A Visit from the Goon Squad

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Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft

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In August 1954, just months after he graduated from Harvard, John Updike had his first story accepted by The New Yorker. He was 22 years old. Three years after that, having spent a year studying drawing in England and two years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Updike gave up his office job and set out his shingle as a freelance writer. For the next half century, he pumped out a steady stream of award-winning novels, poetry, criticism, and stories, often averaging more than a book a year.

Updike was an excellent student — all A’s from 7th to twelfth grade, summa cum laude from Harvard — and a ferociously hard worker, but he had little formal training in the craft of writing. In fact, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography, Updike, the future two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was rejected, twice, in his bid to take English S, Harvard’s most prestigious creative writing class taught by Archibald MacLeish. Yet from 1957, when he left the staff at The New Yorker until his death in 2009, Updike supported four children through two marriages without ever holding down a job other than writer.

Interestingly, Updike’s mother, Linda, was also a writer. Like her son, Linda dedicated her life to the craft of fiction, spending 25 years revising Dear Juan, a ponderous historical novel about the Spanish explorer Ponce de Léon, which remains unpublished to this day. She did eventually publish 10 stories in The New Yorker, along with two story collections (one posthumously), but Begley goes to some length to assure readers that without her famous son’s help rescuing her stories from the slush pile, they likely never would have been published. “I had only a little gift,” Linda once told an interviewer, “but it was the only one I got.”

In many ways, the tale of the two Updikes is a familiar one. Anyone who knows more than a few writers knows one or two who have achieved great things and dozens of others who have worked just as hard, cared just as much, and seen their work come to nothing. But this reality — that for most writers, “a little gift” is all they’re going to get — runs counter to the prevailing ethic of the creative writing world. Talent is overrated, apprentice writers are told over and over; what matters is a sense of vocation and a dedication to the craft of writing. “[T]he truth is,” writes John Gardner in the preface to his seminal book The Art of Fiction, “that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”

This ethic finds its purest expression in the genre of public performance known as a craft talk. If you have ever attended a writing conference, you have been to a craft talk. An eminent writer — the poet Robert Hass, say, or the novelist Jennifer Egan — stands at a podium and delivers an hour-long lecture on an aspect of literary craft. Done well, these talks can be interesting and useful. Some years ago, I attended a craft talk at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop in California in which one of the faculty authors suggested that the secret to writing good scenes is keeping them short — no more than two or three pages, if possible. I thought this absurd until I started looking through novels I liked, and noticed that, with a few exceptions, the scenes were shorter than I’d thought, often two pages or less. Then I looked at my own fiction and noticed that my scenes were, well, longer.

So, the problem with craft talks isn’t what is being said from the podium. The problem is the unspoken message of the genre of the craft talk itself, which is that one becomes a successful writer by mastering a series of discrete elements of literary craft. You learn to keep your scenes short. You gain a deeper understanding of the role of voice in narrative fiction. You remember to always put a little bad in your good characters and a little good in your bad characters, and — poof! — one day you open your laptop and discover you have written A Visit from the Goon Squad.

This is a species of magical thinking. It is, of course, impossible to write a good book without a deep appreciation of how language and stories work, but it doesn’t follow that successful writers have simply worked at it harder than less successful ones or that their understanding of the craft of fiction is any more acute. What successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent.

This inconvenient fact offends our sensibilities because it is elitist and because it means that for all but a very lucky few of us, literary greatness remains beyond our grasp. A belief in the transformative properties of craft also undergirds an ever-growing industry of creative writing education that, one way or another, now pays the bills for most working poets and literary writers. For these reasons, we have constructed a culture of discussing creative writing designed to skirt the obvious. Because craft exists outside us and can be improved through effort, a focus on craft gives us a way to talk about bad writing that is less hurtful to the writer. The successful writer is saved from having to tell the less successful one, “Sorry, but you have no talent.” Instead, the successful writer can say, “You need to work on your craft.”

More insidiously, the cult of craft encourages apprentice writers to tell themselves the same thing: “My work isn’t good, but I can fix that by getting an MFA or going to writing conferences to work on my craft.” This line of thinking is all the more alluring because it contains a not inconsiderable kernel of truth. Anyone who attends an MFA program and pays attention will learn valuable things about writing, and anyone who writes on a regular basis will get better. But that doesn’t mean they will get good. Becoming a good writer, one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers, is ultimately — and frustratingly — beyond our control.

None of this is to say that a concentrated focus on literary craft is a waste of time, or that writing can’t be taught, but as creative writing education continues to expand from a narrow field pursued by a devoted few to a profitable industry employing thousands, perhaps we should pause a moment to reflect on precisely what is being sold and what assumptions underlie the transaction.

By some estimates, there are now nearly 1,300 degree-granting creative writing programs in the United States, and as I reported in a recent issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, private, non-accredited writing programs are starting to pop up around the country, many run out of their owners’ living rooms. This doesn’t count the many writers offering one-on-one craft advice and manuscript critiques, nor the fresh batches of writing conferences, festivals, seminars, and retreats that seem to appear with each new season, each offering up another slate of famous or near-famous authors leading workshops and delivering craft talks. These can be expensive exercises. Bread Loaf, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writer’s conference, where two summers ago I paid $2,725 for a ten-day stay as a contributor, recently announced that it will charge contributors $3,050 in 2015 — a 10 percent hike in just three years. And this is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars students can expect to shell out in tuition to attend some of the pricier MFA programs.

This creative writing industrial complex has become a vital source of income for writers, especially midlist ones who have seen their ability to profit from books and print magazine publications eroded by digital disruption. For many writers today, teaching others to write has become a steadier, more lucrative profession than writing. Once upon a time, during the high-water years of the print era, readers paid enough for the short stories and novels they enjoyed that writers like John Updike could go on producing them. They did not, as readers do today, endlessly swap his work for free on Facebook and Twitter and download copies of his books at deep discounts off Amazon, and then pay thousands of dollars to sit in a room and have him offer tips on how they could become the next John Updike.

This signals an important shift in the relationship between writers and their readers. No longer are readers paying exclusively to enjoy a writer’s work; increasingly, writers are giving away their work for free or allowing it to be sold for far less than it cost them to produce it and making up the loss by teaching their readers how to become writers themselves. And the rhetoric of craft, which rests on the premise that anyone willing to put in the time can become a great writer, makes that possible.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and even if there were, we can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. The fact is, the business of teaching writing supports many more literary writers than the old model ever did or could. The present model also promotes a more inclusive literary community, one in which writers and readers exist on a more equal plane — and can even switch places — in ways that would be unimaginable to the proud professionals of Updike’s era.

But writers have to be honest about what produces good writing. Craft matters, and under the right circumstances, with the right teacher, writing can be taught. But there are limits. Poetry and literary fiction, as they are practiced at its highest levels, are not merely learned skills. Writing isn’t a craft, like carpentry or knitting. It is an art form. No number of scouring MFA critiques, no profusion of summer writing conference sessions or visits to low-residency programs, ever could have turned Linda Updike into her son John. Only talent could make that happen.

Image Credit: Pexels/Tim Gouw.

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