Every year my colleague Sam Ligon and I admit eight to ten new MFA graduate students to the fiction-writing track at Eastern Washington University. We review application files from across the country all winter and try to understand, based on a twenty-five-page writing sample, academic records, and a one- to two-page personal statement, which students show the most promise. Which ones are hungry, and demonstrate a mature relationship to or understanding of their work in its current state? Which ones can write gorgeous sentences already? Which ones are passionate and articulate about what they’re reading, and already have a story that pulls you all the way through? Which ones seem to have an earnest desire to learn, or some life experiences that might make for really good material, even if they don’t have the writing chops to pull it off at present? We puzzle over mysteries like the application file that contains an utterly bland personal statement paired with an arresting writing sample, or the brilliantly clever and intelligent personal statement matched with straight-across perfect GRE scores and a garbled, boring writing sample that never gets off the ground. In all this we’re looking for one thing, and it’s unknowable and we know that it’s unknowable: Who here is teachable, and why? Every year we guess about this and get it somewhat right and somewhat wrong. But because of limited financial aid and competition with other writing programs, we do have to guess; we have to decide, in advance, who looks to us like the learner most likely to succeed, and who causes us concern. Generally, we expect that all students we admit, if they apply themselves to the work earnestly and don’t resist learning, will improve. We expect that, and we also expect surprises—students who don’t develop according to the promise we saw in their application and those who exceed all expectations.
The most interesting and informative surprises, year after year, come from those students who we let in based more on a hunch than a strong conviction (and sometimes with real worries), and who, by becoming astonishingly good, full-fledged writers by the end of their two years, show us not just that creative writing is learnable, but also exactly what the learning looks like when it happens, and why it’s worthwhile.
In 2001 we admitted Shann Ray on such a hunch. He was not a front-runner, or even in the middle of the pack; he was the last student we admitted. Aside from the fact that he was local and therefore willing to enroll on short notice, what stood out to me in his application was the fact that he’d been a star basketball player for Montana State and for Pepperdine University and had even played pro ball in Germany, but he’d more or less walked away from a career in the sport (though he did continue playing for a faith-based organization for some years). Also notable to me was that he had a PhD in psychology, and had worked for years as a clinical psychologist before taking a full-time teaching job at Gonzaga University in something called Leadership Studies, and later Forgiveness Studies. I don’t watch basketball, much less play it, and I am about as unreligious as anyone you’ll ever meet. So the particulars of Ray’s achievements didn’t mean a lot to me, but they suggested a record of discipline and hard work. My colleague at the time, John Keeble, himself a minister’s son, and I talked about this at some length and agreed that though Ray’s writing sample was troublingly weak, he at least seemed likely to be agreeable and hardworking. We took a chance and let him in.
That year, in my fall workshop I tried very hard not to regret the decision. The stories Ray presented for workshop exhibited two glaring problems that I assumed he’d hang on to with all his might. Probably in imitation of some of his favorite poets and Bible passages, he seemed to be in love with gigantic, lyrically looping and garbled metaphors to describe a landscape, which all but devoured his characters and which I guessed would fog his vision and prevent him from finding his own voice and essential subject matter for a long, long time. He also incorporated a lot of heavy-handed, message-driven, didactic Christian themes that deadened the work at every level, and alienated me as a reader (and the rest of the class as well). In my experience, these were red-flag writing problems that I expected would be really hard to work around, and that I knew would seriously challenge my own reflexes as a reader-critic. We had so little common ground, and I didn’t have a lot of hope that I’d be able to show him the way. The stories were exhausting, and Ray’s persistent questioning of our feedback, mine and the class’s, sounded then more like resistance or refusal to hear than genuine curiosity or requests for clarification.
With his rigorous background in psychology, theology, philosophy, and ethics, Ray always asked us, “How can you write anything without moral purpose? Why would you want to write without a moral purpose, and who are the great moral fiction writers of today?” I was surprised that though he was a voracious reader of academic texts and premodern poetry, he’d read very little fiction at all, and possibly no contemporary fiction whatsoever. For starters I assigned lots of Andre Dubus, Flannery O’Connor, and Marilynne Robinson.
I remember during one class going off on a too-long diatribe about the power of metaphor to transform a reader’s experience of the world: how a writer needs to learn to use that power with discretion and purpose because nothing else we have at our disposal, at the line level, will quite so vividly illuminate the world for the reader as a really great metaphor, which simultaneously functions to reveal the author’s unique vision—the writer’s imagination’s “fingerprint,” if you will. This wasn’t something I’d ever articulated for myself until Ray pushed me for the explanation. I also remember talking a lot about message and meaning—the whole class talked to Ray about this, often—trying to describe for him how readers who feel corralled into a predetermined point or moral at the close of a story will feel manipulated and disrespected, their imaginations beaten down, as if they are being asked to believe in a one-dimensional reality.
What Ray took from any of these craft lessons I don’t know. I do know that delivering them crystallized some things for me.
Ray’s next class was with Keeble. At the end of that quarter, Ray told me, he remembered going to talk to Keeble about the low grade he received and asking if it was due to a lack of effort. “No,” Keeble answered. “It was the writing.” The next quarter I heard from another of my colleagues, who asked somewhat angrily if Keeble and I hadn’t made a mistake letting Ray into the program. “What were we thinking?” she demanded. I gave her my reasons and told her we just needed to be patient. And then I tried to forget about it. At that point I suspected he’d never finish the program.