Obviously, writing isn’t for everyone. I’m fully confident, though, that if MFA students want to learn, and if the environment is right, if they’re willing to work, tear down all defenses and hear the hardest news about their stories, they can and will grow as students at an astonishing rate. All writers, students as well as nonstudents, can become so overfocused on their own words that they cease having any useful perspective on them, making it difficult to understand how those words might register with anyone else. All of us need to be read. By providing good, candid readers, the workshop process breaks open students’ hyperfocus on their own words. That, by itself, can cause real shock and discomfort, but generally it moves them forward. And though moving forward and breaking hyperfocus can make for difficult, clarifying shake-ups in each student’s private writing-musing process, it’s not that part of it—the writer alone with the page—that I try to teach. Unlike teaching violin, where I could physically manipulate a student into a better bow grip or left-hand position, and could assign exercises that would strengthen good technique or specifically address technical weaknesses, there’s no hands-on way to manipulate a writer at a desk. It’s a private process. Its “mechanical” aspects are emotional, intellectual, and interior.
The real mystery for me is what happens to students after they receive their degree. All too often I’ve seen people leave our program with a handful of unique, published, or publishable stories, a head of steam to write more, and then…nothing. The disjunction may be explained by another silent but profound benefit of participating in the MFA culture: the provided structure of study and the pressure of deadlines. As long as a student is enrolled in MFA classes she never has to ask the really hard question, which is, Why? Why write at all? The MFA program, with its imposed workshop and thesis completion deadlines, can facilitate accelerated artistic development by temporarily removing that existential block. You write in order not to let down your workshop peers, who are expecting a story by next week, or in order to finish that presentation—in order to finish the degree. I warn students about life after the MFA. We talk about it and strategize. I encourage them to form a long-term network of friends and readers and stress over and over how important this will become in the years ahead.
All of which gets me back to why I argued to admit Shann Ray in the first place—something I saw in his admission material which was beyond or behind the page and which gave me hope for him: the record of discipline and the breadth of his interests. And though there were times while teaching him that I wanted to say, “My God, this is impossible, it’s too hard, writing is not like playing basketball,” in the end I learned that it kind of is like basketball, at least for Ray. He learned from our program and grew at a phenomenal pace as a writer, but in the end the real cause for his success is somewhere else, off the page, in him. I can’t say what it is and would never claim the ability to define it or the credit for having taught it to him; I can only guess that whatever it is probably looks a lot like the same set of character traits that drove him to be such an uncannily good ballplayer. I’d describe those as dedication, desire, drive, and discipline. He might have other words for it.
Gregory Spatz is the author most recently, of Inukshuk, published by Bellevue Literary Press in June 2012. His story collection Half as Happy was published by Engine Books in January 2013. He is the recipient of a 2012 NEA literature fellowship and teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University.