I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*
I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.
Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.
Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.
So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.
The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.
Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.
To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.
However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.
Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.
She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.
The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.
It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.
* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).
** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.