Monday, December 20, 2010

Network Writing

There are certain stories my parents have been telling me since I was a kid, repeated over and over, and they have been embedded in my head as a sort of family mythology. It's a very personal collection, I'm sure. There may be some overlap, but my guess is that my sister and brothers place different importance on different stories. Each inherited history is our own, based on individual interests, character traits, and order of birth. Here are two from my catalog, the first that came time while writing this.

-My dad was about sixteen when he did some volunteer work for one of the nuns that had been his teacher at Scared Heart. He and a friend would pull up to the house where the nuns lived, a kid a few years older than them would get in the car, and they would drive a few hours north where they would meet another car. The passenger would get into the new car and continue his journey to Canada, hoping to avoid a trip to Vietnam.

-One Sunday, my mother and her friend accompanied my grandfather to Sunday Mass at St. Mary's. During the homily, the priest, critiquing the youth culture of the late 60's/early 70's, declared that all sixteen year old boys were criminals and all sixteen year old girls were whores. When the mass was over, my grandfather told my mother and her friend to go wait in the car. When the priest had finished saying good bye to the rest of the parishioners at the doors of the church, my grandfather grabbed him with both hands by the frock, informed him that his sixteen year old daughter and her friend of the same age had been in the pews during his homily, that they were fine, upstanding young ladies, and that if the priest ever insulted them in such a rude manner again, the Father could expect to get his teeth knocked out. My mother heard her devoutly Catholic father have this conversation with the priest from across the parking lot.

I didn't choose these stories, from the hundreds I carry with me, with any purpose in mind--although I do find it interesting that they both involved very dramatic examples of churchly functions--other than to illustrate my point: parents pass down stories.

At 18 months old, Kieran isn't getting any family history from me. Numbers, the alphabet, the names of things he can see (Elmo! Truck! Ceiling! Joe!) constitute the majority of our conversations. But someday, way, way in the future, he's going to get the story of the year I spent in grad school a few months after he was born. I don't know what form it will take because I don't know what that year will mean in the larger context of our lives ten, twelve or eighteen years from now. What I do know is that he's going to wonder what I was doing there, and why. If my current success rate with friends, relatives, and people I meet are any indication, I'm going to need a better explanation if I have any hope of him ever understanding exactly what that year, and whatever happens after it, was all about.

The technical answer: I received a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Boston University. Kieran's first question will probably go like this: "What the hell is that?" He wouldn't be alone. "Well," I'll say, "in my case it was a graduate degree in fiction writing, but you could get an MFA in writing poetry, playwriting, painting, opera, sculpture...all kinds of artistic stuff. That make sense?"

He'll nod a couple times, then after he's thought about how to make his next comment without offending me (he'll be a good kid like that) Kieran will say, "Yeah Dad, it makes sense, but, like, do you really need to go to school to be an artist? Aren't you just born that? You can't teach talent, right?"

Here, I'll falter. "No, no, you can't teach talent, but it still helps to, you know, go to school, because go to learn tricks, you know? Craft. Not that you couldn't learn that on your own, because lots of people do, or they think they do but really they had people teaching them since they were kids and...and...shit. Go get me a beer, please."

Clever imagined dialogue aside, it really is hard to explain why you would need to go to school to be writer, and there have been a thousand articles written about MFA writing and most of them say the same thing. MFAs quash individual creativity. All MFA writing sounds the same. It's a scam by established writers to get a paycheck and by the school earn more tuition. The writers of old didn't need MFAs.

It's hard to argue with a lot of this criticism, but I could do a good job of it. Creativity only gets quashed if you let it; lots of writing sounds the same because it's mediocre, not because of where the writers went to school; show me all those theoretical math and poli-sci professors who aren't just collecting an easy paycheck. In fact, show me all those investment bankers, politicians, marketing execs, whoever, that aren't doing the same thing. Generalities are the last resort of the stupid.

I could go on. Better than that though, in the interest of being able to explain it to my son at some distant date, I'll offer a theory as why aspiring writers, myself included, can benefit from getting an MFA.

In his op-ed for the New York Times last week, David Brooks compared Obama-style liberalism with the more dogmatic brand. Cluster liberals vs. Network liberals. What does this have to do with writing programs? Here's the money quote:

Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity. Psychologically, they tend to value loyalty and solidarity. They tend to angle toward situations in which philosophical lines are clearly drawn and partisan might can be bluntly applied.

Network liberals share the same goals and emerge from the same movement. But they tend to believe — the nation being as diverse as it is and the Constitution saying what it does — that politics is a complex jockeying of ideas and interests. They believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions. Psychologically, network liberals are comfortable with weak ties; they are comfortable building relationships with people they disagree with.

If you've never read anything about network science, stop reading and look it up. Find out when "The Power of Six Degrees" is next playing on the Science Channel and watch it. Buy Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From and read it. Once you do, you'll understand that the whole basis of the field is "connectivity." Connections, be they social, govermental, artistic, technological or neural, make the world hum and throb.  The internet is a great example of this. Every time you click a link on an article you're reading, that is using the connective power of the web (an apt image now, huh?) to expand the range of knowledge being injested. Mr. Brooks is suggesting that Obama's Network-style liberalism works because the adherents aren't afraid to reach out and make connections to accomplishing a goal. Network liberals "are comfortable building relationships with people they disagree with." They maximize the potential for success by reaching out to every potential connection in the given field. Without Networks there would have been no Enlightenment, no Calculus, no atom bomb, no Google. More and more we're discovering that as much as no man is an island unto himself, the same goes for ideas. The image of the lone genius/inventor/artists toiling away in isolation is a false one, by and large. Big ideas come from groups. But you don't have to believe me. Watch for yourself:

So what, you may want to ask me, does this have to do with explaining an MFA program to Kieran?

Here is how my MFA program worked, and most, if not all, follow the same model: each student submits a story to the class for critique. In my case it was ten classmates and the teacher running the workshop. Each story is read, a specific amount of time is devoted to a discussing the merits of the piece, during which the author cannot comment. He or she can't defend themselves or explain their motives. They can only sit back, listen to what is said, and take notes. At the end of the discussion, the author receives all the copies of their story from the class with comments and suggestions made directly on the text or in the margins.

Before I got into BU, I was writing a in a vacuum; I had no access to a group of people separate from my family and friends who could approach my writing from an objective point of view and offer new ideas. I would find a few hours to write after work and whatever I finished I would file away, never to be seen by eyes not my own. I didn't have writer friends, I don't live in Brooklyn where there are a phalanx of writers hacking away on laptops in every corner coffee house. It just wasn't my world. The same was true for most of my classmates.

What an MFA program does is create a network where one did not previously exist. You are instantly connected to individuals who share your goals.  You become part of a collaborative effort, and exchange of ideas concerning character, structure and plot. There is no guarantee that this will bear fruit. Not every MFA graduate goes on to win a Pulitzer or even publish a book. Risk is involved, but that's true of anything, isn't it? What mitigates that risk is the promise of making lasting connections, forming bonds with a few members of your class that last beyond the duration of that year, or two, in school. For me this meant that returning to normal life wouldn't mean returning to the vacuum. In spite of what I had always thought, it wasn't rebelling against a system that helped foster and support my creativity, but joining one.


  1. It reminds me of Stephen King having heard one of his children say, as he was leaving for a book tour, that his dad was "going off to be Stephen King." Kids work out for themselves what their parents do. It seems normal to them. I have a hard time imagining being raised by a mom who is not a scientist. I can't imagine being raised by Nick's mom. Well, I can, but I try not to.

    Dammit, I had more to say, but Ben's starting to freak out.

  2. Absolutely. To include the connection of potential networking with future employers and/or employees. You interview to be a contributing writer for a magazine and bam! So and so who loved your work in your MBA courses puts a good word in with HR. Because this world? It's all in who you know.

  3. Exactly. One of my classmates offered to pass along my novel to his agent when I finish it. There's no guarantee that he'll agree to represent me and help sell it, but I would never have that kind of connection if I hadn't joined the program.