I had a friend once who insisted she knew exactly what MFA stood for — and it wasn’t Master of Fine Arts.

The back and forth about what it means to be a writer, how to become a writer, and whether writing can be taught will never be settled, because it’s a matter of personal preference almost as prickly as religion. The MFA crowd — those who have them, those who pursue them — clearly believe that the couple of years and tons of money spent in pursuit of that degree is worthwhile. And of course, many of the very finest writers have no MFA, and some of them never went to college.

Cary Tennis (the advice columnist at Salon who I think is really good at what he does) had a letter from a young woman who desired a particular MFA above all other things and has come to doubt her goals, her priorities, and her choices. Radiant Robyn Bender sent me the link, but beware, I don’t know how long it will be available to non-subscribers.

So I was reading over his response, which encapsulates a lot of his own experiences as a writing in training, and I got irritated. Very, very irritated. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what button it was that got pushed, but I believe that it has something to do with his tone, which was understanding and kindly and empathetic.

What I wanted to do was smack the kid.

His final word of advice to the reluctant student:

So finish your degree and take care of your writing as you would take care of an animal or a child. Do not send it out into the world to do an adult’s job. Just take care of it and, in its own way, it will take care of you.

This feels so wrong to me, I don’t even know where to start. Too twee, too zen, too something. Practical problems call for practical decisions, seems to me.

I’m still thinking a smack would do her more good. You know the movie Moonstruck, when Nicolas Cage is making moon eyes at Cher? And she’s had enough, so she smacks him and shouts: Snap outta it!


getting even

You remember when I wrote the other day that I don’t base characters on my novels on a specific person in any kind of direct way? In particular I avoid anything of that kind when it comes to unlikeable characters.

Some writers are not so concerned about this. I was just looking through my collection of quotes on writing and storytelling, and two jumped out at me:

The best revenge is to write about it. – Meg Cabot

Getting even is one reason for writing. – William Gass

And of course, it does happen that writers work through painful episodes in their own lives by putting them down on paper. I should have said so more clearly. Note: There’s a distinction between putting a character in a story exclusively to get back at somebody you have cause to dislike in an ad-hoc kind of way, and telling a bigger story involving a variety of characters and a series of complications based on personal experiences.

When I taught creative writing at the university level, I found that many students new to fiction had a hard time stepping back from their own experiences. That’s perfectly understandable, especially for younger people, but it is something that has to be modified. If you’re too close to a story it’s less likely you’ll tell it well. Especially if a lot of emotion is involved.

A standard suggestion in this situation is this: if you are compelled to write a story based on your own experiences with something big and difficult (divorce, betrayal, loss), one way to get the necessary distance is to switch genders. For example:

You have been wanting to write a novel based on your experiences with a college professor. You are male. The professor was female. You admired the professor and learned a lot from her, but then one day you saw her shoplifting. You became obsessed with this new knowledge, and so you started following her and documenting her life of petty crime. In her theology class (that just came to me) you found yourself getting angry in a discussion about moral relativism, and before you could stop yourself, you made a comment to the professor about her extra curricular activities. You find yourself suddenly in a unique situation: you are being cited for sexual harrassment by your teacher, and she’s about to sue you for defamation.

So how do you approach a novel like this? My strong suggestions: 1. do not write it in first person. 2. switch the genders. The professor is now male, and the student who sees him shoplifting, female.

If this were a real scenario — you lived through this experience ten years ago and find it won’t let you go unless you write about it — you need to skew your approach not only for the sake of the story, but also because in this situation, there are legal considerations. I think that must be obvious. The question is how much you have to change things to avoid a letter from a lawyer. You might have to change the setting. An insurance office instead of a college campus, for example.

You might be thinking that these changes will take away from the ‘getting even’ experience but consider one thing: if you really want to tell the story for yourself alone, you can write it exactly as it happened with no worries. If you want other people to know exactly what happened and you want them to know the how and where and why, write it as non-fiction, taking care not to slander or defame anybody (note: you can’t be sued for stating the truth, no matter how distasteful the truth might be; so, in this scenario you might write that Dr. X was seen shoplifting on a store security camera –if such a thing exists — without fear of legal action).

If you want to really explore the potential in the story, you’ll need some distance, a lot of time, and patience. And possibly the characters will need to be tweaked to give you the perspective you’ll need to pull the whole thing off.

jolt! wow! Jolt. wow. + Shakespeare, Hemingway and the Unibomber

It’s hard to concentrate on writing while the Mathematician is pacing, so I’ve tried to fix the formatting problems here. I had to start from scratch with a fluid template (if you don’t know what that is, never mind, really, the details are boring). What that means is, everybody should be able to see everything, both columns, and to resize your browser screen without losing anything. The screen cap to the left is what you should be seeing.

There is a style contest going on over at Movable Type, and the base template I am using was an entry there called Fleur.

Sorry to ask again for help, but could you let me know how this is showing up for you, and what browser you’re using?

And as a small offering, as I have nothing of real interest to share today beyond more mangled mathematician stories, here:

Jim Trelease is a reading education specialist and a very smart guy. The quote in the upper right hand column is from him, with a link to his website. On his website there is also an interesting article which considers a great question: how would Shakespeare, Hemingway, and others well established in the literary canon be graded on the new SAT essays?

Not that the answer is a surprise. But it’s still very sobering, the mess we’ve got when it comes to evaluating how ready kids are for college.

My latest Grievance – Elinor Lipman

[asa left]0618644652[/asa] The narrator of this first person novel is Frederica Hatch, a teenager and the only child of two ultra liberal professors whose primary purpose in life is bringing her up to be a strong, well adjusted, analytical and happy person. Frederica makes fun of her parents but it’s clear at all times how much she loves and admires them.

The setting for this novel is a small fictional all women college outside Boston, one with no pretensions to academic excellence — not so long ago it was two-year college dedicated to producing secretaries who ‘married up’. Things have changed, and Fredericka’s parents are a big part of that.

The launch of the real story is Fredericka’s discovery that her father had a first wife. Her curiosity gets the upper hand and she sets a series of events in motion that bring the dramatic and narcissistic Laura Lee French to campus as a dorm housemother.

Aside from matters of personal history and potential embarrassment, it could have all worked out well except Fredericka never reckoned with Laura Lee’s need to put herself in the middle of high stakes drama, and her willingness to create those dramas in the most destructive ways possible. Laura Lee immediately launches herself into a very obvious affair with the married president of the university, with results that are only partially predictable. The Hatches get mired in the middle of all that, and their family ties and child rearing philosophies are put to the test.

This novel is in some ways very typical of Lipman’s other work. Laura Lee is a lot like the birth mother in ‘And then She Found Me’ — flamboyant, self centered, disdainful of laws and rules when they get in her way. On the other hand, while many of Lipman’s novels end just when the going gets interesting (‘The Pursuit of Alice Thrift’), this one carries through, so that we find out what happens to everybody for years down the line.

I like that kind of thing, so that made me happy. What I’m still not sure about is the first person narrator. I liked Fredericka, but it’s hard to tell a story like this from a teenager’s limited perspective. I would guess that Lipman liked the challenge of that, and for the most part she pulled it off. And it is interesting to see the union-oriented, this-family-is-a-democracy Hatches deal with a precocious teenager.

I liked this novel a great deal more than some of her work, but not as much as The Inn at Lake Devine.