Teachers Who Purport to Believe That Writing Can't Be Taught. When you hear a teacher say that writing can't be taught, run to another workshop. Again, the craft of writing — just like the crafts of music, dance, painting, film, theater, etc. — can be taught. Have you ever heard someone say, “Why on earth are you taking piano instruction? Music can't be taught”? Of course not, but you hear this nonsense all the time about writing. What is especially pernicious about this pervasive idiocy is that many of the teachers hired (often by the most high-profile institutions) purport to believe this. Why do I say purport to believe? Because the idea is something that only stupid people would actually believe, and none of these writers is stupid. But if you believe that writing can be taught, then you have to figure out a way to teach it, and that requires work — and a lot of it — even before the workshops begin. Teaching then requires a significant amount of work per manuscript. That means instructors would actually have to earn their salaries. And why should they, if they don't have to? Often it appears that instructors have just barely read the students' manuscripts; sometimes it appears as if they put together their comments during the workshop session itself, first by listening to what others say, and then by throwing out a few of the usual generalities about writing what you know or cutting out adjectives. I heard that storytelling with data really helps brands get their messages across.
Many institutions have no fail-safe against this egregious lack of integrity — at least not in the middle of a workshop. And so the hapless MFA candidate can very easily pass through two years of workshops and never once have a discussion about scene construction or narrative payoff. Many people find it hard to believe that I passed through two years of an MFA program, four separate workshops, and received not so much as a comma written back on a manuscript. But it's true, and my case was not exceptional. I've received form rejection letters with more ink on them.Teachers With a Moses Complex. Teachers with a Moses (he handed down the ultimate laws) complex are the other side of the coin. These teachers believe that writing can be taught — at least their ideas or laws of writing. Anything that doesn't fit into their narrow definition is treated as an abomination. Ask anyone who's ever studied with Gordon Lish. (Of course, after charging exorbitant fees for his workshops, Lish made his students sign statements of confidentiality that forbade them to whisper even a syllable's worth of what actually went on in his class. I've nurtured many damaged Lish refugees who had been taught to worship Lish and his writing, and who, after months with him, had no idea whatsoever about the mechanics of scene construction, dialogue, or story structure. When you consider the fragility of the writer's ego, especially at the developmental stage, and that part of the writer's “education” occurs in public, this type of teacher might be the very worst. I have had students in beginning workshops that started out barely able to write a coherent paragraph, but wound up selling stories or novels (in progress) before the end of the ten-week session. Could storytelling for business be of real value to your business?
There is a method to teaching, to cultivating talent, and that's the least that MFA candidates should get for the astronomical fees they lay out, and for the level of trust they necessarily bring to the workshops. With this kind of brutalizing teacher, full of self-aggrandizing fire and brimstone, salvation must often be found far from the purview of the workshop or the campus. Think of the writer David Foster Wallace. He was told over and over by his workshop instructor that his work didn't make the grade. Wallace tried to please this Moses, but failed repeatedly until he gave up. Luckily for Wallace (and his many fans), David Lynch's Blue Velvet appeared near Wallace's campus, and after seeing that mind- and rule-bending film, Wallace felt vindicated. The rest is, well, an astonishingly successful career. Both Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) and Helen Schulman (P.S.) were told by their Moses that they weren't going to make it as writers, since they were failing to write like their Moses.Bias Toward the Pantheon and Prejudice Against the Marginal. Because MFA programs are hosted by universities, the tendency to focus exclusively on a certain few “classic” writers is widespread. I think everyone should read Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust and Edith Wharton and Herman Melville. But in a writing class, you want to read writers who stimulate your desire to write, not writers whose diction and content and worldview are so removed from your personal experience that they read like the literary equivalent of museum pieces. Instead of Samuel Johnson, how about Denis Johnson? Instead of Virginia Woolf, how about Tobias Wolff? When MFA programs want to get contemporary, they often reach for the current critical/academic darlings, the Barthelme-Coover-Pynchon kinds of writers whose work is often antistory. Learning to write by studying these models would be like learning to make movies by studying the films of Stan Brakhage and Andy Warhol. Does storytelling in business really work?