At different times in March, three of us in the Saturday morning writers’ group at the Library saw the hit Broadway play Seminar with its original cast, before changes were made at the beginning of April. (Jeff Goldblum has replaced Alan Rickman in the role of Leonard; Fairfield’s own Justin Long now plays Martin, the role debuted by Hamish Linklater; and Zoe Lister-Jones is Kate, following Lily Rabe.) Colleague Ian Peterkin, who is an MFA student in creative writing, offers this takeaway.—Alex McNab
When novice writers realize their passion is more than a hobby, they will invariably seek out instruction. Whether they find that instruction in an MFA program, a writer’s workshop, or autodidactically, they must take the matter of writing seriously. For those hoping to learn their craft through books, there are many sources to choose from. Stephen King has his On Writing and of course there is that old classic by William Strunk and E.B. White—The Elements of Style. If fledgling writers do not have the time or commitment for an MFA program—and sometimes even after completing one—they often attend a writers’ retreat or seminar. This brings me to Theresa Rebeck’s play, Seminar.
Alan Rickman (center in photo) plays Leonard, an editor and writer, who leads a 10-week seminar on writing (at $5,000 a pop). Therein lies the problem. Leonard’s students collectively fork over $20,000 to be told whether or not their writing is any good. Writing seminars and workshops are like gym memberships—they make you feel good about yourself, like you’re actually making progress. But just like a gym membership alone will not get you the body you want, a workshop or seminar is not going to make you “The Great American Novelist.”
This all reminds me of something Kurt Vonnegut said about creative writing programs. He basically told his students they were wasting their time in class and should be writing instead. An interviewer from The Paris Review once asked him if creative writing can actually be taught and he had this to say: “About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.” The interviewer went on to ask about storytelling talent and Vonnegut offered:
“In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by. . . They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.”
He would know, he taught at Iowa.
I have a wonderful mentor at Western Connecticut State University named Dan Pope. He’s an incredible editor and I hope to keep working with him in the future. He had this to say about writing: “All you need to do—all anyone ever needs to do—is read one book about writing. They are not good for much. Writing is the only way to learn.” And it’s the truth. I’ve more or less gotten everything I possibly can out of my MFA program after less than a year. There are schools in the country that charge between $20,000 and $55,000 a year to teach the same things.
Last semester, I worked as a graduate assistant in the writing department. I taught Writing 101 to more than 40 teenagers. My mentor in the department once told my cohorts and me that our students will be better writers at the end of the semester, not necessarily because of our instruction but from practice. He was right. I could not get most of them to pass their grammar quizzes, but they all became better writers.—Ian Peterkin