Dani Shapiro
December 3, 2008

On Generosity

I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s hard for writers to be genuinely supportive of each other. I’ve seen this up close, myself, and I’ve seen it in graduate schools where I’ve taught creative writing to MFA students. The mistaken idea: that we’re all in competition. That what’s good for one writer necessarily takes something away from another. That there’s a small pot of gold (well, maybe copper) at the end of the rainbow and if one writer gets some of it–and this can be defined by prizes, literary acclaim, a publishing contract, or even just damned good work–that means there’s less for everybody else.

Well, bullshit. Over the last decade, MFA programs have become less creative environments–more about the elusive destination than the journey. Every student is looking over his or her shoulder at the competition. A couple of years ago, a thesis student of mine explained a little bit about this to me. “We all know that there’s a very small window,” she said.

Window? What window? I looked out the window of my home office at the meadow below. It seemed large enough.

“The writers who are teaching us–they’ll forget about us after the semester is over unless we make an impression on them right now,” she went on. “This is our only chance for our teachers to help us get agents and publishers.”

I was dismayed by this, even as it helped make sense of the hostility I had been sensing in the classroom. Students exchanging meaningful glances. Students not giving of themselves when it came to critiquing. I pointed to a pile on my office floor. It was a towering, teetering pile of manuscripts, galleys, books.

“See that manuscript on the bottom there? That’s from a former Columbia student of mine from, oh, ten years ago. The next one up? A galley from a former NYU student whose first book is coming out–I’m blurbing it. The manuscript after that? The fifth draft of a novel by a New School student who asked me to read it. The one on top of that? From someone I met at Bread Loaf.”

The thesis student looked at me skeptically. This was not what she had been led to believe. I told her that once someone was my student, they remained my student no matter how many years had passed–and I knew that my colleagues felt the same way. The act of teaching writing is one I have come to think of as sacred. It involves trust and commitment, and even though of course writers struggle with the balance–with doing our own work and giving energy to the work of others–this is a responsibility we take seriously. Honestly, I was appalled that students felt this way. And on a practical level, the effect of this kind of thinking was to constrict the work itself. Who can do good work when worrying about agents and publishers? Let me tell you, I know what it feels like to fall into this trap myself. I’ll be sitting at my desk and working on a story, and next thing I know, I’ll be imagining that story in The New Yorker font. This is the moment I stop writing well. Or I find myself thinking about a writer I dislike whose career is going well, or a writer I like whose career is going poorly–and I’ll compare. How am I doing? Where do I fall in the scheme of things? When I’m doing this, I’m lost. Completely, utterly lost. The work dries up, becomes a self-conscious attempt to please a marketplace rather than to find its purest and best form.

It seems a tremendous shame to spend the valuable time and considerable money on an MFA, or in a good workshop of any kind, worrying, comparing, envying, competing. The best workshops are like a fine orchestra, perfectly in tune, each writer’s melodic line supporting the next and the next. I’ve had the good fortune of teaching several of those workshops, and let me tell you: the work produced reflects the difference.