Don’t call writing hard. Write it now.

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OBrienWhen I watched the wonderful movie The Sessions, I saw the story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who contracted polio as a boy but kept on writing. Kept writing even though he’d lost the control of all of his muscles, except those in his face. He lived in an iron lung. He held a pencil with a fat eraser in his mouth, then tapped the keys on his typewriter, or later on, a keyboard on a computer, once those became popular in the 1980s.

Let My Words Touch You

No matter what’s happening in your writing, you and I don’t have that hurdle to overcome. O’Brien published many articles and essays – he worked as a journalist as well as a poet – and released three books of poetry. Watching this man write in The Sessions, I realized I would never be able to complain again about how hard it is to write.

Revision is another matter. I can’t even start to wonder how he managed that. But you won’t have your writing published without revising it. On the other hand, there’ll be no revising without the writing, simple first drafts.

So write now. Because you need to do it before something else might stop you.


March 5 is the birthday of Karen Stolz. Or it would be, if she were still alive. She was a writing teacher of mine in the years when I just started to study fiction. Karen passed away in 2011 at age 54, felled by heart failure. She had a big heart, enough to embrace people new to writing or new to fiction. She taught a class at St. Edwards attended by my brother-in-law Billy, a bank robber, gambler and storyteller extraordinaire. Billy’s stories arrived at my house inside letters from prison to my wife. Karen called him a good writer.

Billy was writing because he had nothing but time. Karen wrote her bestselling novel in stories, The World of Pies, because it was her time to move up from her short stories. Those stories got her into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

She moved back to her hometown in Kansas after her son graduated high school, where she taught writing at Pittsburg State. Karen had published a second novel by then, Fanny and Sue, and was working on a third, looking for a publisher.

Like anybody taken early from life, she figured she had more time to write. But unlike many writers, she wrote sooner – while her son was still in school – rather than later, when she’d have more time.

It was a smart choice, and one we can make for ourselves, too. Even if your writing is only blog entries right now, or 20 minutes at a time in a workshop meeting, choose to do it now. Let your voice be heard and enjoyed by the world.

What merits come from critique?

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A little while back I offered up an opinion about whether a Master’s degree in writing will produce that book a writer pursues. It will not, and I have two comments to that post which concur.

But the second post from anonymous (we’d love to know who our readers are, by the way) says that

I fail to understand why a writer would develop better critique habits outside of an MFA program than inside one. I’ve taken many workshops with non-MFA writers, and plenty of them have no idea how to critique work. And there are enough MFA programs out there to conclude that there is diversity to the workshop experience and no monolithic approach to critiquing.

The ideal of developing “critique habits” is at the heart of this failure to understand. In fact, developing better critique habits is just the opposite of what my workshops do — and any workshops based on the Amherst Writers & Artists methods. (That’s what Cary Tennis of Salon uses to lead, as do I.) The practices state that our workshops handle revised, second-draft work offered as a manuscript this way:

A thorough critique is offered only when a writer asks for it — after the work has been distributed in manuscript form. Critique is balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.

Many MFA graduates share stories of the painful sessions when “my writing was up.” Just as many, perhaps, as writers in critique groups which meet with no clear process for how to suggest changes to writing. Balance in these sometimes-grim classrooms proves to be a scant commodity. In “Narrative Design,” Madison Smart Bell tells the story of being a visiting teacher for two semesters in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, known as the bellwether of critique-based workshops.

Within the limits of law and propriety, we were free to do what we pleased… However, there were enormous, crushing pressures to conform in those Iowa fiction workshops. The pressure came not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It was a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink, and in many aspects it really was quite frightening… Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success.

We always ask in our workshops, “What was working well in that writing?” And we ask it before we move on to suggestions for change.

Bell’s comments that will not hearten many an MFA applicant. Only one point of view, yes, but maybe being driven by critique is the highway to revision hell. Bell goes on to say that when he was a student in such a program, he considered 90 percent of the critique he received on his writing to be worthless. He would still be noodling a first draft if he considered matters of detail. Now, he tells his students in workshops to consider themselves fortunate if just one workshop member understands what the writer intends. “Your job,” he says, “is to become the best judge of your own work.”

Our anonymous commenter reports they are aiming at an exclusive MFA program, adding that “I have to produce that work, and it will be much easier for me to do so with mentors and peers, the resources of a large university, and fellowship money that will free me from the household drudgery and round-the-clock childcare that take up most of my time now.”

That’s a good course for the 2 percent of applicants who can clear the walls of these elite programs. For the rest of the world’s hopeful writers, including some MFA aspirants, we offer practice toward publication, dedication, and community without an emphasis on the need to polish critique habits. We suggest, based on our individual reading of the writing. Our goal is to recognize the best in a writer’s authentic voice, and then suggest how they might follow their own practiced voice when they succeed.

Elimination of household time and childcare can be an option for some, but the line for these fellowships is long and filled with talented writers. Yes, apply to win such money. Send your best work. Hope for the best — but remember in the meantime that art does not spring from critique, but in your expression of voice, mentored by suggestions for change. I believe everyone can write, and together we can be better.

An MFA won’t produce writing


My brother Bob sent along this link from In a letter to the site’s advice columnist, a recent MFA grad struggles with the task of getting the words onto the page after attaining an MFA.

Read the Cary Tennis column here

Graduation from an MFA program leaves a writer with plenty of bad critique habits, the need to stay within that MFA style, and sometimes no better writing discipline than when they were accepted.

Better just to keep on writing. An auto-didactic approach, to get specific.

No MFA, you say? Not so, Dr. Magnuson

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Last month the director of the Michener Center for Writers, James Magnuson, spoke to members of the Writer’s League of Texas. Magnuson began with a bit of errant information, a fact that suited his talk, “Graduate Writing Programs: Worthwhile Or Waste Of Money?”

“Did you know,” he asked, “that no Nobel Prize winner in Literature ever has come from an MFA program?” He went on to add that he wasn’t even sure if a graduate writing program had ever produced a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Well, the Pulitzer part was easy. I reminded Magnuson from my front-row seat that the Pulitzer Prize has gone to Michael Chabon, who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for the 2001 award. Today I was researching a novel from the syllabus for the Novelist’s Tools seminar on my schedule at Iowa this summer. The 12 of us in the class been assigned The Bluest Eye, the first novel from Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who’s been through an MFA program. Morrison won her Nobel Prize in 1993, 38 years after she took her MFA from Cornell.

There’s bound to be other MFA prize winners, but Magnuson was making a larger point with his errant report. An MFA will not ensure your critical acclaim or commercial success. Writers who judge themselves ready for the rigors of an MFA program sometimes look for such confirmation, usually as a result of what they learn about their writing. They also seek a secure place in life with a teaching position. But the advice from the Writer’s League audience assured us that even an MFA doesn’t automatically lead to a teaching job. “You really need a book as well,” offered one of the Michener grads in attendance.

So the MFA is only one means to the end: writing the book. And Magnuson said that an MFA program had better give you time to write that book, or you’ll be better served by avoiding the massive loans and years out of your life. “If you really have a life, there’s a question of whether you should take the time out of it” for graduate writing, he said. “If the program demands 20 hours a week teaching writing, plus three classes, there’s a question about whether it’s better to work for the post office and get up early every morning to write.”

He added that there’s a good alternative in learning from your peers, by sharing books. “There’s too much emphasis placed on the MFA in the culture,” he said. “We teach, but only to a degree,” he said — meaning not only that the MFA’s object is the degree alone, but also that much of what makes a writer succeed can’t be taught in a classroom.

A good Shepard for writing

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This spring the Iowa Writer’s Workshop announced its new director for the world-famous writing program, a person who will have to follow in the legendary shoes of Frank Conroy. Conroy died last year after 18 years of leading Iowa. Samantha Chang will become the first female director of the program, one of the most prestigious writing schools in the country. Much has been said already about Chang, who as a 1993 grad of the program will be one of the youngest writing teachers to hold the post.

Iowa has the cache of Harvard among graduate writing programs. It celebrates its 70th year this year. “Students are always interested in finding a place and a group of people that allows them to pursue a writer’s true work, which is thinking,” Chang said this month in an interview. Indeed, a group of people is essential to the writing life.

I thought of the one of the other director candidates to make the short list, Jim Shepard, who was invited to give a public reading, lead a workshop and get interviewed by students and faculty at Iowa City. It was the intersection of a couple of summertime stops in my writing training. I’d taken a seminar from Shepard at the first Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and earlier in that same trip, stayed in Iowa City while at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Not to take anything away from Chang, but Shepard would have been a good choice, too. In looking over my notes from his classes, I found a day when we examined narration within a story. In using dialogue inside narration, you can

  • Minimize the dialogue’s importance
  • Move things along quicker
  • Show the reader that you’re hurrying

Shepard also told us — by way of teaching from the balls of his feet as we took apart a manuscript to see what made it work — that narrators are more sympathetic when they treat themselves with a brusque manner, “rather than those who piss and moan.”

Shepard was like that: funny in a tough way, but never mean-spirited about his advice and counsel. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him for a week. For a great book on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I recommend The Workshop, edited by Iowa grad Tom Grimes. It’s full of remembrances of the community in the workshop, as well as great stories from its graduates. To find a bit of Conroy’s legacy, dig up The Eleventh Draft, a series of essays Conroy assigned to Iowa graduates like T.C Boyle, who’d studied under him about the craft of writing.