Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The End of Writing School, or What Happens after You Learn (Most of ) What Pete Fromm Has to Teach You

Seaside, Oregon, where Pacific's winter residency is held.
I graduated from the low-residency Master of Fine Arts writing program at Pacific University in June of 2009, or almost four years ago. I've returned to about half the summer and winter residencies since, the last time as recently as January, when I holed up in a hotel room in Seaside and worked on a story, taking breaks to eat lunch with current students and to attend a few craft talks and readings. The teaching at Pacific is excellent, the faculty outstanding, but I think I've been going  back for something besides additional instruction and fellowship, something I didn't get while I was in the program and won't find there now.

Writing school is all about what not to do. In his craft talks and workshop comments, Pete Fromm, a wonderful teacher and an even better writer of fiction and nonfiction, conveyed to me a whole host of don't's, mixed in with a few do's. I once wrote them down in a list I called "Pete's Aesthetic," from most obvious (to me) to least.

  • Start a story with direct action. 
  • Starting a story with a dependent clause is lame.
  • Avoid hedging, qualifying language—for example, “seemed to.”
  • Weed out as many “to be” verbs as you can.
  • Avoid language that points to cause and effect, and therefore to explanation, e.g. “so.” 
  • A phrase like “at 2:00 this morning” screams “info dump.”  (Info dumps are lame.)
  • Don’t force information into dialog.
  • Fully imagine physical gestures and movements so as to avoid descriptions like “she closed her eyes hard.”
  • Using a phrase like “her cousin” for someone the reader already knows is named Diana creates distance (usually a bad thing).
  • Economy serves drama.  Include information, dialog, all elements of fiction only where they make the most impact. 
  • Action should unfold in real time. Not “the movie was so noisy that Frankie almost didn’t hear the doorbell.” But instead, “Frankie clicked the mute, listened, and asked Allison if she’d heard the doorbell.”
  • Small transitions are often needed to reduce the reader’s feeling of disjointedness.
  • There’s no need to explain the motivation behind every movement. Movements usually explain themselves.
  • Exclamation points are bad.
  • Don’t state meaning.  If the reader doesn’t know what the story is about without the writer’s telling him, the story is in trouble.
  • Find better ways to indicate time passing than clock readings.
  • Details about the history of characters can’t seem randomly placed. They have to be integrated into the action of a story. 
  • Sense details can be more randomly placed.  They are sometimes more evocative that way.
  • Overused shorthand for thoughts and feelings—e.g. “she drew a blank”—should be avoided.
  • Images move readers more if their impact is unfiltered through a character’s mind.  (This confused me, but I think what Pete meant is that even when your characters are very thoughtful people, you still want to protect readers from having an image interpreted for them.  Readers want to figure out for themselves why, as in Pete’s story “Hoot”--in Dry Rain--seeing an elk head mounted on a wall would disturb the protagonist. The protagonist himself should not tell us why.)
  • Characters do think and have insights, but it’s stronger to show these insights to the reader through action and dialogue.  Pete: “When a thought would never be spoken or acted out, these are the killer spots to go inside the character’s head.” 
  • It might be OK to describe emotions that wouldn’t show up in the scene you’re in, in order to set the scene.  (This came up when I read Richard Bausch’s story “Consolation,” in The Fireman’s Wife.) 
  • Pete’s most severe allergy is to the naming of emotions. If you find yourself saying, Sally was angry, stop!  Show Sally’s anger.
  • And, of course, characters should never cry.

MFA programs teach craft, and I seriously doubt if anyone is better at that than Pete. What results (if you're lucky and don't mind 20 or 30 revisions) is a particular kind of eventful and thrifty, even elegant, story, one of the best kinds of stories, but not the only kind.

So that's one thing I believe I missed at Pacific--learning to appreciate different kinds of stories. I chose my own reading list, of course, and it was diverse, but what I was encouraged to write and admire was not. And if now I want to give Nabokov a miss, or Cormac McCarthy, I don't believe it's entirely my  fault (although I do take credit for objecting to the scarcity of grown women in their books).

I'm not worried about being trapped by these boundaries. I've been reading for half a century, and I'll keep reading until the day I die. Writing too, I hope. I have plenty of time to broaden my horizons--with Jack Driscoll's stories, for example. Jack was another of my advisors. He subscribes, I think, to most of Pete's rules, but as a teacher he tends to be less prescriptive. He delivers the rules in a softer voice. And he himself writes a different sort of story altogether. His work may be an example of the old advice, learn the rules before you break them.

The more important thing I believe I missed at Pacific, and the thing I keep making fruitless trips back to find, has to do with why I write and how I might continue to write day after day, why I am drawn to face my fears on the page and why those fears sometimes defeat my efforts to keep my butt in my desk chair. I could try to list them here, but I'd just be describing their corners, the bumps on their irregular surfaces. Most of them I can't even name. So I'm going to bring someone else's voice in here, Bonnie Friedman's, author of Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life.* Friedman earned her MFA at the University of Iowa.

Stories are machines inhabited by a god. School pointed out the cranks and spindles. . . . The method was mostly cautionary; it was easier to see where a story was broken than where it ran smooth. . . .

This was writing school but we did not talk about writing. We talked about what had got written. We came to find it faintly embarrassing to hear how these words came to be on this page. The writer's vision, the vocabularies we wished to dwell in, the hints of dreams and memories that haunted the edge of our work--verboten, not discussed. . . .

How to turn on the switch in ourselves that made writing possible? How to transform the texture of life--the heat shimmer of a highway in which everything attenuates and billows skyward, every solid thing a form of smoke--into the lucid corridors and conclusions of a short story? How to write despite fear? Questions we did not ask. . . .

So many of us were good in school, and we wanted to be good in school some more. We needed someone to say, Don't be good in school anymore. Be done with school. Be in school, but be done with school. Writing teaches writing. Your writing will teach you how to write if you work hard enough and have enough faith. 

Friedman suggests that MFA programs are not set up to meet the needs she describes above and may never be. She has met these needs either by socializing with writing colleagues (as opposed to teachers) or by writing into and through everything she can. Each of us eventually dukes it out with her own psyche in private, she implies, or makes friends with it, or both. Marvin Bell, one of the poets on Pacific's faculty, says that to learn to write, you must first, or simultaneously, learn how you're wired. How your mind works, or doesn't, I think he means, and how it might be made to work. He has some suggestions for how to do this, but I don't think they apply very directly to fiction. 

I won't be going back to Seaside in January or to the Pacific campus in Forest Grove in June. What I need to learn, they don't teach. I am getting a lot of help now from Kim Stafford, God (or whoever) bless him. I've been in his yearlong Fishtrap workshop since July. He is both showing and telling me what sanity and openness have to do with determination. His workshop will end, too.

Eventually I'll reach what Richard Rodriguez calls in Hunger of Memory "the end of education"-- the word end pointing two ways, toward education's purpose on the one hand, and on the other, toward the dock from which one embarks on one's own, all baggage jettisoned.

*Harper Perennial, 1994, pages 54 and 60.