Choose Your Own Adventure
Here’s a thought game: imagine a young carpenter, in her early-to-mid twenties, let’s say. She’s been working wood for, what, five years? More? Maybe she got into wood working because of her mom or grandpa or aunt or maybe because her industrial arts teacher in seventh grade was so rhapsodically enthusiastic about her first birdhouse that she got the bug there and then. So now she’s twenty-two and she’s just gotten her first apprenticeship, and she walks in the first day and her foreman asks her to choose between working on cabinets or working on framing.
Until then, our young carpenter’s entire relationship with wood has been based on play. She made her best friend a circular cribbage set one summer afternoon because it seemed like a fun project, and later she made a series of frames for her aunt after her aunt’s husband died. She’d helped her little brother lathe a piece of maple into a baseball bat. And so this morning, in front of her new boss, this young woman’s confused at this strange claim that she has to, suddenly, choose. She bites her tongue instead of asking if there are rules about specific wood she’s allowed to use as well, if there’s a no-Ash-on-Tuesday rule or something equally ridiculous.
Insane, right? Pick a different scenario if you’d like. Does a guy who likes fixing cars have to choose between working on drive trains or engines? How about a clothes designer getting asked to work exclusively on blouses? So why, when I go back to campus in a few weeks, will all of my conversations with the incoming MFA class start with each student telling me what he or she writes, fiction or poetry?
I know, I know: MFA programs are about the ripest possible fruit to criticize, pick apart, ridicule, and lament. This isn’t, though, about MFA programs ruining short stories, about young, risk-taking craftspeople getting derailed by groupthink. But why the choice? What’s the source of this weird Rubicon across which so few writers seem willing to cross? Why is the list of writers who work in both poetry and fiction so short (though, in fairness, stuffed with some greats, with Grace Paley and Margaret Atwood being the quickest, easiest examples)?
Here’s why I ask: the absolute worst writing I do is nonfiction writing. I review books, I interview authors, and on occasion I write a longer, essay-ish thing that I almost instantly bury in some strangely-named folder deep in my computer’s brain. The only nonfiction writing I really deep down love is letter writing, and that’s not exactly the brightest light in the literary heavens. Left to my own devices, I’ll pick poetry and fiction ninety-nine times out of one hundred if I’m staring at a blank page.
And yet, here I am, writing this nonfiction piece, for a website. And why? Because it’s far, far easier to get published and paid for writing nonfiction than it is for either poetry or fiction. Newspapers regularly pay $150 for 700-word book reviews, but Hayden’s Ferry pays $25 a poem. And money’s not even the biggest factor in the issue. I’ve got at least 200 rejection slips for poems I should never have sent to begin with, but not a single rejection for any piece of nonfiction. Which isn’t, at all, a criticism of poetry or Hayden’s Ferry: it’s just that, for a young writer hoping to break into publishing, nonfiction is a great way to go; trying something outside of your own, comfortable genre is a great way to go.
The bigger issue isn’t that everyone should take up writing nonfiction -- god knows the cult of I-feel-your-pain’s got plenty of members. No, the issue for me is that every writer, especially every young writer, should be trying her or his hand at every conceivable style of writing. Shouldn’t specialization be something that comes slowly, with maturity and after long, long deliberation? What about the poor apprentice carpenter, up at the top? What should she choose?
Once I’d learned how to play guitar, just about every time I’d sit down I’d end up fingering the same chord. Most musicians can attest to this -- it’s a matter of comfort, of familiarity. Ask a pianist and she’ll start with a middle C chord, a flutist with the same scale almost every time.
Let me be totally clear, too: Yo Yo Ma can play whatever he wants on the cello every time he sits down, likewise M Ward or Britt Daniel or Neko Case on their respective instruments. Once someone’s reached a certain level of mastery, she or he should do whatever they want, let their genius come out however he or she wishes. Richard Powers, please just keep writing novels forever.
But young writers? It’s odd to me that we’re mandated to take workshops outside our chosen genre, but, at the end of our two or three year programs, we’re to hand in a manuscript in a single genre. Not only that: we’re accepted into the program based on the strength of what is, usually, a single-genre example of our work.
I don’t mean to get too shrieky, but isn’t it sort of communist-era Soviet to push young people into eclipsingly small fields from a young age? I know the relative youth of MFA candidates is debatable -- aren’t MFA candidates, in fact, already specialists? Isn’t that why they’re in a writing program? That said, MFA programs should be exactly the place for this sort of encouraged experimentation. The majority of my peers in the MFA program I attend either rarely stray from their chosen genre, or when they do it’s with a goofy curiosity akin to how I’d approach, say, playing soccer (a sport I’ve never played, utilizing skills I’m nowhere near possessing).
All of this, unfortunately, gets into the territory of why anyone writes at all. I’m sure for every one of us that got into writing because we were too ugly to get dates or too uncoordinated to play football, there are scores who picked up a pen or sat down at a computer to tell a specific story, or to put together stanzas just as carefully as they could.
For all the chatter about how reading makes for a better and happier life, how newspaper readers live longer and are more involved in their communities, I don’t find much talk about how writing -- even just for yourself, even just for the sake of feeding some deep dark drawer ream after ream of unpublishable stuff -- almost by its nature leads to a better life for those involved. Isn’t the point of writing and reading to get into a different world, a different life, to experience some fundamental ‘other’? Isn’t one of the reasons it’s so easy to complain about cookie-cutter, workshopped stories because they’re so drab and lifeless? Isn’t one of the big reasons they’re hard to read because of that criminal adage write what you know? What would happen if writers quit writing what -- and, even better, how -- they knew?
Hemingway wrote poems, has a book of them, actually. Of course David Foster Wallace writes essays (and is editing this fall’s Best American Essays, which should be fascinating), though finding contemporary fiction writers who also write nonfiction is pretty easy (Cynthia Ozick, Milan Kundera, William Gass... the list is long). I’m not necessarily advocating for experimentalism (though I think it’d be great if there were more Carole Masos and Ben Marcuses at work), but for experimentation I’ll get up on the soapbox every time.
I’m arguing for all of this in terms of MFA students, too, simply out of necessity. Much as I’d like to urge certain writers away from their boring bread and butter forms and styles, I can’t imagine the tinny rants of some prick young opinionated guy would make much of a dent against sizable amounts of money (I’m looking at you, Chuck Palahniuk).
Earlier this year, Graywolf Press published a third book by one of the most interesting writers around, Ander Monson. What was Monson’s third book? A collection of essays, most of them structurally experimental, called Neck Deep (and it’s as great a book as Graywolf is a press). The part that made me most excited, though, was that with each of his three books, Monson’s tried new forms. Other Electricities, his first book (from Sarabande), was fiction (we don’t even need to debate whether that book was short stories or a novel in stories or just a novel); his second, Vacationland, was a collection of poetry; and then there was Neck Deep, nonfiction.
I haven’t been able to find anything like definitive statistics, but if you consider the strong likelihood that the great majority of MFA students won’t publish much, if at all, doesn’t it just make sense that part of the training (if MFA programs are a form of training) should be to not just allow, not just encourage, but force all students to be proficient in as many forms of writing as possible? We don’t all need to emulate Ander Monson, or Carole Maso, or Grace Paley, or Dave Eggers (although we’d all be better off if we did), but surely we’d all be better served -- as readers and writers -- if MFA programs didn’t demand, right from the start, such narrowness.