What I find the most offensive about the current construction of the
discipline of creative writing is that it says nothing about the world
we send our writers into. If your writing is good, will it get
published? Maybe, maybe not. If you work your ass off for a decade to
perfect your craft, what will you get in return? Something, but we’re
not sure what. Can anyone ever really say what good writing is? Yeah,
but not until way after it has been published. No, wait…not then,
And what about the supremely important quality of desire? Instead, we talk more about talent, as Lynn Freed does with such determination in her Harper’s Magazine essay on the subject of creative writing. She says that “talent is the naked emperor of writing programs.” She’s wrong about that, though. Talent is, rather, the emperor’s invisible clothes. You know this is true because Freed herself, who despairs more mightily than anyone over the possibilities of creative writing, never defines talent. Instead, she brings in Proust to define it, and even he doesn’t do a good job: “Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable [gifted men] to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down.”
Everyone—particularly Freed—thinks it’s talent that makes a writer, but that’s just more of that imaginary natural taxonomy of writers that makes redundant the teaching of creative writing itself. At what point, I like to ask my students, does Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player that ever lived? The tenth time he shoots a free throw? The ten thousandth? The hundred thousandth? If you’re so good at spotting talent, Ms. Freed, let’s visit some high schools and you tell me who the next Yeats will be. Me, I know nothing about talent, but a lot about desire. Desire is what gets you from ten to a hundred thousand; desire is what makes a poet like Yeats. When asked a question about his own talent, I heard Michael Cunningham quote Marilyn Monroe, who said that she wasn’t the prettiest and she wasn’t the most skilled, but she wanted it more than anyone else.
What’s important, ultimately, is the struggle—the struggle that desire creates in both writers and writing. My first graduate instructor, Mona Simpson, told us that graduate school was where you went to find out that you don’t want to be a writer, and this would make it worth every penny. And yet if it’s in this mess of battle that we find ourselves, well, then it’s in this mess of battle that we find ourselves. Most workshop stories that I’ve read are missing that crucial element of conflict. It’s little wonder. We’re terrified of the pain and suffering it takes to become a good writer, let alone the pain and suffering that’s inherent in good writing itself. Desire is important to creative writing because it’s the only thing that causes conflict. Conflict is important to writers because it’s the only evidence of desire. So few of us have faced up to the fact that we are at war with ourselves, with others, with the very conditions of our lives.
Donald Hall, who’s probably forgotten more about teaching writing than most of us will ever know, says that “terror” is the thing that’s missing from most workshops. I have to agree with him. And maybe it’s my virtue as an instructor to bring my students these great gifts—terror and failure. They were certainly the greatest gifts that my instructors gave to me.
Dan Barden, a novelist and professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, is currently helping to start a new MFA program.