Four Chord Fiction: A Better Understanding of the Genre Born from Workshop Clichés

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I finally came up with handy name and metaphor for the genre of fiction MFA programs and creative writing workshops seem to produce: Four Chord Fiction. You see, it’s like formulaic pop music where the musician plugs in a few unique elements into a set structure and out of the other end of the machine comes an audience-pleasing pop song. That’s not to say there is anything universally bad about a pop song, but understanding pop songs and the way they manipulate the listeners’ impulses requires recognition of the formula. In the same way, the workshop system indoctrinates young writers with four clichés (“Write what you know”; “Find your voice”; “Show, don’t tell”; “A character must want/learn/change, etc.”) and out of the other end of this machine comes a story with four corresponding elements (Domestic Realism; Naturalistic Free Indirect POV; Meandering Detail; Iceberg Conflict/Joycean epiphany) engineered to please, in this case, a much smaller audience: the workshop.

In fairness, this is an understanding of the workshop clichés and genre that can aid any writers who likes to write that way: understanding it as a genre is much more honest and helpful than treating the clichés as inviolable truths. But I also wanted language to critique the genre, the clichés, and the teaching technique for those, like me, who utterly disdain it.

As with pop music, part of the value of the Four Chord Story is that anybody can create a basically pleasing piece of fiction without a lot of legitimate work, just a lot of simple techniques that disguise themselves as work, and readers can critique Four Chord Story within the narrow bounds of the genre and the clichés without putting much effort into considering whether these clichés actually apply or if the clichés are even true to begin with. However, like a pop song, a Four Chord Story really should grate on the nerves of anyone with an understanding of the mechanisms at work. In both cases, if you like the Four Chord Story or not, lack of awareness of these mechanisms serves no one.

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I’ve struggled in the past to explain how my experiences in writing workshops were entirely useless to me – because the workshops seemed to all be teaching a genre I was uninterested in writing, whether or not the workshop leader was brutal or kind (and I hate to critique the kind ones but I have to confess they were all equally useless) – but the problem was the genre had no convenient name. I sometimes call it the “workshop cliché story,” but this genre need not necessarily come from an actual workshop, just exemplify the same clichés. The genre is sometimes called, in a self-congratulatory manner, “literary fiction,” but “literary” is egregiously inaccurate and unhelpfully broad (and placed in opposition to the even broader and less helpful and less accurate name “genre fiction”). In my opinion, “literature” functions in precisely the opposite way. Literature challenges conventions and clichés, exemplifies excellence and virtuosity within a full range of possibilities, etc., while the Four Chord Story functions merely to please in the easiest way possible. Literature creates, innovates, fosters originality, and so on, but Four Chord Fiction actively discourages creativity in many forms and depends on preset structures and story elements far more frequently and pervasively than so-called genre fiction. Hypocritically, this version of “literary” fictions sets itself in dialectic opposition against “genres” like science fiction with exponentially more originality, creativity, vitality, and intentional violation and deconstruction of expected generic elements than Four Chord Fiction could even allow.

The other major distinction between literature and Four Chord Fiction which troubles me deeply in explaining the difference (a problem which proper naming helps me resolve) is that anybody could write a Four Chord Story, and “literature” implies a level of elite virtuosity. It’s by far the easiest type of story to write. I can appreciate this egalitarian principle without necessarily liking the result. I love Tristan Tzara’s concept of creating a poem by cutting words out of a newspaper and arranging them at random partly because that obliterates poetic elitism, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily like every poem that results from cutting up a newspaper. I support on principle any democratization of art. However, the more significant problem here in democratizing the fiction process is the tie between Four Chord Fiction and creative writing education which seems to be the place of this genre’s birth and proliferation. While elitism may be a problem society, a school is designed to set the elite level as a goal for any student (equally, democratically) to reach while not alienating or dehumanizing anyone who fails to reach that level. An educational system can affirm inherent equality of all students while retaining the elite level as a goal for all students without hypocrisy; an educational system designed to foster mediocrity in the name of egalitarianism fails in its most basic purpose. The writer in a writing class should train like Rocky in all of his Rocky montages (working class underdog everyman striving with great physical difficulty and passion for a goal far beyond his present skill level) with the writing-teacher-equivalent of Burgess Meredith barking “Do it again! Do it better!” until our writing muscles bulge with Apollo-Creed-beating perfection. Whether or not Rocky beats him is irrelevant, but that is the goal of the training montage. But Four Chord Fiction is like Burgess Meredith handing Rocky a TASER and saying, “This is how you beat Apollo Creed, and since beating him is the only goal, this is the only tool you’ll need,” and nobody ever pointing out how this is a cheat and a complete misconception of the purpose of training. It’s like going to finance school and only learning about credit default swaps (I’m hardly knowledgeable enough in finance to make this metaphor work, but Four Chord Fiction makes me scared that literature built on such a hollow structure is bound for a collapse like the Great Recession). It’s like going to a math tutor who says, “Look at the answers in the back of the book, and do everything else on the calculator.” It’s like teaching students how to use the grammar check on their computer instead of actually teaching them grammar. It’s not real training. But these metaphors are inadequate because they imply a definite rule system, and this would run counter to another major criticism of creative writing education, that there can be and should be no objective rule system in artistic expression.

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Thus, I arrived at four chord songs as the perfect metaphor. This music metaphor appeals to me partly because I have throughout my life been surrounded by fans of indie music or art music or classical music who complain they can’t enjoy pop music because it is overly simplistic and formulaic and repetitive. Music experts know the tricks that allow any musician, irrespective of any legitimate creativity or originality or skill, to make a piece of music which casual fans will enjoy. Full disclosure: I got this idea from an Axis of Awesome video called “4 Chords,” and any formulaic pop song structure could work just as well, but that video thoroughly demonstrates how any musician could plug in new lyrics to essentially the same song and make something basically pleasing. Mix and match these four chords, insert various other components, and you get “Someone Like You” by Adele or “Take Me Home, Country Road” by John Denver or “Sparks Fly” by Taylor Swift or “With or Without You” by U2 or “Let it Be” by the Beatles or “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” by Smashing Pumpkins. These songs seem superficially quite different, but a music expert can hear the underlying structure. While I appreciate learning about this perspective, I am no music expert myself and couldn’t explain it any more thoroughly than that. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant to the flaws and clichés in popular music. The songs I picked as examples are songs I like. This hopefully proves my total honesty and attempt at fairness since nobody pretending to be cool and smart would admit to loving “Sparks Fly” as much as I love “Sparks Fly.” I’d even call “Let it Be” one of the greatest songs ever. That’s a safer position in terms of coolness, but I’d rather remain in an ignorant world where “Let it Be” really can be one of the greatest songs ever. You might also consider Prince and David Bowie who both died this year. Both were lauded in their many eulogies as creative geniuses and many of their most beloved songs are pop songs, so this clearly demonstrates pop music is far from universally bad. My point is that if writers use the cliché components I describe, that does not necessarily mean they are bad writers. They could be like Adele whose virtuosity compensates for any structural deficit, or they could be like Prince whose monumental creativity forced something unoriginal to metamorphose into something entirely original.

But here’s the problem: if I went to music school and all I learned was how to play a four chord song, I’d be pissed. If I wanted to start a rock band, I’d study “Let it Be” to figure out how it was made, but I wouldn’t need to go to school for that. If I wanted to be the next Beethoven or Arthur Schoenberg, I could go to school to learn the essential structural components beyond this singular form. The level of expertise necessary to be the next Beethoven would require extensive study and training even if my aim was to break it down and create something entirely new like Schoenberg. My hypothetical Four Chord Music School would be even more problematic if it had no way to teach me anything about Beethoven, if it was designed to only teach students how to create this one type of song (no matter how good or how superficially different these songs might seem), to even imply that Beethoven was a bad musician because he didn’t fit the four chord formula – this would be egregious educational malfeasance, yet we tolerate it from fiction workshops and programs.

Here are the four structural components, or “four chords,” that make up the clichéd workshop story paired with the cliché advice at the root of the component, set up like a listicle since creative writing classes, in my experience, are more like “tips and tricks” listicles than anything legitimately called education. I also deconstruct each chord to examine what is really behind it and present an alternative version that works much better in understanding how a story works.

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Chord 1: Domestic realism

Cliché: Write what you know.

A better understanding: “Write what you know” is the most insidious, anti-imaginative advice that proliferates workshops despite the monumental evidence of its falsity. The other three chords have relatively redeemable bits of advice at their core, but “write what you know” is a parasite, sucking creativity out of all other aspects of writing as well. I’m trying to be fair with Four Chord Fiction, but it’s hard to be fair with this one. It perhaps aids new writers in mining material for stories, hence the four-chord-based over-simplification: no need to imagine anything or put much work into the creative process if the material exists already in “what you know.” It becomes further problematic when the story material outside of this very limited range is deemed implicitly unfit for writing. By implication, if we should write what we know, we shouldn’t write what we don’t know. That would eliminate the vast majority of good writing. Writers would then no longer exercise their imagination, and fiction would become a sub-species of memoir. Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good, and it certainly doesn’t mean those who choose the more difficult option (e.g. making stuff up) are wrong to do so. Instead of following clichés, it’s much more important to recognize the stimulant value of story elements, and understanding the mechanism behind “write what you know” could, possibly, hopefully, fairly render it legitimately useful. First, the framing effect – taking any real object or event and simply reframing in the context of fiction – has a basic stimulant value, and writers can train themselves to recognize objects and events with optimal stimulant value the same way photographers develop an eye for compelling pictures. Those who disseminate this advice/lie/misconception “write what you know” may simply derive more stimulation from the framing effect than others. The subjectivity inherent in recognition of stimulant value is what gives art such variety, so limiting the possibilities of this variety to a single effect that happens to work better for some than others is counterproductive to teaching writing. Also, certain particular story components could benefit from application of “write what you know”: characters, for example. Applying this advice to plot is bound to limit a story to the blandest components, but applying this to character could aid in fostering empathy. I prefer to rephrase the advice “Write who you know, but write whatever you enjoy.” It’s important also to note that readers may reject signs of overt manipulation (most of the Four Chords seem to be aimed at eliminating signs of overt manipulation as if that is the only problem in a story). Audiences might reject some plot twist that comes off glaringly as a trick (which is ironic that this advice is essentially a trick meant to counteract a trick), but that’s why it’s important to free characters and events from conscious manipulation, to let them be and live and interact like hypnogogic hallucinations. Writers can train themselves to think in this way, but the comparative uselessness of “write what you know” is no substitute. Perhaps realists can help other realists by saying “write what you know,” but most great imaginative writers of any type, realist or not, will say “Characters write themselves.” In direct contradiction to this cliché, a writer can find great delights in not actually knowing everything about a character and discovering moment by moment places your character can lead you far outside of your knowing.

Chord 2: Naturalistic Free Indirect POV

Cliché: Find your voice

A better understanding: Crafting prose to enhance one’s own authorial voice is where much of the hard work of writing resides, so a scheme to make writing overly easy would seem to fail here, but the Four Chord concept of voice and prose present two contradictory notions that provide writers the same effortless cheat as “write what you know” and give writers the false impression of actually having done valuable work. “Find your voice” seems like it’s guiding writers toward originality, but that soon meets the supposed rights and wrongs of prose – for example, dishonestly favoring concision over euphony. “Find[ing] your own voice” matched with “writ[ing] what you know” leads to narrators who are simply speaking like the writer speaks. This avoids the legitimate effort of creating compelling narrators and is a stimulation cheat similar to the framing effect: any writer speaking honestly is going to be compelling at the base level. Any character or narrator based write-what-you-knowingly on the writer or the writer’s acquaintances is going to be nearly as empathetic and complicated as the actual person and requires the writer to little more than accurately frame. Readers may enjoy a narrator with a naturalistic voice the same way they enjoy a conversation. Chord 1 and Chord 2 effectively extract the effort and creativity out of plot, voice, prose, and character – a feat so impressive, no wonder it’s so popular. But why do so few people complain about the laziness of such overly simplistic advice? That’s where the direct contradiction of “find your voice” functions effectively to mask the laziness. It turns out that “your voice” is inadequate since an Ernest Hemingway-like or Raymond Carver-like concision is apparently the only valid voice any writer can have, and there is a whole swath of tips-and-tricks and lightweight exercises a writer can apply to any prose to make it sound like Hemingway or Carver, get rid of compound sentences, get rid of repetition/redundancy/parallelism, get rid of passive voice, get rid of essentially everything but nouns and verbs, etc. But this is not creative work. This is busy work. The computer programs I use to write will sometimes convert “&” to “&” and it takes a lot of necessary work to convert all of those to “and” (especially since some of them seem to be random conversions of entirely different formatting quirks), but I would never call this the hard work of beautifying prose. The Carverization of prose is hardly much different, but it may trick naïve writers into thinking effort has paid off with sharpener sentence. In fairness, maybe they did sharpen a sentence, but it’s in the same way a beginning guitar player comes up with a chord progression that sounds kind of like the Beatles after a lot of practice: the dopamine hits get them hooked on this type of practice, but this does not equate great musicianship. The bigger problem of this sort of busy work is it aims for robotic conformity, not the originality “find your voice” implies. I blame the workshop system for this since a workshop is structurally designed to foster this variety of conformity and not to foster legitimate originality partly because of the various social forces inherent in the workshop itself (as all social interactions foster conformity as the easiest, most painless choice) matched with the need for ease of transmission of supposed advice and ease of identification of supposed problems. It reduces the infinite variety of possibilities of voice development to a single choice: concision. Concision is fine in certain circumstances, but I often (in the legitimate hard work of prose crafting) find myself choosing between concision and euphony and falling more often on the side of euphony (as most great writers who are not Hemingway or Carver or any of their children (it’s a delight to imagine those two in the act of breeding) choose euphony over concision), but concision is appealing to the workshop system because it comes with its own Buzzfeed-like tips-and-tricks listicle that is (overly) easily disseminated. I imagine a clever programmer in the future creating a Carverbot 5000, running student prose through the system and producing the same concise and monotonous prose that finally causes the workshop system to collapse. Here’s a personal example: I remember when I came to the realization that I like strings of compound sentences, and I especially love coordinating conjunctions and the euphony of long lines. This is an example of a writer discovering his own voice which “find your voice” is supposed to celebrate. To develop my own voice, I would explore the proper placement of coordinating conjunctions to optimize the euphony of the long line. This discovery happened before I ever entered a workshop. However, without fail, someone in every workshop told me I used too many coordinating conjunctions. The only response I could give is that I like coordinating conjunctions and that I’m going to keep them. The exchange was as time wasting as someone saying, “I like pickles.” Well, I don’t like pickles and never will. I could have used all that time wasted in disseminating false objectivity to invent more monsters. Then there’s the matter of POV. Writers could use objective third, omniscient third, close third, second person, first person, and so on. Great writers can also shift back and forth between various POVs. But the Four Chord Story only uses one: close third – actually, only one species of close third called free indirect (eliminating such non-concise contrivances as “he thought”). I exaggerate, of course, because sometimes Four Chord Stories use first person (based on the illusion of legitimate voice finding) but extract that a slight step into third person (based on the illusion of legitimate crafting) and you get free indirect. The idea seems to be: find your own voice, choose any POV, use it consistently, but there is only one good POV, and that is free indirect. By the end of my MFA experience, it seemed like all I had learned was to write with a consistent POV since I knew all the other clichés already. I can’t really call this something I learned since it’s just plain wrong – read any story by Kafka (“Sorrows of a Family Man” uses four POVs in one page) or any work of fiction published before Carver, and you can easily prove how wrong this is – but the whole program seemed to be desperate to teach this to me. Based on other so-called teaching, the only acceptable POV that I must, must, must use consistently is free indirect, but this makes sense considering the pyramid-scheme-quality of the whole system: it’s like saying, “This system requires you to cheat, but we can’t actually tell you to cheat, so you just have to arrive at this conclusion by working out all this contradictory advice.” Full disclosure: I use free indirect most often in my stories, but I feel lazy doing it because it is so easy to generate empathy that way while maintaining the suspense and focus which first person can undermine. I wish I could accomplish the same thing with a different POV – I idolize Harold Pinter and other playwrights for their ability to accomplish this with a pure objective third POV – but admittedly my fixation on free indirect is a character-based bit of bitterness related to stereotypes of my so-called genre. I use a lot of tropes from magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, anime, comic books, etc. I could just imagine if I took on the challenge of objective third, some misguided stereotyper might say, “Of course you use objective third because you are writing science fiction which has flat, allegorical characters and requires narrative distance.” Everything about that claim would be so enragingly wrong and could occupy a dozen other ranty blog posts (most relevantly and enragingly: the character complexity of so-called literary/more accurately Four Chord Fiction is hypocritically accomplished by the laziest possible means), I’d have to be ultra-delicate with my objective third to be the champion of character complexity in all of my so-called genres. Instead, I favor the characters over the POV challenge as a proud and sentimental character father. But at least I do it consciously.

Chord 3: Meandering detail.

Cliché: Show, don’t tell.

A better understanding: In my experience, “Show, don’t tell” is the most pervasively dogmatic of all workshop clichés. This is due to the magical way in which it seems to make a story pop. Like the other elements in Carverian tips-and-tricks listicles, spotting the “show[ing]” and the “tell[ing]” is a fairly simple technique to transmit in a workshop setting and can easily trick the young writer into thinking this is real work and learning. But it’s only a trick, and it can easily slip into hollow dogmatism – resulting in strings of meandering detail – unless the writer understands why it works. The legitimate effect at the core of this cliché is the relative stimulant value of concrete images compared to abstractions. Compare these two descriptions: “He was embarrassed.” “His face went red as he averted his eyes.” The first (“tell[ing]”) is a relatively unstimulating abstraction, and the second (“show[ing]”) is relatively stimulating series of concrete images: an object, a color, an action, etc. Consciousness of the relative stimulant value of abstraction and concrete images is a great place to start for young writers, but “Show, don’t tell” narrows that consideration down to small percentage of the multitude of choices between abstract and concrete. A writer could validly choose to skip useless details to get more quickly to a story beat, to gloss quickly over necessary exposition for the sake of timing, to effectively employ abstraction for the sake of ambiguity or mystery. But, no, the dogmatism of the cliché implies that concrete description is always the right choice. This leads to narratives utterly packed with concrete detail with seemingly no purpose other than to fulfill this inviolable doctrine. Concrete detail may be intrinsically stimulating without any purpose other than its own value, but the more of this purposeless detail you pile into a story, the more its stimulant value becomes blunted. Let’s say I was giving a meta-narrative of my own present process, I could say, “He paused to think of what to say next. Then he continued typing.” This is too abstract to have much stimulant value. Compare this to the following description: “He took a sip of black and bitter coffee from his blue cup and put it back on the desk, the thud of the heavy mug muted by a homemade paper coaster. He looked at the broken blue stapler beside the computer monitor. Soon he heard again the rattle of his own typing.” Relative to the abstraction of “He thought of his next line,” the concrete detail is more stimulating, but if I pile on more purposeless description, I blunt the effect: “He had a white and yellow pencil beside the keyboard.” So what? That pencil is hardly beautiful, and my plain description hardly endows it with beauty, so why describe it other than dogmatic adherence to cliché? How does that description advance the story or reveal anything about the character? I could point out that I keep a broken stapler on my desk because I hate to throw anything away, and I like the translucent blue as it catches the window light. That would reveal a lot about me as a character, but that white and yellow pencil does nothing. I have no association with it, and I don’t even know where it came from, and it’s just not pretty, no offense to white and yellow pencils. It creates no stimulation, and it has no place in my story. I would be the last one to argue that art ever needs an end point value or that that should be the sole reason for a story element’s existence. I’m thoroughly untroubled by detail with a purely aesthetic value. For example, a writer can further enhance the stimulant value of a concrete detail with consciousness of poetic euphony. For example, if I used those details in a story about my inability to throw away broken staplers, I would keep relatively unrevealing details like “black and bitter coffee from his blue cup” partly for the visuals but partly for the alliteration and the iambic rhythm. Following that with the “white and yellow pencil” continues the iambic rhythm to the point of rendering the sentence bland with the mechanical repetition of detail and rhythm. It would be utterly counterproductive. This consideration of euphony can also be an effective counterargument to another clichés nearly as dogmatic: “Kill your darlings,” a cliché at the level of inarticulate offensiveness with “Write what you know,” as it seems to encourage the elimination of all story elements not purely purposeful, yet it seems to lack the dogmatic efficacy of “Show, don’t tell,” so Four Chord Stories become more commonly populated by purposeless detail than euphonious “darlings.” Better advice is to turn everything in your story into a darling so that editing becomes a choice between two darlings and not a process of destroying that which you love for the sake of a conformity to some false rule system. Euphony and concrete detail can be two “darlings” a writer must choose between. I run across this constantly because of my addiction to adverbs. I mostly overuse the word “mostly” for the sake of rhythm (this is part of recognizing my own voice, a voice which throws in many gratuitous mostlys, and precisely the process that the conformist, anti-adverb Carverization of narrative hypocritically works against). For example, I might change the above line to “black and mostly bitter” to break up the artificiality of the alliteration, but “mostly” is an abstraction. Recognizing that “mostly” lacks the stimulant value of a concrete image but may enhance the poetics of the line, I must choose which “darling” best enhances the stimulant value of the line as a whole. In this case, consciousness of the interaction between story elements is far more effective than the narrow focus on “show[ing]” and “tell[ing].”

Chord 4: Iceberg Conflict/Joycean Epiphany

Cliché: A character should want/strive for/do/learn something; good characters end the story by changing or coming to some epiphany.

A better understanding: To give young writers simple tricks to improve their characters, especially as it relates to story structure, workshops often give an extraordinarily simplified version of principles championed by the two Modernist darlings of workshopping: Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce (but only the Joyce of The Dubliners). Certainly, beginning writers may write passive characters unconsciously as much as they write passive voice sentences unconsciously. Writers are often passive and introspective people, and being a beginning writer in a workshop only heightens this, so if they “write what they know,” they’ll often write passive, introspective characters. So telling young writers that good characters are also introspective but still strive for something gives young writers a license to write about this highly internalized characters and give a simple fix to the characters’ bland passivity, enhancing the character’s vitality in the simplest way. Furthermore, workshops justify this oversimplification by claiming Hemmingway supported the same technique with his “Iceberg” theory: the conflict, according to this interpretation of the “iceberg,” happens under the ocean surface. Hemmingway, furthermore, is cool and active and tough and confident, so no wonder he becomes the heroical darling of passive introverts. But if conflict is internalized, how do you actually end the story? For that, workshops turn to the other oversimplified, overly narrow sliver of modernist technique: the Joycean epiphany. Instead of the artificial external conflict that ends with a fight to the death, a character must learn something and change. This also helps resolve the difficulty of determining an active drive for characters with internal conflicts: their drive is the drive to learn. They’re driven to overcome some misconception. They’re driven to change. A lot of supposed creative writing instruction books read a lot like self-help books, so no wonder the characters seem so thoroughly like the embodiment of self-help pop psychology (another metaphor I considered before Four Chord Fiction is self-help vs. legitimate psychotherapy). This self-help version of Hemmingway and Joyce is a poor understanding of characters on so many levels rooted in the same oversimplification and false dogmatism of the rest of the three chords. You could easily disprove it by naming any number of great characters who fail to conform to these standards. Taking the Four Chords as absolutes seems to disqualify half of all literature that came before Hemmingway, and certainly these standards of good characters seems to apply to only about half of all good characters ever. One of my all-time favorite characters is Dorothy Gale, a very active character, certainly, but she embodies all internal desires in external actions, and by the end (in the book version which I like better than the movie version) she learns nothing and she has not changed a bit. Workshop dogmatism implies that Dorothy Gale, despite being beloved by millions, is just not a good character. I would certainly never argue against internal conflict since interiority is vital to the stimulating vicarious experience, but the dogmatism seems to place internal/external as a binary choice, implying stories with external conflicts must lack internal conflicts. That’s pure nonsense. Claiming all good characters must learn something is even more egregious nonsense. Epiphany is one of many choices in character and plot development. Beyond that, the gross simplification of Hemmingway and Joyce does Hemmingway and Joyce a disservice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Hemmingway or Joyce. In fact, I hate most Hemmingway and Joyce stories. I spent a lot of time in workshops “learning” the supposedly inviolable truths of Hemmingway and Joyce, wondering why I was supposed to write like two writers I really hate. Was I supposed to hate my own writing? It made no sense. My favorite modernist fiction writers are Franz Kafka and Daniil Kharms, and the failure of Kafka and Kharms characters to ever learn anything enhances the mysterious quality of the stories. Hemmingway characters, for their part, may have the Icebergian internal conflicts but very rarely ever seem to learn or change. One of the few Hemmingway stories I can tolerate is “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place, and the power of the characters in that story is in their routine intransigence. Furthermore, epiphanies in Four Chord stories tend to have these very simple and obvious lessons – as simplistic in their stimulant effect as structuring every pop song with a bridge at the end – that are patently un-Joycean in their simplicity. What do the characters in The Dubliners actually learn with their epiphanies? It’s hard to identify in a single statement, and the power is partly in the ambiguity and complexity. Simplification of epiphanies as something identifiable is another effect of the workshop structure. In my experience, much of the workshop time was spent on useless “I don’t understand why” statements. If a reader in a workshop has a limited amount of time to read a certain amount of stories, the false impression may be that difficulty to understand something is a flaw. Joyce, despite the reverence, would fail to get very far in the workshop structure, a system designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to encourage conformity and clarity and discourage experimentation, difficulty, ambiguity, etc. – the precise qualities that garner Joyce so much praise (even though I’m reluctant to admit it as a Joyce hater). Beyond this, the two worst effects of the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification are to reduce character drive to a singular, identifiable goal and to misplace the value of the story in its endpoint, at the completion of that goal. A better way to approach character is to identify characters’ paradoxical drives and to recognize the story as a disruption of stasis. Beginning writers may start by identifying characters’ internal drives, but to make the character far more compelling, empathetic, complicated, potent, etc., writers should also identify the exact opposite: the paradoxical drive that runs directly counter to the first (relatively superficial) drive the writer identifies. This could be opposition between an internal drive and external actions, or this could be two directly contradictory internal drives. It’s easy to see how much more effective this is in understanding a wider variety of stories than the Iceberg/Epiphany simplification: Dorothy Gale only ever wants to go home, and her external actions are driven by this, but paradoxically, she also grows to love the friends she makes in Oz, rendering the completion of her quest more complicated (certainly not a lesson or change, by a potent endpoint nonetheless). Gregor Samsa may desire the return of normalcy, he may desire to fulfill his responsibility to his family, but that life also sucks, and he likes being a monstrous vermin. The waiter in “A Clean, Well-Lighted” place may superficially want a clean, well-lighted place as a refuge, but he also believes in “nada” and recognizes all temporary comforts are useless. Character paradox has such intrinsic vitality, I would recommend that as the starting place of any story for any young writer. If you can’t think of a story, imagine a character, imagine what he/she wants, and identify the opposite drive. Likewise, in starting a story, the writer should recognize that the story gains vitality by the disruption of stasis. Epiphany or change represents only one type of return to stasis. In a traditional heroic story with external conflict, the hero starts in a story world in peace with citizens upholding morals designed to maintain stasis; then a villain enters this environment and disrupts the stasis; the hero then defeats the villain to cause the story world to return to stasis. Similarly, Dorothy gets lost (disruption of stasis) and must return home (return to stasis). No epiphanies are necessary for this type of story. A story with internalized conflict, like the Four Chord style of realism, starts with the story world in a similar sort of stasis. There may be pre-existing internal conflict numbed by some realistic routine. Say, for example, the main character is in a bad marriage, but she has learned to live with it. Then there comes an inciting incident that disrupts the stasis. Say, for example, the dumb husband says something he doesn’t realize is emotionally abusive. How can that story end? She comes to the realization that she has to leave him, thus establishing a new stasis. Epiphany works for this set up, and an effective way for this type of character to return to stasis is to change, but that fails to prove there is any necessity for universal application.

Workshops seem to promote the notion that this is the only valid way to create a good story, and the only trajectory of a good character. In reality, this is a paint-by-numbers method of story creation. It clearly works for many people, and many people love the end results of this paint by numbers method. I may rail against this method because it limits the imaginative possibilities of fiction, stunts the evolution, kills experimentation and originality, etc., but that is merely what I value in writing. After all, formulas in pop music result in perfectly good songs for listeners who don’t care as much. Great performers like Adele, Prince, David Bowie, and, yes, Taylor Swift can take the formula and make it something original, dynamic, exciting, vital, beautiful, etc. However, I wouldn’t expect music schools to teach students this type of music. That would be ridiculous. And writing schools that promote this same sort of simplistic formula are equally ridiculous.

Tips for the Moral Teaching of Creative Writing, part 2: The Mini-Movement

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If the first, most important thing to do in teaching creative writing is to establish essential principles upon which work is to be assessed and guide young writers to find their own principles of assessment to judge their own work and likewise judge the judgment of others, etc. (hence the Mogan of Primary Values I spoke of in part one), part of the problem with this is that young writers, if we are to assume they are inexperienced and seeking help, may not have confidence enough to embrace or fight for these principles. This is why small group work is necessary: to build this type of confidence, create mini-movements that give students a foundation of principles shared with classmates from which to assess and argue effectively. Even if an inexperienced writer is uncertain about arguing from principles, two or more writers with the same principles can bolster that writer’s confidence.  It’s not like this is science class where everyone has to learn the accepted principles as dictated by the unimind before being able to challenge them, like you have to learn why an alligator is a reptile before you can prove it’s a mammal (I’ve already discussed why “you have to know the rules to break them” when applied to any of the creative arts is an inaccurate, elitist cliché). A young writer’s principles are already correct just as everyone’s opinions are inarguably correct. A sense of what is beautiful cannot be made superior simply by experience because a sense of beauty is innate and subjective — perhaps changed but not improved in any objective way by experience or interaction with others; learning can perhaps hone a sense of this instinct or give someone a practical capacity to tap into this instinct and translate it effectively in the creation of a piece, but there is no way to make it greater than what it innately is. The problem comes when creative writing teachers, no matter how egalitarian they claim the classroom is, will teach from a principle (or more commonly from superficial truisms disguised as principles, as I’ve discussed in the past) that have an assumed superiority based on experience, and students don’t have the tools to resist this. Teachers may claim the goal is to guide students to better writing — but better writing based on what? Or to find their own voice — but what does that mean? A unique narrative style still being judged by principles that aren’t their own, principles the writer (or teacher for that matter) may not even be aware of? The way to circumvent this taken for granted uncertainty is first to build confidence that the writer already has perfectly valid tools of assessment. Creating a mini-movement can accomplish this and takes only a few simple steps:

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1) Find out the students’ spiritual/aesthetic forbears and group accordingly. This could be accomplished through a simple survey like “Who is your favorite writer? What is your favorite book? Who would you love to write like? What book made you jealous? What piece have you tried to imitate?  Whose principles of writing have taught you most?” and so on. In this way, the teacher can judge who best belongs together: maybe the Hemingway and Carver students will agree on a lot; maybe the Orwells and Huxleys will have interesting arguments; maybe the Stephanie Meyer and Edgar Allan Poe students can learn from each other; maybe the Kerouacs and the Rushdies will have a blast together (I’d totally be in that group). However the teacher sees fit to group the students is irrelevant, as long as there is the perception that the students’ concepts of great literature will work well together.

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2) Have them write a Mogan of Primary Values and eventually a manifesto. I consider a Mogan of Primary Values a very practical way to assess what is merely opinion and what is deep level, irreducible principle. It’s something students could/should do on their own, but it is also a simple way to start the mini-movements on a shared task to find their shared principles. Any mechanism for achieving this is fine, as long as they are working together to find what is at the root of any assessment or any argument. Perhaps the Orwell/Huxley group will argue the logic of everyone’s piece, and while this may be useless for, say, the Meyers/Poe group, everyone will know the Orwells need logic in the assessment of their Orwellish pieces or make the other students aware that they need to argue against logic as an assessment necessity. Perhaps the Hemingway/Carver group will start from elimination of extraneous words based on a principle of achieving great psychological effect through language efficiency and indirection, and a comment about eliminating an extraneous adjective may be big help to those who agree, and it could likewise function to reaffirm the principles of the group in a way that bolsters confidence. The elimination of extraneous adjectives won’t do much good for the Rushdie group for whom great aesthetic effect is achieved through the manic overwhelming of senses and irrationality, through catachresis, neologism, and juxtaposition of disparate elements — none of this indirection nonsense — but to a Carverist, these things may seem like mistakes. In this case, if a Carverist tells a Rusdieist to take out some adjectives or fix the catachresis, this will not be a total waste of a comment as such comments so commonly are. The Mogan likely will be incomplete at the beginning of the class (as they will ideally come to a greater understanding of their own principles through the practice of workshopping, etc., in the class) but somewhere around the middle of the semester, the groups should work toward forming something more concrete and specific: a manifesto outlining their principles and the grounds by which they assess the quality of work. Argument about whose now more firmly established principles are most valid can be far more productive than the surface level revision workshops fixate on, even though no final winner could or should be declared.

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3) Conduct small group (mini-movement) and large group workshops. This class will by necessity involve workshopping in the small group and with the whole class, and the teacher can determine the workshopping schedule based on the size of class and the size of groups (even if it’s a four person class with two groups of two), but I recommend starting with small groups, in particular starting with an unfinished or currently developing story or poem. Students are less likely to fear judgment in a small group, especially one that starts from shared opinion and shared principles. If students are given the task of workshopping an unfinished story in small groups, knowing it is unfinished and in need of help, this could significantly increase the effectiveness of the workshopping on many levels. Even if a regular workshop is designed to be for work that is unfinished and in need of help, how are normal students expected to proceed when presenting this work without context right from the beginning? Of course, normal students would be prone to submit their best to avoid embarrassment in front of people they just met, and when you submit your best, defensiveness at criticism rises. Defensiveness, in my experience, has been counteracted with the otherwise pointless and counterproductive cone of silence, and my frustration with that nonsense can fill up a few more pages. Worse, the writer will put forward the most bland and inoffensive to please multiple viewpoints they have no obligation to agree with, and isn’t this precisely the sort of work the MFA system is criticized for producing? If I were making a movie for a group of strangers, the type of movie I would make would be quite different if I knew they were fans of The Human Centipede series or if I knew the most disturbing movie they ever watched was The Worst Witch. If I didn’t know their opinion at all, I’d make it as close to Hallmark Hall of Fame as possible or face an onslaught of the most useless comments. This is also why the small groups can function to determine which works each writer puts forward to be workshopped by the whole class. In this case, if defensiveness becomes an issue (and why not defend, honestly?) the defense can be taken up by the writer’s movement-mate. Offensiveness of a piece will likewise no longer be an issue as someone fighting for one principle over another is more likely to present both the best and most offensive work. Another thing I’ve always found to be a waste was the necessity to include positive comments which, because they are required, come off as empty platitudes. Perhaps they are helpful to writers who don’t already know their strengths, but how long does it take to learn them? Once you have learned them, these positive platitudes become wasted breath, the sort of repeated positive nonsense one receives when conversing with strangers, a relationship the large class model perpetuates — people whose opinions you may never share but with whom you must be emptily polite before you get down to the real business of, well, remaining polite or showing off or repeating superficial clichés so as not to face alone backlash to your original idea, etc., all the multitude of terrible and useless things that happen in this poorly thought out situation. But this becomes quite different when grouped by first principles. If a movement-mate takes up the task of saying something positive about a piece, it suddenly becomes useful; if it no longer functions to bring the writer to greater awareness of strengths, at least it functions to argue for or reaffirm the principles of the mini-movement.

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Final bit of advice: principles should be used to assess, not to write, as writing from principle leads to cold, cerebral argument lacking the sort of instinctive ecstasy that makes great work. However, knowing I’m from the ecstatic Kerouac/Rushdie school, you can better consider how to take that advice. If you were from the George Orwell school, I’d understand why you’d reject that advice all together. And for that, I applaud you.