Unlearning to write: On loving and hating creative writing workshops

Writing workshops: fostering a loving, caressing, biting, berating, spitting, bitter kind of intimacy

April 28, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated 05:16 pm IST

 An intense togetherness: ‘I’d been watching the tics and the twitches.’

An intense togetherness: ‘I’d been watching the tics and the twitches.’

After a stint at studying literature in a lively and chaotic Indian city, I moved to a quiet suburban town in the American Midwest to get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing.

The MFA is a real force in American literary life. In many ways, it is a true Midwestern phenomenon, swirling centrifugally from Iowa City where Paul Engle brought the world’s very first writing programme to international attention. “As the epicentre of contemporary American writing,” went the first half of a satiric sentence in a short story, trailing off into something about Iowa’s damning flatness — in every sense of the term.

Sure, it would spread somewhat to the coasts, to the rare experimental Ivy League like Brown, or to Columbia, where its formidable department of English and Comparative Literature would keep a snooty distance from what it considered a dilettantish Writing Programme. And there are, of course, the western adventures by Yvor Winters and Wallace Stegner that would lead to the famed Stegner fellowship programme in Stanford. But notwithstanding a few gestures of coastal expansion, the fundamental character of the American creative writing programme remains as Midwestern as its story of origin.

Hate story

But there is no doubt whatsoever about its pervasive influence. In his famous book with the dark and McCarthyish title, The Program Era , the scholar Mark McGurl tells us the story in which creative writing programmes come to shape the course of American literary production after the Second World War.

Moving to Stanford just as the book was due out, McGurl would have the occasion to peek across the corridor in Margaret Jacks Hall at the Stegner programme. But that is a whole other story of love and hate, hate mostly, between departments of literature and creative writing in the U.S. that we can worry about another day.

Meanwhile, I had a hate story of my own.

It was driven by my MFA experience. The Midwestern character of the programme, and the inescapably Midwestern nature of that Midwestern town, with its hot chicken wings and tractor races, appeared dull after my dust-and-crowd charmed life experience in urban India. The workshops were a real pain.

My peers did not understand why I was writing these rambling, Joycean stories about riding in crowded city buses and staring raptly at the worn bags of bus conductors; I did not get their Raymond Carveresque stories of minimalist language and clipped dialogue about middle-aged white men drowning their angst in bars.

I felt I would throw up if I read another story set in an Indiana bar; they probably felt the same way about Indian streets. But the bigger problem was modernist lyricism vs. minimalism; Joyce vs. Carver, a dedicated battle that leaves me slightly embarrassed today.

Nor was it pleasant being a curiosity among the Indian students at the university, for whom the MBA was familiar language but the MFA a charming kind of gibberish. Ironically, the language of finance and business seemed more global than that of literature; hip students from Mumbai finished their business degrees and went off to work for John Deere tractors in Iowa, while Midwestern literary culture did nothing but irritate me.

It was almost a disaster, but for my teachers, whom I loved. They were a cast of characters — an ageing libertarian who had a permanent exhibition of over a hundred guns in his basement; a former chemical engineer turned writer who loved Joyce and Ingmar Bergman and reached out to nurse my bruised modernist soul; a young alumnus who would go on to win a Pulitzer several years later.

But I hated the workshops. I spurned all feedback. The others realised it and grew more despairing and hostile, and it showed in their comments on my stories. On my part, I studiously ignored everything my peers said.

Or so I thought.

Kolkata in the Midwest

A few years later, while finishing a Ph.D in literature, I started writing my first novel while living in a large Midwestern city where my partner was completing her own doctorate. I was on a fellowship, and away from the university on the east coast where I was enrolled. Once again, sitting in the flat Midwest — this time with the odd Vietnamese and Ethiopian restaurant close by — I started to write about the streets of Kolkata, create what now seems slightly clichéd portraits of its traffic jams and protest marches, but seeking to capture through them a raw, primal part of my life that I had lost on my way to becoming hyper-educated.

When the novel was finished and published, it was clear that it was Joycean in spirit — urban wanderings et al — but the language had a lot more of Carvaresque minimalism than Joycean excess.

I came to realise that what I thought was studious ignoring of workshop feedback was actually a kind of listening. A strange kind. A bit like how a shrink listens, perhaps ignoring everything the patient blabs on the couch but letting the odd twitch of the muscle, the harmless verbal tic sink in unnoticed.

I also realised that the most important thing about the creative writing programme was that it was a space and a community, rather than “instruction” of any kind. Even when it was all of that in a negative sense. The feedback I thought I ignored, the pub crawl after the workshops that I had opted out of, was at the end of the day, a real community for my developing writerly self, if only a backhanded one.

I’d let the words slide by. But I’d been watching the tics and the twitches.

Becoming a better writer requires unlearning rather than learning, John Updike said once.

Refracted through words

One can only “learn” techniques. The “un-technical” part, the part that runs wild, comes from the idiosyncratic chemical relation one forms with life and refracts through language. I call it a chemical reaction because my boyhood chemistry memory tells me that the compound formed at the end of the reaction has no identifiable relation with any of the elements involved. And yet it is born of them.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the more technical an art form, the more to learn and teach. Take filmmaking. The technical details are overwhelming. Here, teaching is easily institutionalised.

I think literature is the least technical of art forms. Still, there are elements. Character, language, structure, and the MFA holy cows: point of view and voice.

Likewise, we know that vile curse word: “the MFA story”. Voice and point of view programmed to perfection, language minimalistic, and nothing else. No wild soul battering down the cage of craft, no raw power threatening to burst the seams of technique. Writing, fully professionalised, domesticated, packaged to brilliance.

Hearing but not listening. Perhaps that wasn’t such a bad way of inhabiting a creative writing programme after all. It’s the space that matters, and the community, fostering an intense kind of togetherness, even sometimes negative, a loving, caressing, biting, berating, spitting, bitter kind of intimacy, or an equally rich and prickly distance.

The MFA, I realise, is not a real degree. But if loved or hated well, it can become a rich studio space.

The writer’s most recent novel is The Firebird, which appeared in the U.S. last year as Play House. @_saikatmajumdar

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