SB: We’ve seen an influx of poets and prose writers obtaining their Creative Writing MFA and it’s worth asking again, can writing be taught? Beyond journal entries and tweets, how do you teach a student whose sole exposure to contemporary writing is popular or commercial offerings to write beyond entertainment?
KM: I had a few good teachers, and what they offered me was a kind of catalog of what other writers had already shown to be possible, and also a kind of analytical toolbox that enabled me to find new solutions to problems raised in my writing, including solutions different in some way from solutions other writers had found, by understanding how things were working at a technical level, and then hybridizing other solutions, or turning the logic that served some other thing inside-out, so it could serve my thing. They also helped save me time by showing me some ways of working that aren’t profitable, and they pointed me toward good stories and books I hadn’t read.
A person makes himself or herself into a writer, and it’s a lot easier if you have some good voices in your ear in the beginning.
As to the question of what the purpose of the writing is going to be, or what kind of writing it’s going to be, or what writing’s place in the culture is going to be, I think all of that belongs rightly to the individual writer, and there isn’t any one right answer. A good teacher probably knows that, too, although of course we all have our own prejudices and predilections, me included, and it doesn’t hurt anybody to be honest about what I think is good, and why I think it’s good.
In the same vein, why teach contemporary literature? Arguably, students often haven’t even had a fair exposure to Joyce, Stein, or Pound. How do you lay the foundation? How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith?
Read everything, I say.
Is there something then that you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come into play but how do you decide on just a few titles to teach for a few months? And what about the dreaded year-end review when you discover everyone hated the required short-story collection?
I try to offer a broad range of stylistic, structural, and technical approaches in the stories I choose to offer, because it gives us a chance to talk about the range of possibility implied by the choices. In all of these things, I hope to communicate, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom is advisable, and that technical knowledge and aptitude is one path toward freedom.
With student considerations in mind, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish in an academic community? That is professor-to-student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.
There are as many answers to that question as there are academic communities, individuals within them, and relationships among those individuals. I have had a few good mentors, and I’ve also enjoyed helping others in the ways in which I was helped.
I think that the words academic and literary and genre and art, and so on, are words that are politically charged, and which don’t mean the same things to all the different people who use them. In general, I think that Zadie Smith was right when she declared that literature is a big tent, and that there is room for all sorts of circus acts beneath it. As a teacher, I’m hoping to find students who are chasing good work of whatever sort appeals to the student, and that no one will be limited by anything so small as some imported idea of what it means to be literary, even as I hope that all the work, whatever label might attach to it, will aspire to great power, whether that power is intellectual or aesthetic or emotional or historical or pure cane molasses sugar.