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“Every Word Counts”

From: Joshua Henkin To: Nellie Hermann Re: MFAs I know writers who say they don't read while they're writing for fear of being too influenced. But if, like most writers, you're writing all the time, then that means you're never … Read More

By / January 9, 2008

From: Joshua Henkin To: Nellie Hermann

Re: MFAs

I know writers who say they don't read while they're writing for fear of being too influenced. But if, like most writers, you're writing all the time, then that means you're never going to read, which is a real problem for a writer since the best education you can get is from other books. Besides, I've never understood the anxiety of influence. We should all want to be influenced — just as long as we're being influenced by the right stuff. Imitation is how writers achieve their own voice. There was a class in imitation when I was in grad school — one week you wrote like Woolf, the next week you wrote like Faulkner–and everyone found it tremendously helpful. It's interesting that you mention Philip Roth’s visit; I had a very similar experience with Richard Ford. This was shortly after he'd won the Pulitzer for Independence Day, and he was sitting there with Charles Baxter, a wonderful writer and one of our teachers. Ford said that he and Charlie were both at that stage in their careers when they sometimes got paid for work they hadn't yet written and that was nice, but that the page was just as blank every time they sat down. And though at that point I had only published a couple of short stories, I realized that even if I managed to achieve further success as a writer, the page was going to feel just as blank. I feel that more than ever now. You reach a point where you know that what you write won't be so abysmal that it wouldn't pass freshman English, but will it be really good? Will it be magical, will it jump off the page? Why is it that we read a novel we love, and then we read another novel by the same person and don't love it nearly as much, and then we read a third novel by them and we love that one? Were they good and then bad and then good again? I just think that some books work and some don't and there's often no telling why. Charles Baxter has three early novels that were never published, and he might say that those unpublished works were instrumental in getting him to where he is. For the same reason, I have no regrets about the three thousand pages I threw out. You need to throw out a lot of bad pages in order to get to the good ones. In that sense, I'm temperamentally well suited to being a writer. What separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls is the ability and inclination to rewrite–to really revise in a deep way. I also understand what Roth was saying about the time between novel. In a way that's why I started to write novels in the first place — because I was having that experience to the nth power with short stories (with novels, it happens only once every few years, whereas with stories it can happen every couple of months). I happen to love stories, am perplexed as to why story collections don't sell (you'd think, with today's attention spans…), and think that in many ways stories are harder than novels because there's so little room for error, every word counts. The issue of not apologizing is important. Which doesn't mean that a writer shouldn't be receptive to criticism, editing, etc. There's not a writer in the world who isn't helped by a good reader (I have several who really saved MATRIMONY a few times along the way). But the key is never to be tentative. Fiction is about convincing your readers that something untrue is in fact true. That's no easy feat. A writer is basically up a creek if they themselves aren't convinced that what they're writing is true. You have to do what Zadie Smith told Charlie Rose: take your readers by the lapels and refuse to let them disbelieve. Sometimes I see real tentativeness in my students' work, even on the sentence level. They’ll write sentences like "she turned slightly to the left" or "he was a little nervous." Why not just say "she turned to the left" or "he was nervous"? Words like "slightly", "a little," "somewhat," etc — all these qualifiers — are littered all over my students' stories and they almost always weaken the work. It's as if the writer is saying, well, maybe you're not going to believe me when I say the character is nervous, so I'll say she's slightly nervous, how about that? I don't mean to make such a big deal about a single word, except what else are writers going to make a big deal about if not words, and it's a rare to be tentative on the sentence level without also being tentative on the bigger levels of narrative and character. I feel the same way about foreshadowing. Too many writers over-foreshadow–it's another case of under-confidence. I visited a book group recently — they were discussing MATRIMONY — and there ensued a long discussion of a key betrayal discovered midway through the novel (sorry to be coy–don't want to ruin things for people who haven't yet read the book). Anyway, someone asked me why I didn't foreshadow that betrayal more–why didn't I leave more popcorn along the narrative trail so that what happened could have been seen. The answer is that I didn't want it to be seen. In general when we’re busy trying to foreshadow events, we’re stepping out of our characters' heads and out of the fictional dream state. Flannery O'connor talks about a good ending to a story being both surprising and inevitable–you didn't predict it, but once you get there it feels exactly right. I think that's true not just for endings but for everything about a piece of fiction. Speaking of O'Connor, she also said (in her wonderful book of essays Mystery and Manners) that anyone who's lived until the age of 10 has enough material to write about for a lifetime. Which I think is her way of saying that there's no reason to be embarrassed about writing autobiographically — and so I agree, you have nothing to apologize for when it comes to your novel. There are pitfalls, of course, to writing autobiographically, but I think there are greater pitfalls to writing about material that isn't close enough to you. In MATRIMONY, Professor Chesterfield tells Julian that he should write what he knows about what he doesn't know or what he doesn't know about what he knows — sounds like a bad LSAT problem. But what he means, and what Julian takes to heart (and what I take to heart), is that a writer needs to find a balance between being too close to and being too far from the material. My undergrads, in particular, tend to err to one extreme or the other. They write simply what they know (a transcript of Friday night's frat party) or simply what they don't know (martians). But what a writer needs to do is be close enough to the material that there's heart in it, that something's at stake, that the writer is at risk, but not so close to it that the writer is concerned about fidelity to actual truth. Fiction is about using the imagination to get at a deeper kind of truth. All that said, I'd rather be too close to my material than too far from it. It's much harder to put heart into something you don't care about than to achieve the kind of aesthetic distance necessary to make autobiographical material work. Which is my longwinded way of saying that I'm all for writing from one's own experience, and though the plot/events of MATRIMONY are fabricated, the kind of people I'm writing about, the situations they're in, the concerns they have all come from my own concerns in some deep, even if hidden, way. My sense is that the anxiety I spoke of about writing about writing and the anxiety you spoke of about writing an autobiographical novel may come from a similar place in our culture — that we privileged Americans, children of the university, haven't lived enough and that if you're writing about your own experience then you're being narrow, self-indulgent, solipsistic, etc. While it's certainly true that there's a good deal of solipsistic fiction out there, I don't think it's confined to those who are writing autobiographically, and I think O'Connor is right. If anything, I think writers should be writing closer to home, not farther from it. Hemingway was certainly a good writer, but I see him as responsible (perhaps inadvertently) for a lot of the nonsense about how a writer should live/what a writer should do. I'm talking about this idea that the way to be a writer is go hike the Himalayas, or hang out in cafes in Paris, or Kyoto, or Prague. Well, all of those are fine things to do, but if an aspiring writer asked me whether it would be better to spend a year in Nepal or a year in the local library reading great books, I'd say the latter without an instant's hesitation. The writer as cowboy — this is all the product of some romantic idea that people have, and these are usually people who are more interested in being writers than in actually writing. This whole issue has very much been on my mind because I’ve recently written a number of essays in the blogosphere and in print about MFA programs — my experience being in one and now teaching in a few of them. I argue that, though MFA programs aren't for everyone, they can, if you combine the right student with the right teacher, be incredibly helpful. I know they were for me, and I've seen many of my own students make tremendous leaps. The attitude that is so prevalent is that writing can't be taught, that it shouldn't be taught, that it's all a big scam. I disagree strongly. What I'm getting at is I think the cultural forces that make people feel the need to apologize for writing about writing or writing autobiographically are also the forces that dismiss MFA programs as overpriced finishing schools. While I think there are many legitimate criticisms of MFAs, I think the programs and writing workshops in general are unfairly maligned. So I want to end this round of our correspondence with a question for you. I gather you went through an MFA program yourself. What was your experience like, what are your thoughts about MFA programs in general, and do you think there's any relation between the criticism of MFA programs and some of the broader issues we've been talking about regarding what material from life is and isn't fiction-worthy?

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