It was my final semester in the MFA in Fiction program at the University of Michigan and I was meeting with my thesis advisor, Charles Baxter, in his near-empty office on campus (he wrote at home, in a lovely book-lined office above the garage in his Ann Arbor house). As he red-penned my stories, pausing every few minutes to complain about my obsession with first person narration and my lack of redemptive male characters, I imagined that he would rather have been at home, polishing up the final draft of Feast of Love. It was no secret that he taught because he had to (he often told us that all American writers taught because they had to–who could make enough money just selling books besides Stephen King?). After he finished with my manuscript, red pen finally exhausted, he sighed and looked out the window at the snow covered expanse of ground outside. Then he told me about going to the doctor that morning for a check-up. I imagined this great writer, a man I admired (and whose writing floored me) sitting on one of those doctor’s tables, blood pressure cup around his arm, making small talk with a doctor who probably didn’t have a clue about Baxter’s literary accomplishments.
“He asked me what I do for a living,” Charlie said, “and when I told him that I’m a writer he told me he has a book he’s going to write as soon as he retires and gets the time.” Then he launched into a fairly long complaint about how he should have shot back something about practicing medicine as soon as he got Feast of Love out of the way, because how difficult could surgery be, after all? We all watch television. We see doctors perform surgeries all the time these days. “As if just having time is all that’s required of a writer,” he said. “Can you imagine?”
This conversation has always stuck with me (along with some of his more memorable quotes on teaching students to write literary short fiction, such as “I can only help you to write stories about characters who live on planet Earth–you’re on your own with aliens”) because since becoming a teacher of creative writing I, too, have had people tell me pretty much the same thing–that they’d be able to write the next great American novel, too, if they only had the time. And who knows? Maybe they would be able to write a fantastic novel with no formal coursework in writing. In fact, the winner of this year’s Katherine Anne Porter Award in short fiction works with computers at Harvard–he’s not an MFA graduate (or, as far as I know, a formal student of writing at all). But this writer, like all writers I know, worked and reworked those stories, making sure that the narrative point of view was consistent and clear, the plots of the stories had clear catalysts, climax scenes, and resolutions, and the exposition balanced nicely with the dialogue and action. In short, he had read (and learned to work and revise) enough to create finely polished, wonderful stories with resonance. That doesn’t come merely with enough writing time, but with work and effort.
So, the first myth of creative writing would be that anyone can produce well-crafted fiction, if given enough time. And another myth would certainly be that writing is divinely inspired, and any revision ruins the original inspiration. I always think of Coleridge and his poem “Kubla Khan” when I think of this myth. My Modern Poetry Professor in grad school told us that Coleridge claimed the poem to be inspired by either God or opium, depending on the myth, and that he wrote the poem in one draft without revisions. As far as I know, he’s the only writer to claim to eschew revision. After his death, however, multiple drafts of this poem were found. Even divine inspiration, it seems, benefits from sober revisional practices.
I always try to end my creative writing classes with a quote a former professor told me. He told us “Be a producer rather than a consumer, and surround yourself with beauty that you create yourself.” I think that everyone should produce something that they’re proud of–and writing is certainly one way to create beauty in the world. But also students and aspiring writers should remember that writing is difficult, and has a tradition, and a set of expectations that readers demand (whether the writing is divinely inspired or not). Ben Marcus, another former professor of mine, once told me that “Writing should practically kill you.” I think he was joking, but I’ve found these words to ring true, especially when I find myself debating the means of perception in a story, or whether or not to let go of my obsession with first person and to go ahead and try a third person point of view. It’s certainly not easy, this business of writing, and even when you’ve finished with a draft of something you’re proud of there’s always an editor, or an agent, waiting to tell you all of the mistakes you’ve made. Even so, there’s nothing better than seeing a creation come to life, and knowing all of the terribly difficult effort that went into that creation.