Marilynne Robinson shamed my workshop for not knowing the difference between “each other” and “one another,” and I’m careful about that now. Ethan Canin has strong ideas about point of view, like how if you’re in a character narrative what that character notices and dwells on remains consistent. No writing rule holds true all the time, though. Workshop is really a way to accelerate your understanding of the tools available to you. Left to my own devices, I probably never would have put the mechanics of point of view into such clear terms. Another example is something Junot Diaz talked about when he visited Iowa: point of telling. I think he might have invented the term, but it’s the idea of from where in time relative to the action the narration is coming from. With present tense, the narration is right on top of the action, but with past tense, the narration could be coming from almost immediately after the action or many years after. That’s a technical decision I try to make now.
Really, though, the value of writing courses is having time to write, a responsibility to write, and the opportunity to hear the opinions of lots of talent people who care about writing and to read their work, too, and see what works and what doesn’t. The opinion pieces that pop up on the internet all the time about how MFA programs are Soylent Green-style manufacturing plants that homogenize writing seem really dated and alarmist and silly to me. If you want to write, why wouldn’t you try to become more educated about writing. That said, I would never encourage someone to go into debt for an MFA. […]