Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why we need models

Writing models, that is. Not supermodels. Well, I suppose we need them, too. They make us feel fat and old, which causes us to buy lots of clothes from China, which stimulates the economy and allows us keep on existing in the state of anxious pseudo-prosperity we have come to know and love. Or something.

Still with me? On the Ploughshares blog, Angela Pneuman takes up the age-old question of whether creative writing can--and needs to be--formally taught. On the matter of whether MFA programs are helpful to writers, and to contemporary literature in general, she says, "I am--helpfully--100% ambivalent." But she is certain about the importance of models as part of teaching.
It is impossible to teach without, on some level, invoking guidelines, and it is impossible to invoke guidelines without invoking the culture’s dominant aesthetic, which is most likely as familiar to us--and often as unexamined--as the air we breathe. We are either teaching to this aesthetic or calling it out and teaching against it, but there is no getting out from under the umbrella of (some) ideology--contrary as we may be, far as our meaning-making systems may be flung.
It's true that you need to know the rules in order to break them. And it's not enough to recognize those rules in some abstract way: You have to have engaged them, gotten inside and driven them around as if they were a car. Only then do you begin to realize that total, flagrant, mindless imitation of said rules is much harder than using them to go your own way.

Case in point: In one of the most fun classes I've ever taught, I had students rewrite a scene from the movie Ghost World in the style of Jane Austen. Now, assigning students to write in Austen's style wasn't a new idea, though the Ghost World angle might have been. One point of the exercise, of course, was to see what Austen's style "did" to the Ghost World story, to understand that style and story cannot be separated. At the same time we discovered that Ghost World is not as different from Pride and Prejudice as we had thought: The propriety in Austen's voice brought out the rule-bound nature of Ghost World's 1990s suburbia. Enid, the movie's heroine, struggles against these rules, as does Elizabeth Bennet; Elizabeth finds a way to thrive within that setting, while Enid finds another, more ambiguous solution.

But what was really exciting about this exercise was that each student's piece was quite different. It wasn't that some had failed to fully grasp Austen's style (or Ghost World). Rather, because each writer was different, they were drawn to different aspects of that style, and chose different scenes to translate into that style, which further destabilized it. A's Jane Austen was not B's; just as Elizabeth's choice wasn't (really wasn't) Enid's.* The sincere attempt to imitate actually brought out originality.

Having had this and countless similar experiences, though, it's still hard to keep this need for models in mind. There's probably never a point where you can fully dispense with them; conversely, they can always help you, especially if you're struggling with some writing problem. Yet my instinct still says: I want to be original. I want to do this on my own, not copy someone. The thing to remember is that the best models (Pneuman celebrates Virginia Woolf in this instance) show us what's possible, not what's impossible. They show us possibility in general. When we start rejecting models or guidelines entirely, that's when we start to reach for cliches--because that's what comes most readily to hand for everyone.

The other key is to know when you have a good model, one that opens up possibilities rather than shutting them down. Formal education helps with that.

*In fact Enid's departure on the empty bus at the end suggests suicide, which I hasten to say I'm not advocating for writers who find "the rules" or the so-called MFA style oppressive. Please don't off yourself, literally or as a writer, because you find Raymond Carver boring. Let's say instead that you need to take the bus farther out. Look at 18th century literature or international literature or...

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