Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

Connections

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

Creative Paradox

Saturday, December 31st, 2011
garth hagerman

Photo by Garth Hagerman

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Nadia Boulanger

During the four years in the early 1990’s when I ran the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I oversaw the work of two hundred teenaged writers and worked intimately with fifty of those talented scribblers. Three of the two hundred were, in my estimation, brilliant and original and highly accomplished writers; yet these three were so deeply introverted I predicted they would never succeed as professional writers. Sadly, so far, my prediction has proved true. In the publishing world of today, ambition entirely trumps talent, and believe it or not, ambitious imitators rule the narrow roost of your favorite bookstore, independent or otherwise.

We recently watched the first two-thirds of Robert Altman’s excruciatingly painful film Vincent and Theo about Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo—two-thirds of the movie being all we could bear, and even at that I was an emotional wreck. Whether or not the film is an accurate portrayal of the real Van Gogh, the movie conveys the very real suffering that many visionary artists feel in the absence of lasting emotional connections to other people and society, emotional connections these artists desperately want to make through their art. Yet because society is largely a manifestation of well-established perceptions and carefully regulated protocols for the presentation of those perceptions, most creative introverts are doomed to commercial failure unless they are rescued through the intervention of a sympathetic agent (catalyst) in the body of a functional extrovert.

The few moderate successes of my own writing career occurred because of the divine efforts of an extraordinary literary agent named Dorothy Pittman, the likes of which no longer exist, for she was wholly concerned with quality and originality, while caring not a whit about commerciality or the emotional idiosyncrasies of her clients. When Dorothy died, I was left to my own devices, which, for the most part, proved unacceptable to corporate operatives who care not a whit for quality and originality, and care only about their bottom lines showing large profits.

We want to think those elegant hardbacks awaiting us on the New Arrivals table at our favorite bookstore are the cream of a diverse cultural crop, the work of artists and original thinkers, but this is rarely true, for the source of nearly all of these books is corporate fascism, the antithesis of everything we wish our culture to be. Thus the most original of our writers and musicians and artists survive on the fringes of our cultural mix and remain largely unknown to you or to me or to anyone, save for a few friends, if they are fortunate to have friends.

This systemic isolation of original artists has probably existed since the dawn of urban life, when for the first time in human evolution large numbers of people came to live together in relatively small geographical areas. Certainly without the untiring efforts of Theo, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother and agent and only friend, we never would have received the enduring gift of Van Gogh’s genius. And because in the course of my life I have been fortunate to read the unpublished work of a handful of contemporary geniuses that few others will ever read, I assume there are thousands of such writers and artists toiling away in anonymity; which assumption brings to mind the cultivation of carrots and how of the several hundred seedlings that sprout in the carrot patch only a lucky few will survive the seemingly random act of thinning so they may attain full carrotness, with only the rarest of carrots attaining carrot magnificence.

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” Frederic Chopin

Having published ten books with nine different gargantuan publishing houses, eight works of fiction and two works of non-fiction, and having had essentially the same dreadful experience with each of these corporate behemoths, I, the former Executive Oddball of the International Order of Barely Functional Introverts, finally decided to embark on the path of a self-publisher. Succeed or not, I would at least have some small control over my creations (if only to be in charge of hiding them); and best of all I would never again have to watch as my years and years of toil were relegated to the trash heap with the wave of some moron’s hand, before or shortly after what should have been publication days of joy and celebration.

Though it may seem incredible, even unbelievable, to those unfamiliar with mainstream American publishing, the entire system has, for over forty years, been based on the buying and publishing of thousands of books every fiscal quarter with the foreknowledge that most of these books will be intentionally killed before or shortly after their official dates of publication. How could such a bizarre system have taken hold in a field that most people still think of as a creative part of our cultural framework? A thorough explanation of how this self-annihilating practice came to be would fill a fat volume, but I will use the brief tale of one of my own books as an example of how the system operates.

In 1995, having gone nearly a decade since publishing my fourth novel, I sold my fifth, Ruby & Spear, to Bantam for a 25,000 dollar advance. A rousing contemporary myth, Ruby & Spear is about an impetuous white sports writer, Vic, and his adventures with a fabulous black basketball player named Spear, a sexy feminist named Greta, and Spear’s tough old mystical grandmother Ruby. When they purchased Ruby & Spear, Bantam was owned by Random House, which in turn had been swallowed by a massive multinational corporation that now owns most of the previously freestanding publishing houses in America. In truth, there are only three gigantic publishers left in America, each masquerading as several publishing houses, each in reality a tiny division of a multinational behemoth.

Why did Bantam buy Ruby & Spear? I would like to say it was because their editors and sales people were eager to bring forth an entertaining literary gem; but that would be untrue. Bantam bought Ruby & Spear because they were guessing (gambling) that the movie rights to the book would be optioned for the movies before the book was published, which optioning would result in thousands of dollars of free publicity for the book; and if, indeed, a movie of Ruby & Spear was made there would be millions of dollars of free publicity. Bantam hoped the book might be sold to the movies because another of my novels, Forgotten Impulses, was on the verge of being made into a major motion movie, and because my first novel Inside Moves had been made into a film during the Pleistocene, which film caused many copies of that book to be sold.

But when Forgotten Impulses was ignominiously dropped by the movie people, and that dropping coincided with a few stupid studio execs complaining that Ruby & Spear was strangely void of violence and chock full of strong complex women and atypical men (and it wasn’t set in either New York or Los Angeles, but in Oakland, for godsake!) Bantam decided not to bring out a hardback version (ending hope of widespread reviews); and then they decided to kill the paperback edition on publication day.

To kill a book, a publisher declares the tome out-of-print and ceases distribution before that book has a chance to live. This is the fate of the vast majority of books published by large publishers, and is especially the fate of literary fiction, a rare kind of writing that does not fit into any obvious target genre such as murder mystery, sci-fi, teen vampire, adult vampire, teen wizard, or bodice-ripping historical romance. 25,000 dollars, to a corporation making most of its billions from strip mining and manufacturing cell phones and buying and selling governments, is not much of a gamble, so….

So here I am, an introverted self-publisher, my first two self-published books winners of multiple independent publishing awards, yet almost no bookstores in America carry my books, and that includes those revered independent bookstores. Why? Simple. Many people who buy books have seen and heard myriad advertisements for the latest bodice-ripping historical vampire fantasy, and many of these same people enjoyed the previous seven volumes in that marvelous series, so they very much want to read the latest regurgitation; and they have not heard of Buddha In A Teacup or Under the Table Books, nor have the bookstore people heard of my unclassifiable tomes, neither of which contains a single vampire, though both volumes are mysteriously sensual. Thus we live with the painful irony that independent bookstores generally carry only the most popular mainstream gunk because they don’t have the shelf space for (or the knowledge of) less popular books.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

Long ago I had supper with one of the most powerful publishers in America who happened to be married at the time (ever so briefly) to the editor of one of those novels I published in the Pleistocene. And when this famous publisher was nicely lit after downing a few goblets of breathtakingly expensive wine, she raised her glass and proclaimed, “Every book that really deserves to be published eventually does get published.”

And though from a career-building point of view I should have raised my glass and cried, “Hear, hear!” instead I retorted, “Methinks you are rationalizing the actions of unscrupulous corporations,” which only made her hostile. Oops. Silly me.

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Gazing back thirty-five years through the telescope of hindsight, I realize that my editor’s wife, a great and powerful publisher (who was just a person, after all) was giving voice to what we all fervently want to believe, which is that great new creations will eventually find their ways into the lives of more than a few lucky people. And I think we harbor this belief in the inevitable ascendancy of excellent original art (which hasn’t been the case for thousands of years) because for most of human evolution, when our kind were much fewer and farther between, when we lived in bands and tribes and everyone knew everyone else, that when a good new creation came along, that song or story or painting or dance or myth or spear or drum or flute stood out like the only black horse in a herd of white horses, or vice-versa, so there was no way the glorious thing could be overlooked.

Genuine Praise

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung

My recent essay on the shams of mockeries of travesties that masquerade as Creative Writing programs in America’s universities inspired a wide range of responses, including miniature treatises on the disintegration of American education, the impact of mass media and real-seeming special effects on human psyches, the validity of vampires as cultural metaphors, and a general theory of mediocrity. To wit:

“From a systems analyst’s point of view we can see that vampire novels turned into movies or boy-wizard novels turned into movies inspire similar art formats in that systems follow the myriad paths of least resistance; and so whenever there is a popular something on TV, movies, theatre, books, music, etc. the purveyors of those things will copy that something ad nauseum. Thus our cultural reality, from a systems perspective, is that the more consumers of system output there are, the more influence those consumers have on what is purveyed, and if you accept that what is purveyed is driven by the most common of popular culture, i.e. what has the broadest appeal, then all successful art forms can only become more and more common as population increases.”

This same correspondent, a successful Internet Technology consultant, said there are hundreds of jobs available in the Bay Area for people with decent computer skills and competence in Word and Excel, two programs found on nearly everybody’s computer. But these jobs go unfilled by Americans and necessitate outsourcing and/or the importation of foreign labor. This seems crazy in the face of millions of unemployed and the ease with which any moderately intelligent and literate person can become proficient at Word and Excel. So what’s up? The key word here is literate. For the past thirty years our high schools have churned out tens of millions of graduates who cannot write well enough to be of much use to any but the lowest tech employers. Our youth may send forth billions of impromptu text messages at lightning speed, but most of these same youth cannot construct coherent sentences, let alone useful paragraphs. In short, our public schools don’t work. Why not? Is it because teaching has devolved to crowd control and forced memorization? And if so, what caused this devolution?

One correspondent suggested that the ethos of non-criticism underlies the demise of our educational system. “Circa 1975 and for decades thereafter it was verboten in public elementary schools to correct kids’ grammar and spelling for fear of injuring their self-esteem. Furthermore, children were praised for anything they did, even if what they were doing was wrong. You can see the results today. It isn’t that our young people aren’t intelligent, it’s that they are essentially illiterate and incapable of critical thinking, and so don’t even have the option of educating themselves.”

Which would leave out learning how to use Word and Excel.

When I lived in Berkeley, I tutored a Berkeley High School senior, a brilliant young woman who, at the outset of our working together, could not construct the aforementioned proper sentences. And verily she said unto me of her regular English class at one of the better public schools in the Bay Area, “If you show up most of the time and don’t cause any trouble, you’ll get a C. If you try to do some of the assignments, you’ll get a B. And if you do all the assignments and run them through spell check, you’re golden.”

A Special Education teacher had this to say about praise. “Praise is a primary tool teachers use to engage their students, assuming the praise is authentic and specific. As long as teachers are also passing along foundation skills as well as some rationale for doing good in the world, I see no problem with praise in that context.”

Another teacher wrote, “Far more important than praise is engagement. My best response is one that ignites or continues discussion. Otherwise, I’m just patting people on the head for knowing the right answers. Answers are only valuable if they further investigation, and learning to investigate, to uncover the intricacies of a subject, that’s the essence of learning. And, of course, nothing meaningful can take place if a class is out of control or the students have tuned out.”

A high school English teacher wrote, “I teach five classes a day, thirty-five students in each class. If I assign one short essay per week, which isn’t nearly enough to provide sufficient writing practice, that makes one hundred and seventy-five essays I have to read and correct and grade. Every week. Where would I possibly find the time to do that even remotely well? And remember, most of these students, this is regular English, not remedial, haven’t mastered even the most basic writing skills. What they were doing in elementary school and junior high, I don’t know, but they come to me with terrible skills. And people wonder why English teachers burn out so quickly. It’s an impossible task. We should be refining their skills at this point, working one-on-one, not teaching basic grammar. As for praise, I don’t have time to praise anybody.”

Some years ago I was hired to teach a one-week course of creative writing at a GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) elementary school in Sacramento. I worked with seven different classes, kindergarten through sixth grade, twenty kids in a class, and each day I spent an hour with each class. I suggested to the folks who hired me that it would be better for all involved if we spread the work out over several weeks, but that didn’t fit the school’s learning schedule, so I endeavored to do my best under those rather concentrated circumstances.

What I hadn’t anticipated was the shocking revelation of the decimation of individuality and creative thinking that intensifies with each step up the educational ladder. My kindergarteners did not yet know how to write, but their inventiveness was remarkable and their lack of creative inhibition thrilling. Sparks of such inventiveness remained in some of the first and second graders, but most of these youngsters already exhibited profound symptoms of numbness and stress from being penned up in classrooms for months on end and having to know answers to irrelevant questions hour after hour under fluorescent lights. By the third grade, the grapes, if you will, were thoroughly crushed. Conform or be ridiculed (by the teacher or your peers) had become the fully operational default setting for the group mind; and this governing ordinance would only strengthen thereafter, so that by the fifth and sixth grades I might as well have been talking to child soldiers trained to only reveal their names, ranks, serial numbers, fart jokes, and the plots of popular television shows about morons.

And though it was tempting to blame the individual teachers, the sameness of their styles and techniques made it clear they were only following the dictates of wholly inadequate teacher training for people who are not necessarily themselves well educated. And therein, I think, is a primary source of the decline and fall of our educational system: poorly educated teachers trained by misguided educators to be behaviorist drill sergeants otherwise incapable of actually teaching anything.

Consider your own education. Can you not recall a moment in fifth or seventh or tenth grade when it dawned on your benumbed consciousness that the older person standing in front of the class was not very bright and might possibly be a moron? Sure you can. And trust me, you didn’t think this person was an idiot simply because you were a surly, disenchanted teenager. No. You thought this person was an idiot because he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

When I was in my late twenties I attended a New Year’s Eve party at the home of my high school Drama teacher, one of two excellent teachers I was fortunate to have in high school and with whom, not coincidentally, I developed a lifelong friendship. Attending this party was another of my former teachers, an English teacher I labored under for two of my four years in high school. In the course of my conversations with her that evening, as she grew drunker and drunker, she confessed that she found teaching so stressful she frequently resorted to alcohol and/or valium on the job, she was addicted to pornography, she fantasized constantly about having sex with her teen charges, and she felt like an utter failure.

And I said to her in all honesty, “What I most appreciated about your teaching was how you encouraged us to engage in lengthy discussions, and how you only intervened to keep us on topic.”

To which she responded by bursting into tears and saying that in her twenty-five years of teaching no student had ever sincerely praised her for anything.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com. Praise, flattery, or MacArthur Genius Grants may be sent to him there.

Writing Good

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

(This article originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

I daresay creativity cannot be taught. Creativity can be engendered, encouraged, cultivated, and supported, but being creative is as natural as breathing, and so to purport to teach creativity is to lie. And the multi-billion dollar creativity-teaching industry in this perpetually adolescent culture of ours is just that: a big fat putrescent lie. And the crown jewels in this cartel of deceit are the several hundred MFA programs in Creative Writing sponsored by academic institutions large and small that yearly hoodwink tens of thousands of misguided people, young and old, who very much want to become more accomplished writers and have succumbed to slick fairy tale propaganda promising mastery and success with their writing in just two or three years of apprenticeship to writers who, almost without exception, cannot write their ways out of paper bags let alone teach anyone to write any better than they.

I am particularly sensitive to and alarmed by this Creative Writing MFA fraud because several extremely promising writers I’ve been privileged to work with have been severely damaged if not entirely ruined by either undergraduate creative writing classes or these insidious MFA programs. I did my best to warn these folks of the pitfalls of embarking on such misadventures, but the temptations were apparently too many, the propaganda too convincing, and the alternative of decades of solitary labor too daunting, so they surrendered to the academic combine, walked into the maws of institutionalized idiocy, and sacrificed their inherent originality and uniqueness to systems run by sycophants and frauds.

Or to quote Allen Ginsberg, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” and I have witnessed a dozen marvelous writers deformed and defused by the madness of MFA programs in Creative Writing.

Twenty-some years ago I was hired to design and run the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. The founding mandate of this summer school for artistically inclined teenagers was that the heads of each department should be accomplished artists in their fields apart from any academic credentials they may have accrued. I was the only department head without a college degree, and though I parted ways with CSSSA after five fascinating years, in the history of that still extant school I remain, as far as I know, the only non-degreed department head they ever had.

I had never taught creative writing when I took my one and only state job, nor had I ever taken a creative writing course. However, I had published novels with big New York publishers, written screenplays for big Hollywood movie companies, published dozens of short stories, and practiced writing for twenty years, so I was confident that practicing was the best way for people to learn to write. I hired teachers who had similar notions about training young writers, set up a schedule of twice-daily practice sessions for the month we’d be working with our mob of ambitious teenagers, and we got to work.

The first thing I discovered was that most people, even those who want to be writers, are reluctant to just sit down and write whatever comes to them. They need prompting. So I invented a bunch of exercises to trick people into writing without thinking too much about what they were writing. Thinking too much about what we are writing is a huge obstacle to maximal writing flow; thus all my exercises were designed to expeditiously circumvent the inner editors/critics/intellects and postpone their arrivals until it was time to rewrite. Analysis and criticism are premiere killers of creative flow, and analysis and criticism, alas, are fundamental to all MFA Creative Writing programs. My several dozens of exercises were compiled and published a decade ago in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path. Viable used copies of that out-of-print tome may be had for a fraction of a dollar each via the Interweb, and though I don’t make a dime from those sales, I highly recommend the book.

The second thing I discovered working with teens, and later with adults, is that nearly everyone in America is terrified of being punished or humiliated or rejected for writing anything substantive, but especially for writing deeply personal things. A week into my first stint at the summer school for the arts, a promising poet handed me her very first attempt at fictive prose and said, “I think maybe I trust you enough to show this to you.” I began to read her story, but a few sentences along she snatched the page away from me and cried, “You hate it!” and fled the room. The next day, finding her in a calmer mood, I asked what made her think I hated her writing, and she said, “Your nose twitched a little and you might have been about to grimace, so…”

Granted, hers was an extreme sensitivity, but I soon discovered that all my teenaged charges, and later all my adult workshop attendees, were nearly as sensitive and vulnerable as she about their maiden voyages in writing imaginatively. With this awareness, and recalling my own experiences of being pummeled by teachers for my flights of literary fancy, I cautioned my faculty that it was essential we ease very slowly into our roles of constructive critics, and that for the first several encounters with our students we should strive to be as uncritical as possible without resorting to phoniness. Eventually, once a modicum of trust and mutual respect is established, writers worth a damn will voluntarily ask for critical help with their work, though that criticism should never be about content, and only about the clarity and efficacy of the writing.

In the adult workshops I offered, in which we simply practiced my exercises designed to trick us into not thinking too much about what we were writing, I found it helpful to begin the course by letting anyone who wanted (which always turned out to be everyone) to testify about the abuse they and their writing had received throughout their lives, and how they had subsequently struggled to overcome the trauma of that abuse. Sometimes it was one particularly horrible teacher who had demolished them for something they’d written, but more often it was a pattern of punishment beginning in elementary school and continuing through college and into the work force and MFA programs that had alienated them from their own language. And yet they all still desperately wanted to express themselves through the written word.

Then I would share my experiences of being smashed by teachers and rejected by moronic editors and agents and publishers, and the commonality of our experiences created comradeship and sped the growth of trust among us.

The other sort of abuse experienced by many of these writers came from bestselling how-to-write books prescribing writing regimens of at least an hour a day, every day. But since for most beginning writers, scribbling for an hour at a stretch is the equivalent of running five miles the first time you try running, such dogmatic nonsense guarantees failure. Furthermore, any self-doubts a writer may have about his or her ability will be instantly ignited with the first inevitable missing of a day or running out of inspiration after twenty minutes, which happens all the time to the most experienced writers.

After the venting was over, I would proclaim, “In our time together, you do not have to share anything you write unless you want to; and criticism and analysis are verboten. If you want to criticize and analyze each other’s work, do it on your own time.”

I recently met a thirty-year-old man in his fifth year of an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious California university. I would name the college, but I don’t wish to be sued. I said I had not heard of a five-year program for writing credentials short of a PhD. “Oh, it’s a two-year program, but I keep getting extensions,” he said blithely. “So I can keep getting student loans until I finish my novel.”

“So do you keep taking the same classes over and over again?” I asked, barely able to conceal my disdain.

“Oh, no more classes,” he said, shrugging. “Just, you know, occasional meetings with my mentor and…” He paused ominously. “…the classes I teach.”

“Excuse me? You’re teaching classes in the MFA program you’re enrolled in? But what are your qualifications?”

“Well, I’ve already taken the classes,” he said, nodding complacently. “And, like, they didn’t get so and so (published author) like they thought they were going to, so I filled in, and it worked out, so…”

Following my interview with this fellow, I did a bit of investigating and found that the practice of “upper level” MFA candidates teaching “lower level” candidates is ubiquitous throughout the accredited creative writing industry. Keep that in mind as tuitions soar.

“And just what do you do?” I asked this buffoon. “As a teacher?”

“I oversee, you know, the seminars. Lead the critiques. People bring in their stories or chapters, we all read them, and then we, like, critique and analyze them, and then they rework them. Oh, and I also teach the how-to-get-published seminars, too.”

“And how is one ultimately judged worthy of the MFA and the title Master?”

“We each have an advisory committee that evaluates our work, usually a collection of stories or a novel, and they see, you know, a couple drafts and then the final manuscript.”

“And these advisors are…”

“Oh, we had (names a well-known writer) on board two years ago, and almost everybody else has, you know, published something, and we might get (names another well-known writer) next year to teach an advanced workshop and be on a couple committees. Man, would I love to get his name on my résumé.”

“Tell me more about the how-to-get published sessions?”

“Oh, you know, we go over the nine steps to writing a successful query letter, the seven do’s and six don’ts of pitching ideas, the five sure-fire plot devices, the four ideal manuscript lengths, stuff like that.”

“And you learned all this from…”

“A guy one year ahead of me.”

“Have you had any luck selling anything?”

“Not so far. But I’m working on a teen vampire novel with the most amazing twist. I’m trying to sell the synopsis before someone else comes up with the same idea. Promise not to tell? The teen vampire turns out to be a consulting detective name Hercules Watson. Get the references?”

I got them, and then I murdered the guy and drove a wooden stake through his heart, but I’m not telling where he’s buried.

So if you or anyone you know is tempted to enroll in an MFA program in Creative Writing, or if you have a kid in college who wants to take a creative writing class, do anything you can to stop them. Tell them if they want to become good writers to read hundreds of short stories and novels by writers who have stood the test of time (at least fifty years) and to practice writing as often as they feel motivated to do so. Tell them to stop watching television or they can forget about having an original inspiration, and tell them to ask everyone they meet along their ways to tell them stories, and to prompt the tellers with questions, and to listen intently, and to take notes if they are so inclined. And tell them if they keep at their reading and listening and practicing, they will get better and better at writing down and rewriting what comes to them from a source transcendent of the intellect.

As for the five sure-fire plot devices, they are all contained in the following sentence. “God,” said the princess, “I’ve been raped, and I don’t know who did it. But I suspect a vampire.”

Audio versions of Todd’s novels are available from ITunes. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com