Tainted by Influence?

Iowablog: “I think everything I learned at Iowa is wrong.”

These are good, honest words to hear from a young whipper-snapper who wants to write. If there’s a positive spin to this, it’s the fact that Concho is willing to question the lessons she’s learned. I’ve never been in a nuts-and-bolts creative writing class (screenwriting, nonfiction and journalism classes don’t count) and I have only a second-hand idea of what goes down in Iowa, but I do know the merciless world of rejection notices weighed against the ocassional acceptance and/or check. If anything, the pivotal lesson that any writing class or seminar should include concerns the world not giving two fucks about the writer’s circumstances, and a publishing industry that is worse than Cthulhu in its callousness. Any writer hoping to break in must have the thickest hide. Anything less than an iron carapace, a firm resolve and a dedication to the work will send out “AMATEUR” in bright neon lights.

Some folks may recall last July’s Clarion-Wolfe debacle, where an extremely sensitive gentleman mistakenly informed Gene Wolfe that the class disagreed with his hard criticisms. Wolfe bolted. An imbroglio ensued. And there was some controversy over whether Wolfe’s perceived ruthlessness was good or bad for the students. The authoritarian impulse that had gone unquestioned before was replaced by a general sense that workshopping should involve a back-patting atmosphere to foster encouragement.

Well, I cry foul. Constructive criticism is one thing. But personally, I could never trust anyone who would do nothing but praise every element of a lengthy piece I’ve written. Something I’ve observed of so-called “writer’s groups” is that their formation involves stroking egos rather than improving writers and preparing them for the harsh battlefields of Manhattan and beyond. Some of the finest criticisms I’ve received were from people who were honest enough to eviscerate every nicety that was slightly off. To do anything less is a betrayal, a celebration of monkey-clapping amateurism that’s as hypocritical as The New York Times running some bullshit story on sexual fetishes and failing to include the word “fuck.”

The rise of books about writing (and, to a similar degree, screenwriting) has unleashed a Pandora’s box where hope is more prominent than it should be. An “I can do it too!” spirit has emerged, but the hard truth is that writing is difficult work, that even if you manage to finish something, it can be torn to pieces in a New York minute. Even if you get your book published, you will face savage reviews and emerge from the fracas to convince frugal folks to lay down the twenty-five clams to buy the sucker on a book tour.

So why the contentment? Why the entitlement? Why the anti-snark movements?

The answer lies somewhere within the atavistic feel-good jungles that have permeated almost every facet of the liberal arts. The air stinks of softness. Nurture is certainly necessary, but there comes a point when the writer must understand that it’s a tough racket. If a writing instructor doesn’t have the effrontery to call a piece of shit by its true name, then he has no business instructing.

(Iowa lead via Maud)


  1. Bonjour Ed,

    There’s an interesting comment thread going on at my place on the NYTBR thingy, and some MFAs have weighed in on this question. I’ve left a trackback in case anyone wants to check it out.

    I am TMFTML,


    I’m back from my meeting with Producer of Note and am pleased to report that it went considerably smoother than I’d anticipated. Thanks to the well-wishers. I’ve got a chapter to work on this afternoon but I’m finding that I’d

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