Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Michael Martone Interview » Quarterly Conversation

Thank you to Matt Bell for leading me to this interview with writer and teacher Michael Martone:
I don’t pretend to know anything. I am not that kind of master teacher where I know something and transfer that knowledge to students who don’t know. Instead, I guess, I teach curiosity. I try to create in the classroom interesting environments and then, with the students, discover things that, perhaps, we already knew or know but didn’t know we knew. I think my other job as a teacher is really to resist the bias bred into the institution where I am housed. A university is by nature a critical institution. I want to resist having my students learn to be critics. Instead I want to inculcate the habit of writing and in doing, so I think one has to defuse the tendency to judge quality of work, to even resist asking the question, “Does this work?” Students come to me ready to think of the classroom as a place of battle. They have already been naturalized into thinking that a workshop, say, is a simulation of the way the world works. You write something and an editor or reviewer beats up on it. So students have come to think of workshops as a way to create calluses, to out-think the critics. Instead, I like to invite them to remember the intrinsic pleasures of the business, the act itself of sitting down and writing, not the ritual of self-sacrifice. My students’ writing have, for a long time, been quite timid and, as they love to say, traditional. The many classes many of them have taken have led them into an aesthetic that is by design static. The realistic narrative—once a highly experimental form—has produced a series of stylistic rules that can be taught and my students have learned—don’t use exclamation marks, underlining, or any graphic measure to intensify emotion, for example. Those kinds of rules are set in stone. What is to vary realistic story to story is the content, the local, the details. You can in that kind of aesthetic do things wrong. And the critical institution we work within loves that kind of knowledge. I have seen recently more and more students attempting fiction outside that particular drama. More interest right now in the fantastic, irreal, the magical. Also a growing interest in more things lyrical, meditative, associative, and less linear.
The Michael Martone Interview » Quarterly Conversation

I like the way Martone talks about teaching. Workshops can, I have often felt, become, as he says, "places of battle", with a great deal of "this doesn't work" and "this is wrong". I know friends who recently completed an MA in Creative Writing where one tutor's idea of a comment was "This is unpublishable". I don't think that is helpful. Or necessarily true.

Martone's own fiction is wonderfully irreal, non-linear. His collection, Double Wide Fictions, is waiting on my shelf to be read, a real treat!

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Group 8 said...

On the flip side, I don't like the 'everything is wonderful' workshops. There needs to be balance.

Beginner writers need encouragement and good, reasoned feedback; not just 'I don't like that'. It doesn't matter whether people like your work or not, 'Is it well written?', is all you need to know.

More seasoned writers need the tough stuff, and are better at taking or leaving others' opinions on their work.

Tania Hershman said...

No, I totally agree with you. I don't think he was advocating "everything is wonderful", but just that there aren't necessarily hard and fast rules that can't be broken. And yes, beginner writers' needs are different from more experienced writers who, we hope, have thicker skins and crave deeper, tougher crit!

Nik Perring said...

Interesting stuff, Tania and WRW.

Plenty to think about.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hmmm. Having been at a Uni course, and walked out after less than half way through, because of the crazy insistence on 'this is the way to do it'... and a seemingly ridiculous and narrow perception of what was indeed publishable...I enjoy the quote above and am glad to see someone kicking against the conventions.

However, as WRW says, I have also been in 'anything goes and everything is wonderful' workshops, and whereas for five minutes the creative floodgates open, after a while the daftness of it all becomes as damaging if not more damaging than the first type.

There are many ways to kick creativity in the nuts. And many ways to let it flourish.

Every writer has to find their own best sort.

But it is worth reminding the flower-people that in the real world, the critics are not kind. So actually, learning how to take criticism is a valuable lesson that any good workshop will provide, in my humble hopinion!

I guess many people go to writing courses, just to pass the time. Maybe they need softness. If you really want to get on out and up, you need a bit of backbone... I reckon.

Douglas Bruton said...

Nothing to do with the post here, but just wanted to say that I have just read 'Dots' and absolutely loved it... loved it loved it loved it.


Deborah Rey said...

What a wonderfully creative article! The man clearly teaches novice writers to *love* to write, but also to learn to step back and look at their own work with an editor's eye. I think that the moment you have to ask, 'Does this work?' you're not really looking at what you have written and *how* you wrote it.
When you learn to be a harsh critic about your own work, I think you can face the critics out there in the big bad world.