Posts Tagged ‘MFA’
April 4, 2013 | by Katherine Hill
The packet came in the mail. My first MFA workshop would be led by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. So I did what any good writing student does: I bought and read one of her books. I remember humming along through Disturbances in the Field, deeply engaged with Lydia, a Manhattan pianist who understands her life through the lessons of the great philosophers. “Heraclitus was right,” she says. “No sooner is a position established than it erodes. The solid earth under our feet melts into water, evaporates into air, and is consumed in fire. I moved from one family to another.” The mood is heady, the details exquisite. Here, I thought, is a novel unhampered by plot: a capacious, intelligent book about the endless trouble of being smart and a woman, of being with other people and alive. A book that showed me how to write sentences, and how to live a life of the mind. Twenty-three in Brooklyn, I took constant, exuberant notes.
But then, halfway through, like a guillotine, the plot falls into place. Something irreversible occurs in Lydia’s life, something devastating. And despite the book’s description, despite the many, many narrative clues, I was shocked. Suddenly, I had in my hands an entirely different book. The armor of ideas Lydia had been forging no longer fit the shape of the world; somehow, she’d have to recast it. Schwartz was even more masterful than I’d thought.
Mildly daunted, I made my way to Bennington, where I met the author herself: a small, dignified woman who clearly didn’t suffer fools. Somehow, I managed to call her Lynne. As a teacher, she turned out to be quite compatible with her book: broad-minded yet blunt, rigorous yet humane. Unsurprisingly, she’d read everything—because, as she often insisted, the only way to become a writer was to read and live and write. Like Lydia, she could always call up just the right book for any situation.
Lynne wasn’t the first writer I’d known, but she may have been the first with whom I kept up a regular correspondence. I learned recklessly from her recommendations, and from her own books, too. In her memoir of bibliophilia, Ruined By Reading, she cautions that “the writer is born of our fantasies. Reading her book, we fashion her image, which has a sort of existence, but never in the flesh of the person bearing her name.” And yet, I really did know this person, which had to count for something. We traded childhood stories, discovered a mutual affection for Daniel Deronda and Natalia Ginzburg, shared news of births and deaths. She was known as one of the bad cops at Bennington, famous for being tough on her students. Well, if this was bad, I wouldn’t waste my time with good. Read More »
October 3, 2012 | by Sadie Stein
October 14, 2011 | by Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein
Who are the great American writers of today who do not hold teaching positions or B.A.s or M.F.A.s in literature? It is very frustrating to read that so and so teaches at this or that university, or has an M.F.A. from this prestigious school. Who are the writers writing to make the rent, making a living solely off the written word? Who are the writers writing about life outside of academia? And why is it that people outside of first-world countries have no idea or even care about what American writers are writing about today yet hold Hemingway and even Bukowski in such high esteem? —Fernando A. Flores
I can’t say for certain who holds what degree, or who has held what job—one never knows what skeletons lurk in a writer’s closet—but to answer your second question: with a very few exceptions (Nora Roberts?) people don’t make the rent by writing books. Either you teach, or you write for the movies (or someone else turns your books into movies), or you get a staff job at a magazine. That’s one way to live by the word, and lots of excellent writers do it. They often complain that it gets in the way of writing great books. As for the question of why foreigners like Bukowski, I would guess he translates well. Or easily, at least. Besides, they like us butch. —Lorin Stein
I love to read ghost stories and thrillers in the fall. What’s your favorite frightening book?
I’m with you: scary reads are right up there with apples and changing leaves. That said, everyone enjoys something different; I have an uncle who swears by serious horror, whereas I’m more of what Netflix might term the “psychological thriller” persuasion—I like the occult just fine, but zombies, vampires, crazed animals, and most serial killers need not apply.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been giving myself nightmares with a daily dose of M.R. James’s classic ghost stories. You can’t beat Daphne du Maurier for atmospheric spookiness: both Rebecca and Don’t Look Now are terrific reads, period (with adaptations to match). And more recently, I enjoyed Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger a great deal—a haunted-country-house story with a twist.
Lastly, if you can get your hands on Charles MacLean’s The Watcher, do it; the third act is sort of ludicrous, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more genuinely terrified while reading. —Sadie Stein Read More »
July 1, 2011 | by Lorin Stein
Hi Mr. Stein. I went to a talk you gave many months ago at McNally Jackson about The Paris Review. You said something that has stayed in my mind, especially now that President Obama has said that we will be withdrawing from Afghanistan. You said that you believe what you’re doing with The Paris Review (and literature in general) was just as important as the coverage a newspaper like The New York Times gives to the wars in the Middle East. Can you explain? I see in some ways how you are making a point, but I can’t help but think that literature has to weigh a little bit lower on the scale of important things, especially against war.
Yikes! I hope I didn’t say that—I certainly don’t think it! What I can imagine saying is that, in one person’s tiny life, it is possible for art to loom larger than the news of the day. I can also imagine saying that this strikes me as a good thing. There are people the country needs to hear from regarding military strategy, and people it doesn’t. I, for instance, am someone with whom there’s not much point discussing troop levels.
Your question makes me think of Roberto Bolaño’s comic novel The Third Reich, all about a writer who sacrifices everything—love, friends, home, job—for a board game ... a board game in which he restrategizes the entire Second World War so the Nazis will win. Writers are like that. They are, among other things, people for whom the unimportant outweighs the important. What’s more (at least in Bolaño’s fiction), they are people you wouldn’t want to see involved in foreign policy, because they’d screw it up, or play—as often as not—for the wrong side.
What do you think of M.F.A. programs? A. R. Ammons says in his Paris Review interview that “it sometimes happens that these professional M.F.A. people are also poets, but it rarely happens.” Do you agree with Ammons, or do you think these places can play a meaningful role in nurturing poets and other writers? Yours, E. M.
I think A. R. Ammons is using the word poet in a special way. Poets often do. He means there are not many great poets in writing programs. It’s true: but then, there are not many great poets anywhere. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about poetry in a writing program. And most of them are nothing if not nurturing. For me the question is whether nurturing—whether being part of a caring community—makes for better work or for poems that people will actually want to read out there in the cold, hard world. For others, being part of that community is a powerful incentive to write. For these people, I think an M.F.A. makes all kinds of sense.
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September 17, 2010 | by The Paris Review
What we’ve been reading.
The Cross of Redemption, James Baldwin’s uncollected prose. So absorbing I woke up thinking about it this morning, showered and shaved, and stepped back into the shower. (“You’re wet. You showered,” was my first non-Baldwin thought of the day.) —Lorin Stein
“The First Tycoon of Teen,” Tom Wolfe’s 1964 profile of pop wunderkind Phil Spector—“the first millionaire businessman to rise up out of the teen-age netherworld.” At 23, Spector had already produced “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” “He’s a Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” “Da Do Ron Ron,” “Then He Kissed Me,” “Uptown,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.” “I get a little angry when people say it's bad music,” Spector tells Wolfe. “It has limited chord changes, and people are always saying the words are banal and why doesn't anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore, but we don’t have presidents like Lincoln anymore either.” —David Wallace-Wells
A recent poem from The New Yorker called, “On the Inevitable Decline Into Mediocrity of the Popular Musician Who Attains a Comfortable Middle Age.” It goes: “O Sting, where is thy death?” —Daisy Atterbury
In the midst of a renewed discussion about female writers and their relationship with the literary establishment, This Recording re-published a piece written by Margaret Atwood in 1976 entitled “On Being A 'Woman Writer.’” Atwood is clear, calm, thorough and undeniably relevant: it wasn't until I got to the bottom of the essay that I realized the piece was over thirty years old. —Miranda Popkey
Elif Batuman’s astounding “Get A Real Degree” in the London Review of Books, which begins as an focused inquiry into the MFA program microculture but expands outward and outward and outward again, until the entire horizon of post-Quixote literature has been pulled into view. —D. W.-W.
I recently watched The Red Stuff, a documentary about the Soviet Union’s race to space. It’s bizarre to see Russian astronauts, especially those now past their prime and overweight, surrounded by Russian space memorabilia. But what I wanna know? Space ice cream. Do the Russians now sell it at their science museums like we do? Also recently viewed: IMAX: Hubble 3D, about the last flight to the Hubble Space Telescope. The images of earth are so beautiful that I cried. —Thessaly La Force
A mesmerizing essay in The Nation on Javier Marías and his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by the man I'm beginning to think is the best critic writing today, William Deresiewicz. “Marías’s Europeanness is of the autumnal variety, much in evidence in recent decades, the product of a ripened civilization that feels itself equipped for nothing but the harvest," Deresiewicz writes. “Reflection in James or Proust,” he continues, “isn't a commentary on the story; it is essential to the story. It hugs the plot like a lining of a coat. It exposes character, develops relationships, shapes action. It gives utterance to feeling and direction to choice. It evolves, as the protagonists themselves evolve. But reflection in Your Face Tomorrow rarely does any of those things; it simply sits alone in its study, watching the plot go by.” —D. W.-W.
July 30, 2010 | by Lorin Stein
To MFA or not to MFA. That is the question. —D. G.
It depends on how you feel about putting off the inevitable. That’s what writing programs are for—to give young writers one or two years of camaraderie before they face the market, where writing lives or dies according to whether people will pay to read it. You can learn things in a writing program, of course. It can give you the sanction to spend your days reading and writing, if you need that kind of sanction. More important, it can offer a stipend. This is probably the best thing a program can do, beside helping you to realize if you have no talent. (This service tends not to be advertised.) But I find it hard to believe that spending so much time with other young writers—people so much like you—is good for the spirit, or makes you a more interesting person. Most living writers I admire (and most I don't) have spent some time either studying or teaching in writing programs. So have I. And some, like the excellent Gary Shteyngart, seem to find them useful. At this point, I think, it’s hard to tell: so few young writers go it alone.