Saturday, July 14, 2007

Potok and others on Gottlieb, but really MFA


There is a certainty, an ease, an assuredness that comes from Bob, and when you're a writer and you're constantly living in a world of panic and uncertainty, to have that in an editor is a valuable thing indeed. (Potok)

Potok and a few others speak about Bob Gottlieb as their editor, some as their friend, in The Paris Review Interviews. It's a sweet book, worth a few re-reads and maybe months of dedication for the Borges section alone. Their thoughts on Gottlieb match my thoughts on a good MFA experience.

Potok got at something very dear to me. He wrote well with a generous and supportive editor. Oddly, there are those editors/MFA programs who coarsely grate at their writers, shaping them into their own little monsters. Be wary. Your program should calm you to your writing, not freak you out. You should feel well handled not browbeaten.

Some of the writers, like Morrison, Heller, and Crichton speak of a drafting process with Gottlieb's ability to read super-fast and comment eloquently within days of receiving work, how important that becomes. Gottlieb then speaks of their willingness to draft large amounts of work in weekends, or half-weeks; outrageous little amounts of time for that type of fiction. That's the energy level of your MFA, or sounds like it should be--not racing, but thorough and focused. The MFA is your introduction to being read and critiqued. Your work will improve with care, not abuse.

Great MFA programs should provide firm ground upon which writers can experiment with voice, design, style and length. The key here is finding the right adviser in the program, giving them your best and most important work and speedily responding to their guidance. Workshops are all well and good, but advising is where real sentence level learning occurs. If you’re not receiving this type of care from your adviser you need to find a better one, or maybe you’re just that good. Gottlieb only advised on sentence level issues when there was a deviation of meaning from meaning. This let a writer’s style be unhampered by vagueness or inexactitude.

So, Gottlieb exposed text that sung and left all else unmentioned. Then it’s the writer’s decision. That’s at the core of the MFA/editing agenda: creating dialog so a writer can decide about her texts and continue.

Once you've found a place to grow and write there should be very little in your life but the program. Lincoln has the right idea. You should write and socialize with other writers in the program. Falling in love, having kids, apparently these two things work as well.

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