF, and let me tell you, writing genre in a Creative Writing program is really hard. People don’t understand it, some don’t even understand that they don’t understand it, others assume that the generic principles don’t matter and start telling you that you ought to do more like Nabokov with your “sci-fi elements”, and you end up wondering what the hell to do with the comments.

    If I had the choice to do it over again, I think I would have done grad studies in another area: literary theory, maybe, but more probably a science, or history, or something else other than my Creative Writing MA. Some field in which I could have learned something to put to good use in my writing, or to put food on my table.

    I think it’s good to remember that whatever one is taught in school is going to be formulaic, dead with concrete boots on. Remember how you were taught to write an essay? Essays written that way suck — nobody who really writes well, including you, actually writes essays in the spoonfed formulae that we learn in high school and undergrad. (Though lots of acacdemics do use the form in academic essays… which as a result largely go unread.)

    Doing something worthwhile is what’s hard to do in a Creative Writing program. If you can do it, don’t expect people to recognize it for what it is. If it is worthwhile, it won’t read like MFA-writing, and yes, there is an MFA-voice, and an MFA-poetry voice, and they’re both awful and definitely to be avoided. You know how I know? Everyone I knew who had an MFA voice, even the nice and the less-than-nice alike, has failed to break into print at all, but done tons of publication in the area of tiny-chapbooks-sold-to-other-local-MFA-writers. Which is a reflection of the significance of their work.

    (I know, I know, I haven’t gotten in print yet myself, not much anyway. But then, ‘ve been waiting till my writing is refined enough for that. I, at least, could tell my stuff wasn’t ready for publication in any venue. But I have started submitting, finally…)

  2. PS: Marching bands suck! It’s stage band (ie jazz band) that was where it was at in high school, baby!

  3. i did marching band too! though i wasn’t in the band. i (start to hang my head here) did color guard. yup. i twirled flags.

    but on that note, lynn freed has a great essay on this sort of thing–teaching and being drained, not being honest, assimilation of writers in programs. “doing time” (now in reading, writing and leaving home, but also published a year or so ago in harper’s) really angered me at the time, but now i understand it a bit more. i feel really lucky that i’ve never felt like my profs are trying to get me to write in a particular manner. sometimes i think my fellow students — or at least some of them — fail to consider other styles than their own.

    however, encouraging 60-some students to all develop their own styles and voices takes a lot of experience and a lot of work–and that is why i think while i love my program, i don’t know if i’d want to teach here. i’d have to ignore my own writing completely.

  4. Did you drop that workshop yet?

  5. not yet. i have to make sure this other class gets added first, so i don’t go under fulltime.

  6. Pingback: storytelling taste « Writing Under a Pseudonym

  7. Pingback: “I wasn’t ready then but now I see…”: they call it workshop feedback « Writing Under a Pseudonym

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