Writing: Inspiration or Perspiration?


My first attempt at an MFA began inauspiciously.

An instructor, a published novelist at George Mason University, looked around the classroom at his bright-eyed students, eager to write and workshop our essays. Workshop, a verb. As in, submit our prose for criticism and feedback so we could revise and improve it.

His first-day comments about logistics and the syllabus trailed off, and he fixed us with a hopeless look. “I’ll be honest,” he said. He flicked his wrist derisively. “This doesn’t really work.”

We shifted in our seats, side-eyed each other. What doesn’t really work? As he went on he made it clear he was talking about the workshop process itself.

Thank god I had participated in others and knew that, with good leadership, they did work.

Of course, they’re imperfect, and, as writing instruction goes, simply receiving feedback from other writers—with varying degrees of competence and talent—isn’t enough. But to dismiss them altogether was absurd. Sadly, in this instructor’s hands it was also self-fulfilling.

Unfortunately, he was expressing a belief held by many writers, one I suspect says more about their own sense of specialness than their understanding of pedagogy. Most MFA faculty are writers first and teachers second—they teach to pay the bills. Some are reluctant, even resentful. They aren’t necessarily devoted to the art of teaching or trained in the science of learning.

Happily, many love the craft so much they transcend these limitations in order to promote it. They learn how to teach. They discover that yes, actually, feedback, discussion, and revision does result in better writers. Workshopping, done well, does work.

It’s true that there’s magic in writing, and magic isn’t conferrable the way facts are, or the way skills can be.

But writing is only about one percent sorcery. The rest boils down to putting in time, with intentionality: reading and analyzing mentor texts, drafting regularly, and revising ruthlessly.

The 99 percent of writing that isn’t sheer-luck talent is a knowable, if vast, domain. Certain elements make for good stories, and these elements are not a mystery: For example, (nonexperimental) fiction and narrative nonfiction need a protagonist with a clear conflict—something at stake—and a narrative arc. Descriptive nonfiction must be structured in a way that clearly conveys its main ideas, supporting them with illustrative details. Arguments must be rhetorically sound and should anticipate and address counterarguments. 

Those are just the basics. If writing couldn’t be taught, writers would never get better, but I see writers improve all the time.

After the George Mason instructor of little faith told me I should acquire assignments from editors by showing up at their offices rather than emailing them because “you’re young, you’re attractive,” I dropped out. A few years later, I earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, where the instructors understood the pedagogy of writing.