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Writing and Teaching: Do the Two Mix?

Okay, today I want to talk about teaching because, though I'm a writer first and foremost, teaching for me isn't just a way to make a living. I'm passionate about it, and I think you have to be in order to do a good job. I direct Brooklyn College's Fiction MFA Program, and, at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I can't imagine a better job. In a typical year at Brooklyn College we get 500 MFA fiction applicants for 15 spots in our incoming class. So you're dealing with some of the very best young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn't know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren't fully conscious of what they're doing. For me, it was the opposite.There are writers who wouldn't know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren't fully conscious of what they're doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else's short story and figure out what wasn't working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people's stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I've been at this process longer than my students have, but we're all struggling with the same thing — how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters come so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that's precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I'm the instructor, we're all students in the room. Also, I'm a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about what I love.

People often ask how we make our admissions decisions. It comes down almost exclusively to the fiction manuscript. We turn down people from the very best schools in the country, and we accept people from schools you've never heard of. And it doesn't matter whether you've been published. In fact, every year we turn down people with book contracts, some people who already have books out. It's not that we never make a mistake, but it's a very democratic process; it comes down to the quality of the work as we see it. With about half of the manuscripts, you can read seven or eight random sentences and you know there's no way the person is good enough. There's imprecision, a tin ear, a lack of nuance. The candidate just isn't a writer, at least not at this point. Then there are another hundred applications where if you read a few pages you know that, in light of the competition, they're not going to make it. There are also about five to seven manuscripts where you read the first three pages and you know you're absolutely going to admit the person. The talent is just that clear right from the start. It's numbers eight through 150 where things get tough. In general, we're not looking for perfect work, or even necessarily for the most polished work, and every year we turn down applicants who have published fiction, including people with books out at major publishing houses. What we're looking for is a kind of music, a gift, something that sings. It's worth noting, too, that our committee is composed of writers with a wide range of aesthetics, and yet year after year we agree about nearly everyone. At this level, the differences are pretty clear. It's like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it."

And now, before I part for the day, take a look at a few members of this year's graduating Brooklyn College MFA fiction class standing on the steps of campus in their caps and gowns.

Don't they look dashing? They're going to be famous someday. You can say you knew them when they were young.

÷ ÷ ÷

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's Selected Shorts. His latest novel is The World without You.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Matrimony (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. The World without You
    Used Hardcover $7.95

Joshua Henkin is the author of The World without You

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