Recently, a famous and much-lauded writer whose Substack I follow wrote a post on writer etiquette, which included a list of questions, asked on book tours, that they said are ‘annoying’. Where do you get your ideas, etc. Later, another list of ‘What should I not say to a writer?’
The audience for this post was unclear. Was it written to non-writers, who may not understand what writing/being a writer is like, or was it for not-yet published writers? ‘Are you wanting to become a serious student of writing, and/or are you one already?’ this writer asks at one point, suggesting the latter, which reveals the post’s just total ickiness; the underlying message is ‘A lot of unsuccessful writers just don’t get how hard it is to be successful.’
That this ‘advice’ was framed as etiquette seems downright Trumpian.
This is a strain of social media complaint I have no time for (and I love a good complaint). I recall another writer years back tweeting how they had to go to the grocery store (can you believe it?) to finally buy a pair of socks, because they’d been on a book tour for so long they ran out of socks and didn’t have time to do laundry.
You may have heard anecdotally that the percentage of authors who get to go on book tours is measly. I’ve published 2 books, and any touring I did I had to book and pay for myself. And even that, I recognized, was an enormous privilege—bookstores around the country said Okay to me coming there to read from my book, which they did the work of buying copies of.
Anybody on their book tour is not an aggrieved party. Does traveling suck at times? Yes, for every traveler ever. Do people ask annoying questions? Yes, at every party across the land.
Relatedly, authors like to complain about their Goodreads and Amazon reviews, without understanding the wonderful luck and privilege of getting to be reviewed. I would shave my mustache to have 50 1-star reviews of my book. What a luxury!
What none of these writers complaining about success seem able to imagine is the misery of utter silence. Imagine writing a book that nobody reviews. Imagine arriving at a bookstore where nobody shows up to hear you. Imagine sitting there on your phone, hoping someone arrives late so you can sell at least 1 copy before you need to drive 8 hours to the next stop on the tour, and scrolling to see someone complaining about how ANOTHER person at a packed reading asked them whether they write on a computer or by hand.
When you go on book tour, when you do a reading, nobody is there for you. You are there for them. Sometimes they’ve even paid for the privilege of getting to listen to you. Maybe they do have questions about how you balance your time as a writer and as a mother, and maybe this question is utterly sexist in how nobody asks dads how they do it, but that person in some form or another needs help, and they’ve come to you for it.
Here’s my favorite example of a writer handling an annoying question, not at a book tour, but in a televised live interview:
What Morrison does there takes courage, but also compassion. It seems also to call for a level of respect, Morrison seeing a clear ignorance in the mind of her interviewer and respecting her enough to correct it, to trust that this person is correctable.
Now: Morrison is not trying to sell a book and build a career; she’s got a Nobel at this point. It’s a far different position from the writer needing to be ‘likable’ to sell books and get invited back places. And so maybe this is one way we can understand complaining about success: even for writers whose work (or whose careers) you might envy, their success doesn’t feel to them like success.
Is it inevitable? Is it human nature to take on all the trappings and attitudes of the managerial class as soon as we’re given access to it? I remember getting drinks with a friend shortly after I began my job as director of the MFA program I teach in. ‘You’re like Zadie Smith!’ he said, only a bit tongue-in-cheek. (Smith at the time was the director of the MFA program at NYU.)
I was not like Zadie Smith, in that my last book didn’t get reviewed, and twice, in two different tours, I’d shown up at a bookstore for a reading and nobody’d come to hear me. He meant more in terms of the position of power I had, or privilege? It reminded me of the number of people who’ve told me I have a ‘dream job’: tenured and teaching graduate students in San Francisco, getting a course release such that I teach just one class session a week. I’ve achieved a lot of success in a field adjacent to writing-publishing. Do I complain about it?
I complain about how this job forces me to think like an administrator: bottom-line myopia, 7-page syllabi that read like user agreements, etc. I complain about the energy it takes away from my writing. I complain about the time it takes away from my teaching, and getting to work with students in an educational context rather than an administrative one.
These complaints usually come from my feeling unfit, or my feeling this job is unfit for me. I’m just a guy who wants to write, is the story I tell myself. I just want to write and talk to students about writing.
That I have not had much success with my writing (again, success complaints: I’ve published 2 books and have an agent) fuels my complaining about my job. And, as you’ve likely long noticed by now, fuels my complaining about successful authors’ complaining.
I don’t have a way out of this post. I’m overdue this morning to start working on the memoir I’m so slowly writing. Maybe this is a way to end:
Last night, I saw Natalie Diaz in conversation with Hilton Als at City Arts & Lectures. Toward the end of the night, Als asked Diaz about her teaching, and Diaz said (I’m paraphrasing) she’s relatively new to teaching, and at this point she’s given up trying to change the institution, to decolonize the university. Because the institution is too resistant to change. It won’t change. So now, Diaz focuses on making the kind of space she wants to make in the classroom for her students, to direct her creative energies there. Will it change the institution? It may (but unlikely), but more importantly it makes a space where students are harbored from the ills and evils of the institution.
The downsides of a successful life of writing will likely not change, no matter how much we try to correct them by writing about etiquette. So regardless of what successes we enjoy, here’s a reminder to make your space what you need it to be, and flourish there.
She told our class that there were really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge. She told us that if we couldn’t take rejection, if we couldn’t be told no, then we couldn’t be writers. ‘I’d rather shoot myself than read that again,’ she often said. The fact that writing could not be taught was clear from the way she shrugged and lifted her eyes after this or that student effort. ‘I don’t know why it is we can read Dostoyevsky and then go back and write like idiots.’ But a passion for reading could be shared. She said that the only way to learn to write was to read. Week after week, she read something new to us: Pasternak, Rilke, Baudelaire, Gogol.
What a nightmare of a teacher.
There’s a grift at work in Hardwickian teaching (unfair to name it after her, as she wasn’t the first creative writing teacher to inspire and teach from idolatry, and won’t be the last). It’s a lot like the lies of the GOP. Hating the way good governance gets in the way of profit-growth and white supremacy, the GOP needs to convince folks not only that government itself is bad, but (here’s the grift) that the best way to fix the problem is to elect people with open disdain for good governance.
Hire termites to build your deck. Hire the Beastie Boys to chaperone the school dance. Hire a teacher who doesn’t believe writing can be taught to teach writing. What feels like Outside The Box thinking will soon lead to your ruin.
In Pinckney’s case, his bad teacher happened to (a) have direct ties to the New York Review of Books, and (b) take him under her proverbial wing, inviting him to her apartment every week to talk about writing and books. So the actual damage Hardwick was doing to him and his classmates is glossed over in this piece that focuses instead on their intimate friendship.
Would that Pinckney found some classmates to interview. How many would-be writers never came to be because of Hardwick’s characteristic shrugging?
Teaching like this drives me up a fucking wall. I want to get to the bottom of why, and to start we’ll need to look more closely at what ‘teaching like this’ is, and what’s so bad about it.
People who don’t love comedy like to claim that there are certain things you can’t make jokes about—rape, the Holocaust, child abuse, etc.—and then expert comics come along and write very good jokes about those things. (And inexpert comics come along and write very bad jokes that seem to prove the claim.)
People who don’t know—or, more importantly, care—about teaching like to claim there are certain things you can’t teach. It’s another kind of lie that reminds me of GOP grift. To believe that Some Things Can’t Be Taught is like believing that Some Billionaires Are Self-Made. It seems deeply unreasonable to suspect that people come up with their ideas, knowledge, ability (or, in this analogy, money) out of thin air. What’s known, what’s practiced, has to be learned, and if you believe in learning you can’t not believe in teaching.
Teaching is the art and science of getting somebody to learn something.
If you don’t think writing can be taught, you don’t believe in teaching. Or, you believe that writing is in some special category outside of all other forms of knowledge and ability.
Either way, you shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom.
Later in the piece, Pinckney paraphrases mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: ‘You cannot learn unless you fall in love with the source of learning.’
I want to think closely about this line, because it points to acts of seduction, and there’s something so seductive about Hardwickian teaching—for the student, as we see in Pinckney’s piece, but also for the teacher.
I would love, LOVE to teach this way. It’s what I imagine the job of food competition show judge being like: waltz in, get fed food you neither prepared nor paid for, talk about what you like and dislike, and get paid. Claim your authority and let it make you charming by how scrupulously you hand out favor. (Paul Hollywood, I’m looking in your handshake’s direction.) My job would be so goddamn easy.
If there’s a hard part of this job it seems to be the Falling In Love part: being the right sort of selfish teacher that makes students swoon. Likely this is easy, too, in that the institutional setting has engineered much of the romance for you. Students arrive vulnerable and needing, open to new ideas. Maybe your class has been tough to get into, a line of applicants you get to pick from like chocolates in a box. Thus your students feel chosen, special. Each of them secretly hoping they’re your favorite.
I mean what could go wrong?
One more example, and then I’m going to try to play some devil’s advocate. In grad school, a teacher I swooned for was the writer Robert Olen Butler, who came a couple of years to the Nebraska Summer Writers’ Conference. I didn’t know his work, I only knew his accolades. (The Pulitzer Prize!) I didn’t get to take a workshop with him, because they filled up with paying members quickly, and I was a lowly volunteer. But I did take time to attend a panel at another conference that I recall being Butler and four of his former students, all talking about what they learned from him in grad school, and how it fed into their fiction.
At any rate, the key word with Butlerian teaching is ‘yearning’. Butler has decided that ‘fiction is the art form of human yearning’, and the student panelists talked about how, in class, he’d ask them to read from their story and stop them the moment he couldn’t hear any yearning on the page. That’s when they knew they had some revision work to do, and they knew exactly what to revise for.
Call it Theory Of Everything teaching. Marilynn Robinson at Iowa reportedly used to allow only realism in her workshops, because it was the only fiction she found worthwhile. In TOE teaching, the teacher—the authority in the room—demands that art stay continuous with what they have read and known and believed in. The teacher approves only what’s familiar to them. In such a rubric, what chance does any art have to move forward?
What art has ever moved forward in a classroom? It does seem foolish to assume that students’ growth and breakthroughs happen from what’s learned in the classroom instead of against it, outside that space, in students’ own time and minds. Which brings to mind another story I’ve collected about bad teaching, this one from David Foster Wallace’s ‘E Unibus Plurum’ (which I imagine Butler et al had never read, or had and found ways to dismiss its arguments that TV has changed literary fiction in ways the latter better soon catch up with):
In one of the graduate workshops I suffered through, an earnest gray eminence kept trying to convince our class that a literary story or novel always eschews ‘any feature which serves to date it,’ because ‘serious fiction must be timeless.’ When we finally protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his proscription to those explicit references that would date a story in the frivolous ‘Now.’ When pressed for just what stuff evoked this f.N., he said of course he meant the ‘trendy mass-popular-media’ reference. And here, at just this point, transgenerational discourse broke down. We looked at him blankly. We scratched our little heads. We didn’t get it. This guy and his students just didn’t imagine the ‘serious’ world the same way. His automobiled timeless and our FCC’d own were different.
Before I started teaching, I feared ever being such a clueless teacher. But after I started teaching, I eventually became okay with being such a teacher. If something I say or insist on in the classroom annoys or even reviles a student, leading them to write something against my teachings (there’s Hardwick’s revenge motive for you), haven’t I still taught them something? I don’t ever want to write like Dave Madden is, in its way, a useful thing to learn about yourself.
There’s a different kind of arrogance behind the teaching I favor—i.e., meeting each student where they are, assessing their knowledge and goals, and giving them applicable tools to achieve those goals. It’s an arrogance about how I’m not only able to be the best teacher they have, but the sole teacher they have. Put another way, I’m playing out a fantasy where my course is some kind of culmination of my students’ learning, rather than one class amid a long education, one that begins before and continues after they enroll in our program. I’m likely deluding myself about the influence I can have on one student in 15 weeks.
Another point worth making: I’m teaching from my insecurities as a writer. I have publications, sure, and I’ve won a tiny amount of awards here and there, but I don’t have the kind of career others notice and discuss, like Butler and Hardwick did. What I Think Writing Should Be And Do has not been publicly sanctioned in the same way.
Without the literary success that could enable me to become a Hardwickian inspirer, with hard-and-fast opinions delivered openly (I am tenured after all), I hold onto teaching know-how. My dilettanteish reading into how learning happens in the brain. (And my publications on the same.) If I feel I can’t be an inspiration to students, then I’ll try to be the smartest guy in the room.
Which brings me back to Pinckney’s luck and privilege. He was enrolled at Columbia after all. No discussion in the piece about the costs of that education, or who paid for it, or what kind of student loans he graduated with. Hardwickian teaching is a dream for students whose lives are fully committed to learning and scholarliness.
When your students are spending tens of thousands of dollars for a writing education, and working hard to fit that learning in amid their full-time jobs, their family obligations, etc., Hardwickian teaching isn’t just bad, it feels like a kind of abuse. Imagine admitting someone to your class, then telling them their writing isn’t very good.
Then again, I might also imagine a student more resilient to bad teaching. From Pinckney’s piece:
[Hardwick] didn’t think I needed to burden myself with trying to be a gay novelist.
‘Sex is comic and love is tragic,’ she told me. ‘Queers know this.’
She said that I didn’t yet have the experience for what I was writing about, and that the writing itself was immature, because I was imitating her, which, she could assure me, was a dead end.
‘Better stay away from gay lit, honey.’
As much as he learned from Hardwick, kudos to Pinckney for knowing when not to learn from her, too.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
In classic New Yorker fashion, turns out this isn’t a magazine piece or essay he’s written, but rather a publicist/agent–landed excerpt from a forthcoming book.↵
These are the kinds of panels conference organizers used to approve. God, I hope they’re not still doing it, just with more inclusive faculty.↵
When I was a kid, as a private dare with myself, I’d sometimes stop and picture being dead. I’d close my eyes, because the dead couldn’t see, and imagine eternity. What I saw was a conscious void, almost like floating through space in a body that couldn’t move, but in this fantasy my soul lived on to watch itself, forever. I pictured having to not just conceive eternity, but continually face it. A thousand years of absolute black stillness, then a million years after that. My heart would start racing and I’d run off to distract myself from such thoughts. When I was a kid, I feared death more than anything.
I’m still afraid to die, but the fear now hovers around regret. I’m afraid to die before I finish this book, before I see the parts of the world N & I want to see together, etc., but I’m more afraid to look backward at the moment of death and see myself at the end of a story about a coward. Or a tyrant. Or a miser of his emotions.
Avoiding that regret takes a certain serenity of mind re the complex mess of living a long life, but it seems also to task me with sowing the right seeds in this present. I am—we all are—right now living the very life we’ll one day see from the perspective of its end, and so what exactly are we making? And more importantly: how can we live the life that pleases us now and will also please us later?
A couple weeks back I wrote about compassionate hedonism. That’s not what all this is about exactly, but I do think I’m talking about a focus on maximizing pleasures now without much concern for long-term effects (of, say, drinking or being yourself). Talk of life’s end brings to mind the popular obsession with longevity. I saw Death Becomes Her early in life (maybe even in the theater), so I know from the dangers of focusing on quantity of life over quality, and it’s almost not worth writing about the glut of articles online with headlines like These 3 Lifestyle Changes Will Add Months to Your Life. Fearing death all those years, I read every such article I came across, and spent the next week or so consciously adding more walnuts to my diet, or trying to remember to sit and breathe pranic-ly for 5 minutes.
I didn’t necessarily need to live to see 100, but I knew I didn’t want to die in my 80s. To die in my 80s felt like quitting the race before I reached the finish line, that I’d done too poor a job of pacing myself, and then having to watch others continue on without me. I’ve noticed in the last year maybe that I’ve stopped thinking this way, dropped the whole notion of a target number all together. I want instead to enjoy my time running, to belabor this race metaphor. I think I’d be okay dying in my 80s, my 70s, my 60s even, so long as I was dying without regret.
It’s with all these notions that I was a quick liker of this recent Instagram post I found in my feed:
I’ll type it out (with edits) for better legibility:
Top Five Regrets of the Dying Bronnie Ware, Australian nurse
Phenomenal clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives (same top 5 regrets people expressed in the last 12 weeks of life)
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. (Every male patient; felt they missed their children’s youth and partner’s companionship.)
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I’d let myself be happier. (Realized happiness was a choice.)
I have some cynicisms to work through before I get into how this list moved me. One’s about this ‘phenomenal clarity of vision’. Ware wrote a book about these regrets, one I should probably read, but much of this sounds like a just-so story about death and dying—that deathbeds are a site of magical wisdoms. I haven’t sat by anyone’s deathbed, and I’m of course not a hospice nurse, but clarity of mind doesn’t seem to be a salient feature in the final weeks of a person’s life. (I’m thinking of those who die at a very old age, and all the levels of cognitive decline that attend such a death, but maybe Ware’s book’s wisdoms come from folks dying at all ages.)
I also want to dismiss the implication that happiness is a choice, another just-so story we like to tell about happiness. Why should that emotion get this special status apart from the others? Do we tell people that fear is a choice, or anger? I know so little about emotions, but whether or not we sort them into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ones, it seems like a total lie to imply that a successful life involves learning how to opt out of some in favor of others. Fear comes to you in a blink. People make you angry in how they treat you. Just imagine choosing never to feel surprise. (Or only to.) As this great recent New Yorker article unpacks, our emotions are not created or even experienced inside us, in isolation, but rather are far more external and socially constructed than we tend to see. Likely this bit about choosing happiness is meant to suggest silver linings, or mindfulness practices. Taking time in the thick of life’s messes and disappointments to reconnect with, or see anew, the parts of it that fill us with joy, however small or short-lived.
As I said, I was moved by this list the way Scrooge was moved by the sight of his own grave. I took it as a warning, with the relief in my heart that it didn’t seem to be too late. Act now was the general idea. Check in with yourself on how true these are for you. I don’t live a life true to myself, because I’ve convinced myself that myself as I am—fiercely boundaried, caustically angry, endlessly horny, manic and spastic, talking to himself in silly voices, picking his nose amorously, quickly disappointed by virtuousness (I won’t go on)—makes me unacceptable to others.[*]
I do stay in touch with my friends. I Zoomed with 2 middle school friends on Wednesday and will Zoom with 2 college friends tonight. We do this like clockwork. It has changed the quality of my life immensely, and I love my friends so much I’d do anything to keep them in my life.
At any rate, as soon as I saw the post I started thinking about how to teach these—not, probably, in my own classes. But as a teacher, I have kneejerk reactions against Life Lessons, which often read more like learning outcomes than actual lessons. Any time you share something you’ve learned, you tell someone the end of a story they haven’t themselves lived through, and it’s likely a story you can’t reconstruct. What steps did you go through to come to understand that thing you know, and can you be sure those steps are translatable to another person’s lived experience?
Teaching is many things, but one of its arts is learning how to find (or, often, fabricate) that story from not-knowing to knowing.
So how do you teach choosing happiness, if happiness is indeed a choice? How do you teach gauging the limits of hard work? Note how much there is to teach in these stated regrets. What is courage, exactly, and how does it differ from bravery, or derring-do? How do you recognize courage within yourself, and then how do you cultivate it? How do you know when to use it? And then after the courage unit’s learning is achieved, it’s time to go on to feelings. What are they, exactly, how do you discern among them, etc. etc.
Finally, you can move on to the expression of feeling, which has been much of the focus of my therapy sessions for the last 7 years or so. Even understanding why this is unbelievably hard for me is unbelievably hard. I think much of the learning has been unlearning, undoing; my guess is that we as children don’t have trouble expressing anything, but somehow pick up over time habits of nondisclosure, or of shutting up, shutting down, burying feelings out of some disregard for them, or in some faith that the situation will improve with our silence.
Regardless of how I learned what I learned, I’m in therapy to unlearn it, because the life I’m preventing myself from living by not expressing my feelings has become more and more tangible and manifest. I can see it, just over there, almost like through a tall chainlink fence. And I also feel, at 44, that the time I have is starting to run out, and one day I’ll no longer have what it takes to climb over there.
Which returns me to a final cynicism about these regrets: is it even possible to die without them? Living a life without regret seems to be as possible as living a life without sadness, or anger, or even happiness. None of these are states to achieve, but storms that pass through us multiple times a day. Like ‘choosing to be happy’, we might also allow the dying to choose to ignore the times they, as human beings, didn’t live up to our ideals. Who always can?
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I know I said I wouldn’t go on, but the question naturally follows: Why not just be yourself all the time? And the answer that comes to mind is the same answer I always had at the ready when I asked myself Why not just be gay? I’ll lose everyone. As in some sudden exodus. And it’s worth remembering how that didn’t happen. Indeed, I didn’t lose anyone.↵
The worst best time of the year. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve heard those words (usually just before the word “savings”), a spark of anger pins me to my spot. Not yet damn it. It’s like last call on the bar night of your summer. As a kid I felt this, the dread of a coming routine and monotony, of homework and new classmates to navigate. Those pains got mitigated by shopping: new bluejeans, a Britches backpack in a cooler color, a fresh 64-count Crayola box with sharpener. I liked thinking about my First Day Outfit. But if Back To School was the start of something, it was the start of another chore. Another room to clean. Another bag of trash to take out to the curb.
Now I’m a teacher, and Back To School is still a drag, because teachers love summer break more, I’d argue, than students do. But if my Back To School is the start of something, it’s always the start of another shot. Teachers have, if you’ll forgive the pervy comparison, a Woodersonian school experience: we get older, they stay the same age. What that means is that the school year is like Groundhog Day (there’s a far less problematic comparison), where it sometimes feels like the only thing that’s changed is our wisdom (or ignorance) and our energy (or our weariness). A third comparison: for teachers, the start of the new school year is what the start of the new calendar year is for everyone else. A chance to do better. That’s what makes Back To School more of a thrill than a drag, for me at least.
Here are my resolutions for this school year:
Privilege the macro-level when it comes to reading and commenting on student MSs. Not just overall shape and structure and form stuff, but stuff like implied authors, mode-shifting, and even that outmoded idea of theme. This is the stuff I feel shakiest on as a writer and teacher. The stuff that has always felt to be on the spookier side of writing—can’t we just take care of the pence of our texts and let the pounds take care of themselves, so to speak?
Keep my directing duties in their place. Easier said than done, but for me (who chases after quantifiable achievements so as to convince myself I’m not a bad person), it’s easy to believe that I’ve been hired for the job of Academic Director of the MFA Program, and that I need to fill my workday with answered emails and new spreadsheets and other “deliverables” to prove I’m worthy of the job, whereas the reality is that it’s my turn in the faculty rotation for this service duty, which should take exactly half my working hours—i.e., 3/6 of my workload alongside research (2/6) and teaching (1/6).[*]
Stay safe, flexible, and compassionate. Because the one glaring difference this Back To School is that the Groundhog Day effect is reversed: we are back in offices and classrooms after 17 months of shut-in pandemic monotony. That feels great, and yet people are wary enough about the prospect of coming back together that a colleague published an op-ed in last Sunday’s Chronicle that was given the headline: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to kill me?”
As much as the laziest parts of me might love business as usual, it’s neither a way to grow nor what our times seem to be calling for. I’m glad that we’re back. I can’t wait to see students in our offices again, behind masks for now. I feel excited this morning, maybe half-hopeful, half-wary, but tonight is the first night of classes in our MFA Program and the thrill of that is still palpable, even though I personally won’t be in classrooms owing to my teaching thesis students one-on-one this term.
I guess the point of this post is to capture that feeling, however poorly and distractedly I’m doing it. The best part of my job is getting a student to learn a new thing. And the ultra best part of my job is getting a student to see something they wrote in a new light, to realize that what they’ve been trying to do—be a good writer—has already been happening. For us teachers, today’s the first day that starts.
Now I need to go pick out an outfit.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
If you read this and think I should be using quote marks above when I write “Now I’m a teacher,” that’s fair. I’d much rather be a teacher than an administrator but this currently is my lot in life.↵
In my Nonfiction Studio course we begin each class writing from a prompt for thirty minutes or so, then discussing the choices we made in our writing and what it tells us about what writing is and can do. For camaraderie purposes, I write along with them. When I get something down worth sharing, I aim to post it here, if only because the semester’s beginning and my being deep into an essay project have led me to post much less here than I did in 2020. Last night’s prompt was to write an essay with the above title, and this is what I wrote.
“All art is quite useless” is a phrase I hold onto as dearly as “We are all sinners.” Both release me. Not the way the harness on a rollercoaster releases me after the car slides in to whatever that large hut thing is called, returning me to my calm-hearted life, but the way a snow day did, all those years ago. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am today, and what I am isn’t any worse than what you are. Ditto the art I make.
I come back, unfairly, and perhaps without enough compassion, to a former student’s writing, and revising, and revising again for their thesis, an essay about laundry. There was a paragraph about the temperature of water called for with various materials and colors. There was a whole thing about stains, and another thing about their delicates, and then the term “delicates”. It was, as far as art goes, totally useless, and while my job was to help them make the essay what they hoped it would be (I recall their aims being very personal, in that they found themselves thinking one day about laundry and how weird it was, and they wanted to inspire their reader to think this deeply about laundry themselves), I privately resented having, once again, to talk about this essay on laundry.
Q: Who cares?
Q: So what?
These are real, and indelicate, questions that “All art is quite useless” protects the artist from deigning to answer, and so I come repeatedly to this feeble feeling whenever I’m in the vicinity of Art For Art’s Sake-ers. But:
A: Why is caring important?
A: What else, if not this?
The question, in prayer one morning, that changed my life just a touch, but irrevocably, the way a cat’s tail knocks the heirloom glass off the table: “Why me, God? Why do I get unconditional love?”
The answer, immediate: “Why not you?”
When it’s so hard to accept that anything you do is good enough, Wilde’s epigram feels like salvation. I am tired of art that doesn’t say anything. I am tired of laundry essays that steer my mind only them-ward. This weariness is why I’m writing the book I’m writing now and not the book I wanted to write eight years ago. But the moment I think of duty, or purpose, and the moment I wonder whether to align my purpose with some cause in the world I’m writing about, I stop writing about it. I hate “Art For Art’s Sake” as a critic and an audience, but I hold it very close as an artist.
January means application deadline season for most MFA in writing programs, and I know what that means for thousands of people in the country: the beginning of 3 or 4 months of anxiety. If you number among them, I hope you get into the program you want to. But I also hope you take this time to consider what it is you’re looking for in an MFA program, and how you know that the programs you’ve applied to are going to treat you well.
What’s “well” mean? Well, after ten years of teaching in MFA programs, I’ve come to understand some of what leads to graduate success—and I’m defining “success” here to mean graduates feel that (a) they’ve grown as writers and are equipped to continue growing even after we stop giving them homework and deadlines, (b) they understand the current literary and publishing landscape and are ready to be a writer in the world, (c) they’ve been taken care of these last few years and that whatever money or labor they paid for their degree with was well spent.
In grad school, Rita Mae Brown once asked my class if, in our careers, we’d rather be Britney Spears or an opera singer, and while I remember being charmed, in 2007, by this quaint comparison, I’ve taken it to heart: a quality education prepares a writer for a lifelong career, not an instant success. So success to me doesn’t mean a book deal, or NYC publishing connections, or a job teaching creative writing. Success to me doesn’t feel like students have “won” the Best MFA Grad competition. (It may look different to you.)
I direct an MFA program.[*] We all make lots of claims and promises about what makes our specific programs great. I believe we’re all telling the truth, there’s no reason to distrust people, but in the spirit of helping applicants find the programs they know will treat them well, I’ve come up with this list of questions you might think to ask the programs that accept you, should you find yourself this spring in the enviable position of getting to choose among them.
This list is not exhaustive, but I’ve tried to split them up in 3 categories corresponding to my definition of success, above:
Your Aesthetic/Academic Growth If you’re into genre, or formalism, or “the very personal essay” as found on websites, it’s no good for a program to “correct” this interest toward what it deems literary. An MFA program should be designed to not only help you develop the kind of writing you’re into now, but also expose you to other kinds of writing that are out there. That exposure is how growth happens; programs should be your partner in where you need to be, not where they’ve decided Every Writer Needs to Be. So:
How regularly will you be able to enroll in the classes you want to? What method(s) does the program use to place students in classes each term?
What openings are possible for you to take classes in a different genre than what you applied in?
What guidelines, suggestions, or restrictions does the program give instructors in designing their course reading lists?
Are directed-study courses possible, and how often do full-time faculty members agree to teach them?
In what ways does the program teach students about the writing process, and not just their writing products? How will you be taught not just what a good book looks like, but actively how to go about writing one from scratch?
Your Education on Today’s Writing Landscape Assume that everyone teaching in an MFA program knows and can teach how literature was put together in the 20th century, but a lot has changed in literature, publishing, and the teaching of creative writing over the last twenty years. Much of these changes have come from queer and BIPOC voices (slowly) being better represented in publishing and academia (to say nothing of the very different means by which writing finds readers in 2021). By now, MFA programs should have already incorporated anti-racist representation, global literatures, and digital publishing into their curriculum. If they haven’t, you should try to get a clear understanding of their commitments and timeline for doing so. So:
What training do instructors get in how to manage issues of bias and representation in the workshop? What programming or coursework has the program committed to to fight racism and bias in writing?
What specific courses are offered in publishing, or do instructors take care of this on their own time in workshop courses? What kind of programming is in place to prepare students to publish their work successfully in the 2020s?
How often do senior/tenured faculty have their teaching observed or otherwise get feedback on their methods? Who reviews faculty teaching evaluations, and how often? What programming does the program or the university put in place to help faculty continually update their teaching?
What kind of contact does the program maintain with its alumni, and how readily can current students be in touch with alumni to learn about their lives and careers after getting their degrees?
Your Care and Management Nobody likes to feel they need to be managed, like some problem, but if you think about it the way Hollywood types do, it’s a useful model: you need a manager-advocate (or two) who’s invested in your growth, and you need to make sure you’ll have as much as voice and presence in the program as you want. So:
Will you get an adviser to guide you through the program, helping you choose the best courses for you? Will you work with the same adviser throughout your time there, or new ones periodically? Are all advisers full-time faculty in the MFA program?
What kind of support is there for planning your thesis project before your final semester/year?
How many students, on average, should you expect in your workshop courses?[†]
Have the MFA students created an organization of their own, which they govern, and which works to develop community or build advocacy for students (or both)? If not, does the university provide resources for such student organizations?
There are hundreds of other questions to ask programs I didn’t address here. You may have concerns about its labor practices vis-a-vis its part-time faculty. You may want to know how trans students have fared in the past (and whether the program has enrolled any). You may want assurance that you won’t be silo’d onto a campus and want to know how the program connects with the greater community. The point here is that you should always feel you have the right to ask these questions, and you should assume any program will be happy to answer them for you.
Remember: you’ve been accepted, so they now need you just as much as you need them. The only way you’ll succeed (in grad school, that is; grad school itself isn’t required for success) is by enrolling in a program that’ll work for you, in both senses of the term. So I urge you to take the time to learn the most you can about what your time as a student there will be like.
And yes, prepare for your classrooms to look like the photo above. It’s not all old wood and staring out leaded glass windows onto centuries-old oaks, folks.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
I’ll note that I’m writing this post as a person who’s gone through grad school and still carries ideas and opinions; I’m not speaking in my professional role as director of an MFA program, though I try every day to practice the things I preach.↵
Opinions, and university resources, differ here, but if you ask me, more than 12 is worrisome and more than 15 deserves an explanation.↵