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Workshop and the Writing Life
THE CULT OF GENIUS
THE QUESTION OF whether or not "creativity" can be learned, let alone taught, has nipped at the heels of writing workshops ever since their inception, which at Iowa dates back to 1896 when the first course in "creative" writing was offered. Detractors of the workshop idea prefer the noble savage or child-raised-by-wolves version of talent. To them, the creative spirit would thrive and emerge regardless of the conditions that shaped it. Genius was innate. It could no more be learned than breathing. You were either a genius, a sort of idiot savant like the version of Mozart depicted in Amadeus, or you weren't. Even Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate Flannery O'Connor claimed that "the ability to create life with words is essentially a gift. If you have it in the first place you can develop it; if you don't have it, you might as well forget it." As Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy said, "You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead."
It isn't any surprise to recall that our modern notion of genius was developed by, well, geniuses, the German idealists Kant, Schiller, and Hegel. Schiller, in particular, assigned the creative imagination godlike powers, claiming that the sublime imaginings of genius superseded the limited imperfections of reality itself. The bearer of the genius gene became a sacred rather than mortal figure. Gone was the workmanlike figure of Shakespeare, who wrote plays to keep himself and his acting troupe employed. Forget the mere mnemonicdevices employed in the oral telling of The Iliad or The Odyssey by Homer, whoever he was. The Romantic genius, usually a poet, had a red phone to the Muse, and whenever the spirit dialed, what could genius do but, in a state of rapture, take the call. Forget craft. Divinity was channeled into the work by "grace," which, according to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, in eighteenth-century literary terms meant "that ultimate, inexpressible charm which converts the merely formal and regular into vital and animated beauty, and which is the mysterious result of Nature and not of art, or rules." As a genius, you were the "Man," the "It Boy" of the Romantic movement in Europe.
The irony of this elitist sanctification of the human imagination is that while the French Revolution was abolishing monarchy and aristocracy, and Wordsworth began employing unheroic, autobiographical material in his poetry, Romanticism elevated genius to Olympian status. Geniuses were born, not made. Their work transcended the simple craftsmanship available to ordinary man. In other words, Romanticism ignored the democratic impulses in revolt throughout Europe and America and created a new elite in the form of the author. For a movement concerned with the power of humankind's imagination to conjure sublime experience through art, Romanticism turned out to be a pretty exclusive club.
Author worship flowered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Byron, the clubfoot boy nonetheless beloved by women for his—what else?—genius, rates a 10 on the brooding poet scale and is the figure from whom all imitators take their cue. In part, this sentimentalization of the social outcast in search of beauty was a reaction against the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. If the modern world was going to hell, the Romantic imagination alone held out the only hope of escaping it through Art. Those elected to wear this capital A on their chests became, along with their work, fetishes. Objects to be adored for their connection to beauty.
"The whole point of `creative writing,'" Terry Eagleton noted in his study Literary Theory: An Introduction, "was that it was gloriously useless, an end in itself loftily removed from any sordid social purpose. Having lost his patron, the writer discovered a substitute in the poetic."
This fetishization peaked during the High Modernist period of the twentieth century when the "poetic" began to resemble the impenetrable. Anyone who has been subjected to reading Pound in college would probably sympathize with the position "Kill the critics." For who else could be responsible for defining as Art the often incomprehensible passages of the Cantos? The Romantic movement, Eagleton says, assumed "there was an unchanging object known as Art, or an isolatable experience called beauty or the aesthetic [that] was largely a product of the very alienation of art from social life." Yet what could possibly be more alienated from social life than Pound's work? So, ironically, rather than saving beauty, the endgame of Romanticism, found in High Modernism's often tortured sterility, buried it. In defense of this sweeping claim, remember four words: Finnegan's Wake, Gertrude Stein. A pose is a pose is a pose. Case closed.
If the extreme experiments of some Modernist writers introduced pain into the formerly pleasurable activity of reading, they certainly found willing and masochistic accomplices in the "lit. crit." industry. One of my American literature teachers once announced in class that he had spent his summer rereading Stein's The Making of Americans. His tone implied that his diligence was somehow noble, priestly, anointed, and separated him from us. All I could think was, "Why?"
Not unexpectedly, critical idolatry of Art, the artist, and the aesthetic soon brought about a demystifying reaction, something along the lines of stock market correction for geniuses. In tandem with this spirit, oddly enough, the creative writing workshop was born.
CRAFT VERSUS GENIUS
HENRY MILLER ONCE said that similar ideas tend to pop up at various points on the globe at the same time. Artists, of course, being the "antennae of the race," are aware of aesthetic developments taking place in regions as remote and disparate as Iowa City and Moscow, so the link between the beginnings of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Russian formalists should come as no surprise to these superior beings. The coincidental dovetailing of the two movements caused me, however, to experience that most crucial of workshop phenomena—the Joycean epiphany. What had begun in 1896 in Iowa City with that first class in "Verse Making," which laid emphasis on verse as a thing made, something that could be practiced, studied, and emulated, rather than channeled directly from the empyrean sublime, had by the 1920s led the University of Iowa to become one of the first institutions in the country to award a Master of Arts degree for creative work.
Meanwhile, back in the newly formed USSR, a rowdy group of "new" critics, fed up with the mandarin pretensions of symbolist poetry, reduced the task of literary creation and interpretation to something as methodical as building a car engine. If the Romantic artist had been a secular priest, the new twentieth-century author was no more than a mechanic. Literature could be taken apart and examined as easily as a V-8.
Just as Hemingway focused on how a story worked, rather than what it was about, the Russian formalists, according to Eagleton, believed that "[C]riticism should dissociate art from mystery and concern itself with how literary texts actually worked: literature was not a pseudo-religion or psychology or sociology but a particular organization of language. It had its own specific laws, structures and devices, which were to be studied for themselves." This manifesto could be posted on the door of any Iowa Workshop seminar room and not seem out of place.
"Abandon all hope all ye who enter here" would make an apt companion piece. For as surely as the formalists, demolished the mystical abstractions of the writing process, the Workshop, with its exclusive focus on the text, announced the death of the author, and it did so four decades ahead of French literary theorist Roland Barthes. Paul Engle, the Workshop's early director and the man most responsible for its development, aptly described the Workshop's paradoxical intentions when he said the Workshop's mission was to nurture the author, to give "the writer a place where he can be himself, confronting the hazards and hopes of his own talent," and at the same time to "knock, or persuade, or terrify the false tenderness toward his own work out of the beginning writer." It did so by concerning itself solely with the text and its mechanics. The author was separated from his or her work, observing Eliot's dictum that "the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."
Personality is exactly what the Russian formalists hoped to bleed from literary appreciation and criticism. Further proving Henry Miller's point about similar ideas blooming simultaneously in different parts of the world, a virtually identical disdain for artistic personality flowered in Great Britain, led by Cambridge critic F. R. Leavis, who, Eagleton notes, "stressed the centrality of rigorous critical analysis, a disciplined attention to `the words on the page.'" The author was extraneous. Leavis advanced the concepts of "practical criticism" and "close reading," which detached literary texts from their personal and historical contexts and concentrated purely on the text's "organic unity." A continent away in Iowa, the first Workshop instructors had reached the same conclusions.
Where the Romantics had reified the artist, turning a simple craftsman into a deity, the text itself now assumed the qualities of sacred object. It reached the literary pantheon only by its relation to other texts, those "existing monuments" that, according to Eliot, "form an ideal order among themselves." In American literary circles, this ideal was championed most fervently by the New Critics, a group whose major work, The New Criticism, was published in 1941, not so coincidentally the very same year the University of Iowa awarded its first Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing.
NEW CRITICISM AND THE IOWA WORKSHOP
THE NEW CRITICS took Eliot's idea, a rather demoralizing notion for any would-be writer to encounter—"Welcome to the Workshop, we're going to extinguish your personality!"—and combined it with Leavis's practice of "close reading" until the text revealed itself in Terry Eagleton's words "as a self-enclosed object, mysteriously intact in its own unique being." This unique being, it was claimed, "could not be paraphrased ... [because] each of its parts ... folded in on others in a complex organic unity which it would be a kind of blasphemy to violate." The New Critics insisted, according to Eagleton, "that the author's intentions in writing, even if they could be recovered, were of no relevance to the interpretation of his or her text."
Violating this mysterious unity or, more often, a text's lack thereof, proved to be the Workshop's reason for being. "A lot of people come for self-expression or therapy," Philip Roth said of his experience teaching at the Workshop in the early '60s. "We try to put a stop to that." Roth saw the Workshop as serving three purposes: giving young writers an audience, a sense of community, and an acceptable social category—student. "If a boy went to his father and said, `I'm going to New York to be a writer,' his father would hit the ceiling. But who will quarrel with a Master's degree, or even a Ph.D.?" Ultimately, Roth concludes, "Part of our function is to discourage those without enough talent."
What is judged in Workshop, generally by the process of "close reading," is the executed result of the author's intentions. Workshop doesn't care about what you meant to say, or how you feel about what you said, it cares about what was said, the "words on the page." Like New Criticism, it examines texts without regard to authorial desire. If Workshop students enter the program believing "My book is my self," they, like Montaigne in his Essays, quickly discover that "In molding this figure upon myself, I have been so oft constrained to temper and compose myself in a right posture, that the copy is truly taken, and has in some sort form'd itself." As a writer, Montaigne saw that his virtual literary self was the product of communal and historical forces, rather than something produced by a unique, highly Romanticized individual imagination. Deconstruction theory, advanced by critics like Jacques Derrida, announced this identical insight about 400 years later. I don't mean to denigrate critics. As Eugene O'Neill said, "I love every bone in their heads." I just wish to point out that critical notions such as the death of the author or "Reception Theory's" bold claim that the reader completes the literary work by—my God!—imagining the illusory world conjured up by black marks on a page are only startling in their obviousness, proving once again that academics treat as revelation circumstances that which the rest of literate humankind takes for granted.
When a student enters a Workshop seminar room, any hope of being rescued by the abstractions of theory vanishes the moment discussion begins. If we arrive not believing in the death of the author, we often crawl away several hours later wishing for it. What's established instantly is the fact that Romanticism's deification of the writer is the single most idiotic aberration in the history of literature.
Writers are craftsmen, and as such all of our apprentice work is rough, inelegant, flawed. In fact, much of the time it isn't even functional. Sometimes we can't even begin discussing character or story, let alone structuralist notions that language creates the writer rather than the other way around, because actions described in the text defy the laws of physics. We enter the program possessing the skills of fledgling carpenters—if we're lucky—yet hoping to build palaces. It's this gap between ambition and mastery that the Workshop addresses and, if possible, tries to bridge, and it does so by concentrating on "the words on the page."
CAN WRITING AND CREATIVITY BE TAUGHT?
LET'S LEAVE BEHIND, for a moment, the historical vicissitudes of literary theory and return to the original question. Can creativity be learned, let alone taught? The answer depends on how you define creativity. If you believe in the largely discredited notion of genius, your answer will be no, it can't.
Also, for all its impact on twentieth-century American literature, the Iowa Workshop must be acknowledged not only for the great writers connected with it but for the writers not connected with it. If the Workshop were the only place to develop as a writer, how do we account for Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Tim O'Brien, Richard Ford, E. Annie Proulx, and Cormac McCarthy, none of whom studied at Iowa or any other formalized version of a fiction-writing workshop? Nelson Algren's denunciatory 1971 essay, "At Play in the Fields of Hackademe," claimed that "for what it lacks in creativity, the Iowa Creative Workshop makes up in quietivity." He asked, "[W]hy has the Iowa Writers' Workshop, in its 35 years of existence, not produced a single novel, poem or short story worth rereading?" then answered, "Because its offer of painless creativity is based on self-deception." Was he on the money? Or was he still miffed about losing a rumored $34,000 playing poker while teaching at Iowa and simply biting the hand that bleeds? Can the Workshop be held accountable if Algren overestimated his gift for five-card stud?
John Barth, a novelist who taught creative writing for decades, noted that "not even in America can one major in Towering Literary Artistry." In lieu of the hackwork envisioned by Algren, Barth saw workshops producing "your average prettydamn-good literary artifact as published by the New Yorker or Esquire ... or one of the better New York trade-book publishing houses." Like his German idealist forefathers, Barth also believed in "genius," although he found it to be, "like matter in the universe, thinly distributed." Consequently, writing workshops such as those offered by Iowa were, to him, places where "those with any aptitude for [writing] ... hone what skills they have."
Aptititude, however, is not easily detectable. As Flannery O'Connor discovered, those "who do have talent ... flounder around because they don't really know what a story is."
If you think about it, storytelling is, outside of breathing, eating, and sleeping, the most fundamental and time-consuming human activity there is. We listen to and tell stories all our lives. So why should we have to learn how to do something we've been doing since childhood? Cormac McCarthy said teaching creative writing is a scam, and Kay Boyle declared that "all creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law." Were they right?
No. It's amazing to discover how difficult it is to write a good story. One often experiences a certain degree of shock upon first slipping into the Workshop's "hallowed" hallways, removing from its shelves copies of stories by other Workshoppers, and confronting how truly awful some of them are. The expectation of finding perfectly polished pieces ready for acceptance by Best American Short Stories, and these pop up as well, instantly yields thoughts of "Is my stuff this bad?" It must be, since the astoundingly terrible "words on the page" in your hands were written by someone who'd been accepted, like you, into the most prestigious creative writing program in the world. The thrill of being at Iowa momentarily vanishes, as does the delirium in which you've imagined immediate publication, praise, fame, riches, and that most elusive of all writerly qualities—validation. Street cred. Anointment. A word or nod from the published sage, the "real writer" at the workshop table in whose estimation and assessment you believe your literary fate begins and ends.
This, after all, is what you've come for. Not so much to be taught as initiated into the mysteries and thereby lifted out of that quivering, awkward bundle of doubt previously called "you." You've come seeking transcendence. You've come to slip into the skin of some idealized, immortal writerly you, a being as imaginary as ancient Crete's Minotaur. Ironically, what you stumble into is the labyrinth that is the writer's life. No workshop instructor or mentor will arrive like Theseus to slay the personal literary Minotaur pursuing you. Your trip through the labyrinth, you discover, turns out to be a private one. Your imagination and its sources are the deepest mysteries. Transcendence is a confrontation with your limitations and flaws. You arrive full of passion and, confoundingly, are introduced into the tedium of creation. "Writing is ultimately a test of character," Frank Conroy says. To ward off the confusions and uncertainties of the writing life, all you have, you soon find, is "the habit of art."
He had coffee and a sandwich at his desk. Then tapped on the keys, hearing an old watery moan deep in the body. How the day's first words set off physical alarms ... Used to be that time rushed down on him when he started a book ... Please Jesus just let me work ... How typing mistakes became despair ... He looked at the sentence, six disconsolate words ... Took him all these years to realize this book was his hated adversary. Locked together in the forbidden room, had him in a choke hold. I'm between novels, he used to say, so I don't mind dying.
Don DeLillo's fictional description of the writer's life in MAO II should be enough to scare off any pretenders or glory-seekers, the millions waiting on inspiration, that Godot-like no-show. Or maybe Algren was right: the "Writer's Workshop ... provides sanctuary from those very pressures in which creativity is forged." Because one has to ask: Can patience and humility be taught? Will attention to the "words on the page" mold and fire-harden a writer's character so that it might withstand the daily trials of the literary life?
"Habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality," Flannery O'Connor warned. "They have to be cultivated like any other habit, over a long period of time, by experience; and teaching any kind of writing is largely a matter of helping the student develop the habit of art."
Can a workshop, in which the personality and often even the presence of the writer is ignored, address these singular, lifelong lessons?
Barth claims there are four "proper objects of study for serious writers—their material (`human life,' Aristotle says, `its happiness and its misery'), their medium (language), their craft ... and their art (the inspired and masterful application of their craft and medium to their material)." But he qualifies a workshop's ability to deal with "human life," which he doesn't believe to be its "province." He also says that art "is more the hope than the curricular goal of a sound writing program; it comes from mastery of the other three [objects of study] plus a dash of genius."
A "dash of genius"? At least the Romantics let their claims for genius rip. Barth applies it like baking powder to a cake recipe. Coupling the need for a "dash of genius" with a writing workshop's supposed aversion to "human life, its happiness and misery," what's left, we still have to ask, to be taught?
ZEN AND THE ART OF MANUSCRIPT MAINTENANCE
EVERYTHING AND NOTHING: this is what, I believe, the Iowa Writers' Workshop teaches.
When one arrives for Workshop in late August, Iowa seems to burst with abundance, rolling green fields stretching everywhere beyond the edges of town, corn piled high in markets, summer vegetables sold off the tailgates of pickup trucks by local farmers. The place spills over with a kind of fertile thrill that seems to match and accommodate your own barely contained enthusiasm. Anything could grow here, the land seems to whisper, even your own unsown talent.
Then come the Workshop discussions. The line edits that pick apart the imagined integrity of your story before the end of the first sentence. The declaration by others of utter mystification when it came to being able to say what your story was about. The lancing comparisons of your pale imitation to the work of obviously influential masters. The subtle and not so subtle assassinations of character that, even though directed at your fictional understudies, carry their sting back to their original flesh-and-blood source. Charges of sexism, misogyny, elitist tendencies. Too many metaphors! Too passive a protagonist. You read the word "Congratulations" on one of the written commentaries you receive, and your heart hums. Then you read the rest of the accolade—"you've created the most despicable narrator in American literature!" You take up pool at the Foxhead, the local writers' bar. You lose money you don't have playing poker, then realize you don't play poker!
Without quite understanding it, Workshop students expect validation as writers. When that isn't automatically bestowed we begin hungering after wisdom, then secrets, then tricks of the trade, and finally, in despair, a critical vocabulary we can call our own. We study everything there is to say about writing. We master the Workshop lingo, repeating "show, don't tell" like a mantra. We express our vague dissatisfactions with one another's work by claiming to want "more," and dread the news or rumor that someone else has sold a story or book because we fear this leaves us behind, somehow diminished.
Meanwhile, summer's abundance has quickly retreated, season's end stripping the heartland of all its lush promise, taking with it the brimming confidence you momentarily enjoyed. You came to the Workshop to get into the illusion-making business, and now your illusions about the writing life are as naked as the leafless trees you hike past in the woods where you hide, trying to recenter yourself. In the gray of early fall, Algren's resented "sanctuary" seems very far away, the small room you write in a babel of critical voices. You wanted the writing life, you got it. Doubt, anxiety, staying in the chair, wrestling with sentences one by one until they yield something you can call beautiful and true. Knowing everything there is to know about the craft of writing. Knowing more than you ever imagined there was to know.
So, why do you feel so incomplete? So uncertain? So alone?
Could it be that the intellectual lessons of Workshop have made you realize "What a job of heavy labor the writing of fiction is"? Or, as O'Connor also said, that "the materials of the fictional writer are the humblest."
"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust," she wrote, and in the short days of fall and winter it is, as writers, to dust that we return. No longer believing we have arrived. No longer even believing in the notion of arrival. Emptied of certainty by everything we have come to learn.
Yet, as the surfaces of art dissolve, we begin to sense, as the Tao Te Ching puts it, the unnameable, the "darkness within darkness" that, paradoxically, is "the gateway to all understanding."
What the Workshop has done, strangely enough, is taught us what not to do. It has offered no prescriptions for "fixing" stories, no formulas for creating characters, no blueprint for surefire plotting. It seemingly hasn't a clue as to how to find a "voice" for one's work. If it possesses the secret to writing dialogue, the secret is well kept. If it knows which of us will fail and which will be successful, it isn't saying. Everything it teaches, essentially, is a form of No, a variation on wisdom that lies in knowing what not to do. Oddly, a process that seemed to begin with New Critical "close reading" has instead demanded something akin to Zen surrender.
"The Master leads," the Tao says in words that Paul Engle echoes, "by emptying people's minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve. He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those who think that they know. Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place."
By the end of our first Workshop year, we realize we have learned everything in order to understand that we know nothing. It's a realization that is as tenaciously resisted and fitfully born as the rebirth of spring greenery and balmy temperatures in the place itself. After all, how could the path toward mastery yield nothing but anxiety and confusion? Cormac McCarthy was right, we angrily recall, teaching creative writing is a scam. Resentment for the entire notion of Workshop, its self-denying indifference and calm certainty, builds in us. A frustration with how the Workshop, the writing life, even literature itself sails on without us, ignoring our struggle. The expectation for glory we arrived with, diminished by the repeated No of Workshop, now coils into neediness, a sullen rejection of the life that seems to have rejected us. Traffic at the local mental health clinic increases. Love affairs flare into full burn, only to last a week. The Foxhead does end-of-the-world-style business, as dozens of us sit at the bar, heads hung over a whiskey, as dejected as Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, while the friends still standing offer Dooley Wilson-like advice. "We'll get drunk. We'll go fishing." Flee, forget, quit.
(Raymond Carver actually did flee.)
The injustice, the blindness of the whole system, the entire writing life, has never been so apparent to us. "Screw Golden Boy!" we shout, alone in our rooms. (Where else?) Or, "How did she ever get a fellowship?" we want to know, suspecting nepotism, conspiracy, every sin but personal bias, every option but the probability of our inadequate work.
Unsurprisingly, a psychological survey of the Iowa Workshop showed that 80 percent of writers in the program reported evidence of manic-depression, alcoholism, or other lovely addictions in themselves or their immediate families. We're writers. Whoever claimed we were a tightly wrapped bunch?
What's going on actually, what we're still learning and struggling with, is the emotional rather than the intellectual meaning of not-doing, the impact of finally and fully knowing that we know nothing. This is more difficult than rationally accepting all the arguments about what constitutes literature. Because until the Workshop's resistance to our desire to "write literature" and to "become writers" touches the quivering, naked, three-o'clock-in-the-morning doubt-filled creature we all are, understanding cannot begin.
Still not wanting to face this ourselves, in desperation we lean on our teachers, blurting out in private conferences unanswerable questions. "Am I any good? Am I wasting my time? Am I going to be a real writer?" We're greeted with uncomfortable squirming, sighs, poker-faced admissions of ignorance on the subject. Everything but what we really still want—assurance. Short of that, and by now we're beginning to sense that assurance is probably about as tangible as Santa Claus, we'd happily settle for our conferee leaping out of his or her chair and knocking us to the floor with a Zen-master whack on the head so we could at least look up and say, "Thank you. I now have satori, and also grounds for a lawsuit." But even here we're frustrated, because the Workshop trains us for emotional growth and an understanding of the writing life by indirection, by turning us back on ourselves.
"Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?" the Tao asks. "Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?"
Can you take the pressure of the writing life, and the anxieties of producing art, is the question of character that is now yours alone to decide. Can you develop and maintain the "habit of art," which Maritain, via Flannery O'Connor, explained as "a certain quality or virtue of mind"?
How different this is from the Romantic myth of genius. To remain unmoving until right literary action arises isn't the same as expecting the Muse to arrive with a perfectly composed piece of work for you to jot down, a fairy tale that made the difficulties of composition seem about as arduous as having a pizza delivered.
No, a more useful Romantic notion than "genius" touches upon what is essential to surviving as a writer, Keats's "negative capability." Keats didn't set the idea out as literary theory or criticism. Instead, the notion arose in a personal letter to his brother. Keats lived with the "habit of art," the continual alertness to questions of form and imagination that a writer slowly learns to always keep in mind.
"Negative capability," he suggested, constitutes a writer's ability to survive and triumph over the difficulties and anxieties of composing a work of imagination "without any irritable grasping after fact."
Stress the word "irritable" and you detect the Taoist patience Keats proposed as a writer's cardinal virtue. But this ability to stop irritably grasping after facts while sifting for the right word, Flaubert's le mot juste, this the writer must discover and nurture on his or her own. The Workshop provides no direct help. Instead, once you've surrendered your desire to become a writer, the Workshop teaches you that in place of the cult of "genius" there is, more importantly, what Sartre calls, "a pact of generosity between author and reader."
WRITING FOR THE READER
CURIOUSLY, EVEN though we've all been readers long before we even considered being writers, most of us show up at the Workshop without giving too much thought to that abstract partner in our work, the "ideal reader," as Salinger calls him. That total stranger, who Nabokov imagines innocently plucking a work of fiction off some small town library shelf, completes the act of imagination each writer has begun. "Each one trusts the other," Sartre observed, "each one counts on the other, demands as much of the other as he demands of himself."
Nurturing this pact, and continually elevating the demands writers and readers place upon each other, goes to the heart of the Workshop's vision. It urges apprentice writers toward fulfilling and mastering this pact by comparing their "words on the page" to words set down on the page by writers who have mastered the writer/reader relationship before them.
Every writer, whether they attend a workshop or not, discovers that literature is one's true teacher. Imagination cannot be taught. Habits of art and virtues of mind can be encouraged, no more. But a serious study of literature can enable a writer to master the elements of literary craft. Will this, in every case, produce a great writer? No. Again, great writing depends on the individual writer's imagination. But until craft is mastered, imagination is a useless, largely inapplicable abstraction. Mastering craft gives the writer access to the fullness of his or her imagination, because it gives the writer the ability to deploy and apply it. Everyone can imagine a house. Only a carpenter can build one. And the wisest among them always keeps in mind the fact that he or she is building a place for others to live in, just as the well- trained writer never loses sight of the fact that it is the reader who will ultimately inhabit the story.
"No reader who doesn't actually experience," O'Connor reminds us, "who isn't made to feel the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched." This, in essence, is the fiction writer's first and only commandment, as well as the touchstone for the workshop admonition "show, don't tell." Showing a reader a character's actions and describing the sensory world that a character inhabits is the sole task and responsibility the writer bears. Showing offers the reader experience; telling supplies mere information.
But showing, not telling, can be overdone. The result is often anemic, banal work drained of excess or risk. Careful, technically correct, but completely dead stories. "Workshop fiction," to use the pejorative label attached to a narrow sampling of work produced by an extremely varied group of writers.
Is the Workshop guilty of spawning several generations of mediocre, monochromatic writers, as some critics charge? Or is this a simplistic cliché that ignores the strength, variety, and distinctiveness of work by Flannery O'Connor and Jane Smiley, Andre Dubus and T. C. Boyle, Joy Williams and Thom Jones? To paraphrase the cliché, those who can't do, teach, those who can't write, bitch. (Most literary writers, these days, do a little of both.)
This tendency of complaint occurs in Workshop from time to time, too, with "show, don't tell" often trying to force the work under consideration toward a consensual middle ground, to bleed it of the often annoying, idiosyncratic tics and flaws that give it juice. It's good at these times to be reminded—and someone in the room inevitably steps forward to do so, for compassion and wisdom is always in as great a supply among one's peers at the Workshop as anxiety, envy, and despair—that Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Fiction pointed out that even when a writer is showing, he's telling. The writer decides what to show, how to show it, and how it will sound to a reader. In other words, the writer decides how his or her story will be told to his or her "ideal reader."
In workshop, one quickly finds that not everyone in the room is going to play this role. What moves or thrills one reader about your work numbs or nauseates another. So be it. You learn, just as you've learned patience, to be objective about your own work by training yourself to put yourself in the reader's place, by empathizing not only with your characters but with the reader who will inhabit the fictional house you build.
Your workshop mates are readers, very good and attentive readers, on whom you get to practice, and some prove tougher than others. "Your fellow apprentices," Barth attests, "will be sharp. As much of what happens in successful workshops happens outside them, among the apprentices, at all hours, as in their official meetings and conferences with the boss writer. The best thing they offer you is the finest audience any writer can have until his work is famous enough to attract wide professional critical attention."
Through your classmates, you learn to hear, if not necessarily heed, all criticisms. You learn objectivity, not creativity. Once you've surrendered all your previous illusions, this is what the Workshop finally teaches—objectivity. And it teaches it by teaching technique, because as Mark Schorer wrote, "Technique objectifies."
NOT DOING—THE RIGHT WAY
"I'VE GOT THE STORY but I don't have any technique," a student once told Flannery O'Connor. At its worst, technique appears to be nothing more than a highbrow term for formula. But a formula demands that you follow it faithfully; technique is studied so a full range of devices may be used by a writer to make a story tellable, artful, which in some cases includes breaking with conventions. Formula imposes limits on a writer; technique frees a writer to expand the methods of convention, should he or she choose to take that path. The only rule to observe when breaking convention is extremely simple. Do not purposely confuse the reader. Make clear the new method you're employing. If the reader cannot follow it, you've failed. If the reader can, you've done what Flaubert did—invent a new convention (in his case, modern point of view) for literature's future use.
"Technique is a word they all trot out," O'Connor wrote, lamenting the cart-before-the-horse approach to storytelling, which characterized her student's confusion about the act of discovery. For although technique can be studied, technique alone will never produce a story. What's more, one can never claim to have a story yet lack the technique for telling it. That's the same as saying I've written the story, now I just have to write the sentences. What O'Connor's student had was the idea of a story, not the story itself, which is inextricable from the "words on the page" used to tell it. And these words, just like Flaubert's innovations concerning omniscient point of view, are discovered solely in the act of writing.
"The only way, I think, to learn to write short stories," O'Connor said, "is to write them, and then try to discover what you have done. The time to think of technique is when you've actually got the story in front of you." Sound, unassailable advice. Also the last thing many apprentice writers want to hear, because getting the story in front of you is terrifying, painful, and in many cases nearly impossible. Technique, we naively hope, is a miracle cure, some kind of combination tranquilizer-antidepressant-pain reliever for our distressed literary condition. It isn't.
"Technique," according to Mark Schorer, "is the means by which the writer's experience, which is his subject matter, compels him to attend to it; technique is the only means he has of discovering, exploring, developing his subject, of conveying its meaning, and, finally, of evaluating it."
Without a masterful understanding of literary technique a writer is doomed never to fully communicate his or her story, its rendered experiences and their various meanings, to a reader. "The writer capable of the most exacting technical scrutiny of his subject matter," Schorer believed, "will produce works ... which reverberate ... with maximum meaning."
The problem for the fledgling writer is that "technical scrutiny" must be brought to bear on the raw, awkward, flawed, often embarrassing words one has placed on the page. Until he cultivates the patience to surrender it, the writer's ego remains overly involved with his work, a bit too protective of and attached to the products of his imagination. Essentially, he's asked to split himself, first by extinguishing his personality, as Eliot advised, in order to produce a story, then by turning around and applying an "exacting" standard of objective criticism to his own creation.
Consider how different and more excruciating this is than studying music. To learn how to play the piano, all you study is technique. You have the products of Bach's musical imagination to practice on. The writer has to practice on his or her own imagination. The equivalent is being told by your piano teacher after two lessons, "Okay, go home, compose a sonata, and we'll see what's wrong with it when you come back." You've heard a piano before. Why can't you write a sonata? With all the stories you've heard and told in your life, why can't you write a story?
The answer lies in the exact opposite of the equation laid out by O'Connor's student: I haven't got the story because I don't have any control of technique. If you can't count time and play in key, you can't produce music. The same goes for fiction—if you can't control point of view and narrative voice, you can't write a story.
In workshop, this seemingly genetic and nearly universal shortcoming announces itself with the regularity of trumpets in a Shakespeare play. Shifting point of view and betraying the consistency of the narrative voice in ways that confuse and undermine the reader's confidence are the most obvious flaws in a story up for discussion. Point of view controls the way actions in a story are perceived—what is seen and by whom. Narrative voice expresses the attitude of the speaker toward the actions depicted, and this attitude needs to be rendered credibly in order to seduce or charm a reader into suspending his or her disbelief in the artificiality of events. To be credible, a voice has to be seamless. If the narrator starts out sounding like a hayseed, then five pages later begins issuing pronouncements like a member of the British Parliament, you've got trouble. Fiction is built like that house of cards that Nabokov says must be turned into a palace of steel and glass. Consequently, once the narrative voice skids out of control, point of view begins to lose its focus, because the narrator's attitude determines how actions are seen and therefore rendered. If the narrator's voice is tentative, the point of view it speaks for no longer knows exactly where to look, and the story goes astray.
But abstract explanations like this take a writer only partway toward Not Doing. To know what not to do, the Workshop invokes the virtues and traditions of literature. It does not say, this is how you create narrative voice or conjure up a point of view. Instead, just as the fiction writer makes human emotions appear real by describing the concrete actions of characters, the Workshop turns the apprentice writer to works of literature in order to transform the abstract into the specific.
Studying literature, noting its technical graces, slows the writer down, makes one pay attention to his or her own work until, finally, one is capable of selecting the right word, the best phrase or sentence rhythm, the perfect action to illuminate character and move the story forward.
On the contrary, it is impossible to apply Lacan's "language is what hollows being into desire"—say what?—to writing fiction. And, if anyone in Workshop ever used the words "similarity is superinduced upon contiguity" to suggest a path toward revision, there'd be unbridled pummeling of the unwitting semiotician.
For the writer, literary theory not only is of no use but is detrimental to his progress and well-being. Once a writer starts believing that theory and not literature can be his guide through the labyrinth, he's doomed. His path always leads to literature, not theories about literature.
Even literary theoretician Terry Eagleton reaches this conclusion. After delineating the "analytical" method of inquiry into a literary text's "deep structures," a notion advanced by the imaginatively named group the Structuralists, which claims that the "content of the narrative is in its structure ... its own internal relations, its modes of sense-making," an issue dealt with in Workshop by discussing whether a story's form properly suits and illuminates its content, its how matching its what, and by asking if a given story's "modes of sense-making" are clearly apparent to the reader; after asserting that "meaning was neither a private experience nor a divinely ordained occurrence [but] the product of certain shared systems of signification, a problem Workshop tackles by asking if a story has honored the pact of sharing its creation with a reader; after admitting that the "literary movement of modernism ... brought structuralist and post-structuralist criticism to birth in the first place," then noting that theory's construction of a psychological school of criticism is based on the examination of how a story's "sub-text" reveals the "unconscious" intentions of—what, exactly? It can't be the author's intentions, since according to theory the author is dead. The "unconscious" intentions of language? Does language have an "unconscious"?; after all the dubious, self-defeating conundrums literary theory has foisted upon literature for the past half century, what does Eagleton propose to keep theory from "pressing its own implications too far" and thereby arguing "itself out of existence"? Rhetoric: "the received form of critical analysis all the way from ancient society to the eighteenth century, examined the way discourses are constructed in order to achieve certain effects."
"Rhetoric," he continues, "wanted to find out the most effective ways of pleading, persuading and debating, and rhetoricians studied such devices in other people's language in order to use them more productively in their own. It was, as we would say today," and as the Workshop has been saying for the past seventy years, "a creative as well as a critical activity."
The Iowa Writers' Workshop returned the study of literature and creative writing to a tradition that had served Western culture admirably from the time of Cicero up until the aberration called the cult of genius sprang into being during the Romantic period. The Workshop reconnected literary study to what Eagleton praises about classical rhetoric, its "grasping such practices as forms of ... pleading, persuading, inciting" and examining "such devices in terms of concrete performance" in order to tell, as well as they could be told, the necessary stories of our age. To accomplish this, the Workshop's repeated No, its focus on what not to do because it isn't working, was always complemented by a suggestion of where the writer should look for guidance. To Faulkner for control of long sentences. To Dickens for deepening caricature into character. To Jane Austen for seamlessly blending cultural criticism with comedy. To all of literature for example, as well as for solace and faith.
The Workshop jettisoned genius and ignored literary theory because, like the centuries-old tradition of rhetoric, it believed, in the words of Paul Engle, that writing was a "form of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between writers and readers," and that the nurture and love of literature could "materially affect American culture."
The stories in the pages that follow attest to the perpetual summer, abundance, and variety of Iowa's achievement, proof of its lush resonance in American culture. And if the writer himself is subject to bone-cold dejection and loneliness during the winters of his writing life, he is nonetheless in every season wreathed by the continual flowering of his and her mates, with whom he shares lifelong solidarity. And this faith in one another, and in the endurance of literature, is enough to sustain each of us, writer and reader alike.
|Workshop and the Writing Life||1|
|Chip Off the Old Block||23|
|And in My Heart||39|
|The Comforts of Home||84|
|The Illegibility of This World||103|
|The Fisherman Who Got Away||120|
|Offspring of the First Generation||130|
|Put Yourself in My Shoes||151|
|Falling in Love||184|
|The Last Generation||195|
|A More Complete Cross-Section||207|
|A Sorrowful Woman||224|
|Thirty-Four Seasons of Winter||230|
|A Solo Song: For Doc||258|
|A Women's Restaurant||308|
|Aren't You Happy for Me?||320|
|Blessed Assurance: A Moral Tale||334|
|The Story of My Life||441|
|The Year of Getting to Know Us||471|
|The Zealous Mourner||488|
|The Sutton Pie Safe||547|
|Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry||558|
|Out of the Woods||576|
|A Hole in the Sheets||618|
|Buckeye the Elder||655|
|Speaking in Tongues||675|
|About the Authors||761|
|About the Editor||769|