This essay by novelist Alexander Chee on "Annie Dillard and the Writing Life" (via Editorial Ass) is lovely. It's about Chee's experience as a student in Annie Dillard's literary nonfiction class at Weslyan University. Among many other things, it's a fascinating peek into what it's like to learn writing from a master. I'll go ahead and admit I got the feeling I always get when I read good writing: that icky, uncomfortable idea there is a level of talent I can't grasp, or some kind of education I've missed.
I have an English degree and I took my fair share of creative writing classes. But I was never, ever the best writer in those classes. And though I love my alma mater and wouldn't change my time there for anything, my English professors aren't famous and they certainly aren't Annie Dillard. The only professor I had who'd achieved a modicum of success in literary fiction (short stories published in The New Yorker, a well-reviewed literary novel) was one of my least favorites.
Our class met in a local coffee shop. We took over the best couches by the fireplace and didn't always order drinks. I learned valuable lessons from that professor about fiction writing, of course, but the pretension was palpable. The prof wanted so badly to be a literary goddess, I think, and expected us to sit at the feet of her genius and lap up whatever expertise she doled out. I know how lame and whiny that sounds; I don't say it because I'm a rebel who doesn't want to be told how to write. It's just that there was no self-awareness to her teaching. The New Yorker was upheld as the pinnacle of literary success; we'd sure better not mention Dan Brown. My prof appreciated writing that looked like hers, and the only students who could get away without doing that were the ones who were wildly and beautifully talented - not me. I was solidly middle-of-the-pack.
One one level, reading essays like Chee's always makes me feel my inexperience. For better or worse, I grew up on a diet of Mary Higgins Clark, not James Joyce. Or even Stephen King. There was no dearth of talented writers in my own fiction writing classes at an average public university that's not renowned for its English department. What must it be like at better writing programs all over the country? Programs full of people who read (and understood) Ulysses at age 13? How can I get published with those peoples' manuscripts sitting in the slush pile next to mine?
Wah wah wah. This is the point in the post where it would be a good time for me to get a life.
Some of the basics Chee talks about learning from Annie Dillard (everything from the meaning of the editorial marking "stet" to avoiding passive voice) I learned from my journalism professors (I double-majored in English and journalism) and from working at the college newspaper. When leads me to the conclusion that if you can't afford an MFA in creative writing, a bachelor's in journalism -- or a stint as a reporter -- isn't a bad replacement.
In the end, it seems like Dillard the teacher was brilliant, yes, but beautifully practical. This line from Dillard, quoted by Chee toward the end of the essay, banished my icky uncomfortable feeling:
I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.
Writing -- and getting published -- isn't a competition. There's room on the bookshelves for works of genius and works of...not-genius. Whether I'm writing the former or the latter, at least I'm writing - and that makes all the difference.