NEFF: Tim, hi. What made you finally decide to write THE PORTABLE MFA?
TT: Pressure from students who’d been asking for a book of my exercises. I did a half-assed job of shopping it around in the late 90s then gave up (I wasn’t interested in putting together a 60-page proposal on spec), but the idea resurfaced in 2004 when Charles Salzberg, my colleague at New York Writers Workshop and a gifted writer and teacher, called saying his agent was looking for a book on creative writing. We decided to make it the organization’s book, and to make it multi-genre. The rest is Amazon.com history, where the book has skyrocketed from # 187,918 in sales to some place steady in and around the # 9000.
NEFF: Has the book met with controversy? What has been the general reaction?
TT: General reaction: it’s about time. People seem to love it, or they’re polite liars. One of our ex-students commented that Janet Burroway’s book gave her the undergraduate program, ours delivers the graduate. What’s been the most gratifying is the response of other writing teachers – fiction, non-fiction, even screenplay – who’ve said they plan on using it not just for their classes but also for their own work.
Controversy: not yet, although quite a few people mention that my Intro is really tough on MFA programs, which strikes me as curious since I think I’ve gone really easy on them. At New York Writers Workshop, our classes are filled with recovering MFA’s. And some readers have commented on my observations about Gordon Lish, but I don’t say anything really new or controversial about him. That he was one of the most pernicious influences on late 20th Century fiction seems to be a widely accepted assertion, and his butchery of writing students is legend. Lish emphasized the line – you can’t go to line two until line one is perfect. But in the drafting process line two changes line one, line three changes line two, and so on. The idea is on its face asinine, it’s the same as saying don’t draw breath two until you’ve drawn a perfect first breath. But that’s what Lish refugees bring into my workshops – absolute blue-in-the-face paralysis, the incapacity to see even a paragraph, never mind the story.
NEFF: I admire your altruism, even if you are charging for the book. (laughter) Has anyone saved $35,000+ by reading it and deciding not to apply to an MFA program? Have you saved any literary lambs from the MFA debt machine?
TT: Too early to tell. In defense of the MFA – and this is something I mention in the book – it can get you a teaching job. You can probably learn how to heal without going to medical school, but no hospital’s going to hire you. Same is true for the MFA. (I hope med schools have higher standards.)
I heard Gore Vidal say recently that teaching in universities is the death of writers, the death of fiction. Writers, he said, have to be out in the mix of things in order to see how things work. I see his point, but I don’t agree with it entirely.
NEFF: You begin the book by summarizing the glaring flaws of most MFA programs. The notion that writing "can't be taught" has always irritated me in the extreme. One could easily argue that if writing can't be taught, the MFA is truly for naught. Don't they cut their own throats with this argument or do they simply depend on beginner ignorance?
TT: Well, the programs don’t advertise that idiocy, it’s the individual instructors. And part of that idiocy is true: talent can’t be taught (think of poor Salieri). But it can be cultivated, nurtured, its efforts facilitated, and part of that cultivation involves the teaching of craft. A lot of MFA instructors, a lot of writing instructors in general, take the “talent can’t be taught” truism and use it as the excuse not to bother teaching anything else.
NEFF: The notion of unteachable craft runs counter to common sense, to the accepted teaching of craft in the other arts, and in your words, appears to be pervasive and pernicious idiocy, and yet this teaching has spread through most colleges around the country. Isn't it easier to accept this position than to work at teaching craft? Isn't it easier to buy into this culture than it is to even define craft in the first place?
TT: Absolutely. And then everyone can fall back on the pretense that all the MFA candidates are already fully developed artists in full control of their craft and that each submission represents their aesthetic, their style, their voice, their vision, when in fact they’re in possession of none of those things.
NEFF: You say you completed your MFA program at Columbia without so much as a comma being added to your work. This is incredible. Can you comment further?
TT: But to elaborate: the manuscripts were not worked, they were not marked up. Often, they felt unread and certainly unstudied. Now, in defense of my instructors, it’s probably true that some, perhaps many of the manuscripts didn’t demand close, meticulous readings. Like editors or agents, writers and writing instructors can be ruthlessly efficient: two pages is usually enough to make a personal determination on the merits of a particular piece. But MFA candidates aren’t submitting manuscripts for acceptance or rejection; they’re submitting them for instruction. As I say in the book, my experience at Columbia was not uncommon – many of us never saw instructor ink on our pages (I understand the training undergone by the poets was much more rigorous). I don’t say this to slam the instructors, or to slam Columbia, but without any guidelines imposed by the institution, instructors have to invent their course whole cloth, and that’s a lot of work. If, however, you fall back on the “writing can’t be taught” rationalization, you’ve just saved yourself a lot of work.
NEFF: On the other extreme, you talk about a few programs that hire top names who come possessed with their own "Moses Complex." Gordon Lish is a good example. Students flocked to him and emerged knowing next to nothing. Indeed, upon reading his short story collection, "What I Know So Far" I realized that Gordon Lish knew next to nothing. In your opinion, what aspect of the academic scene accounts for the hiring of such long-winded and boorish "instructors"?
TT: Generally they’re hired because, for one reason or another, at that particular moment they’re hot. In the 80’s Lish was Captain Fiction. He was fiction editor at Esquire, he was the big shot editor at Knopf, and he published probably the single worst small press “literary” magazine in history, The Quarterly (do you remember the “Nace” pages?!?!). So the idea was, get him on the staff, bask in his light, and maybe he’ll grab one or two aspiring writers and tap them with his wand. That, in turn, will attract students.
But they don’t always go for the long-winded and boorish, as you put it. When I started at Columbia, they’d hired someone whose book was a current bestseller. That zero learning, and certainly zero teaching, was going to occur in this workshop was clear within two or three weeks, after which maybe a half-dozen of the fifteen of us registered would bother to show up on a given day. This instructor – the worst of my Columbia experience – was a drugstore trash writer, and we wanted to work with literary writers. (In fairness to the instructor, he considered himself literary and once compared favorably the first paragraph of his best seller to the first paragraph of Madame Bovary.)
Others have a reputation as writers, but no record as teachers. So the institutions hire the name and the books, with no sense of whether or not the writer can teach, and it’s the name and the books that attract the students.
NEFF: As you note in the book, student work should be judged based on an established set of aesthetic criteria and/or critical vocabulary. I couldn't agree more, but will most academics even admit these things exist? Don't they run the risk of hypocrisy if they ever judge work based on literary measures?
TT: I also say in the book that in my program, structure was a dirty word. We never heard about the most fundamental elements of story structure – maybe it was the fear of sounding academic, you know, English Lit 101. Crisis-climax-resolution. But I took a lot of classes in the Film Department, in particular, Script Analysis with Frank Daniel, and in that class we learned to break down story structure to the page number, to the scene, so that when we were looking at student shot work or student scripts, we could say, well, this doesn’t seem to be working because there’s no inciting incident, or this scene is flat because the characters are in accord. When I started bringing that vocabulary to workshops, people were saying, “Where are you getting this stuff?” It was going on right under their nose, or actually above – I think the Film Department was on the 5th Floor, Writing on the 4th. But on the 5th Floor the students and the instructors revered the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and John Ford, guys who knew how to tell stories
NEFF: I've always found it's a general rule that MFA programs disdain or at least ignore the nuances and mechanics of the book market. A writer emerges to become a classic bambi in the headlights. Any comment on this?
TT: There’s a great story by Edmund White – “Watermarked” in the collection Skinned Alive. It involves a college student who aspires to playwriting. He attends a drama workshop with his pals, each one the next Ionesco or the next Beckett – in other words, esoteric anti-structure geniuses who couldn’t be bothered with passé notions like engaging the audience. Their instructor would look at their work on the page or in rehearsal and exclaim, “But there’s no Major Dramatic Question.” Then the geniuses would pile into the nearby pub and snicker about what an antiquated square they had for a professor. Flash forward about a year after graduation and now the protagonist is living in New York City, working at Time magazine, and trying to make it as a playwright. He finally gets a producer interested, a reading is staged, and he watches as the audience either gets up to leave or falls asleep. And then, of course, he hears himself saying that old refrain, “Oh my god, there’s no Major Dramatic Question.” At least his instructor tried to avoid sending Bambi into the headlights.
In two years of workshops, I never heard that it’s a good idea to raise a question in the mind of the reader. I never heard that it’s useful to establish a routine, and then disrupt it. Instead, manuscripts were attacked for vague meanings and incorrect politics or clear meanings and correct politics. Craft was rarely discussed.
NEFF: Do you feel that organizations like NYWW, Algonkian, and others, fill the gaps in the writing education process left by MFA programs? If so, how?
TT: I do. We all get recovering MFA’s, and here in NY, recovering Lishies. And it’s not uncommon that their work is the least interesting to read and the most resistant to constructive criticism -- because they never heard it, for one, and two, because they were never taught the fundamentals of the craft and so graduated believing that there were none. And they’re often infuriated when the Wall St. goon or the ex-Marine hand in pieces that sing. The most recalcitrant MFA’s don’t last long. They leave nurturing the sense that the philistines will never understand their precious vision. In some cases that’s what they sign on for in MFA programs – validation of their precious vision, because if you get nothing else from the “writing can’t be taught” saw, you get that – if nothing can be taught, nothing can be wrong. They certainly don’t want to hear about flaws in their writing; if you don’t get it, the flaw is your comprehension.
NEFF: If one must choose an MFA program, can you recommend one or two?
TT: I think it comes down to the teacher. We had four consecutive days with Robert Stone, two hours per morning. That, and Ed White’s lectures on Proust were, for me, the only valuable teaching in the program. The rest was lazy at best. I’ve read interviews with Tobias Wolff, and I’ve read what he’s said about his work, and I get the sense that he’d be a great teacher. James Salter, too. Helen Schulman, Michael Cunningham, Melvin Bukiet…these are all supposed to be wonderful teachers.
As far as programs, I always hear good things about Sarah Lawrence, at least from the students. Their structure requires one-on-one contact hours – to me, that sounds like a good thing.
I hear good things about The New School. And Brooklyn College won’t leave you owing your soul to the company store.
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org