06 June 2009

My Program Era

Low Library, Columbia University:
No book of mine is contained within its walls.

The June 8 issue of The New Yorker contains a lengthy, thoughtful essay by Louis Menand, “Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” Menand uses a new book, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (which I haven’t read), to examine creative-writing programs and their influence, how they alter the expectations of academic institutions, of young writers, and of readers, how they have changed literature itself. Among the questions raised by Menand’s essay are whether writing actually can be taught, and whether the programs themselves are a good thing. The answer in both cases is a down-to-the-finish, highly qualified, perhaps reluctant “yes.”

The answer came as a relief, almost. I could easily wish for a ringing endorsement, a hearty slap on the back that getting a degree in creative writing — such as the one I earned at Columbia in 1991 — is a good idea. As Menand surveys the development of writing programs, weighs their merits against their faults, and traces the pedigrees (Writer X studied with Writer Y, who studied with Writer Z), I’m struck by how little thought I have put into my graduate education. In recent years, I’ve become almost afraid to ponder what I got out of it, or whether I made a mistake in applying.

Writing programs rely heavily on workshops, where, as Menand observes, the student writer is judged and advised by other student writers, who presumably have no more idea how to write than any other amateur would. And when I attended, the Columbia workshops were poorly constructed to benefit the aspiring novelist. One could submit at most two chapters per semester, and unless one had just begun a new work, it was therefore almost impossible for any but the most intuitive classmates to divine the narrative arc or character development. (I’m told the fiction workshops have been restructured.) The most successful novelists in my class have been Alisa Kwitney and Scott Smith, neither of whom could be said to write “program” prose — and Dale Peck, who dropped out of the program.

Professor Towers: He tried to warn me.

Though the chairman of the department, Robert Towers, informed us at the start of classes that writing cannot be taught, we forged onward, and we wasted a lot of workshop time in argument over matters of style. It’s only in reading Menand’s article that I understand, for the first time, that many of my troubles in workshop stemmed not merely from a preference for Henry James, but also from James’ lamentable failure ever to attend a creative-writing program. Indeed, none of my favorite authors are alumni of any writing program, whereas all of my classmates revered such workshop deities as Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and Mona Simpson. That difference of opinion should have told me something, not only about my classmates, but also about why I was studying to write like people whose work did not appeal to me.

Only those professors who were able to read more than a few chapters of my novel were able to offer any insight into it, and in the case of Mary Gordon, I refused to listen. She tried delicately to address “my narrator’s level of diction,” to which I stuck stubbornly nevertheless, in the belief that it revealed his character (and not my own): a pretentious young dilettante, out of his depth among genuine artists. Only years later did I see that Ms. Gordon was right, when my target audience, my godfather, read the book and howled, “What the hell’s wrong with your narrator? He sounds like he has a stick up his ass!”

Mary Gordon: She tried to teach me.

My godfather has no degree in creative writing, yet his criticism was far more effective than anything I heard in two years of workshop. If the purpose of the program was to make professionals of us, to prepare us to be published authors, then it failed in this regard, where I’m concerned: my novel (by now my graduate thesis) emerged unready for the marketplace, and even after revisions, it failed to sell. Since those revisions did not include correcting the narrative voice, I’m almost grateful for the failure. Almost.

What the program did succeed at providing us with (at least briefly) was a captive audience of readers, classmates with the time and inclination to pore over our every word with the utmost seriousness. That’s a rare blessing, as it happens. Go out into the real world, and you will not easily find anyone who cares to read, much less to reread, the chapter over which you’ve struggled.

Even as he warned us about the impossibility of being taught writing, Professor Towers expressed the hope that we’d form a community of writers — which includes not only sympathetic shoulders to cry on but also people to read your revisions. I did make a few friends at Columbia, but nothing like the community he envisioned. That’s probably less the fault of the Writing Program than of CBS News, which whisked me away after graduation.

So what did I get out of my two years in the program? The literature courses were pretty good: I read Madame Bovary for the first time, and a little of Updike and Mailer, and E.B. White’s work for grownups, with good professors to guide me. Eudora Welty came to speak on campus, and I got to meet her. I taught for a year, which proved tremendously rewarding and which meant I didn’t have to pay tuition the last year; teaching is not part of the program’s regular curriculum, however.

My teaching experience and my degree impressed Dan Rather, and I returned to CBS on something like a triumphal chariot, but to date that’s the only professional advantage I’ve been able to detect in my degree. The kind of log-rolling Menand describes (young writers are taught so that they can get teaching jobs themselves) are unavailable to me, because without publication credits, I can’t get hired at the college level.

I surely benefited from being able to devote myself to my writing for such an extended period, yet my work saw greater improvement later, when I was at CBS, unable to focus on my fiction but required to churn out copy on deadline.

So did I make a mistake? I think not — but it’s a closer call than I’d like. I remain an unpublished novelist with an expensive degree.

NOTE: For another view, you may want to read this essay by my classmate from Brown, Rick Moody, who attended the Columbia program before I did. The article appeared in The Atlantic in 2005, when it stirred up quite a controversy.


Anonymous said...

It was a lengthy article, yet it barely addressed the question of whether workshops make people better writers and by what means. After reading it, I know something of the history of postwar writing workshops and some gossip and trivia about authors who enrolled in them, but I still know precious little about the ultimate relationship of the workshop to the writer. I took a workshop for one semester as an undergraduate; does this make me forever a "product" of a writing workshop, or am I a writer whose development was hardly touched at all by spending a few months with a professor who read out students' work and made caustic remarks about it?

Maybe you have some perspective on this question as a former writing instructor. Would you say that some of your students' writing noticeably improved in the course you taught?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Rick --

Your assessment of Menand's article isn't far from mine, and it says something that I wound up not reflecting on his conclusions (such as they were) but examining my own diploma. Maybe we'd get more substance from reading McGurl's book.

I can vouchsafe without fear of contradiction that my students' writing improved immeasurably as a direct result of my class. However, it wasn't a creative-writing class, it was freshman comp (or "First-Year Logic and Rhetoric," as Columbia preferred to style it). I've never taught a workshop, and at the rate I'm going, I never will.

There are plenty of ways to improve one's writing; the common denominator is that all those ways require that one write, and workshops aren't the only place to do that.

Even without knowing your work, I suspect that, with only one undergraduate workshop to your credit, you can avoid being tagged as a "product" for the rest of your career. (My one semester of "Small-Business Management" doesn't seem to have done much to my résumé, one way or the other, even when I've worked in managerial capacities.) Happily, you have some control over that, depending on what and how you write.

Late Blooming Mom said...

It still dogs me that I never did a graduate creative writing program, if only because I think I would have given me habits to make me more prolific (a big problem I had as a screenwriter was being a slow perfectionist and not churning out enough specs) and some armor to stick to it through rough patches. I wish I'd had a support system to read/critique but also lend some legitimacy to my pursuit of a writing career, which you get very little of in Hollywood. Finally, it might've allowed me to find/develop a more distinctive voice, something I still struggle with. Whether it would've meant more sold scripts or produced plays or a book published by now, I'll never know.

William V. Madison said...

Late-Blooming Mom -- I'm not sure how much a creative-writing program would have done to address the concerns you cite here. Ideally, yes, a program would lend you a little cachet that would translate to legitimacy, or the appearance thereof. But make you more prolific? I don't know.

I do know your writing, and so one thing is clear to me: if your voice were any more distinctive, you'd be quacking. You haven't needed a program for that!