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.


Gene Kannenberg, Jr. said...

"Everybody is talented, original and has something to say." I'll say it, but most of the them won't hear it.

Don't sell yourself - or them - short. You are a great teacher. Apart from all you say in the classroom, the volume of writing you do (published and not-yet published) can't help but serve as further inspiration.

You're right that most likely not all of your students will continue the writing life, at least full-time. As you say, it's not easy (and boy, how well I know that). But that won't be for lack of desire.

Portioning out that time necessary for reflection and writing is tough. You need not only persistence but also an all-consuming drive.

I hesitate to put it this way, but:

"Do. Or do not. There is no 'try'."

I know that all of this - especially your original post - I need to heed much more thoroughly, myself...

CL said...

"he's put his finger on a serious problem: bad writing"

He forgot to include himself.

I NEVER liked King.

Chuckie58 said...

Yes, Kate is an excellent writing coach. I'm still going, and believe me, that is a miracle. Of course, how many years did you have to prod me to really get me going, Kate? An embarassingly large number.

And WHEN is the CD of your works spoken by the author going to be available? Huh? ;-)

C. Margery Kempe said...

Gene sez: "Do. Or do not. There is no 'try'."

Thank you, Yoda! But you're right -- it's the kind of thing you need to hear repeatedly. I repeat it to myself in the hope that it will sink in.

Cranky sez: "I NEVER liked King."

Well, I like some of his stuff -- apart from the sexist outlook and the dips into crudeness that always make me cringe. He has a way of sticking the hook in so you're caught. The Shining is probably the best, but you never know. If only he had an editor who edited him!

Chuckie sez (a bunch of nice things -- thanks!): "And WHEN is the CD of your works spoken by the author going to be available? Huh?"

In my copious spare time... which I am trying to produce more of these days. But I do want to make some podcasts. I wonder if I can get the radio studio here to do it? Must look into that. But it is in the grand plan... a way down the road.

Gene Kannenberg, Jr. said...

Scott Edelman takes King to task in "A Tall Tale of Short Stories" in the October 8 2007, Sci Fi Weekly.