Art and Craft: Teaching Writing, with André Aciman, Colum McCann & William P. Kelly

Art and Craft: Teaching Writing, with André Aciman, Colum McCann & William P. Kelly


– Good evening, my name is Chase Robinson. I’m the Interim President
of the Graduate Center and it’s a pleasure to welcome you to what promises to be an illuminating and an entertaining evening which features three of the university’s most accomplished writers and critics. Andre Aciman, Colum McCann and Bill Kelly. As many of you know, the Graduate Center has malfunctioning microphones. (audience laughing) Well, bear with me. As many of you know, the Graduate Center is a graduate school of arts and sciences, a center for applied
and theoretical research and a platform for
performance conversation and public debate. As a community of students and scholars committed to the idea that
learning is a public good, we regularly offer public programs that feature eminent
thinkers, cultural leaders and distinguished artists addressing some of today’s most pressing issues. Tonight’s event is the second in a series of chancellor’s conversations led by Interim Chancellor Bill Kelly. Designed to highlight the work of our distinguished faculty, the first of these took
place on November 13th. It featured Janet Gornick,
Professor of Sociology here at the Graduate Center
and Branko Milanovic, visiting professor also
here in conversation about income inequality. Tonight’s conversation is Arts
and Craft: Teaching Writing. Our speakers will address
writing creativity and pedagogy including
the perennial question of how one effectively
teaches good writing. To help us understand these issues, we’re fortunate to have two
of contemporary literature’s most accomplished and
distinctive stylists, both of whom are committed teachers and they’ll be in
conversation with each other and with our esteemed moderator. First, I’m delighted to introduce the Graduate Center’s own Andre Aciman, a distinguished Professor
of Comparative Literature and Director of our Writers’ Center. Professor Aciman is a memoirist, essayist novelist, and a scholar of
17th century literature. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, in the The New York Review of Books, in the New York Times, in the
New Republic and Paris Review, as well as in many volumes
of the Best American Essays. Professor Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award memoir Out of Egypt, of False Papers, Essays
in Exile and Memory and Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. He’s also written three novels; Harvard Square, Eight White
Nights and Call Me By Your Name, for which he won the
Lambda Literary Award. He received his PhD in
Comparative Literature from Harvard University. It’s also my pleasure
to welcome Colum McCann, distinguished Professor
of Creative Writing at Hunter College. Professor McCann is the
award-winning author of six novels and two
collections of short stories. His novel Let the Great World Spin won the 2009 National Book Award, as well as several other
major literary prizes. His other novels include Zoli, Dancer, and Everything in This Country Must. Professor McCann’s
fiction has been published in over 35 languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire,
Paris Review, Granta, Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Tin House, Bomb and several other
publications of note. Finally, it is my particular
and special pleasure to reintroduce our moderator, the City University of New York’s Interim Chancellor Bill Kelly. Prior to taking up his
current post in July of 2013, Chancellor Kelly served for seven years as the Provost of the Graduate Center and eight years as its President, a transformational time in the
history of the institution. Bill also happens to be
an expert on the works of James Fenimore Cooper,
widely-published author in his own write whose essays and reviews have appeared in a broad
range of publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review
and the American Scholar. He’s also Chairman of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the CUNY Research Foundation. Please join me in welcoming
our distinguished guests. (audience applauding) – Thank you Chase for those kind words; thank you all for being
with us this evening. I’ve been looking forward to this evening for a good, long while. Always nice to be here,
but particularly good to be here in the company of such extraordinary writers and friends. The intention of this series as Chase said is to highlight some of
the remarkable teachers, writers and scholars that
compose the CUNY faculty. Tonight we welcome two of the great jewels of the university. It’s a privilege to
share the stage with them and to share our conversation with you. Colum, Andre, thank you so
much for being with us tonight. Subject of the conversation
is as Chase said is not the art of writing
but the art of teaching; more particularly the teaching of writing. So let me begin with a
kind of baseline question for our guests by asking each of you how you learned to write or how you continued to learn to write. I assume this is an ongoing exercise. Andre, let me start with
you with that question. – Well, I went to British
school when I was a kid and I learned to write poetry. That’s what I wanted to do. I was going to become a poet. I eventually discovered that I didn’t know how to write poetry but it took
me years to figure that out. (audience laughing softly) So I’d like to say that I’m a failed poet who had to turn to
prose, but my real issue was always the fact that I
was not a native speaker. I was always very nervous. It took me years to
finally own up to the fact that I can sort of write in English, but I’m always watching myself, which I think is a good thing for a writer is to always beware that
you might be giving away the fact that you have
an accent when you write. But that’s how I trained myself is how do I expunge this horrible accent and fool everybody to thinking
that I’m a native American? – [Bill] (laughs) Well done, Sir. You say, “Train myself,”
is that how you learned? – Yes, nobody taught me. It was basically you read a book… I think it’s how we all do everything. You read a book, you fall
in love with the author and you find yourself imitating the author without even knowing it. Then you read another
author who hated that one and you end up writing
like this other guy. For a while I loved Turgenev, so I was writing stories or pages that sounded like Turgenev. Eventually you stumble on someone who tells you, “Fool, why
didn’t you look at this “sooner than you could have?” For me, it was Katherine Mansfield. Of all the writers in the world, the one that finally clinched it for me was Katherine Mansfield. – [Bill] What was it about Mansfield that you found so appealing? – She was Chekhovian but
that’s not really what I liked. I like Katherine Mansfield
because she had an eye for sort of very raw humor and a sense of very deep irony into anything involving
human relationships. I realized that that’s who I am. I don’t trust human relationships and if I did I would be fooled,
so how do I navigate this? That’s how I learned
how to write with that. – [Bill] It’s remarkable,
I’ve been reading you forever and I had never thought of Man. But as soon as you say
it, the light goes on. That’s a remarkable thing to know. Colum, what about you? How did you come to be a writer? How did you learn to write? – I’m still learnin’, that’s the problem. I was just thinking I grew
up in Dublin as you know and my father was a journalist. He was a featured editor
of the paper there. He used to go out to the writin’ shed and hear him batterin’ away. One summer when I was nine, he came out and we had those big rolls
of paper, (mumbles) actually. He handed me this manuscript. It happened to be a children’s soccer book and he asked me to read it for him. I read it and I had to give
him some of the feedback. I remember about a year later
or year and a half later, in school, Mr Kells in school reading from the actual book that had been written in my dad’s shed. One of the characters, Georgie, would go to his (mumbles), scored a goal and all the kids jumped up
in the middle of the class. I thought that’s kinda fascinating. That came outta nowhere,
get out of my father’s shed. I started workin’ as a journalist at the very early age of 12. I had to go all around
the local soccer matches, pick up the reports from soccer matches and phone ’em in actually
to a national newspaper. Can you believe that a 12 year old workin’ for a national paper? But I was surrounded by books. I came to the United
States at the age of 21 to sit down and write a book. I bought a typewriter,
had that big roll of paper ’cause I wanted to do the same thing. At the end of the summer,
I was in (mumbles). I had exactly a foot
and a half of gibberish. (Bill laughing) It was awful. I realized at that stage that
I had to get out and about and into the world because the stories… I had no stories to tell. The worst thing for a novelist. I had a happy childhood. (Bill and audience laughing) – Ah, you poor lad. – I know. Do you remember when you said
laugh with Frank McCourt? – Of course. – Frank, you got all the misery. (laughs) – All the breaks, exactly. Lemme go from there to
the next part of this having learned to write in these ways or in the process in the ongoing continuing process of learning to write. How do you transmit
that skill to students? The Iowa Writing Workshop famously says everybody who writes about the teaching and writing quotes this line says in the application that you fill out: “Writing cannot be taught, but
writers can be encouraged.” Is that a fair assessment? Can writing not be taught,
it can only be encouraged? It assumes a certain innate skill that comes with that student to Iowa City. Has that been your experience
working with students? – My first lesson. When I get my students
up at Hunter College, I could sit them down and
on the very first night they’ve done all this hard work to get in. It’s a very hard program to get into and I say, “I’m not gonna be
able to teach you a thing.” Their faces fall. I said, “I don’t know what plot is. “Plot’s juvenile to me. “I don’t know to talk
to you about dialogue, “but what I will teach you are the virtues “of stamina, desire and perseverance. “If you show me those
things, I’m pretty sure “’cause you are all talented enough, “that we will get through this.” Basically what the writing
program does for me, in a nutshell, it allows them to fail. It’s that great Beckett notion. No matter, try again. Fail again, fail better. What they have is a
comfortable environment in which to jump off the cliff and develop their wings as their falling. Some of them crash. (chuckles) – Lemme ask about the
comfortable environment in which to fail. One of the criticisms I think probably unjust of MFA programs is that it creates a circumstance in which people are allowed to believe they are risky, that they are not in an institution. At the same time they are (mumbles) with the comforts of institutional life in many places sty pens and so forth. Yet they are being
encouraged to take risks. How does that play out the sense that failure is a possibility, failure is what one embraces as a writer, and yet you create these circumstances in which failure doesn’t carry the risk that it carries in a garret? – Well I mean just to
see at the CUNY system for a while, every student I’ve ever had has never been entitled. We don’t get the sort of students who feel that they should be taught upon. I hate that idea come teach me. I’m not a teacher, really. Come learn from me, yes. So you have to create an environment where things are at risk and maybe push them to a place where they
wouldn’t have found before. – What happens… I wanna get to Andre’s
take on this in a second, but what happens in your workshop, Colum when someone comes in? How is it– – I put towels at the bottom of the door and I say all the blood that filters out into the corridor will be
taken care of by somebody else. (Bill laughing) Seriously, I’m tough. – So I hear. – I’m very tough. I tell my kids and I call them my kids even though they’re not. They’re in their 30s
and 40s, some of them. That I will be as hard on
them as I am on myself. Basically they come in, 12 students. Six first year, six second year. We workshop two of their stories. I try to be as honest as possible without destroying them completely and then build them back up as well. It’s a complicated process when you’ve got these lives
in the palms of your hand. I think about it a lot beforehand. Two or three days beforehand I start thinking about my workshop what the temperature’s gonna be, what the atmosphere is
that I’m gonna create and how I’m gonna deal with
some of these personalities. – There’s a great line about that from our friend Louis Menand. It’s his piece from the New Yorker, he’s writing about MFA
programs and he said, “The workshop is a process, an
unscripted performance space, “a regime for forcing
people to do two things “that are fundamentally
contrary to human nature: “actually write stuff as opposed
to planning to write stuff “very, very soon, and then sit there “while strangers tear it apart.” That’s the thing that I’ve
always found so intimidating. What’s your experience of the workshop? You’ve taught creating
writing as a workshop, undergraduates as well
as graduate students, and you run the Writer’s Institute. Talk a little bit about
the workshop experience and then let’s talk about the institute. – Okay. First of all, I’ve taught undergraduates, I’ve taught graduates at NYU,
I’ve taught high school kids and I’ve also taught grade school kids. In other words, some smart principal said, “You’re a writer, why don’t
you come and teach our kids?” So I’m teaching fifth
graders how to write. I can only teach ’em a couple of things. One of the things I like to say is that I ended up realizing that I’m a terrible, terrible teacher of creative writing. I should never be put there and I will never put
myself there ever again because I’m not good. I can only understand
one writer and it’s me. I cannot force somebody
to write the way I do and sometimes I’m not interested in finding out what somebody
else’s needs are as a writer. They have to be writing the way I do it and when I read this stuff, even when I read their applications, I’m there sort of already correcting the wrong use of the word or
this is an ugly word to use. Nobody thinks of ugly words any longer. In a sense I find myself interfering in ways that are not constructive. So what I’ve done is I’ve
recused myself from that and in opposition to that,
I’ve basically found ways to find some great writers and to put them at the institute which basically hires just editors. We don’t hire writers,
we just hire editors. – [Bill] Talk a little
bit about that concept because it’s a very different notion from an MFA Creative Writing program. – I’ve been very lucky because, though I tend to sound
imperian in my attitude towards writing, I am an
extremely wonderful writer to work with if you’re an editor. Because I assume that you
know English and I don’t, I’m just faking it, you’re correct. They still do, they still find… I get all the prepositions
wrong all the time. Any foreigner will always
get the prepositions wrong. Initially I met all
these wonderful editors who gave of themselves and would say… Some editors would say,
“Yeah, this is fine,” and some will say, “You know what, “the last paragraph doesn’t work.” “So okay, I’ll tear it up.” “No, it has a good moment. “Why don’t you move it three
paragraphs before the end? “And then it will work.” I love the generosity of an editor because an editor does this all day long. They do this every day. They will call you at 11 o’clock at night and say, “Have you
thought of this and that?” So I love them and what I did
was I created an environment where only editors who do this all day come and teach writing to individuals who are, I think, the
median age is what, 35? I suppose very much like yours? – [Bill] As is for Colum’s students, these are accomplished writers that you are admitting
in a selective fashion? – Yup. – These are not undergraduates who have some vague interest
in becoming writers? – No, no. (chuckles) No, these are all people who, first of all, they all have jobs. Second of all, they come in the evening and they have the course. At the same time, all of them have to have at least published something. We don’t accept blogs. – But is it so… I’m gonna talk about the
blog thing in a minute, but is it so that… My experience with editors is
that they’re less subjective. It isn’t so much finding your voice as opposed to saying, “Do this, do that, “cut this, this has to be moved
around and this is rubbish.” Is that– – Yeah I love that. Basically because you have a voice. The assumption is that
you know how to write, that you have a voice,
you know what you’re doing up to a certain point. In other words, you wanna get published that’s why you wanna work with them. But they also are what I call surgical. They’ll get into the piece
and they might tear it apart, but they will salvage it. There’s no such thing as an editor who is gonna spend two minutes on a piece that they intend not to publish. If they do that, they’re
doing it out of courtesy. But basically the thing is
damned and it’s not good. – But the mandate for them
working in the institute is to engage in that kind of tough-minded salvage exercise?
– Yes. And in fact, the workshop is such that nobody’s really supposed to talk. The teacher, the editor, he’s there for two hours to do this. He doesn’t haver to and if you wanna talk, then you do it on your own time. They all go to drinking afterwards. – Let me follow this: if the model there is suffer and be still, that’s not the model in most creative writing
workshops, correct me. What’s your position
within the conversation that takes place within the
creative writing workshop relative to student voice? – Just in relation to
the editor, it seems like the editor is conscious
of the writing process whereas the writer herself or himself is more dealing in that
sort of Vallejo talks about, the mystery holding things together. So for the writer in the workshop, you have to be both an
editor and that person who’s guiding that mystery along. That’s interesting because
I have 12 students. I know Peter Carey, who’s my colleague, he has a little egg timer
and he brings it into class. He’ll have a three minute
egg timer and he gives them three minutes to talk. When the last grain of sand
finally falls down, that’s it. – Can I get one of these
for the meetings they give? (Colum and Andre laughing) – But what I do, I’m sort of scattershot; it depends on how the story
is, but I will take up about half of the class
and give the students, about half of the class on their own. We too go out afterwards;
we don’t have to, but I find that a lot of the learning… These are all graduate
students, so no 21 year olds. A lot of the learning takes
place in the pub afterwards. Also I have to say,
it’s really hard to get your stuff workshopped and I
really feel for these people you’re under, like they’re
not allowed to talk. Everybody else talks and
they’re not allowed to talk. Now I got workshopped a couple
of times only in my life. When I was an undergraduate student, I went to the University of Texas and I went to the MFA program and it was the worst experience
of my life. (chuckles) One of my short stories
that I like very much and I still like to this day. I got workshopped and nobody got it. I came out of there so wounded thinking… Somebody ran up out of the
class afterwards and said, “I really like that story.” I said, “Why didn’t
you say that in class?” But for me, that process,
you gotta look after it. You gotta be careful. – That’s what I wanted to ask
both of you in this regard. The wounding piece, the towels to keep the blood from flowing
out into the hallway, for this to have consequences,
you’re both saying there needs to be a level of honesty and to some extent, an honesty
that borders on brutal in these exercises. Every time I think
about writing workshops, I think about that Hawthorne story The Artist of the Beautiful
whee this guy makes this little mechanical
butterfly to take to a woman that he’s loved and
she’s married someone else and she has a baby. He takes this gorgeous piece of machine. A butterfly flows up
and hr son reaches up, smashes the butterfly and
it’s a million pieces. It’s a meditation on Hawthorne’s
own experiences writing among many other things. How do you protect them
while at the same time, you are doing them the
service of being honest about your sense of the weakness,
strengths of their prose? – Yeah I just do it, this is
how I want to be treated myself and I know that they’ll
come back to me a couple, even if I’m tough on them. I got an email today from Phil Clive, who has written that book Redemption that Michiko Kakutani just praised in the New York Times. He’s a marine; he came
into the class and I said, “Phil, I’m gonna knock the edges off you.” “Yes sir!” he says. At the end of the two years
workshop, Phil had grown a beard and he had long hair
and was sort of relaxed. There was no more “Yes, sir” going on, but I was tough on him,
really tough on him. I called him out on some of
his tricks that he was doing a few times, called him
out in class, in private. I forced him to write a
particular story called OIG, which is all about acronyms in war. But he did it and he listened
and I knew he was listening. He developed those virtues;
well he already had ’em, that desire, that sense of stamina. Tough guy and that perseverance and I knew with all those things and
the talent and the stories you have to tell, I could
afford to be tough on you. Whereas with other people,
they’re more fragile. I have 12 different programs. I have 12 students, I have
12 different programs, different ways to look after them all. Quite frankly, I love them, I do. These people become my friends later on. Hopefully they become my
colleagues because hopefully they’ll publish a book. I think we’re the only
program in the county in fact. One year we had a 100% success
rate publishing novels. – It is a remarkable program,
just a wonderful faculty– – We’re so lucky, so lucky, so lucky. – Your experience as well, Andre? You’re such a sweet and
gentile man in so many ways. It’s hard for me to imagine
you crushing people’s dreams. – Ask them, I don’t know. No actually, the attitude
I have is the same one that people have had with
me, editors in particular. They may accept a piece
and editors will say, “We love this piece.” Oh, the job is done. No, it hasn’t been done at all because now the painful part starts. There’s two degrees of pain: there’s pain that basically attacks you as
an individual that you feel. “I’m just shattered; there’s
nothing of me left here.” That’s one kind of pain that
you don’t want to have happen. You want to obviate it as much as you can. But then there’s also
the pain of “Oh my god, “there’s hours left to do this thing. “I’ve got days and weeks
maybe to finish this piece “the way they want me.” Then the next thing you
know, you’ve spent the weeks redoing something and
they have another version that you need to redo. That’s the model I go for. In other words, at the institute, the assumption is the piece is viable; now you have to fix it. Everybody knows that
fixing is not necessarily a destructive thing about
you as a human being. It’s just going to take
time and if you’re willing to put the time, just the raw time factor into a piece, then it
might come to something. That’s the assumption
that you have to make. I’m not saying you’re a bad person. I’m not saying you’re a bad writer; I’m just saying that this piece needs work and we’ll go with that. Those are the terms. It’s really easy, nobody’s hurt. – [Bill] Your success rate
too in terms of having people publish the work– – Oh yeah.
– Has been extraordinary. – We’ve published a bit everywhere and we have book contracts and so on. So this is good news, but
they’re working with editors who come in, they come in for two hours. Each one two hours and then
they have no office hours. There’s none of that
stuff, no hand-holding, no private seminars. Two hours, it all happens
in those two hours, so you might as well make the best of it ’cause they’re gone; they
have to do more editing for their own publishing firm. – Can I come in and get
some editing from you? – Anytime you want it. (chuckles) – It’s so great; that’s
such a fantastic program. I have to tell you that
my main editor is my wife and she’s fantastic. But she’s the front line;
she gets to see it first when it’s really raw. That’s like oh no, I can tell. – Does she?
– Well, she’s here tonight and so I don’t wanna
embarrass her too much. It depends on how she says “It’s good,” or “it’s good!” (Andre and Bill laughing) – I have a similar thing
with my wife has this habit of coming into my study and
she looks over the computer and I say, “Don’t look!” She says “I’m not looking”
but she is looking. Of course I let her read everything. She is the first reader and I’ll say, “Well what do you think?” “Oh I like it.” I said “Okay.”
– What’s wrong with it? – “No I like it.” I said, “Yeah, but how do you like it?” “I told you I like it,”
and that’s the end of it. – Each of you has an
extraordinarily distinctive style. I mean I flatter myself
hut I think it’s true that someone could read
me a paragraph drawn from anywhere in your
canons and I would know this is an Andre Aciman paragraph or a Colum McCann paragraph. Given the distinctive
nature of your voice, how do you help your
students develop a voice? You talked earlier about Mansfield. People are in these
seminars because they want to work with you. – They get me in dribs and drabs. They really don’t want
to get me, but they do. – How do you manage to
help them develop a voice, particularly at a moment when… When I was a kid, if you
were writing, you’re told… Show don’t tell was always the motto and now it’s develop your voice. How do you manage to teach voice? Certainly in essays, one admires a voice and it’s at the heart of
the writing of fiction. How do you address that, Colum? – Yeah voice is so important. There are certain universities
where you will know that a student has gone through
that particular university. I never want anybody to
know from the texture of the language that my students use that they went to Hunter College. No way, no way; and
besides myself and Peter are such distinctive literary styles. Claire Messud is there and
Nicole Krauss is coming. We’re so lucky; we’re so blessed with different distinctive styles. The thing is, the students have go to know that we get our voices
from the voices of others. This is a matter of reading;
it’s also a matter of listening and then when you find that
music, you just sort of know it and you can feel it. The student comes in, I talk
to them about Van Morrison going into a studio with a saxophone. Do you think he played Madame
George straight off the bat? Or did he play Astral Weeks? Did he make Astral Weeks
straight off the bat? No, he had to shape that saxophone. He had to shape the sound; he had to make all sorts of mistakes, but
then one day he went in and suddenly, the music was there. – Even when he bends Madame George around in subsequent recordings,
five, six, seven, there’s still that same
voice, that one that he does at the Hollywood Bowl version. It’s very different from
the Astral Weeks version even though he’s playing. That’s a great point
that the voice is there, the music is there even when there are
variations run on the theme. – I don’t know how you feel
about this, but sometimes the terror is that I’m gonna lose my voice or when I finish a novel,
I’ve used up my voice and I have nothing more to give. I have to wait generally about six months before I can start even writing again. I read a lot and that sort of thing. I get terrified that
I’m gonna lose my voice. – Yes but are you scared also that you may lose that voice, but
you may develop another voice. – Yeah, but that one may be off key. (Bill laughing) – Every single work, every single piece has a different voice. It may have your signature on it, but it’s a different voice.
– Sure. – What I’m afraid of and for
me, it’s a beleaguered thing is that I may imitate my voice
because it’s comfortable. I know how to do that voice. I’ll do it in the book review; I’ll do it in an (mumbles) piece. It’s the same voice; it’s home. After a while you feel “Hey,
come on, aren’t you tired “of that voice?” In my case, the nostalgia in
the voice is so recognizable that I don’t want to
write about nostalgia. I’m tired of exile,
which is the other theme that people associate with me. So I’m always trying to
come up with a new voice. I’m thinking a bit more
raw and how should I say, more jolty because the
music comes too easily. – It’s so nice to use the word raw. I was talkin’ to my students last night about the fact that they
have to scuff up their work because it’s all so nice. I was like “Come on, make mistake here. “Compress your sentences,
lose the verb; be different.” – Love that for the
scuffing up of the prose. It is consistent with
what you’re talking about under the sense that you
become so adept at that voice that it becomes a routine. – It reminds me of Wordsworth;
he could do that thing all his life for 50 years. He didn’t write a single
poem worth anything except for the Prelude. All the other stuff is
illegible because it’s boring and for him, it came so natural. A sonnet, no problem;
monosyllables all over the place. – How many times can you
read the Prelude, right? – I know.
– Exactly. Let me ask you about something, Andre, that goes away from the
notion of repetition. You’ve written that a writer
must have what you call a hidden nerve, some extra
sensitive chamber to explore. Yet it’s the first thing
that every writer learns to sidestep; that’s really
kind of remarkable notion. How do you help students
find the hidden nerve and not sidestep it? – They all think. Put it this way, there’s
a monster in the room and nobody mentions it. The idea that everybody
comes with (mumbles) particular kind of American
writing that happens, which I find truly annoying. It’s the driver in the
truck rolling his cigarettes and stopping by a gas
station and going into the bathroom and something
happens in the bathroom. Then he gets back in the truck and is gone and that’s the end of the short story. There’s a kind of somber– – Raymond Carver-esque kind of thing? – Well, I don’t like it
and so everybody comes… Not everybody but many people come with a variation of that. That’s a brutal world that seems so real and so in your gut and I find it tiresome. So one of the things I
do for anybody, it can be in a literature class; it could be in a creative writing class, is
to go back to the classics ’cause they don’t have trucks. They don’t have gas
stations; we avoid those. What you want to do is
you want to show them how particular writers
have gotten around to doing something that’s almost
belletristic and it can be quite raw, but it has to be nice. – Do you associate that
kind of generic story with MFA programs. I mean I mentioned Carver
’cause Carver attended six, count ’em six different graduate creating programs across time. Sometimes when I read
contemporary short stories, a whole lot of them sound like these are folks who have so immersed in the world of Carver that… It’s not really Carver,
it’s being immersed in the kind of… – That’s right ’cause
Carver was brilliant. – Exactly. No, I’m a huge fan. The copying is always another
part where it goes wrong. – I have trouble, I really
have trouble because I think that there’s one author who has dominated American literature and therefore the world
literature because America dominates everywhere and it’s Hemingway. Hemingway is a disaster. I mean he’s superficial, annoying. I cannot stand him. – He says very nice things about you. (audience laughing) – He has always said so. – You want to know what I think about him? I’ll tell you what I think about him. – He said “You know that
Aciman, now there’s a writer.” – But see, he’s involved in this. No. It’s just there’s a particular way of wanting to be Hemingway
and wanting to espouse the values of Hemingway,
the whole masculinity and I brought this on
purpose because this is one of the books that has
ruined American literature. (laughing) – Elements of style. – It’s the elements of Strunk and White. If you want to be a
journalist, yes you need it. If you want to be a fiction
writer, just throw it. It has the worst possible
advice to give a writer. But anyway, it’s either that or Hemingway. And so you find that the
whole magazine business is cornered by these two
voices and you can’t get away from it and you
have to get away from it. I mean imagine James Joyce
with Hemingway on one hand and Strunk and White on the other. (Bill and audience laughing) It would be taboo to have
no (mumbles) nothing. – Let me spin this to
Colum and site you as well. This is with that interview
you did with Aleksandar Hemon in which you said “So much
of the writing of the past “few years, so much of what garners praise “is housebroken and so very
well-behaved (mumbles). “Want to sell a lot of books? “Write about prep school or
the creative writing program. “There seems to be an exhaustion
around the narrative form “at least until recently.” How do you get your students
to tell better stories? Not to tell the same story? At least that was what
I took from that remark about a kind of a need to go
away from the housebroken. – See so many of us I
think are coming in doors. We’re closing the curtains;
we’re sitting down. For me, I think there’s a
distinct lack of bravery in relation to the social novel, in relation to what writing can do. There’s sort of an exhausted
quality that comes out of many MFA programs. I’m saying that you have
to achieve the art of it and forget about the message of it. Really what I want my
students to do is to rip open the curtains, get out and do something. Go different places, get under the skin. Rip the skin up a little bit and push. Just like Phil did with his collection of stories. I knew he was a writer by
three words in his application. The very first three
words was we shot dogs and I thought okay,
gotcha; let’s go from here. And he does, he goes from there and he talks about how they interact. They went around shooting
all these different dogs. You got to read the story. But for me, I like those students who are gonna rip it up a little bit. We tend to get those sort
of people who come from… If we can get somebody
who comes from Tennessee and has had an interesting background or worked in a butcher shop,
whatever it happens to be, if I get an interesting
background, I generally really, really, really like it. If they’re 21 years old,
which some of our students have been including Jessica Soffer, who came out with a novel last year called Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots; she was young, but she just
had enormous amounts of talent and it was obvious from the get-go. – Bringing those students
into university programs, the MFA programs and sort
of obliquely talking about the discontents of the MFA program, to what extent is that a risk? I want to talk a little
bit about the proliferation of the MFA. For really, the teaching
of creative writing just goes back to the 1920s, but never is a separate undertaking in those days. It was part of what one did
in an English department or language department to
understand how literature worked rather than the intent that
this was to produce writers. Academics have always
been somewhat suspicious and territorial about admitting
writers under their ranks. I think the most quoted
version of this is when Novikov was proposed
for a chair at Harvard and Roman Jakobson objected and he said “What’s next? “Will we appoint elephants
to teach zoology?” (audience laughing) Things have changed from those days. In the early 80s, there
wee 80 degree programs in the United States in creative writing. Today there are more than 1000. There were 25 MFA programs
in the country in 1975. Today, there are 220;
there are 37 Ph.D programs in creative writing. No idea what that’s about. But despite the popularity
of these programs and their proliferation,
that debate continues. But whether it is useful
if you wish to be a writer, to go to a program. I mean there’s that new
anthology that comes out comes out of the Chad
Harbach essay MFA or NYC or it’s (mumbles) versus NYC. What’s the best route
to becoming a writer? What’s your view of the
importance, the current status, the risk attached to the
proliferation of the MFA as the training place for writers? Same argument people make about jazz. Once jazz has become the
province of universities rather than nightclubs or bars, it changes the nature of the language. What’s your sense of that, Colum? – This is controversial;
I think there’s a lot of thievery going on in universities all around this country. I will tell you that I’ve just
gone through 450 applications for six places in Hunter College. 450 at 30 pages each. Of those, I would say there’s probably 30 who might make a stab at it. Really there’s only about 15 or 20. But I know there are
programs in this city, in this country that are
taking in people willy-nilly ’cause they can charge them $50,000 a year and they’re destroying these young people. Thank you. It is immoral what is going on
in some of our universities. These things are becoming a
cash cow and they’re pretending to people that they can teach this thing. As we said at the beginning,
this is really unteachable and I feel really badly
for a lot of these people. Hopefully though they’ll learn
something in the process. If they’ve got good
teachers and they can go into editing magazines,
advertising (mumbles). It should be a liberal
education in that sense. But there are certain
programs like your program, I believe my program, Brooklyn
College, places like that I think are doing the right
thing and they’re trying to shape writers. But there are other places in this country and somebody should
expose some of the stuff that’s going on. – Andre, what do you think about that? – I agree, there are cash cows. But you have to understand
the point of view of the student and also we
forget the parent of the student ’cause the parents want to
see their son or daughter do something; they want to become writers. Okay then if you’re going to be a writer, go to an MFA and what do you
get at the end of an MFA? You get an MFA. What do you do with an MFA? You get to teach at a lower-level college. So there’s repercussions
of the same thing, The parents feel okay,
we’ll give you two years. You’re going to be
(mumbles) for two years. You’ll be in a particular
world and you’ll be protected from what it is we’re scared you might do otherwise. The next thing you know
is that they’re done and now they’re going to be teachers. Nobody is going to publish
them because there’s no guarantee that they have been
in by way prepared for that. That’s camouflage. – What about the other side
of the equation, Andre, that MFA programs have
become employment venues. – Oh yes.
– That’s absolutely right. – In other words, you go
to a two year college. They’ll have their own sort of MFA teacher who’s got a MFA, never published anything and is now teaching composition. That’s how you end up with
some of these third degree, fourth degree MFA people
who can’t find jobs, who cannot get published, but
can sort of teach composition of one sort or another. But we have another problem. It’s not a problem; it’s
actually a total plus for us in the Department
of Comparative Literature. It’s really fascinating. People come to Comparative Literature. They wanna be scholars,
they wanna be academics. They wanna teach
literature, they wanna write about literature and we have an interview. The interview goes on
for half an hour usually. At the very end each time, I will ask “Are you
interested in writing?” Out comes the answer that
in fact, what they really want to do is become a
writer and that sometimes, the easiest way to get there
with the more laborious way is to become an academic. In other words, that’s
the other way to do it. You get a Ph.D and you
still want to write, which is what I did as opposed to getting an MFA
which guarantees nothing. – Colum, what’s your sense of the impact, if any, of the burgeoning
MFA world on the state of fiction in the US and
more broadly imagined. Not just in the sense of
the ways in which it creates a generation of writers or
influences it in different ways better and worse, but also
for writers themselves being university-based in ways that didn’t use to be the case? – It’s so much harder to
make a living as a writer nowadays than it was
if you talked to people who were around in the 650s to 60s to 70s. So many writers are
coming into the programs and sort of relying on it. Yes maybe you fall into
this university culture and if you’re not strong,
you’ll start writing about it. You’ll write away from what
you were working on before. But I honestly believe that
good work will win out. I think there are people
out there who are not in MFA programs who are writin’ novels. That good work will eventually
find itself to the (mumbles). I’m sure there’s some
novels, you know, that what John Kennedy to the Real
Confederacy of Dunces. It could have laid in the
attic, but there’s something magical and mysterious about the universe that finds good writing and
it will always come through. I don’t know, I think maybe
we exaggerate the influence that MFA programs have on
the texture of the language. Good stories are there to be told. This is the thing: we
can have a lot of things taken away from us. We can have our houses,
all sorts of things. We can have our books;
there might be a day when there’s no books on this table. That doesn’t frighten
me at all because I know they can’t take away our stories. Everybody has a story. The one thing that cannot
be taken away from you is your ability, desire to tell and listen to a good story. So part of what we’re involved
in is shaping those stories to be presented to the world somehow. Whether it be on the
internet or some other way that we can’t even imagine now. – I quite agree. – So I’m excited. I don’t think that we have
the death of the novel. I don’t think we have
the death of education or any of these things. I’m lookin’ forward and thinkin’
yeah, well we gotta go on and continue doin’ it. – I agree; one more question
about the university life and let me ask Andre this. One of things that people
say about writers being bred increasingly within universities and that writers themselves
live with in universities, their jobs, their health benefits, whatever you wanna say are located there, is that a relationship begins to happen between their perspective audience in the level of serious fiction; that the readers of serious fiction are at the university and the
writers are at the university. It creates a kind of dialog
and that a lot of what people are interested in, a variety of theoretical protocols or post-modern understandings
are the readers as well as the writers
and there’s a conversation being orchestrated not in the sense of some ivory tower isolation, but that’s where the
conversation is taking place. Do you find that to be so? – No, I hope it’s not so. The conversation would be
first of all, one sided if that’s what was happening
’cause writers who write… I think it’s the impulse
of any young writer is to write the kind of stories of novels that were discussed in their classes. So you write in that vein
because that’s what you think should be done. Eventually it sounds derivative. So if you have for example,
a professor writing a novel, usually that’s difficult
because professors are used to their own
lingo, their own vocabulary, and if there’s any hint of what jargon, which is the word we use in criticism, suddenly it will show up and it falls flat and doesn’t go anywhere. So if it’s an academic who wants to write, they have to purge their
language of any indication that it’s from the academy because it won’t work, it won’t go. So maybe they’ll interest
a couple of their students to listen to them, but
it won’t go beyond that. I don’t think it will. – I will tell you just in relation to that that I get a chance sometimes
to go out to these schools and these kids in the Bronx and places that we would maybe
consider more marginal. There are writers in there;
they want to be writers too and that’s what’s really great. When you see that face sort
of like lurking at the end and he comes up and
he’s a bit tough looking and he says, “Tell me, I
really wanna be a writer “’cause I wanna tell the
story,” cause their stories are everywhere; that’s
part of the fun too. – When you go out and you
speak to teach young people in particular, not just
the six who make it out of 500 applications to find
their way into the program, what impact do you see technology having? I mean again people wring
their hands like you I believe, stories get told and continue to be told in a variety of media. But have you seen change
in the ways in which people approach language because of? – Because of technology?
– Because of technology? – A little bit yes,
but it doesn’t scare me all that much. I’m waitin’ for that student to come along who’s gonna write the hyper-novel. That’s the novel that can
actually sit on the coffee table, a beautiful piece of
literature beautifully written but it can also translate
itself to the internet and will be on every device. You know the Joyce that we’re waitin’ for to come along to make
sense of where we are now in relation to technology. So I think the language has got to shift. It’s got to shape itself. It becomes a sort of fiction in itself from (mumbles) to shape. So the language is continually
shaped and shaping itself and that the technology will sort of in some ways help us to do that. I tried doin’ some of this myself. I was workin’ on a novel
a couple of years ago which I threw away called
13 Ways of Looking, based on the Wallace Stevens
film and I just couldn’t do it. I realized I’m an old fart;
I’m 50 and I’m an old fart. (Bill laughing) I just can’t understand the technology. But I tell ya, I’m waitin’
for that young person to come along and write that novel. – Let me ask the Cuney question I ask at these and many other occasions. How does teaching at
not just a large public urban university, but this
large public urban university, how does it shape your own
thinking about your craft, about your craft as a teacher,
your craft as a writer, the ways in which you see the world or is that a separate issue in terms of that’s what you do as your job and this is what
you do as your (mumbles)? Let me start with Colum
and then we’ll ask Andre. – It’s really good for me. Jennifer (mumbles) very
graciously and generously gave me access to an office
in the old Hunter High School with high ceilings and bookshelves. I saw it in the middle of summer when nobody was around in the college. This just is absolutely
perfect office to work in and then I worked there for a few weeks. I got it all set up and then I realized at the start of the semester that it was right beside
all the student clubs. All this bangin’ music
and all this crazy stuff goin’ on in the corridors. – That’s why it was vacant. – Yeah, so now I (mumbles) this radio but I quite like it there. There’s all these young people outside; and then when I go out
and climb on the stairs or on the escalators,
there’s all these kids who are my daughter’s age. My daughter’s 17 but these
18 year old, 19 year olds. I look at them and I think
they’re instructing me. I know it’s kind of a
cliche, but as a teacher you get to learn from your students. I think there’s a reason
you get into the class. These young people teach
you how to think and live and then they reshape your thinking too ’cause I make mistakes
and they call me on it. For me, I don’t know, I feel
that it’s a way to remain fairly in touch or young in a certain way. – You’ve taught at Princeton,
you’ve taught at Barton before you came to City University. What’s your experience
here been like, Andre? – You forget one thing
is that I was trained. I got my B.A. from Lehman College when I first came to this country. I came as an immigrant and
so that was the only place I could afford to go, so I went there. I stayed there, I should’ve
left after two years just to go to an Ivy League School and see what that was like, but I wanted to stay in New York. One of the things I find
that is signal and unique about Q&A is that humility. There’s no arrogance,
there’s no entitlement. The students are not humble, but there’s a spirit of humility. In other words, there’s no one-upmanship among the students ever. Everybody wants to succeed, but there’s none of that nastiness. That brutal, that
infighting, that this cloak sometimes very politely
in Ivy League Schools. These are individuals who are here and they know how lucky
they are to be here because in many cases they’re
first generation people. Sometimes second generation
but it’s not far behind. Some of them still speak the language that they spoke when
they were born elsewhere. We have this particularly
with our Russian students who are amazingly gifted,
cannot go anywhere else. Because they’re here in New York, their families are here,
their parents are here, but they want to stay here. So they’re here when they
could’ve been working for the telephone company
or one of those things. They’re extremely lucky and
having them learning literature in that spirit is an amazing thing. I don’t think I would
trade it for anything. I know some people have, we know them too. (chuckles) But this is
an amazing place to be and they’re all talented;
extremely talented. – Let me ask my last question. It’s one that sounds corny. I suspect that it’s, for me,
the most interesting question I’m gonna ask tonight. What’s the best thing
you can do for a student when someone comes and
essentially makes you the steward of her life? Not to be too melodramatic about it. What do you want to do for that student? – What I wanna see? What I love is after two
years, the graduation night, is generally the first time
I get to meet the parent. I get to look at the parent and say, “Your girl, she’s gonna write books,” or “Your son did this and achieved that.” So I look forward to graduation
night when they read. It’s just a small reading,
we get together in a room and then they go out and
about with the families. It’s kinda like it’s an ancient ritual to get together and eat and celebrate the fact that this person’s
gotten through all of this. So I think I bring that person in, look at her, look at him,
and then two years later maybe they’ll have the guts of a novel. Maybe they’ll have a whole novel written or a couple short stories. I feel like they’ve gotten something and where they’re gonna
go but you’re happy. – Andre, you work with students both in the relatively
short-term in the institute and then the much longer
string of the PhD compilate. What do you want to accomplish with the students you’re working with? – Well, I know myself. I know I’m the only person I know well. Even then, we don’t always
speak to each other. (audience laughing) But I look at myself and I say this to almost every single student
at some point or another. It sounds so corny but it’s true. I came here, I had nothing, I
had to do everything myself. I didn’t publish a book
until I was in my late 30s and my first article when I was 35, 36, so this is really late. I said I had to really
overcome quite a few hurdles and I say, “Look, if I
can make it, anyone can.” You have the stories. You don’t need to have life
experience to get the stories, you have them incubating
in your head all the time. Just look at me, I can make it. I teach full-time, I
write as much as I can. You wanna be a writer, you wanna teach? It’s gonna happen. The best thing to do is
say there is an example. Or if somebody went to Lehman College. – Ladies and gentlemen, please thank our extraordinary (mumbles). (audience applauding loudly) Thank you, thank you. And thank you very much
for being with us tonight.

5 thoughts on “Art and Craft: Teaching Writing, with André Aciman, Colum McCann & William P. Kelly

  1. Brings back good memories from my abortive attempt at a PhD at CUNY. Wish they had offered me a bit of money to support my studies. Anyhow, I enjoyed my time there.

  2. omg!! i'm scandalised!! aciman doesn't like hemingway and elements of style.. :0 still respect him though… i love his style… 🙂

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