In three weeks I will drive to Montpelier, Vermont, to begin my final semester in an MFA in Writing program. Over the last few weeks I have devoted every spare minute to polishing the first draft of my work-in-progress–a travel memoir–so that I can hand the manuscript to whichever faculty member I am paired with at residency. My goal is to have a manuscript fit for submission to publishers by the time I graduate in July. Given the fact that it took me two years to finish this draft, that goal seems overly ambitious. But as award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick told me when I interviewed him in his home in Philadelphia, when you set your goals absurdly high, even in failure you likely have accomplished something remarkable.
When I started writing this book in the fall of 2010, I never would have imagined I’d still be working on it. Years of daily journalism forced me to become a fast writer, and the writers I read growing up churned out new books every year. I was addicted to Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. Every year I would put aside allowance money so I could buy the latest volume in hardcover, too impatient to wait for the paperback.
I blame what I consider a slow pace on the demands of my Vermont College of Fine Arts instructors, who insist that I produce a memoir of lasting literary value. It’s not enough to share a detail. I must slant it, to convey larger meaning. It’s not enough to share with the reader a funny moment from my cross-country U.S. road trip; I must ensure that every sentence in the scene advances the narrative. It’s not enough to explain how I experienced a creative transformation; I must delve deep into my past to reveal how it was that I came to be creatively stagnant in the first place.
Parker’s novels are not considered “literary” by most, but I didn’t care about that when I would read each one from beginning to end in one sitting. Looking back, I can see that his plots were often uninspiring, and his details amusing or dramatic but not necessarily “slanted.” His characters were rich and complex, however, particularly Spenser himself, but also his best friend Hawk and his longtime girlfriend Susan. Those three were so real to me, in fact, that I never watched the TV show based on the books, because I refused to believe any actor could convey them as fully as Parker did on the page. As a reader, Parker’s books brought me pleasure.
VCFA’s writing programs attract writers of all types and genres. But I will confess that a handful of my MFA classmates are what I expected in an MFA program, dismissive of what we might call “commercial” fiction. On the Vermonter train to last winter’s residency, I overheard an upperclassman giving advice to two new students on who they might want as their instructor. Someone asked about one of my favorite writers among the faculty. This student dismissed her as a potential instructor: “You wouldn’t want her. She writes popular fiction.”
Actually, I thought to myself, she writes literary fiction that is popular. And who wouldn’t want that, to write something literary critics will admire but readers will actually want to read? I question sometimes the amount of effort I am expected to put into each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, each word. Is that level of effort truly necessary? But then I project ahead thirty years, and imagine how I’ll feel about the book as part of my writing legacy. The long view makes the time I’m spending on it now seem quite short. So with my final semester, I’ll follow the literary guidance of my instructor. But I’ll also press to meet my self-imposed deadline, to bring my fast writing skill to bear.
And I suspect I am not alone in this reconciliation of wishing to bring a manuscript to a timely conclusion while also seeking to write it as well as I can. The marketplace believes this distinction between commercial and literary to be real. But it doesn’t have to be real to a reader. We want a good read, well written. And thus it shouldn’t have to be real to a writer.
What is your experience with this supposed distinction? What mindset do you bring to your own creative writing?