Friday, May 4, 2012

Off Course

By Russel D McLean

Recently I came across a press who commission all of their novels only through degree programs. That is all of their commissions had to be from students from writing courses (MFA's etc etc). They would send the top manuscripts to book groups who would then rate each one and the response of the groups determined which books would be published.

In theory the reading group idea is somewhat sound. Reading groups are often indicative of heavy book buyers and if a book becomes a “reading group book” that can lead to heavy sales. But I have to question the wisdom of only taking work from writing students.

Most authors I admire do not have a “degree” in writing, or gained one only after publication as they sought to better understand the mechanics of their craft. Two clear exceptions are a) Our own Dave White and b) Scarlett Thomas*. Both of these are naturally talented writers, and I love their work. But most of the writers I love didn't go to college to learn writing. If they did go, they completed something only tangentially connected to the craft. Even studying English does not mean you are qualified to write, but more to understand what writers do.

Having read a number of writing students' works over the years through collections and occasional invites, I have come to the conclusion that studying the formal mechanics of writing too soon can occasionally stifle an original voice. While craft is important, it cannot come at the expense of the unique nature of an author's voice. Yes, it helps if you know how to craft and create a novel, but when that gets in the way of your intentions and holds back the very thing you are looking to show off to the world (your voice), something is wrong.

Now I'm not prescribing an end to writing courses or saying that they automatically neuter the unique voice. That would be an insane statement. They can hep some people, and they have helped some people. But I think that for some writers, it is better to go and experience the world without being a “writer”. I think that while an MFA or equivalent may help some, it may also hinder others.

The wonderful and terrible thing about being an author is that you do not need – and should not need – a degree to do what we do. Yes, you need to put the work in and learn, but often the best way to do that is as you're going** and not in a classroom.

Authors should not be mass produced. They cannot be. And while some may indeed benefit from learning in a classroom environment, to believe that only the best work can come from there is folly.

*I am not connected to internet as I write but I am fairly that as well as teaching a writing course she also holds a degree

**this tangentially links to my argument about why authors benefit from years of struggle and why instant gratification may in fact make for poorer writers.


Gerald So said...

I was lucky enough to discover I wanted to write in grade school. I geared my high school and undergraduate years toward creative writing. Then I took a semester off and decided I needed still more focus. I have no regrets about earning my M.A. because I wanted to teach as a means to support myself.

I recommend grad school to people who similarly know what they want to gain from it. Assuming you have the money, the only drawback--as you mention, Russel--is that your voice may be affected. If the teacher espouses one approach too heavily, you may find yourself writing to that approach or to meet the teacher's idea of good work because you are, necessarily, being graded.

Every writer needs to be able to deconstruct stories and style to some extent to find out how they work, so he can ultimately produce work of his own. Some writers can do this with less formal training than others. If you know you want to sell your work regularly for the rest of your life, you're better off submitting it to magazines and agents than funneling it into grad school. I decided to stop after my M.A. and start submitting my work because I had internalized the discipline of the writing workshop, and I knew how to push myself creatively to get the most out of my writing.

It's most important to learn how to push your creativity or you end up writing yourself into ruts of the same material year after year. If you're in a position where that sameness can pay your bills, that's great, but it's also true that the more versatile you can be, the more opportunities you will have.

Gerald So said...

The snide comment to be made is that MFA program-only presses exist for the benefit of MFA students who have trouble placing their work anywhere else. The truest test of a writer's work is submitting it to markets where you think it fits. If it's rejected but you still want to place work there, you revise or write something new until it's accepted.

Ron Dionne said...

I like the line in Richard Russo's STRAIGHT MAN about the minor character who is revealed toward the end of the book to have written a novel he's never mentioned to anyone. The protagonist remarks what an extraordinary thing that is. I think that's the way to go. Write because you have to, because you want to, because you enjoy it, because you need to express something -- and never because a professor or cute potential significant other in the writing class or critique group, or a successful writer you look up to said this or that about your writing. It's too sensitive an endeavor to expose to strengths of other personalities not directly invested in the work -- your work -- at hand. Write until you are finished, then submit the work. And write the next thing. MFAs and so forth risk evading the issue. The idea that only MFAs should be published is downright crazy.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Recently I came across a press who commission all of their novels only through degree programs. That is all of their commissions had to be from students from writing courses (MFA's etc etc).

If I didn’t know you to be the dour Scot you are, I’d think this has to be a joke.
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