MFA in Creative Writing - Michael White, Program Director
A former writing teacher once told a graduate fiction class of mine: "I can teach you everything I know about writing in about forty-five minutes. After that, it's practice, practice, practice." I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment of teaching fiction writing. What this statement suggests is that good fiction is short on theory and long on practice. I believe that few fictional models or "rules" hold up for all, or even most, situations that writers find themselves in. The exception to the rule in fiction is the rule. That is, what works in practice, on the page, in a particular story, is what works. What I would add, of course, is that the practice must be of the right sort, and that the budding writer needs good and consistent feedback so that the practice results in a better writer. This is where the mentor role becomes paramount. I feel that I give students good pragmatic advice about a particular story or novel.
I don't spend much time talking about "rules" of fiction or theory; rather, I try to follow the writer's lead in a particular work, see where that story is going, what dynamics the writer has established for him - or herself, and then I try to offer suggestions to help get the piece we are working on to a point that it is of publishable quality. Because I believe that a writer must please two and only two people - an editor and himself - publication is the goal for me. Therefore, my intention is not only to try to help a piece to become of "publishable quality," but actually to help the writer get it published - which I have done several times with my students.
In terms of my practice as mentor, I place lots of comments on the hard copies, both of a global nature as well as line edits, and I also give lengthy typed responses by e-mails. The writer is then free to e-mail me back to inquire about my comments, and I try to respond in a timely manner to those inquiries. Students and I also have several lengthy phone conversations about particular aspects of their work as well as their general development as a writer. I also assign two books per month on which students write their "craft essays." The books are selected from a reading list I give them at the beginning (though students can add or change the list in consultation with me). The craft essays are usually analytical and deal with some aspect of the "writer's fictional craft." As long as the essays are solid, well written, and well supported, I don't have much to say on them - they are primarily intended for the student's development. The student must bring a desire and a commitment to improving as a writer, and I feel my job is to assist them in the craft of their art.