Ed. note: This is Rich's residency talk, absent the many ad-libbed comments that made it so . . . Rich.
Last winter I had an epiphany of sorts, a disturbing insight. Insights are pretty rare for a guy my age who already thinks he knows plenty. This one was a real eye-opener.
There was a story in The New Yorker by the undisputed queen of contemporary short fiction, Alice Munro. I read it and was disappointed to see Munro eschew a close-in, single-character subjective consciousness in favor of shifting viewpoints and a plot-driven narrative. It was a very clever plot with a “gotcha” surprise climax, and then an even bigger gotcha again in the resolution. I know Nancy Lord is a big Munro fan, so I emailed her to ask what she thought of the story, certain she would agree with me that Munro’s brain had been taken over by aliens who didn’t write very well. Nancy “adored” the story. What ruined it for me had no effect on Nancy at all. I ranted and declared that it suffered mortal damage from what I saw as careless point of view shifts. Nancy patiently explained why those shifts were wise and artistic and so forth. I was horrified to discover that I could see why her view made perfect sense too.
The bottom line was that I still wished Munro had stayed in the main character’s consciousness consistently, but I had to admit that what I’d thought was an obvious, almost axiomatic truth about short story writing, turned out to be merely my bias in favor of empathy-driven stories. More about that in a moment.
The nifty dictionary in this laptop defines bias as: prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.
Ok, I’m unfair sometimes. Sue me.
Some years ago when The DaVinci Code first came out, I kept hearing the title, but I had no idea what it was about. I asked the workshop group I was teaching at that time at the community college in Homer if anyone had read it and what it was like. A woman about my age, a smart retired teacher and an avid reader said, “The writing was horrible; I couldn’t stop reading it.” Obviously the author was doing something right.
When I finally ran across a copy of the multi-million seller, I stopped reading it after the second sentence revealed that the author had apparently never heard the concept of “psychic distance” in narration. This is an example of my own bias. Unfair as it may be, I find awkward shifts in psychic distance intolerable. Millions of readers don’t seem to mind them at all. So, I don’t expect everyone here to agree with my prejudices.
My biases would be nobody’s business but my own, except that I now get paid to advise students on their writing. Which means, either I deny that my biases exist (which I can’t) or I pretend that they don’t affect my judgments (which I won’t). That further means that my students are going to have to live with them for at least a couple semesters. And that’s why I’d like to confess some of them here and now as fair warning and disclosure.
I took my first writing workshop here in this building, in the fall of 1986. I was a student for the next eight years, graduating in 1991 with a BA, and in '94 with my MFA degree. Upon graduating---as David Sedaris describes a similar experience--“A terrible mistake was made and I was offered a job teaching writing.” I’ve been in one workshop or another ever since. As a student or as a teacher, I’ve been in something like forty semesters worth of workshops, each class with about ten students, each student turning in two stories on average: Four hundred students, eight hundred manuscripts. Thousands of individual judgments made.
Here are twenty-five things I’ve found to be consistent (or perhaps persistent is more accurate) in my thinking about writing, over those twenty-five years here in the University of Alaska creative writing program. Twenty-five things I know for sure. Maybe.
(Check back Saturday for the next installment)
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