Thursday, March 17, 2011

Framework & Permission

Much has been said and argued over the so-called efficacy of creative writing programs, whether they churn out writers with duplicate styles as mentors, ruin the ability to write in your unique voice, etc.(I'm not actually going to get into that argument, because I think it's silly). Now that I'm almost a  year into the experience, this is what I think they most effectively provide: a framework and permission. 

If you're a visitor to this website, chances are you're a writer, or you're a person who writes who thinks *someday* with enough effort you might be able to call yourself that. You also probably have done battle with friends or family members who can't conceive of this so-called profession. Is staring at a screen all day really work? they might ask. And at some point, maybe that doubt seeped in a little so that now or in the past you haven't allowed yourself enough time and space to do the work you love, or you've found convenient excuses not to write (one of mine: but I'm not inspired to write). There's also that nagging question some of us might have about the usefulness of writing: what's the point? My writing isn't going to cure cancer, maybe it won't even keep me or a family living above the poverty line.

Grad school for me has been most useful in providing a framework to dispel some of these doubts and figure out what a writing life looks like. A writing life for almost everyone includes other work, whether it be teaching, tutoring, waiting tables, or the like. In my classes, no one ever says "After this, you'll have it made." We all operate under the knowledge that this is a hard way to make a living. But there is also the expectation that nonetheless you write. No longer can you blame not writing on lack of inspiration or busyness. If you're going to be a writer, it will always be while doing other things, so if you only have an hour between 10:30 and 11:30 on a Tuesday, then dammit that's when you'll write. 

This is something we all could have done before, and some of us have. But for some reason, getting into an environment with other writers gives us permission to write: writing becomes a responsibility rather than a distraction. We learn to say, "I can't go to dinner because I need to work on this story." And we are surrounded by people who think this is a useful endeavor and a valid reason. It's good practice for getting back out there where not everyone thinks so. 

But this is not the only permission I'm talking about. Being in grad school also gives us a framework to pursue what interests us. At the moment for me, this means that I'm taking a nonfiction class for the first time in my life. As a documentarian, it is actually kind of strange that I haven't really learned how to write nonfiction before. Certainly I've read it and written bits of it before to accompany my photography, but now I'm actually learning to do it. But here's the thing. You can't really teach people to write, right? You can talk with them about writing and you can discuss what they've written, but there isn't a nonfiction equation just as there isn't a fiction or poetry equation. Not every story begins with a landscape or a poignant quote. But being in a writing class on this subject gives me space to read what has come before. To get in the mindset of nonfiction, to see examples of different methods, and finally to jump in feet first and see what I come up with. The other thing it does is give me a framework and permission to learn about subjects and people who interest me.

A week and a half ago, I spent the weekend in a Tumbleweed Tiny House workshop learning to build small houses and interviewing some of the people there, including the architect who leads the workshops. I've spent time with him before, interviewing and photographing him for my thesis project on the Small House Movement at UCSC in documentary work. It had been two years since I'd last seen him and despite the fact that I was still in California for half of that, I hadn't followed up on his story in spite of a genuine desire to. Because I was busy and could no longer use my thesis as an excuse for the writing. But now that I had a nonfiction class, I felt I had permission to do the work. It turns out, he'd really liked the writing I'd done before and offered to trade me a workshop (more than I could afford) for a story. It turns out that writing can be currency.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is this: grad school, while definitely a unique experience and unlike the so-called real world, puts you in a position to become an agent in your life as a writer. To claim it with confidence. Sure it's possible to get into that headspace without a program, but it might take more time. Hopefully, upon finishing a program, you'll have peers who you can exchange work with even if you end up flung to opposite sides of the country or world. We are building our own frameworks here, meeting other writers and developing support systems for after. This, I think, is where the value lies. Not just in improving your writing now, but learning how to keep improving and keep writing in the future. 


Sarah Allen said...

This is some wonderful advice! I hadn't thought about how an MFA program could give you emotional and mental permission to be a writer, but thats true. And its true that many outside of the field don't quite get exactly what it is we're doing. So thank you for these much needed thoughts :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Miranda K. Pennington said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miranda K. Pennington said...

I really like this post - I was recently accepted into my dream MFA program and the biggest thing I'm hoping to get out of it is the nudge to write that I've lacked since undergrad. There is just something about having designated reading to do, guaranteed thoughtful conversation, and assignments that will push my writing forward since I won't be relying on when I feel inspired or motivated to write for writing's sake. I'm excited :)

Unknown said...

great post seth.

amanda said...

Hi Sarah, I hadn't thought about it in those terms until just a couple of days ago either. And you're very welcome. :)

Miranda, where did you get in? And congratulations!

R said...

This is a great way of thinking about grad programs. I did my undergrad in writing, and while I had my problems with the structure of the program (I actually just wrote about the subject on my blog), I did find that being in the program gave me permission to write. I was able to call myself a writer, and be in a community of peers who valued that title. Now, thinking about if and when I'll attend a grad program, the sense of community is high on the list of benefits.

Beth Silverman Landau said...

Wow, this so succinctly expresses why finding (and getting into) an MFA program was key for me. Just the act of putting together my application materials was cathartic: I am allowed to do this and still be a responsible grown up.

amanda said...

Thanks, R. Yeah, community is absolutely key. I feel very fortunate to be in a program that is supportive in this way. Do you think you'll apply soon?

Thank you, Beth! Cathartic is a great way to describe it. I feel that way, too.

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