Monday, June 8, 2009

The Search for the Life-Changing Sentence

My last experience with the teaching of creative writing came at a class run by Gordon Lish in Bloomington, Indiana, almost 20 years ago. Lish once occupied an exalted position in the literary world. He was an editor at Esquire and at Knopf, where he edited Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah. He styled himself “Captain Fiction.” His classes lasted about six hours and he spent most of that time talking, in a style that combined elements of performance art, academic lecture and the unhinged rant of a subway derelict. He didn’t encourage interruption. When one student asked about the possibility of leaving the class to use a bathroom, Lish answered, “Observe Gordon: Does he?” Every once in a while he would allow his students to read aloud work that they had brought to class with them. When he lost interest in what they were reading, he would stop them and move on to the next student. Often, this happened after the first sentence.

Lish preached that stories had to have an organic integrity, with the music of one sentence leading the writer to the next, which in turn led him to the next. The novelist David Bowman once wrote that Lish engaged in “a cult of the sentence,” which sounds right to me. His insistence on settling for nothing less than shining, life-changing sentences changed the way I thought about fiction. It also pretty well paralyzed me. It was not long after I came home from the Lish class that I stopped writing stories.

Louis Menand mentions Lish in his piece in the current New Yorker about the history and impact of creative writing programs. What I like about Menand’s piece is that it considers not just the way writing programs have shaped the kinds of stories and poems graduates are producing (a topic that has already generated a lot of debate) but also what ordinary, less-than-masterful writers take away from workshops. Menand, who describes himself as “a pretty untalented poet” when he went through workshops as a young man, writes, “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. . . I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem-—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I mostly agree, but I’d add that writing classes can also leave you with an appreciation for the comedy of misplaced ambition. Take a look at “Comments Written by Actual Students Extracted from Workshopped Manuscripts at a Major University” from the McSweeney’s site. My favorite: “Maybe a little less time should be spent describing the Cheetos in this scene.”


  1. As an adult in the academic world, I'm a bit scornful of most creative writing workshops and the self-congratulatory readings that accompany them. But I have had good workshops. The best was with Stanley Plumly at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the 80s, because he directed the discussion, rather than just let us pick at each other.

  2. Finding a teacher who can occupy that middle ground between taking over a workshop and dozing off while the writers bicker is a neat trick. And to be fair, Lish's class wasn't a workshop at all. More like a master class maybe. One of the points that Menand makes is that some of your teachers are skeptical of the whole idea. He quotes Kay Boyle's opinion that creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law. He adds that she taught at San Francisco State for 16 years.

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