Anatomy of a Creative Writing MA, Part 4

Maybe because Short Fiction was an elective (my first), or because the tutor’s enthusiasm exceeded the call of duty (we received extra handouts of stories and reviews), the high standard of work + attendance made this class unusual. And a striking proportion of students from it have since scored short-fiction prizes, grants, mentorships, major and minor publication etc. Soon after I’d heard the latest at someone’s book launch last spring, our former tutor sent an email to the old class list. Apparently, ‘all’ at the launch had discussed a workshop (if not in my vicinity). Presumably T (for Tutor) needed some extra income (I’m told that uni tutors aren’t paid much, though of course that’s relative), and plans to make this workshop residential would suggest that emerging writers who can afford degrees tend to be well heeled. T rounded off by quoting a price for ms assessment (does $200 for 20 pages sound like a good deal?).

Even if I could have afforded the bourgeois luxury of a workshop-cum-weekend retreat, the prospect of a class reunion didn’t appeal. And a penchant for understated style and content hadn’t made T my ideal reader. T’s great gift to me was to set David Foster Wallace’s short fiction collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men for our first text. The second and third, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Tim Winton’s The Turning, respectively, were much more conventional and more popular. No other student owned up to enjoying Foster Wallace. The men (a minority, as in most if not all writing courses) overtly disliked him. ‘Contrived,’ said one young guy. ‘Pretentious,’ said an older one. ‘Too clever,’ said a third. (This was before Foster Wallace’s suicide.) Superficial assessments; maybe they didn’t get him?

T warned us from the get-go that compared to Winton and Lahiri, Foster Wallace ‘more clearly has a project’. The other two, T explained, are ‘more intuitive’. Is ‘intuitive’ another way to say ‘instinctive’ or ‘writing what you know’? Because I believe that to have made some of his wildest imaginative leaps, intuition is the exact quality Foster Wallace needed. I don’t believe that intellect and intuition are mutually exclusive even if they don’t tend to function simultaneously; stories are often written in layers (drafts). Like Lahiri and Winton in the collections we read, I tend to write relatively close to home – and maybe that’s partly why Foster Wallace awes and inspires me with the range and scope of what he appears to know. Which brings me to the question of his ‘project’.

According to James Wood (Prof. of the Practice of Lit Crit at Harvard) in How Fiction Works (London, Vintage, 2009): ‘[Wallace’s] fiction prosecutes an intense argument about the decomposition of language in America’ (p. 27). Despite being an incomplete view of what Foster Wallace is doing, that’s doubtless useful info for those writing students (and I saw a few) who wouldn’t know decomposed language if they fell over it. From what I’ve noticed, everyone who sticks at writing for any length of time has a project. In a high proportion of cases, the project seems to be simply to get published (or, more specifically, to get published, say, by Picador or before turning 50). And as such a project plainly isn’t conducive to innovation, the work of a hyperstylist and sometimes outré trailblazer like Foster Wallace is just going to make these kinds of writer–readers impatient. As Foster Wallace told Laura Miller in a 1996 Salon interview, ‘The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in a way that it’s also pleasurable to read.’

My personal interpretation of Foster Wallace’s drift is, Ask not what literature can do for you but what you can do for literature. Clearly, postgrad study of writing can pave a path to publication. But do such courses foster innovation? My experience of Theory and even Nonfiction would tend to suggest they do, but that wasn’t true of Fiction. It depends on the individual tutor.

Homework throughout this elective course entailed crafting several very short fictions (Advanced Narrative Writing revisited; and, as in ANW, I erred by not sitting on my opinions. Having spent nine years in a weekly writers’ group where my feedback was valued by members [some of whom went on to achieve major publication], I’d gotten used to not pulling my punches, and it took me two whole semesters to learn to shut up. The mood in the short-fiction room often felt tense [even competitive?] and, interestingly, the class contained a high percentage of middle-aged women). For each homework task we were set an arbitrary theme with constraints on length yet none on form and style. I couldn’t (and still can’t) see the point of this. Why not impose any formal guidelines or creative limits? Why not insist that we at least try our hand at a story within a story or magic realism or satire, using multiple voices, interior monologue or stream of consciousness, for instance? Why not give us exercises geared to push the envelope, to acquaint us more closely with our strengths and weaknesses as well as with the form’s possibilities?

At first I tried to make each exercise a real workout for myself. (Later in the semester I learned to conserve my energies.) For a piece on the theme of ‘a departure’ (if possible, avoid airports, was the sole proviso), I wrote about suicide as if to a dead friend, sliding between first- and second-person point of view. Class workshopping was inconclusive, with students differing on which bits confused them. T perhaps lacked a broad enough range of references to be objective (let alone helpful), and, to be fair, any subscriber to understatement might have been out of their comfort zone. Nor can it be easy to deal with students who, being older than oneself, may be as well read (if not as well known). ‘Some things are just too big for fiction,’ T summed up. And it turns out that some things are also too lifelike. In assessing my final assignment, a selection of three short stories, T wrote of one of them: ‘Perhaps also it’s too much like life & not enough like fiction – seems to me that only in life could some of these unlikely things happen, and that they don’t translate well to a story.’ Am I just being obtuse or does that sound somehow contradictory? If certain things could happen only in life, how do they qualify as ‘unlikely’? Is my challenge to pick only suitable/proper/appropriate situations for fiction? Or to find more skilful ways to tackle situations that interest me? The latter seems the more challenging option, especially without perceptive guidance. T’s next comment was: ‘All in all, I think perhaps you’re just not sure yet what the story is about.’ That’s a neat way to let oneself off the hook. (Even beginners on the writers’ site where I trade crits are more willing to admit they’re not sure what my short stories are about.) The unlikely story (about an immature young guy faced with a tough moral choice, and narrated in his voice) involved a good deal of invention. (I was stoked when a seasoned male reader for a lit. journal recommended it.) The story of mine that T most liked was lifted straight from life – with nothing truly invented except the dialogue.

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