Rick Moody on Writing Programs

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In the fiction issue of The Atlantic (the issue that Rachel Donadio at The New York Times said was “ghettoizing” fiction), Rick Moody discusses his long history in writing workshops and he talks about what helped him and what didn’t. It’s an interesting article, well-argued, and measured in its criticisms of writing programs. It stands in sharp contrast to the whinings and wallowings of some other critics who complain but still like the paychecks, but anyway, don’t get me started on that again.

One of Moody’s most interesting criticisms is the claim that the typical creative writing workshop method has no more artistic integrity and real value to the writer than Hollywood’s test audiences. “The creative-writing workshop that is shorn of all ornament, that pre-emptively restrains the eruption of personality, that simply goes about its business–photo-copying stories, handing them out, collecting responses, handing back the responses–is, similarly, creative writing by committee. And because it is creative writing by committee, it hews to the statistical mean, which is to say the mediocre.”

Moody begins the article by talking about mentors and classes that were effective for him. He points out that Angela Carter at Brown University “did not conduct her workshop in the manner now familiar.” Carter didn’t care if students brought in any fiction, she gave long discussions on Mozart, bragged about seeing Pink Floyd in swinging London, liked the Doors, and “once boasted that she rarely made eye contact.” Her impact on Moody was immediate. “I thought, This is the teacher for me.”

John Hawkes was another mentor to Moody. “The goal of Hawkes’s class was to induce us to think like writers. He sometimes didn’t care whether a specific story was made fit for publication,” Moody writes. “He wanted us to think about language and dramatic structure, and how these worked in literature, and he wanted us to delight in these things when done well.”

Moody then describes his time at Columbia. He says he wanted to attend Johns Hopkins to study with John Barth, but he was rejected. He was also rejected at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop so he ended up at Columbia. After discussing the history of the mentorship model of instruction (a model he says Carter and Hawkes followed) he argues that “the contemporary workshop comes to us more from the organizational or corporate theories of the 1950’s. The workshop is, in fact, about sales and marketing. It is about pitching your story or poem or essay to the audience in such a way that the response will be predictable, measurable, and easily understood. It is about making your story do exactly what stories (or poems, or essays) have always done.”

Although I cherished my workshop experience, I can certainly understand Moody’s criticisms. Workshops can take on a tyranny of the group, where individuals are suppressed and the overall style of the group is all that is accepted. Or, a workshop can sometimes go to another extreme where one respected member of the class can sway the entire group’s opinion. This has nothing to do with the teacher, it’s the groupthink of the class. And I’ve seen both happen.

I have always been a fan of writers who covered the wealthy and the glamorous, from Fitzgerald to McInerney. Maybe it was my own escapist fantasies from mucking stalls and shoveling horse shit in small town Kentucky. But in grad school, I occasionally penned stories featuring wealthy horse owners at Derby parties and the like. One particular story just got eviscerated by the class. This was the point where we had all discovered Raymond Carver and those writers so anything that didn’t include, at a minimum, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, an eviction notice, and a least a couple of empty beer cans wasn’t considered worth the breath we would use talking about it. My story was ripped to shreds and after the class, Hannah confirmed what I had been stewing about but wouldn’t say. “They wouldn’t like any story that wasn’t about drunken marriages falling apart and landlords pounding on the door. So you probably couldn’t win based on that alone.” But then, he followed up quickly with, as only he can, “but having said that, the story did, in fact, suck.”

In other cases, I’ve seen a respected member of the class save a drowning story. Twenty-two people will be saying that the story drove them to vomit, and then That One Guy, every class has one, the one guy that you know you’re going to see in The New Yorker in the next six months or so, that one guy says “you know, it’s not that bad.” And within ten minutes, the group has wiped up their pools of vomit, sprinkled that pine smelling stuff over it, and now claim that the story drove them to tears of joy.

And of course, when That One Guy turns in his story, no one dares say anything bad about it. So like Moody’s film analogy, his reputation wins over the test audience before the reading has even begun.

Moody’s criticisms of the workshop style grow as his time at Columbia deterioriated. “In my second semester I watched a professor fall asleep while reading aloud from a student’s work. In my third semester a professor asked for a hand count of class members who thought my work was boring. I spent my entire fourth semester drinking, without any ill effects on my day-to-day life at Columbia.” I must say that I certainly never saw such horrors in my classes.

Ultimately, Moody does agree that the current workshop method has some merits. But what he is suggesting is that “a workshop structure that becomes oriented toward what is easy to say about a story will, by its very nature, default on its responsibility when faced with two kinds of work: the very good and the very bad. What gets lost, therefore, is what is at the margins of convention, and that is potentially catastrophic, because a literary form is defined in part by the marginal, by what is impossible, by what is grandiose and revolutionary, whether in the good sense or in the bad. If all the houses on the street were gray, you would never know if gray was a better color than lavender.”

Moody’s prescription is a fair one: simply question what goes on in class. I don’t believe he’s asking for total destruction of the current workshop method, but simply change it up now and then. Try other things. “What if no one turned in a story for three weeks, and all you did was sit around talking about the ugliest kid you knew in childhood, or the worst job you ever had? What if all you did in class was assignments? What if you rewrote one sentence all semester? What if everyone got a chance to be the instructor, and everyone got a chance to be the student? Then, I think, we’d be getting somewhere.”

Interesting points all. In a practical matter, however, I think it would be difficult to institute all of Moody’s suggestions. It would require a genius, an accepted legend in the literary world, to be able to convince a class full of eager writers that as part of their creative writing education, they weren’t going to turn in a story. There is a commerce aspect to creative writing programs and rare would be the director or dean who would be willing to tolerate a deluge of student evaluations that complained “we did nothing but rewrite the same sentence for the entire semester!” I’m not saying that education should be determined by student evaluations, but we must be practical in acknowledging the pressures that teachers and departments face.

Anyway, it’s an interesting article. I didn’t give away all the good bits, so be sure to pick up The Atlantic and see what you think about Rick Moody’s thoughts on teaching writing.

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