Blah blah craft blah

I’ve been looking forward to The Possessed, by Elif Batuman since reading her hilarious and touching Harper’s essay on attending a Tolstoy conference in Russia published a few months back. But reading the following quote about Batuman’s disillusionment about creative writing programs in yesterday’s NYT review, I’m tempted to consider splurging on a hardback:

“What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?” Ms. Batuman asks. “All it had were its negative dictates: ‘Show, don’t tell’; ‘Murder your darlings’; ‘Omit needless words.’ As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits — of omitting needless words.”

I had similar feelings about workshop, and hold similar prejudices about certain trends in literature coming out of the academy these days. I hear fiction authors talk far more about, say, the structure of metaphor, than about the moral or existential predicament of their characters, and sometimes it gets depressing to hear all these fastidious little creatures go on about their backstage pulleys and gears as though the play itself were of secondary importance.

Of course, craft is indeed important–it’s important in the way that exercise is important to a goal of remaining physically fit. But being physically fit is important in a larger context, too–toward the accomplishment of physical feats.  And it’s this broader context that sometimes seems, I don’t know, ignored? Sometimes it seems that too many contemporary authors are like gym addicts: just going in to obsess about their musculature as an end in itself, which practice amounts to a kind of body dysmorphic disorder as much as it does physical health.

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31 thoughts on “Blah blah craft blah

  1. I just read the most beautiful story in the latest Open City by Christopher Sorrentino. It was ABOUT something. It was about a narcissistic mother, depressed and anti-social, seen and FELT through the eyes of her damaged, yet trying to survive son. I’m so moved by it that I can’t read anything else now for awhile.

    I like the ambition of subject matter. I like subject matter. I like that people’s lives- the whole trajectory of a human life- is at stake. It killed me. It was devastating, painful. There was plenty of telling, too- such as-
    “For the first time Toller understood that his mother was truly the enemy of all he was….”

    I got a little confused by your gym metaphor, but maybe because I need to go to the gym now.

    • Have you read “Trance”? I keep meaning to pick it up. That said, it’s interesting that you bring up this author, because he’s obviously really into craft. Obviously, I don’t at all mean to suggest that a focus on craft precludes subject-oriented story. Just that it seems like authors are more reticent to speak of the later.

      • I have not read trance. I think I’ve read other shorter things of his but not with any regularity. Interesting you think he’s really into craft because my impression is the language, while evocative, was totally unpretentious and existed to serve the story, rather than the other way around, and that weight- the weight of story dictating the style- is putting craft in the backseat.

  2. Hey Shya,

    I think one of the issues is that writing that is well crafted and technically interesting is more palatable (even if it is boring) to many writers who read as opposed to something that indeed engages with “the human condition” or morality but is just poorly done– I don’t know…this is just an assumption that might explain the phenomenon that you’re describing.

    I actually don’t find anything wrong with obsessing about craft, about hitting the gym with passion and discipline, just as I don’t think a musician should be given flak for woodshedding or practicing arpeggios–but sure, you’re right, no one wants body dysmorphic disorder– and as long as you don’t publish your “arpeggios” and try to pass them off as something with a greater artistic vision–what you’re calling a “larger context”–well, unless those arpeggios are really, REALLY stunning… how’s that for a confusing metaphor? Take that George Orwell!

    • Well, you’re onto something with the judicious use of the word “palatable.” I’d agree with this, but with the caveat that it’s more palatable because so many writers are timid, confused, and anxious people scared of the idea that there might be some social responsibility to what they do, and thus more at ease with worrying away at the details than grappling with what might be at stake.

  3. I think it’s very, very important not to confuse MFA writing workshops with craft.

    By “writing workshops” people usually mean classes modeled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, one of the country’s oldest and most successful writing MFA programs. This is the basis for the peer-reviewed writing workshops that we all know, that tend toward rules of thumb like “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” As well as toward inoffensive stories written by consensus. (“I’d like you to write more about the dog. Because I like dogs.” “Yeah! Let’s have more about the dog!”)

    These creative writing programs might seem monolithic, but they’re a relatively recent phenomenon. Iowa’s been around only since 1936; most other MFA programs didn’t start until after WWII, when the Baby Boomers caused college attendance to skyrocket.

    Craft is something much older, and much broader than any particular workshop model, or workshops themselves. Craft is as old as writing itself; it is as much a part of writing as anything—as much as “art” is, for instance.

    Craft means only “strength” or “skill,” after all.

    And at one time (before Modernism) people made much less of a distinction between art and craft.

    Writing is a convention-based activity; it’s a blend of convention and innovation. Teaching craft is the process of teaching particular conventions, and how to enact them—to help others to become skilled at making what we commonly agree are poems and stories and novels (and comics and journalism and zines and bestsellers and screenplays and and pornography and whatever else it is we write).

    It’s impossible for writers not to learn and use conventions—what would they be doing otherwise? Not using language? Not writing books? (I had a student tell me once that he didn’t want anyone else to influence his poetry. I replied, how wonderful then that you invented writing poetry—especially as a form of personal expression. Novel idea!)

    The conventions themselves are contingent, rooted in unique times and places. They are sometimes arbitrary. Whether they should be followed or disobeyed depends on what the writer wants to do. And even when the writer wants to disobey convention, she or he is still responding to convention. (“I want to write a story where the setting changes with every new paragraph.” “I want to write a poem that only tells and doesn’t show.” “I want to write a novel about a country I’ve never been to, but that pretends as though I’ve been there.”)

    Conventions can inspire innovation just as surely as they can limit it. They can also be good! The familiar is not necessarily a bad thing! Sometimes it’s really nice to read something where the author implies a lot about human psychology by means of heavy verisimilar description.

    I just read NOG by Rudolph Wurlitzer, which is in some ways an experimental novel influenced by Beckett (and by psychadelic drug use), but is in other ways amazingly realistic—extremely verisimilar hallucinogenic writing. And part of the novel’s pleasure comes from how it departs from—but then returns to—but then departs from once again—one’s conventional expectations of what the novel should be like (the expectation that characters be unified, for instance).

    Throughout the teaching of writing, teachers and students need to remain aware that conventions are *conventions*—points of agreement, where expectations come together—and not absolute laws.

    Meanwhile, there exist many ways of teaching writing—infinite ways, limited only by human creativity. The Iowa Writer’s Model is of a certain place and time, and is nothing absolute. Taking a walk with your teacher can also teach you a lot; Aristotle thought so.

    If I ever get into a terminal degree program (maybe someday!) and then get a job teaching writing (also maybe someday!), then I plan to spend a lot of time exploring alternate ways of teaching writing. But also exploring very convention ways. The conventions of teaching writing can be adhered to or disagreed with, just like anything else.

  4. I want to get the book too, apparently it’s a trade paperback Shya.

    Are we talking about world view? I think this brings up a whole network of issues, almost more to do with what it means to be a human being, not just a writer. What one stands for seems to come out in one’s writing, no matter if you know it is there or not, other people will see it.

    Maybe we have become do politically apathetic that few people give a shit about morals, though most tales are morality tales. There used to be more face to face, and now we have interface to interface. When you don’t have to deal with a psychical entity, the field is very different.

    • Yes, I think it is about being human, Greg. I think there is an incredible potential for literature to be a great illuminating force in people’s lives, but instead it seems largely to be retreating and becoming more insular. Instead it seems to be resigned to small audiences and academic discourse. And I don’t mean that we need a pedantic, morally instructive literature. But one that takes on big issues and challenges people on levels other than aesthetic, other than providing little puzzles to solve. And as a nod to Adam’s comment above–indeed, there is of course a difference between craft and workshops. For starters, one is a subject of study, and one is a context. But I don’t think it’s difficult to see that workshops, at least to the extent that they follow the Iowa structure, augment and encourage insularity and an exclusively craft-based approach to the study and production of literature. I’d welcome the kind of workshop Adam seems to be suggesting: a place perhaps where people use a variety of methods and modes to address questions like “What do I want to be writing about?” and even “What is it to live and be an ethical being in the world?” Instead what you address–and Adam is being sarcastic here, but it’s painfully true–is the extremely urgent issue of “more dog.”

      • I definitely agree that too much contemporary literature is too insular. And I would rather that literature be, as you put it, Shya, “a great illuminating force.” Or at least a force. It may in fact cast a rather dark light, one that offers more confusion than comprehension, but it should shine on much more of the culture. (Now there’s an overwrought metaphor for you.)

        It cuts—or shines—both ways, though. To what extent are small press folk willing to even be part of more popular culture? And to consider, seriously, what those strange folk yonder are busy doing and making? I agree with you, Greg, when you say that “What one stands for seems to come out in one’s writing, no matter if you know it is there or not, other people will see it.” And I think it’s often obvious that small press writers don’t care very much about the popular culture—or even consider the thought of a wider audience contemptible. Their disdain for readers who aren’t already part of the club is often painfully evident.

        People write a lot these days: they send emails, text messages. People read a lot, too: manga, paperbacks, Stephanie Meyer novels. Literacy rates are high. People blog. Fan sites are awash with fan-fiction. People love reading and writing.

        I don’t mean at all that we should pander in order to gain readers. (I also don’t consider these other forms of writing beneath what we do.) Rather, I think that if small press folk seriously want to have more of a presence in the conversation that is culture then they should:
        1. be more honest as to how they are already part of—and enjoy, and perhaps even love—the mainstream culture (does our work ever reflect that love? or would we consider it shameful to express such a love?);
        2. realize that the burden is on them to communicate to larger audiences why anyone else should care about what it is they do.

        “workshops, at least to the extent that they follow the Iowa structure, augment and encourage insularity and an exclusively craft-based approach to the study and production of literature.”

        I agree that they encourage insularity, but I never thought of the more Iowa-esque writing workshops that I took as being exclusively craft-based. Indeed, I often found myself starved for discussion of writing craft—real discussion of it. But my teachers and fellow students preferred more to discuss how the story could be made to adhere to a set list of principles:
        . make the characters more psychologically plausible
        . replace direct, “telling” narrative with character-relevant description (show, don’t tell);
        . alternate scene with narrative summary;
        . make sure the language is varied and sensuous;
        . consolidate the metaphors and symbolic elements into a single coherent system;
        . remove all ambiguity (except for perhaps character motivations);
        . fix the grammar.

        It’s not all that difficult to write a workshop story that your classmates and teacher will like: you just follow the code. And that’s an amusing exercise—one worth trying, even—but it’s not necessarily serious writing. Although many think that it is. (Well, it can be. They are rarer than unicorns, but there are, miraculously, workshop stories that are still somehow good works of fiction.)

        As for that insularity, I found it an outgrowth of the elitism that runs rampant in such writing programs: I will write only this kind of story, and publish with only these journals, and these presses. I won’t read—or won’t acknowledge that I read—”lower” forms of writing. (Indeed, we’ll call what we do “literary fiction,” so everything else is presumably not even literature.) And so on.

        I appreciated such programs for the limited amount of craft they gave me—that above checklist is useful in helping one write more conventional, more mainstream realist fiction—but at the same time I chafed against the small-mindedness of it all. And how literature began with Flaubert and ended with Raymond Carver, ignoring thousands of fellow writers along the way.

        (No disrespect to Flaubert or Carver, fantastic writers both. Saints can’t control what icons their adherents will paint of them.)

  5. The bigger concern for me is a lack of curiosity and imagination that can be masked by an isolated focus on craft (in the disciplinary sense). I’m tired of fiction that mirrors the world back to me, rather than asking me to imagine it otherwise. So I wonder if creative writing workshops are most effective as part of a broader liberal arts curriculum, one that encourages intellectual inquiry and introduces writing as a response to those discoveries about the world – and is able to reframe ‘craft’ as broad awareness of traditions and modes of literature or storytelling, and as repertoire rather than rigidity. Not to exclude the personal and the intimate as subjects, but to foster a broader awareness that even our most private experiences may not be entirely unique after all, and may even be pretty banal if we pay more attention to telling them craftily than to asking if they’re really worth telling.

    • “Not to exclude the personal and the intimate as subjects, but to foster a broader awareness that even our most private experiences may not be entirely unique after all, and may even be pretty banal if we pay more attention to telling them craftily than to asking if they’re really worth telling.”

      This confuses me. What exactly is worth or not worth telling?

      • Yeah, that sounds far more judgmental than intended. Sorry.

        What I mean is that some stories inhabit a bubble of awareness, as if what is happening to these characters (or this author) has never ever happened to anyone else, and seem to assume uniqueness is necessary to the story being interesting. Speaking only for myself, an experience or story isn’t interesting simply because it happened or was written about, but because it makes me ask questions about the world I wouldn’t have otherwise. So a story that ignores its own foundational connection to broader traditions and ideas often feels pretty insular and banal.

        Not sure it’s any clearer, but that’s what I’ve got.

          • Ann Beattie’s story “The Burning House” comes to mind. Its characters are stifled by their lives, but the story itself feels stifled by the sense readers should find these lives inherently fascinating. Which isn’t to say we should or shouldn’t find them interesting, but the story doesn’t lead us (me, anyway) to ask what it means to tell stories about these people and events, rather than others.

            But my point isn’t to make a silly claim there’s some wrong way to write a story, so I’d rather give a positive example. Plotwise, Marie Darrieussecq’s novel Breathing Underwater isn’t so far from Beattie’s fiction: a woman takes her daughter and runs away from her husband to an off-season beach town. But the way the story is told kept me aware it might have been told in other ways, too, from other perspectives and in other modes or genres. It led me to ask why I was sympathetic to one character instead of another, and how many other stories were pushed to the background to focus on the one at the fore. The novel as written felt like only one version in a web of possibilities, rather than something insistent on its own definitiveness.

  6. This is one of maybe a billion things that annoyed me about being in workshops.

    I once told a fellow workshopee that it was nice that his sentences were put together so perfectly, but that it didn’t really matter since there was no story and sterilized characters. I tend to worry that when craft is in the forefront a writer’s mind that’s what they get, less story, and chess piece characters.

    I try not to think of craft until late in the revision process. Jack Driscoll, one of the finest writers and teachers of writing I know, always says that basically the job of revision is to make it look like the story was effortlessly perfect, which is where I feel craft plays a role. When he’d talk about that it reminded me of doing construction at the pump station in the arctic. we were constantly doing work, digging trenches, putting up scaffolding, etc. but then we had to remove everything and make it look like we were never there. Our job was to make places for the electricians to do their work, then to erase the look of work having been done.

  7. I feel like academia is something limited in its scope to approach the moral or existential, i.e. how do you instruct about the moral or existential in the creation of literature (it’s perhaps easier to teach how to find this in existing literature?) when the academy tends to shy away from instructing about these issues in general, i.e. it’s much easier to tell students why they need to focus on literary fiction instead of genre, or why a metaphor doesn’t work in a given paragraph, than it is to pick apart a story for its lack of moral fortitude–to teach a pedagogy of something concrete like plot, figurative language, &c vs. something more quicksand like morality and existential questions.

    • Well, I totally agree that it’s easier to teach nuts and bolts than it is to provide moral instruction. But what kind of a national literature do we want? One whose apotheosis is a technically masterful scholar writing about writing about writing? Because that’s the direction we’re going.

      • No, I completely agree. I guess I was offering the counter-point more as a hypothetical explanation than pandering excuse.

        I really don’t know or have an answer. It’d be great if instructors were willing to instruct story as more than convention and form, but to do that would they have to instruct/impose their own aesthetic/world view/morals? Would there be professional implications or backlash to this?

        I’m asking honestly, as someone who’s been through a writing program and shared the same annoyances and skepticisms you mention, but have never stood on the other side of the podium dealing with the politics and bureacracy of Academia.

        • There’s always a downside. But if it were really opened up, there would be variety, and students would be attracted to schools/teachers that somehow shared their values. Besides, you don’t have to impose moral order to teach it–I’m thinking more Socratic method than “rape is bad.”

          Anyway, I don’t think this is an either/or situation.

          • I could see that. Though, the only thing there would be it wouldn’t exactly work the same on an undergraduate level. Applying to a grad program, you know to kind of evaluate the faculty and decide if you’d be a good fit there, but not so much as an undergrad.

            But, I guess also, there’s a big difference between teaching that you should be saying something, that your stories should have weight and exploration, and teaching them what they should believe and explore and such.

            For whatever reason, I keep thinking of the one class I had with Lovelace before I graduated, and this phrase over and over and exclamation of his, “Pathos, man!” which essentially seemed to mean make the reader feel, break their ribs, that sort of thing.

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  9. I don’t think I could possibly agree with this more.

    I feel as if every writer I’ve ever met drills this sense of guilt into those who don’t “practice writing” in accordance with a consistent schedule, but I firmly believe that there are too many times where one doesn’t feel any pressing need to say anything. Once you have technique down to automation, you can dress anything up nice enough, but why bother putting it out there if there’s nothing in it that you particularly want to say?

    I can probably name 20 stories I’ve read in the last year that have been extremely well crafted but seem like…i don’t know, exercises + revision. What is a reader supposed to do with that?

    I don’t know…I’m probably doing my chops a disservice by thinking this way, but creating a story for the sake of flaunting your chops seems like a greater disservice to oneself.

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