Archive for August, 2010

Exposing the Dark Side of Academic Fiction Workshops Editorial Opinion


Thursday, August 26th, 2010
William H. Coles

The end of a number of summer fiction workshops highlights again the influence of academic writing programs on the quality of contemporary literary fiction. Most contemporary literary writers progress through their careers, with variations, like this: college English major; attend MFA program; published work (often workshopped to the point of committee writing) promoted by MFA program; teaching position in creative writing; new work poorly received and published mainly by friends and colleagues in the literary community. This scenario produces unpalatable fiction not of the quality to have any commercial value, and usually consists of autobiographical or memoir material, usually told in the first person and strong on voice because story is lacking, and usually consists of descriptive narrative of past events with minimal dramatization. And this scenario almost never develops quality teachers capable of the complexities and challenges that writing of great fiction demands.

The result, and many will argue although the raw truth is evident, is literary fiction is boring, unpalatable, and unreadable to the majority of readers. A writer who has the intellect and the talent to produce great fiction with meaning has few resources to learn the skills of writing fiction, and studying in an MFA wastes valuable writing time. The most devastating effect of MFA programs is the result of the universal trend to tag any graduate as writer and teacher, which is often not true on either count, so these teachers are thrust on eager students as competent.

Here are recent events, all true, in workshops that work against the writing of great literary fiction. Collectively, these scenarios dominate the teaching of creative writing and erode valuable education of writers eager to write literary fiction constructed with dramatic scenes and affecting meaning and enlightenment about the human condition through story.

One teacher demanded that the action in a short story could be no longer than twenty-four hours, citing Aristotle as the source of this command. Aristotle, of course, never conceptualized a short story. And mention of famous short stories such as "A Simple Heart", by Flaubert (a lifetime) and "Lady with a Pet Dog" (months) by Chekhov were not mentioned in the pronouncement.

One teacher suggested an"'inventory" of things a character would have — empty a purse, go through a hope chest, explore a glove compartment for things to stick in the story as revelatory of character. This inventory-list activity does have value, of course, but it suggests that character development in a great story is description of things, when in truth great characters are best developed by unique and story-specific actions in scene and clear exploration of desires and emotions.

More than one teacher required a notebook. Ideas, scenes, characters, all described in detail from life. The idea was that when you were writing and you got blocked, you could go to your notebook and pull out a cute scene, an interesting character trait, or a vivid image to insert. Ridiculous. Great story writing is not a collection of unrelated ideas, no matter how cute or clever. Great literary stories come from story specific details imagined for best story effectiveness, not pulled from (although they may be stimulated by) the pantry of authors' experiences.

One teacher emphasized the importance of going a little crazy with the writing, a sort of free association in bizarre contexts and without fear of salacious or shocking effects on some readers. When asked if clarity in prose and structured story telling was important even in the crazy periods to keep the reader oriented to story, his answer was "no." "Writing stories is an art form," he said. But the great, memorable, literary stories are founded on clear prose, clear ideas, clear plot progressions, and not random, disparate ideation. To profess otherwise is to send beginning authors on a self-destructive, albeit easier, path to mediocrity.

One author/teacher shared his desire to fully incorporate the author's voice in his stories. He did not see this as memoir or autobiographical, and did not see the danger of excluding imaginative story development outside the author's experiences, nor of promoting ideas and opinions as the most reliable way to create the great literary story with meaning that readers might enjoy. His teaching of authorial catharsis as story writing also arrogantly assumed that what the author thinks and says will be important to a large number of readers. In his case, he had neither the intellect, talent, nor life-fascination of others to attract the attention of a serious reader of literary stories.

One class was the completion of many exercises during six workshop sessions. No manuscripts were reviewed. Not one exercise was designed for in-scene action, or developed for effective inclusion with what would come before and after the exercise when inserted in a story. Every exercise was based and judged on descriptive narrative and dialogue, all static approaches to the creation of fiction that is structured on a series of interrelated scenes that contain conflict, action, and resolution.

In one class students held hands with neighbors, closed eyes, and thought of words that were called out into the silence in the hope of stimulating something to write about. The goal was to get something on the page based on a random thought. It implies that writing fiction comes from the subconscious, and then is developed through description of the random idea, and other ideas that might follow. Definitely not the way to learn to write a memorable, meaningful, literary fictional story that needs structure. Literary stories are not built on description, but on the actions of characters and the change in perceptions of characters and readers as a result of these actions. The subconscious is a source, but it is the conscious where imagination develops action with meaning.

Many classes are openly advocating an author writing about him or herself. "I want to read about your story, not someone else's," one teacher said. He yearned for creative memoir, often enjoyable, but not the same as creating the great literary fictional story with dramatic scenes, meaning, and enlightenment.

A common practice occurs in every workshop. A student's writing is evaluated on word choice, rhythmic sentences and pleasing syntax, surprising and delightful prose, but rarely (if ever) is a writing segment (or story) considered for purpose. Does the writing have a purpose that develops character? Is the purpose of the writing to advance plot logically? Is the purpose of the writing to contribute to meaning, theme, and enlightenment? Is the purpose of the writing to meet your 3000-word daily quota or to structure a story with well developed characters through action? There is an alarming inability of present day teachers of creative writing to understand and teach the essence of a great story. And there is little awareness of the consolidated negative effect of workshops on the writers trying to create literature with the advantages of traditional storytelling.

One prominent teacher/editor said: "For me, there is no difference between creative nonfiction and fiction." He unintentionally revealed his dismissal of the potential of fiction as an art form to create great literary stories, and his promotion of literary fiction as a description of the author's memory and thoughts, as opposed to the creation of story through dramatic action on imagined characters. At another occasion, he admitted he preferred nonfiction, even though he made the final choices for fiction selections for a literary journal. These attitudes are discouraging to writers of literary fictional stories, and destructive to the survival of great fiction as a venue for lasting, memorable stories.

Beginning writers have few ways to evaluate the value of workshop leaders. Word of mouth is most helpful. But finding a workshop valuable to the writing process of great fiction requires multiple workshops to begin to know the true value of any one teacher's abilities. Moment for moment, the best way to improve in the writing of fiction is the meticulous study of authors who have achieved what the student wants to achieve. Students need to discover how authors created their effects on readers. This is not copying style, as so often advocated in workshops. It is, instead, learning how to tell stories effectively, with clear prose and solid control of characters' desires and emotions within the cobweb of a structured, purposeful plot. Writers must make their own discoveries through individual study on what will bring success. Overall, workshops can be valuable, but should not be a primary source of learning for the writer.

You might enjoy the post Top Ten Rules for Fiction Workshops.




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