Saturday, May 23, 2015

Writing Class Confidential Part II

One old chestnut holds that a writer has to be an observer. Like a lot of old chestnuts, it’s true, at least some of the time. Many writers became observers on the playground, relegated to that status by geekiness and the fear of yet another humiliation or beating. They learned to imagine themselves into the childhood games of their peers, and kept on imagining the lives of others from those miserable days onward.

One thing you can do if you are a geek or loser is, or course, hang out with other geeks and losers. This is the basis for the game Dungeons and Dragons, group therapy, and writing classes (yes, my tongue is at least partly in my cheek at this point, so don’t savage me if you are a devotee if any of these). With the wisdom and compassion one would have to have learned from all that childhood angst and rejection (cue the music for Janis Ian’s “Seventeen,” please) you would think the people in these writing classes (called salons by the pretentious, the percentage of which is high among writers) would not turn out to be bullies themselves. You would be wrong (being a writer, I am of course observant enough to have noticed this, having the time and inclination to watch while sitting on the sideline of life with nothing better to do).

I’ve heard that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a protracted, internecine, fratricidal (patricidal, matricidal, you get the idea, even suicidal, eventually, for some) free-for-all wherein the last one left standing gets the phone number of the teacher’s agent. I believe it. The psychological warfare can be intense, and the ability to wage it is not the same thing as being able to write. Therefore, the writers who survive are the most narcissistic, vicious, and self-deluded. Not that this isn’t like life in general, but it seems a shame. Success in writing comes from many things, but the three most important are confidence, long and sustained effort, and luck. Connections also help, and self promotion (the flipside of bullying?), and writing in whatever style is trendy. Talent is still important, but not more important than these.

Not every writing class I have been in has been a kind of community theater production of Twelve Angry Men (and Women), but many of them were. You would have been better off taking time off from your writing to study Machiavelli and Sun Tzu than trying to perfect your craft. The realpolitik of these type classes can crush the confidence of someone insecure about their abilities (and if you are worth your salt as a writer, you need to doubt yourself enough to keep trying to improve, to learn).

The first class I took, many years ago, was a fiction workshop. It was a nightmare. One guy (he actually smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows) told me that I was trying to be Hemingway and doing a poor job of it. He never said why, and I can see that this was because he wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to think deeply enough into what I was writing to find out. He was the alpha dog and he didn’t want me pissing in the same grass he was. Another woman came right out of Central Casting as a crusty, musty and dusty old dowager who lectured continually (as opposed to continuously, she would have pointed out) on not ending sentences with prepositions, or splitting infinitives, of not starting a sentence with and or but, and of the dire necessity of putting a comma before the last element in a series. She spoke of these things as if they had been transmitted to the writing community on tablets that she herself had acquired from God (or Fowler).

I have always had a real animus towards these captious types who elevate guidelines that are supposed to promote clarity into a kind of dogma, and then use their knowledge to cudgel people who aren’t quite so persnickety. They imagine that writing well is a result of following all the rules, but those rules are just the beginning of writing, not its end.

Gratuitous negative criticism is something my present memoir writing teacher, Marion Roach Smith, doesn’t allow. She herself doesn’t engage in it. She encourages observation and critique that is based on the text and is designed to help you get better. And her analyses are invariably spot on. Not everyone in her classes has had the same ability as Marion. I am amazed at how often people can look at a text and come up with a reaction to it that has nothing to do with what is right in front of their noses. As if a text was a Rorschach test, they see whatever they need to see in it. But a text is not a Rorschach, and not every interpretation can be said to be valid. Moby Dick is not about Ishmael’s homosexual passion for QueeQueg, for Christ’s sake.

In memoir writing classes there is an additional emotional danger: people feel that your criticism is about both their writing and their life itself. The classes often devolve into a contest to see who can tell the story of the most abject misery, and the prize for being the most pitiful is the most praise, whether the person eliciting the pity can write their way out of a paper bag or not. And if people don’t show the proper pity and praise for these tales of woe, people feel slighted.

One of the most interesting archetypes I have found is the unreliable narrator. I remember one woman writer of this type vividly from a memoir class. An unreliable narrator in fiction can be great fun, as we have the author standing behind that narrator and gesturing ironically at him, through other characters or through the ironical things that happen to said narrator. In memoir, though, such a narrator is unsettling, to say the least. And I don’t mean unreliable in the sense of making stuff up, like James Frey. This woman’s perspective on her own life was so warped that it defied imagination. She unconsciously satirized herself. Again and again she would describe how her husband and two sons did things she judged to be loving, even though it was obvious to us that all three of them were just mean, nasty and cruel (whoops, I didn’t use that comma). They (and she) excused their behavior on religious and patriotic grounds, and in the name of love, but none of us were buying it. Unreliable. And her assessment of everyone else’s work was way off, too. I took eventually to her as a kind of inverse acid test—if she didn’t like something I had written, I knew it had to stay in.

Another archetype is the genius (cue Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years”: You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen/ in all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean). This is the kind of writer who will tell you he or she has never been tutored in writing, but has been writing on his or her own for years. They don’t need a class, but figure they have a kind of literary noble obligation to come and help you out. When the class doesn’t genuflect on cue, these types pack up and leave.

And then there is the expert. This person is invariably a middling writer, one who has gotten a lot on the craft side of things cinched, but has no voice or originality. They offer you a kind of contract—allow them to be your Maxwell Perkins and you can be their F Scott Fitzgerald. They get pretty upset if you don’t sign off on that contract. In one of Marion’s classes, five of us spun off our own group. One of the women (the Expert) decided that another of the women was using too many adjectives (apparently the Expert had read Strunk and White and managed to misunderstand them both), and she said so. This wasn’t so bad, as we were dedicated to learning from each other, and truly didn’t want to hear only praise for our stuff (although we didn’t mind the praise when it came). When the acolyte didn’t agree with the ex cathedra proclamation of the Expert, however, and no one rallied to the Expert’s side (even if I had agreed with her, I wouldn’t have done any rallying, since like many writers I am a notorious coward) the Expert accused us all of coddling the woman who would not prostrate herself. It became clear that the group was not going to survive with both of these women in it, and so we jettisoned the more annoying of the two (yes, the Expert). If it was a class where we were not running the show ourselves, it would have been a real tension convention.

The expert will also tell you if your stuff is postmodern enough, self-conscious and self-referential enough, if it is going to offend anyone, if you have a right to write it, if it is au courant. They know what aporia is, and lacunae, and instantiation, and deferral, and absence, and they will deconstruct you until it feels like there are no words left on the pages you submitted. The expert will drop a lot of names, as if he or she was in daily contact with Joyce and Proust, Derrida and Foucault, et al. They are supremely aware of all the nuances of writing, but not of how silly they come off as critics of it.

Next time, the writing teacher, and the efficacy of style-, guide-, hand- and how-to-books.

© 2015 Mike Welch


  1. My writing classes under the erudite Lewis Burke Frumkes at Marymount Manhattan College were excellent and stimulating! A couple of writing groups brought forth those negative types, however, and that caused me to seek better pastures - which I then found and enjoyed! tjstraw

  2. I guess I'm a genius, except for the part where I feel impelled to help other people out. Writing classes and writing groups generally set my teeth on edge. The memoir class sounds as if it could turn into a therapy group, where you have to coax your fellow group members back to sanity before you can help them learn to write. Ordinary groups depress me because the others either write better than I do or write worse, and I don't want to hear from any of them about my writing.

    The worst "workshop" I ever attended was run by a young fellow who came from some famous program in the midwest, I'm not sure whether it was Iowa. He told us that good writing was counterintuitive, and that you had to study on a postgraduate level to appreciate it. And here I was thinking it was all about communication.

    Sometime I'll tell you the story of how Harold went to Breadloaf. I found it very, very funny, but his first wife was not amused.

  3. Oh, don't leave us hanging... what happened at Breadloaf????? tjs