Mailer on Writing Courses


I was reading Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing and came across his justification for writing courses. With all the controversy over the value of a creative writing education, I thought Mailer offered a pretty good explanation.

If there is one reason above others for taking a writing course, it is to go through the agonizing but indispensable recognition that one’s own short story, so clear, so beautiful, so powerful, and so true, so definite in its meaning or so well balanced in its ambiguity, has become a hundred different things for the other writers present. Even the teacher does not get your symbols, or worse, does not like them. Being a young writer in such a course can bruise the psyche as much as being a novice in the Golden Gloves can hurt your head. There is punishment in recognizing how much more punishment will yet have to be taken. Yet the class has its unique and ineradicable value. For you get to see the faces of those who like your work, you hear their voices, and so you gain some comprehension of the perversities of an audience’s taste… You can even come to recognize how a fine piece of prose can draw the attention of an audience together. If it happens to you, if you write a piece and everyone in the room listens as if there is nourishment for one ear–his own–then it will not matter afterward if you hear a dozen separate reactions, for you will have at last the certainty that you are a writer. Your work has effect.

To use Mailer’s boxing analogy, I got my head bashed in quite a few times when the bell rang for writing class. But those rare good days, when a single line I wrote might have excited my classmates, or maybe I got a kind word from someone at the water fountain, propelled me through the bloody rounds.

On the subject of writing classes, the always informative Creative Writing MFA Handbook offers fantastic information on choosing a writing program if you’re interested in pursuing such a degree.

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