Fleda’s Blog

My Wobbly Bicycle, 177

Posted by on Sep 4, 2019 in Featured | 4 comments

One more post on creative writing programs. Probably I’m speaking to a very limited audience.  I just wanted to answer a recent question.


So, you ask—someone asks—someone asked me recently—what happens in a so-called creative writing program? How can you teach someone to write a poem, for instance, considering that you have to have talent? Of course, I might reply, you can’t teach someone to write a poem. But you can, given the right conditions, help a person with some intrinsic sense of a poem get better faster.


If we have to argue about “better,” probably better stop talking right now. Better—as in visual art, movies, music, dance—is a matter of having trained the ear and eye to want more than cliché. Deeper, richer, more complex, more musical thought.


People enroll for these programs because they recognize they’re writing not-bad poems and stories. They feel frustrated because they’ve read enough to recognize brilliance and they can’t figure out how to approach making it happen in their own work.


A good comparison might be with religion. You can’t exactly “teach” it. You can teach facts related to it, but the actual thing has to be caught, like a disease. It has to be insinuated by proximity to another who has it. Or, think about the best teacher you ever had. She inspired you by example. You wanted to BE her. You picked up some of her mannerisms, you wanted to please her. And gradually you transferred the wish to please into a wish to please your new self, the one that now contained the essence of your teacher.


You also absorb energy. Besides this—and now I’m back specifically to a creative writing program—you study how good poems and stories are made. You take them apart and look at the turns, the moves, the switchbacks. You have help with this. Your teacher helps you to see what you may have missed.


You are required to read a lot. You learn about the history of the form. You study poems from centuries back.


And then you blunder along with your own work. You revise even when you hate doing it. You thought it was okay as is. But you do as you’re told, at least for now. Your first draft turns out not to be sacred. You begin to break through your habits, your rigidity of thought and of language. Listening to someone else’s ideas didn’t “ruin” your individual genius.


There are other students, and you bounce your drafts off them, and vice versa. You see that your opinion is pretty darn good sometimes. Or, you see you were way off base, that you hadn’t read carefully.


You’re pushed to write a lot, more than you’re used to. So you don’t have time to moan about your lack of skill. You have to plow ahead.  So, you don’t get to be great. But you do begin to understand the craft of it, and in the process, you see that imagination is simply what gets dragged out of its dark cave by the hooks and pulleys of mundane craft.


Okay, that’s my answer, by way of explaining why someone would spend good money to enroll in an MFA program. NOTE: these are words from someone who didn’t attend an MFA program, who took only one undergraduate creative writing course in her life. Not that I’m sorry about that. It happened as it happened. And then I ended up teaching creative writing at the University of Delaware and at the Rainier Writing Workshop for years.


I do think these programs are helpful. I have watched many students get to be much better writers in a short time. I have watched some break through into real beauty. If you’re asking me if you should apply to an MFA program, I’d say, yes, if your goal is to improve what you’re already doing. If your goal is to be a “Poet,” or a “Writer,” I guess you could just put on a beret, get a bunch of tattoos, and bang away on your computer in your darkened room. (Of course you could get tattoos either way.)









My Wobbly Bicycle, 175

Posted by on Aug 11, 2019 in Featured | 9 comments

When Stan Rubin emailed me 14 years ago and asked if I’d like to join the faculty of  Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, WA, I must have somehow missed the point of the message. Days went by, and he called me. So, would you like to join the faculty? I doubt it, I said. I was still in my last few years teaching at the University of Delaware and summers were precious. Did I want to disrupt our time with family at the lake in Michigan to travel all the way across the country for ten days? But of course I really, really wanted to do it. Jerry said, in his characteristically generous way, “If you want to do this, we’ll make it happen.” So.


This year  I’m retiring from the program. I’ve missed two residencies. One was the summer after my cancer treatment. Judith Kitchen, who directed the program with Stan, speaking from her own cancer experience, said,  “I can tell you, you’ll be so very tired. It’s too soon.” She was right. And then this past summer, after Jerry had had one surgery after another and really needed my help, I didn’t go.


It’s not that I’m tired of students. It’s not that I’m tired of teaching. It’s that I’m just tired. Traveling across the country, designing classes and preparing for them, responding to student packets . . . it all seems the work of someone younger. I’ve had my time. That’s what I want to write about—my gratefulness.


Just when I was looking toward retirement, a whole new world opened up, the world of the low-residency MFA program. Not just any MFA program, but the one designed by Stan and Judith, with their impeccable sensitivity to what would work best. They chose a faculty with high powered credentials, but not rock stars (well, maybe some). But more like Indie movies, I’ve always thought. You go there to see what’s quietly really good. I must say, Judith Kitchen being one of the most brilliant literary critics of her time, knew how to pick ‘em, both faculty and students.


And, Stan and Judith said they were looking very consciously for faculty who would not project a hierarchy, who would mix with students and with each other without arrogance.  That has come to pass, it seems to me. And then when Judith died, Rick Barot took over the directorship with grace, wonderful tact, and the same good choices.


Back to gratefulness. David Biespiel said in his morning talk, “We are all so privileged to be gathered like this when much of the world is plunged in darkness.” There’s that.

I’m also grateful to have been able to have an influence on writers, to watch their work grow, their understanding of the work grow. I’m grateful that my own work is still changing, keeping me interested and sometimes excited. It seems as if I am just beginning to see how to do this work. And of course to see that it will never be perfected and never be completed. The process is my life’s work.

I’m grateful that this is my life’s work. I don’t know how it happened, it seems sometimes that it was almost by accident. I wrote a little, I wrote a little more, and the momentum kept bringing me along. I think what I’m most grateful for is that I am clear that I want to write a good poem (or essay) more than I want accolades for writing a good poem. That feeling was/has been slow in arriving, that feeling of being my own critic, with no blame, only a spirit of trying to figure it out.  I’m grateful that I’ve lived long enough for this to happen. Quoting Jane Kenyon, “It might have been otherwise.”

I’m grateful I’ve had a supportive and loving husband and a loving family. As any of the graduates of our program (whose families are here today, for graduation) can tell you, the work can’t happen without that.


Okay, I’m writing myself a graduation speech here.


As David said in his talk, “What is at stake for a writer other than to save the human race?”  Another way to put that might be, to keep breaking open language  so that it can’t harden against us or against others.