Sunday, September 30, 2007
What's a-matter, short story?
Stephen King has a column in the NYTimes book review today about the state of the short story (you might also want to check out Tom Friedman's scathing column, an excellent read). While King can always make me cringe with his crudeness, he's put his finger on a serious problem: bad writing. Much of it, although he doesn't identify the culprit, is the crap writing created by the plethora of MFA programs that churn out graduates. I am breathing a sigh of relief because our department has decided not to pursue developing an MFA program despite the administration's encouragement. However, there are those whose attitudes provoke this kind of cookie-cutter spineless writing: writing instructors. In particular I mean the kind who think "good writing" only fits into a tiny category (i.e. the realistic setting, the tiny epiphany, the morose tone) and ridicule students who chose not to follow that model.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wonderful piece on writing and writers' workshops (but then, he was often full of good advice) that you can find in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. It is called "Teaching the Unteachable" and in it he says:
You can't teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that, but writers' conferences continue to multiply in the good old American summertime. Sixty-eight of them are listed in last April's issue of The Writer [in 1967!]. Next year there will be more. They are harmless. They are shmoos.
He's right, but don't tell my creative writing students that. They're still under the illusion that I am teaching them to write. I am only helping them to write better if they choose to pursue it. Most of them won't. They'll get their feet wet here and then decide it's just too much work. They're right: it's too much work, but some of us can't help ourselves.
They'll miss too the words of Brenda Ueland (which I will give them at the end of the semester, along with Octavia Butler's "Furor Scribendi" which ends with the most important word of all: "persist"). Ueland says: "Everybody is talented, original and has something to say." I'll say it, but most of the them won't hear it.