The current Harper’s Magazine (July 2005) includes an essay by Lynn Freed, called “Doing Time: My years in the creative-writing gulag.” (The same issue has a terrific short story, “Chance Traveler,” by Haruki Murakami, and a review by Wyatt Mason of the It’s All Right Now, the massive debut novel by 72 year-old Charles Chadwick.) Although Freed has supported her writing habit for many years by teaching writing to undergraduates and MFA candidates, she doesn’t seem to think much of the “industry.”
She begins the essay by acknowledging that she knew from her very first teaching job that she was going to hate it, that she knew she would only be “doing time” so that she could fulfill her real desires. Fortunately for her students, she managed to escape; but then, she reveals, circumstances force her back to the classroom. She makes no apologies for the mercenary appeal: “I needed money.” She proceeds to ridicule the undergraduate writing students who are in the class for credits and grades and for no other reason, as if an undergraduate needs any other reason to take a course. (They also take abuse for wearing baseball caps to class.) After that experience, she embarks on a life of temporary teaching gigs until she joins the faculty of a low-residency MFA program. “Low-residency writing programs and summer conferences provide a sort of café society for writers, supplying what nothing else can: the chance to make friends with writers from all over the country.” By “writers” she means other members of the faculty, of course, not the students. And then she leaves the “café society” to take a permanent half-time teaching job. (Although she hasn’t left completely; she still makes her appearance on the summer conference circuit, including Bread Loaf this summer.) It is in this position that she comes to the conclusion that she may be headed for Hell for contributing to the deception of talentless wannabes. She’s probably safe, though, because she makes herself out to be brutally honest.
She says writing cannot be taught; she says nobody reads the classics; she says most contemporary writing isn’t worth reading; and she says being in a community of writers is over-rated. “How can one tell student writers, most of whom place their trust in the efficacy of group learning, that unless they can turn themselves into solitaries, driven to ride single-mindedly over all obstacles, all reverses, all failures . . . there is little to be gained by taking a writing workshop.” She recognizes that workshops are scams, but she is a willing participant, in order to feed her own habit.
“To have to pretend to take seriously the job of improving an unworthy piece of writing because one is being paid by the writer to do is, perhaps, the most dangerous compromise of all.” She might consider that it is time to stop compromising, if that’s how she feels.