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“Standing By The Work Is The Only Option”

From: Nellie Hermann To: Joshua Henkin Re: Standing By the Work Hi Josh– I have to say I agree completely (hopefully all our agreeing doesn't make our conversation boring, but I'm happy about it) with your thoughts about MFA programs. It's a complicated issue, and I don't think there's any statement you can make (is there ever?) that doesn't need some kind of qualifier. Maybe that’s just a way of saying that I can see both sides. I agree one hundred percent that there is a vast ocean of difference between wanting to be a writer, romanticizing the writer and the writing life, and actually doing the work and producing writing. In this sense, yes, a thousand times, to going to the library and reading rather than going to Pamplona to chase the bulls. Have you read Bellow's Henderson the Rain King? The book is set in Africa, and he'd never been there when he wrote it, and I think this is an important element of why the book works so well. On the other hand, I do think that the proliferation of MFA programs encourages a certain amount of laziness about writing that doesn't really serve anyone. Unfortunately not all writing teachers are as engaged as you no doubt are, or as my own professors were, and so the experience can vary so widely that it's really hard to judge. My experience in grad school was a good one, mostly because I had four wonderful mentors who were smart and challenging, and because by the end of my time I had found a handful of peers that I respect as writers and hope to keep as readers for my whole life. In the wrong program, though, or with the wrong group of people, I could see this experience backfiring in many ways. Especially at a program like mine, at Columbia, where funding is virtually unheard of. I do think writing can be taught, or if not taught then certainly guided; but there needs to be a certain quality of mind on the part of the student. A wish to be guided, someone who’s on the lookout and open to models, and, right, willing to put in the time in front of the blank page. That’s the real bottom line. I think that models and teachers are necessary to a writer's success and growth, but I don't think the MFA, per se, is necessary by any means. As far as the anxiety goes, I do think that the proliferation of MFA programs (and the accompanying criticism of them) contributes to a certain culture of writer-celebrity and also of writer-devaluing that is of no help to anyone. I don't know enough about the publishing business to make any kind of comparison, but I wonder at the numbers of works of fiction that are published today versus say 30 or 40 years ago, when MFA programs were non-existent. Are there more of them? Are they better, now, on the whole? I doubt it. There may be just no way to really get a handle on it. For my part, I'm not sure that my anxiety about publishing a work of autobiographical fiction has much to do with the larger societal idea that young writers haven't "lived" enough to have anything to write about — I think it's pretty safe to say that what I personally experienced before the age of 18 was quite enough to fill a few books, and I'm not worried about anyone coming back at me with that. It's not as if there is no act of imagination or art in turning real life into a work of fiction. But it's the flipside of the same coin; I feel waves of anxiety already, when people ask me right off the bat whether my book is autobiographical without knowing anything about me or the work. "Well you're young, so it must be," is the argument, which is twisted, and which is what I so want to rebel against. I'm also scared that people will read my book and assume, for this same reason, it's all true, because if it were all true (which it's not, for the record), that would somehow make the work easier to write off, and easier to have done. But at the end of this train of thought is that a lot of this is simply insecurity, and yes, again, the tentativeness needs to be eradicated, the apologies left at the door. Standing by the work is the only option, and solution. This will be my mantra, and I only hope I have the strength to follow it.

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