I just Googled Heidi Pitlor for info so that I could write up a blurb about her upcoming reading at the Harvard Book Store. Got completely distracted by the top link, to this four-year old Village Voice literary supplement piece: Young, Gifted, and Workshopped.
Right now I've got a few friends who hate their jobs and are just deluded and brilliant enough to want
to go back to school for their MAs, but I don't know many who
think about going for an MFA as though it's a make you or break you
life choice. For the most part, grad school is either a way into
academia or a guaranteed break into the higher earning bracket of your
chosen field. When you get an MFA in fiction writing, though, you're
spending a couple of years in proverbial isolation, workshopping your
heartbreaking short stories with ten other doe-eyed, equally
heartbroken people who write in equally heartbreaking ways that are
actually, probably more heartbreaking than yours. So now you get to be
insecure about your god-given talent. Especially if you go to the Iowa Writer's Workshop (more
competitive than HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL!), a place that, for me,
inspires a reaction akin to a death (what the hell do you do in Iowa
City except hang out in the cornfield and sit in front of your
computer, wishing you were as good as the other geniuses in your
workshop) alternating with utter and complete joy (um, two years to
concentrate on nothing but the craft and study in a place that has
churned out more famous writers than I can bear to think about--my
raving fantasies about luxurious book tours and offers to be the
celeb writer guest judge/taster on Iron Chef have no outlet
other than this). Even if it isn't Iowa, you're basically saying yeah,
I'll put my life on hold for a couple of years and happily go into
debt, and I won't even come out with a real Masters. It's a Master of Fine Arts--which
means you can get out and teach, but that's it--all the while
hoping that an agent sees your school on the letter you stuck in
with your unpublished, unsolicited manuscript bound by nothing but your
own terror and the sweat of your intelligently furrowed brow.
I'm intrigued by the article's discussion of the fact that so many
short story collections, and even novels, are getting, as Pitlor
describes, too "workshoppy." I easily fall for a really gut-busting
epiphany or a neatly tied up ending that isn't quite disastrous, but
isn't all sugar and happiness either--readers like to imagine they're reading something that
could actually happen, I think. The piece does make a good
point, though, about crisis points escalating in an all too familiar
manner, contrived resolutions that are overly tidy, revelations that
are satisfying but fit too well in the puzzle. Workshoppy, indeed.
Except isn't that what thousands of new writers are going to
school to learn how to do? Does this mean getting your MFA won't get
you any closer to Oprah's couch on Book Club day? Frankly, that's a
frightening thought on many levels.
Of the examples listed, I guess I can agree that the ever-present Steve Almond
falls into that category--even knowing that, though, I still adore him.
I'll read him anyway. So it doesn't matter that he's
"workshoppy"--because he's marketable. But does that make him even
worse? Are MFA grads just a manufacted products of their own
manufactured environs? My head hurts.
Oh yeah, and I'm kind of in shock and awe over the mention
of Raul Correa, who used to be my creative writing instructor back at a
summer writing program I was in when I was 16 (yep, I liked my
summers to be as nerdy as possible). I remember him telling our class
about his book, which was still in drafts at the time. I have to
get I Don't Know, But I've Been Told now,
immediately, yesterday. This is the same guy who
used to tell our class over and over again that "bad writers borrow,
good writers steal," (so true), and now he's got a novel long out with a narrator that Publishers Weekly describes as "a cross between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield." And PW doesn't mess.