Genre Trouble: The MFA I don’t have

I recently launched on the project of filing all of my written work in one place, since it was scattered all over my rather overstuffed apartment. My sister suggested that I pretend that I was going to get a new work space for each of my ventures. So in the course of pulling the writer’s office together…

… I turned up twenty-four archive boxes at least, the equivalent of eight file cabinets. Yes, Ernie, the real writer is the one who really writes, and I have passed the million-word mark more than a few times. A ream of paper is 500 pages, and it takes only four of those to make up the 2000 double-spaced, one-inch-margin pages that comprise a million words. A million words, it’s claimed, pave the road to mastery, or (less optimistically) make up the inevitable dross that we must produce on the way to finished work.

If each of those boxes has a million words in it (and that’s possibly an underestimate) then I’ve crossed that mark twenty-four times.

No MFA program on the planet requires that level of output.

My education has been the practice school of writing. That’s the secret: the more you read, and the more you write, and the more you lay what you write alongside what you read and admire, the better you get. At the outset of this last phase of fiction writing, some time in late 2003, I compared one of the chapters of a novel I wrote at 18 to one of my favorite chapters from War and Peace.  Of course my work fell short of that measure, but I took the time to ask why.

What was the difference between my journeyman work and Tolstoy’s masterpiece?

Tolstoy’s scene was utterly simple, and utterly quiet, and devoted entirely to the sensory details of the experience. I had just begun my theatrical training, and something connected with the things my teacher had been asking us:

What is the emotional truth of this character?

What is this character willing to give up for freedom?

And the wisdom of the Method, in its real form (not the self-indulgent histrionics that sometimes pass under its name) lies in the body and the senses, where our own memories live.

In the time since, I’ve written experiences that I’ve never had. I’ve written places that I’ve never visited and fooled people who lived there into thinking that I knew the view out their back window. No piece of paper in the world can replace those hours of work.

Overall, my experience with many people who have emerged from MFA programs has not been positive: they’ve been arrogant, the first to mistake critique for trashing, and (most devastating of all) not particularly productive. And they’re particularly vicious when blocked, and I don’t wonder at that: if you’ve paid over $50,000 for a piece of paper, who is some self-taught upstart to be writing when you’re not?

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