MFA grads and non-grads alike:

Read this Letter to an MFA over at MJ Rose’s Buzz, Balls, and Hype by Joshua Henkin, which addresses shortcomings in the way writers are educated in MFA programs…In this particular post, Henkin addresses the following problem of students who fail to tell a story, who write pieces that could be entitled, “Stuff I Thought While I Was in my Car”:

But my students continue to worry about publishing, and though I can’t entirely blame them (what writer doesn’t worry about publishing?), there’s an irony to their concern. The same students who want to publish their work are often curiously unconcerned with entertaining their readers, with doing what a friend of mine, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, calls the writer’s principal obligation: to get the reader to dance with you. In short, they are reluctant to do—indeed, suspicious of doing—what is the cardinal requirement of every writer: to tell the reader a story.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in workshop and read a 60 page novel excerpt just to come to the conclusion, “Why is this being written? What is the significance of this moment? What’s HAPPENING?”

I learned a few things myself–such as his address of “the victim story,” referring to Baxter’s brilliant essays in Burning Down the House:

Almost as common as the watching story is the story about a character who’s been victimized. Bad things have been done to this person, and the story is a chronicle of how he’s been wronged, with an implicit plea that we feel bad for him. And we very well might. But this isn’t especially interesting because being victimized, unless it’s portrayed in a more complicated way, doesn’t involve choice, and choice, as I’ve been suggesting, is what gives stories tension and makes for complex characters. Another way to look at it is that rendering your protagonist powerless is a mistake, because a character needs a certain amount of power in order to behave badly, and behaving badly—or at least the possibility of behaving badly—is what makes fiction interesting. Charles Baxter says as much in his wonderful book of essays Burning Down the House. Baxter, who teaches fiction writing himself, draws a distinction between “me” protagonists and “I” protagonists. “Me” protagonists, he argues, are characters to whom things are done, whereas “I” protagonists actually do something. In Baxter’s opinion, there are too many “me” protagonists out there, and I agree.

My novel is about a character who’s been victimized. Am I portraying his victimization in a more complicated way, with choices? Does he have power? I’ll go back and comb the story over, make sure he’s up on his feet…and that the story is then on its feet.

See? Must read.

Of course–if I were the “typical MFA student,” I wouldn’t have even shared this post and hoarded it all to myself. Read it and grow. Creative writers unite!


  • Part 2 of the Letter is here.
  • And Part 3 of Letter to an MFA has been posted.


Filed under Reading, Writing

5 responses to “must-read

  1. I just read that and was going to post it on my blog, too.

  2. love it. love it. love it.

  3. oh, and i keep hearing “no one in our program gets published,” like it’s supposed to appear out of the air. yet, from what i can tell, the people who are saying that aren’t submitting anything. i know we’re lit people and all, but it is simple math! i know why i’m not published: i haven’t submitted much!

  4. Lamberakis

    Let me ask this: In your MFA workshops, have you ever run across a story that seemed really good right away? I mean, the world’s next batch of literary stars must be out there “cooking” right now. Aren’t there ever times when you are in awe of someone else’s talents? Or are workshops so rampant with mediocrity?

    Just curious 😉

  5. Lamberakis: I have, occasionally, run across stories that are just awesome from the get go. Yes, they may require some work, but the “bones” of the piece are there, and so incredibly structured and beautiful. And sometimes, there are stories that are just “done,” but those are rare.

    I have definitely been in awe of people’s talents…and at the same time, run into a lot of mediocrity, too. It runs the gamut–and I have a feeling this happens at all the MFA programs, whether it’s at Iowa, or a smaller, lesser known and regarded program.

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