2023 Contest: Interview with Fiction Judge Michael Martone
Interview by Samantha Bolf
Samantha Bolf: You often play with the role of authorship in your writing, and your work is frequently described as “metafictional.” Do you agree with that claim? What does “metafiction” mean to you?
Michael Martone: Stories (and fictions) can be about many things, but one thing stories (and fictions) are always about are stories (and fictions). Let’s say that is true, that stories (and fictions) are always, at least a little, about storytelling (and fiction making), then the scale scaling those stories (and fictions) as meta might be more sliding and slippery than hard and fast. I would admit I am (the glass half full) more a metafictionist than not, but I am resisting and/or ruminating upon the binary—the either or of one being a fictionist or a metafictionist. A smidge, a tad, a pinch, a drop, a pinch, a dash, all the spoons, a cup, a quart. I’ll land on a quart (more or less) sized metafictionist.
I have to tell you too that I resist urges (in myself) to categorize and sort. That is to say, I resist being a critic when I am making art. The job of the critic is to categorize, sort, define, norm. All well and good, but that’s not a task I care much about when I am making stories (or fictions). Yes, I understand the irony here. I am tasked to do that now that I am judging for BWR. Let me ignore that for a smidge and bring up another binary that is foiling your question.
This other binary has to do with the two big style conventions of storytelling (and fiction writing). The first, the one that is often thought of as the “Traditional Story” strives for transparency and regards as a mistake anything that reminds the reader that the reader is reading (such as my just writing “reminds the reader the reader is reading,” a no-no). The strategy is to induce in the reader states of waking dreams, and anything in the text that reminds the reader that one is dealing with an artifice “knocks” one out of the dream. The Metafictional Story (we can call it the “Experimental Story” for now) by definition is up to constantly reminding the reader that one is reading. A long running argument ensues having to do with which of these strategies is better, more efficient, at creating the emotional catharsis both styles are eager to deliver. Again, the fight between the two doesn’t interest me that much. I can see and understand and attempt both styles in the stories and fictions I make. But I really don’t think of myself as a Metafictionist or an Experimental Writer. Call me a Formalist. What interests me are all forms of writing and how certain forms fit into that other famous binary “Fiction” and/or “Nonfiction.”
SB: Along those same lines, your books tend to contain elements of the autobiographical, even when veering into the fantastical or downright impossible. How impermeable is the division between fiction and reality, in your opinion? How might writers (of any age, skill level, or genre) negotiate this boundary?
MM: And here we are at the Fiction/Nonfiction conundrum. Again I would point out that for me all these borders and boundaries of genre and form are very permeable. As I suggested above, it is not up to me (the writer, the artist) to patrol, maintain, secure those categories. If anything, it always seemed my job was to create interesting confusions, to point out the porousness of the boundaries.
Long ago I worked in a bookstore called Readers’ World. Maxine Hong Kingston’s book, The Woman Warrior had just come out. The only hint (without reading it) where this book should be shelved was the label “Literature” the publisher but on the cover. The bookstore didn’t have at the time a “Literature” section. We had a “Fiction” and many different fictional genre sections—“SciFi,” “Romance,” “Detective,” “Western.” And we had a whole mess of Nonfiction shelves, from “How-To” to “Travel” to “History” to “Biography” to “Science” to “True Crime.” We even had a new section labeled “Women’s Studies.” Where to place The Woman Warrior? Well, it didn’t seem to fit in any category really. We moved it around the store, but ended up placing a few copies in multiple sections.
Don’t get me wrong. We need categories especially in the marketing kind of way, in order to see order. A label can make something visible. This is especially important in the grocery store. Eggs and dairy here, canned goods there, frozen, produce over here. Yesterday though I was looking for vegan feta, and found it finally not with the cheeses but with the vegetables. We would like to think that books are more stable as to their place than they are and that the authors of books and stories are framing their work with goodwill, but today we are living in an age of “Fake News,” hoaxes, conspiracy theories, propagandas, advertisements, reality television, etc. Perhaps, we always were living with this anxious anxiety.
But is it the writer’s job to be the holder of the lines of truth or fiction? Poets are a lot more comfortable with the permeable nature of the line between fact and fiction. In the bookstore there was a “Poetry” section but not a section on “Fictional Poetry” or “Nonfictional Poetry.” Are poems fictions? Facts? Prose writers worry this much more than poets.
Often when one studies other languages there is a verb that translates as “to do” or “to make.” “Fact” and “Fiction” derive from such a word. A fact is a thing done. A fiction is a thing made. Once a fact happens it no longer is real. A fiction is a made thing. Once it is made it is real, it exists in a way a fact doesn’t. A written “nonfiction” once it is written, published is, in fact, a fiction by definition, a made thing. A fact, after it is done, leaves a residue of evidence that can be faked, manipulated, distorted, remembered falsely. We have lived with this uncertainty for forever. When you make things (of any age, skill level, genre) you are playing this game where the fictions are real and the facts are not.
SB: You’ve always been a strong advocate for flash fiction. How do you see this format further evolving in the context of the digital age, particularly as the genre continues to increase in popularity?
MM: Not sure I am an advocate for the form, but I have written many pieces that present as short (number of words) prose (not lineated) texts. What I like about the genre is that it still isn’t quite a genre. This connects to the previous questions, again attempting to pin things down, to order and sort. I started writing over 40 years ago, and in that time there have been several blooms of the forms when writers who might have been writing poetry or short stories or novels began writing these strange uncategorizable little fragments. Prose Poem? Proem? Micro Fiction? Short Short Story? Sudden Fiction? Hint Fiction?
There have been anthologies of these things, each advocating their own label. We do (sadly perhaps) seem to be settling on “Flash Fiction” as the official term. The question itself connects the “Flash Fiction” to “genre.”
It always seemed to me that those blooms of the form appeared when the critical take on fiction and poetry seemed settled. One of the blooms took place as writers moved into the university and created creative writing programs. The university is an ancient, scientific, empirical, sorting machine and even at its most creative still demands hierarchy, departments, programs, grades, etc. It’s in the DNA of the institution. So the new programs divided (and pretty much still continue to be divided) into Poets and Fiction Writers (Nonfiction writers came later), the first slice into the bigger category of “Creative Writing.” Back to that first bloom. I always thought it was a kind of work-around or protest or tease of this new environment American writers now found themselves in. An environment that insists upon control and order over the creative confusion. “Oh my goodness, we thought we hired a poet and now she isn’t writing fiction, per se, with this prose about ears, but it sure isn’t poetry…” The fact that there were and are still so many names for the form I think is a good sign. They were, still are these curious creatures, prose platypuses. Note: an idea for a new anthology called Platapuses!
I love that there are still not many critical studies of the form. What arguments there are can mainly be found in introductions to anthologies testing out a new name.
As to its digital evolution. These fragments, these spalls, the shavings and splinters and slivers have leapt out of the university laboratory and are creating, bit by bit, the various endless infinite feeds online. It is as if we are creating a new kind of archeology where we use ruins to create more ruins, mosaics, middens, wastelands of The Wasteland.
SB: Conversely, how do you see the role of long-form fiction evolving?
MM: One reason given for the rise of short forms, stand alone flash fictions is that readers now have short attention spans or have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming information, the relentless feed. Brevity is all. Maybe. But maybe also the evolution of the long form depends upon the pointillism of these short brief bits. Collage was the art form of the 20th Century. And the cut and paste of collage might also be the foundation for the art of the 21st Century. It seems that way to me. I have never written a novel or a long memoir and yet I have written several books, long form fictions that are collages of small fictions.
I don’t think of myself as a writer of something sustained but as an arranger of minute iterations that keep on expanding like the universe. The Death of the Author argument suggests that we should think of writing and reading as a collaborative act between the writer and reader. Collage, then, is an ideal form for such a collaboration. The white spaces between small text crots illustrate the synaptic leaps the reader is invited to make.
At the same time, the category of the writer has expanded to include (with the invention of the computer, a powerful typesetting and publishing machine) relatively easy expansion of the text. With a touch of a button I can change fonts. I can add a picture. The writer is no longer simply the manufacturer of the text that others then make into a book. The writer’s new abilities encroach upon typography, design, publishing, and even marketing. Writers right now are asked to open accounts on all the platforms in order to advertise their writing. We create videos and hype reels. I am suggesting that the long form is not just the increase of the number of words produced but the expansion of all kinds of information feeds and flows. The book is not just the book but also a collage of various media like a caddis fly larva’s carapace. Perhaps the author is dead and maybe the writer is too. In the future we won’t be authors or writers but maybe media artists, textual performers.
That being said we must still marvel at the piece of hi-tech that the book is and ask ourselves what is it that the book can do that other narrative delivery devices like the movie, the radio (podcast), the video, the play, the AA meeting can’t. One thing writing is adept at doing is going long. At the same time flash fiction emerged, writers like Louise Erdrich were writing long books that then interlock with other big books to collage together another Faulknerian world. The Expanse or Game of Thrones might be made into multiple TV seasons series but those stories barely begin to scratch the surface of what the books can deliver in one super-compressed package.
SB: Your collection Michael Martone utilizes contributor’s notes as a form of storytelling. What inspired you to explore such an unexpected & unique format?
MM: Another shortcoming of creative writing being centered in the university and in the workshop format is that it only considers the work on the table, perfecting the poem or story while neglecting or ignoring the consideration of the frame of the piece. The New Critical reading of the work and the defined space of the classroom and university setting allowed or encouraged the readers of the work to ignore or even forget that the work was being read in a classroom, in a school. That is to say, the same piece of writing would be read differently when framed differently. We worry so much about perfecting this poem or story in this strange context as if it existed in this ideal state free of the frame.
I became interested in reframing work. This is also akin to exploring the porousness of genre boundaries. Art is framed deviant behavior. If I murder someone on the street, it is murder. If I murder someone in a play performed in a theater, it is murder and also not murder. If I eat human flesh and drink human blood on a weekday, I am depraved. But if I do it on Sunday in a church, I am communing with God.
I wanted to think about how my writing was framed, how it was staged. I started writing fictional travel essays about touring Indiana—the joke being no one tours Indiana, not even people of Indiana tour Indiana. I considered this “literary” work. If I published these fictions in literary journals they would “count” as research for my university position as a professor. But instead of publishing the pieces in places such as Black Warrior Review, Field, Iowa Review, or even Indiana Review, I sought to publish them in small town newspapers and city magazines in Indiana as actual things to do. And I did. I published them in newspapers and city magazines where they were read and enjoyed (I hoped) by a whole different audience in what I imagined was a different way than the readers of literary journals.
I collected the pieces together into a book, The Blue Guide to Indiana, and published that, hoping the book could “pass” into the bookstore not as a work of fiction it was, but as an actual travel guide and be shelved in the travel guide section. This was also playing with notions of fictions and nonfictions of course.
When finishing up The Blue Guide to Indiana, I had to provide the publisher with a contributor’s note, and I proceeded, without thinking, to compose the standard contributor’s note. “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana….” (Isn’t it interesting that we switch, when asked to write a contributor’s note, into the third person, how its form is predictable and stable?) So I thought, in for a penny in for a pound, and began to play with the framing and staging of the part of the book that is the bio note, the contributor’s note, the about the author note.
In these notes is a construction of self. They are mini-memoirs, brief lives, autobiographies. Over the previous years, I had written so many contributor’s notes written in this very conventional way. The form just seemed ripe for exploring.
After I moved on from The Blue Guide to Indiana and published in magazines and journals other fictions and essays, editors would ask for a contributor’s note, and I would now send in these new kinds of notes. After a while I began sending out these contributor’s notes as stories or essays, five or six “Contributor’s Notes” at a time, to be considered by an editor as stories or of essays. If the editor did “take” one I would then ask that it be printed in the Contributors’ Notes section of the magazine (a frame), not in the front of the book (another kind of frame). And most times the editor did.
SB: You have written both fiction and non-fiction extensively. How do these different genres feed into each other in your work? Does your writing process differ between the two genres? Do you find one more challenging, rewarding, or dynamic than the other?
MM: The questions about the generic differences of fiction and nonfiction are interesting, and I have loved worrying those differences and using them aesthetically to create new things.
What was the effect of originally publishing Robinson Crusoe and The Journal of the Plague Year as nonfictions? A formative book for me was The Counterfeiters by Hugh Kenner. His thesis? When Western Culture moved from a Platonic worldview to an Empirical one, artists began to generate a plethora of fakes, counterfeits, satires, and parodies. Empiricism creates the paradox. We know the world through our senses, not native Platonic ideals, and yet our senses can be fooled so easily. Fact or fiction, real or irreal, and even good or bad art produces, for me, vital complicated spaces were art resides.
Did Jonathan Swift call for cannibalism? “This Is Just to Say” is either the most anthologized American poem of the 20th Century or a note pinned to an icebox door. Or both. I love the first chapter of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five that is a fictive essay. I love The Museum of Jurassic Technology and the book about it (it’s a real museum or maybe it isn’t in LA), Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. Abbot Thayer, the first person to write about disruptive camouflage, was also famous for painting realistic portraits of angels.
Thinking in terms of “fiction” and “nonfiction” always excites my interest in these philosophical and perceptual issues. Not that I want to solve them but I do wish to explore and sustain them in fruitful and fascinating ways.
My writing process differs more when it comes to writing, not in fictional or nonfictional ways but in narrative or lyrical manners. I think I do find narrative more challenging, especially dramatic narrative. I am better with melodrama. It is difficult convincing myself to construct the neatness a story demands. A beginning, middle, and end! A ground situation, an initiating incident, rising action, and the climax! And I don’t do characters well at all, especially deep Freudian characters, and I suspect that the unconscious might be the greatest fictional creation ever. It always seems more like building a closed environment terrarium instead of a truly entropic planet. I understand the power of the story, of story telling. I love reading stories. I laugh and cry. I identify with the character. I have epiphanies and the experience is cathartic, but it is more difficult for me to create those effects and less interesting to me to work at creating them.
SB: Can you share a few standout moments from your time at the University of Alabama? How has teaching influenced your own writing?
MM: There were so many, but I will focus on the moments that were community events.
Writing is the only art form that is produced and consumed in private. Tuscaloosa becomes then a kind of synthetic Paris in the 20s or Lower East Side of the 50s. It was a delight to see and be part of these grand collaborations.
The writers who ventured to Alabama often had never been here before, knew the place in vague stereotypical ways, yet here they’d build something together. It was something to see and also to be part of.
Black Warrior Review once held an annual auction fundraiser that was a highpoint of the social calendar. The visiting reading series provided monthly opportunities to gather as well. There were the working groups of those teaching in prisons or working on the magazine. There was a radio show. People started new magazines, took classes in the book arts and started publishing each other.
I only ever had one book I assigned to every workshop and forms class I taught. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde addressed an underlying anxiety we all have as writers and artists. What is and what do we do with our “gift” of being artists, poets and writers, and how does that gift of making art interact with the making of money? How do we live in these two economies—the gift and the market?
The book has a lot to say about a lot, but for this question it is enough to mention how the act of writing, of making art animates one’s gift. How the work must not be sold but given away, given away freely. That is what Hyde means when he says art is “erotic” property. It must remain in motion—not hoarded or stored or rationed. The gift is given to you and you give it away, and in doing so it flows through and binds a community. Your stories, your poems are not yours but your reader’s, and the readers here beside you in the community are inspired by what has been given to them. They read and receive the gift and that gift sparks their own gift that then must be given away.
There were so many occasions where I witnessed the formation of gift communities here, the moment when usually retiring and alienated individual artists and writers opened up, gave away everything, and connected profoundly and completely with the community of writers they had traveled so far to find and found that it was their own creation.
Again, I am aware of the irony here. Me going on about gift communities while I am at the nexus, as a judge of this contest, of commerce and art, the crossroads of the market economy and the gift one. But you asked. The creations of gift communities were the standout moments of my time at the University of Alabama. And, for what it is worth, the fee I was to have been paid to judge the contest I have given back to the magazine. I am doing this for the love not the money.
SB: Do you think that the field of creative writing has changed since you first became involved with Black Warrior Review and the University of Alabama? What trends or shifts in literature do you find the most exciting (or, conversely, what trends or shifts do you find excruciatingly boring)?
MM: It is interesting that you use the term “field,” linking it to “creative writing.” Forty years ago when I entered a creative writing program, creative writing was barely a “field.” There were maybe 10-15 programs. Not all of them offering an MFA degree. I only have an MA received after one year of study at Johns Hopkins. I graduated in 1980, and four or five years later the number of degree granting programs had quadrupled. This expansion allowed me to get my first tenure-track job having published only one story as universities and colleges established “the field” of creative writing. The “field” or “discipline” of creative writing was normalized quickly, displacing the previous model of the Writer-in-Residence with now a writer who professed or taught. Writers and poets had been like an exhibition students would observe writing and study. They weren’t practitioners. They weren’t expected to write originally so much. It was more like a drawing class with the writer-in-residence being both the model and the artist, a rare animal at a very specialized zoo.
But creative writing got organized rather quickly and created, bizarrely, methods and practices the university demanded. Genre scarcity and norming for one and the truly inaccurate idea that there are levels of writing—beginning, intermediate, advanced, graduate, undergraduate. The workshop model also demanded that certain kinds of fictions should be studied and reproduced. Narrative Realism was the favored form because its conventions had been well documented and celebrated by Orwell and Strunk & White, and John Gardner’s how-to texts provided content, rules and manners, and models of composition that could be taught. This narrow focus held sway through the first dozen years of the creative writing expansion as students who were taught by the first generation then found jobs at new programs as they came online all using the stories that were popular at the time—the dirty realists and a short story “renaissance” promoted by Knopf and Vintage (Raymond Carver, Anne Beatty, Fredrick Barthelme, Mary Robison etc., all backed up with a good doses of Chekhov).
At the same time the writer, being new to the genteel university, suffered growing pains when it came to the construction of authorship. The prevalent model was that the author was a Romantic Modernist Outsider—“the antennae of the race,” “the unacknowledged legislator of the world”—but also white, male, straight, working–class and probably drunk. You can imagine the cognitive dissentience in play as writers attempted to fit themselves into these institutions of “higher” learning. The “outsiders” now, the revolutionary artists and avant-garde creators and visionaries were no longer on any edge but in the center of things with the power to write great recommendation letters and having a great benefits package.
As I mentioned elsewhere, the computer more than continental theorists deconstructed the old ideal of the author, the writer, literature, and identity. There isn’t just one way to be a writer. And young writers growing up with a computer connected to the internet who had accepted the strange idea that one went to university to be a writer didn’t want to be writing narrative realism, not after steeping their reading with Octavia Butler and Kelly Link, comics, McSweeney’s magazine, video games, anime, etc., etc. The center could not hold.
The university is all about promoting specialized knowledge; one becomes expert in the field. It is crucial then for the field to be focused, defined. Its boundaries patrolled and controlled. Creative Writing was always uneasy thinking of itself as a discipline, a field of knowledge. The poets and writers themselves were uneasy. As I said curiosity does not mix well with the critical, the generalist with the specialist. Creative writers went from being the subject of study to being the studier, and creative writing became a subject you studied instead of a generative art you practiced and created.
You asked about trends. I would like to ask you about why you have come to Alabama to “study” creative writing. I suspect you haven’t come here to prepare for a job in creative writing. The expansion has ceased. New jobs are few and far between. I always told the writers who were thinking about coming to Tuscaloosa that I could promise them “a protected space to write and make art and time to figure out what you wanted to do with your gift.” For a while I could make such an offer—a livable stipend, a community of writers—but I am not sure that is true anymore as the pact with the institution shifts more and more. The university tends now to see writers as students only and as students who can be paid cheaply to teach other students composition instead of creative writing. My sense is that the experiment of creative writing in the university is waning if not already over as the university becomes more corporate and tuition and grant driven.
My son is in the family business. A fiction writer, he took an MFA from Arizona State, but he never expected to get a tenure track job like mine. He works for a tech company as a technical writer and continues to write his stories and novels. I think he did think of his time “studying” creative writing at Knox College and ASU as protected time and space and not as a path to a profession as a professor. He left the university and returned to the kind of work (work with writing and language) that supports his art very much on the model of what writers did before the sudden phenomena of the MFA program appeared.
You asked about trends in literature I find exciting or boring. First, I will say I am excited by the sheer mass and quantity of what is out there now. The possibilities, the invention, the range! But you knew I would resist the invitation to judge, yes? What’s good? What’s boring? I am limited, I know. I can’t read everything. But my selection process is more capricious, accidental, associative. Being in a university for forty years, I did develop an aversion to sorting and judging that way.
Sorry to have gone on so much about creative writing and the university. But that was the luck of my draw. And I have lived with the strangeness of this phenomenon when creative writing moved into ancient critical space of universities.
SB: You have a gift for weaving the mundane into your work in compelling and surprising ways. Why do you think that it is important to prioritize, or even privilege, the role of ordinary moments & details in one’s writing? What can aspiring writers do to better capture the quotidian side of life in their own work?
I do think it is important to make the stone stony again, to make the familiar unfamiliar, to defamiliarize, to ungloss the glossing. Nothing new in this making new. I inherited this filter of unfiltering from the Russian Formalists, from Victor Shklovsky who famously wrote in 1917:
“Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony. The end of art is to give a sensation of the object seen, not as recognized. The technique of art is to make things ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms obscure, so as to increase the difficulty and the duration of perception. The act of perception in art is an end in itself and must be prolonged. In art, it is our experience of the process of construction that counts, not the finished product.”
Perhaps my interest in such a project derives from the accident of my birth and growing up in Fort Wayne and the vast flatness of the American Middle West. It is a peculiar gift to be given, a place and experience that is, well, so very middling. Yes, I grew up and started reading and writing in the middle of the Big Middle. One gets used to it, gets used to getting used to. But I did feel this strangeness too, to be both central and peripheral at the same time. Indiana and the Midwest are the avatars of average, boredom on steroids, but that in fact might be very special. So what lemons are to be made out of this lemonade?
I was lucky being a Hoosier that the universal phenomenon the Russians identified of familiarization was concentrated in my state and subject matter.
I tease aspiring writers, not fortunate to be from Indiana, with the notion of the stony stone. Writing, making art is about getting “stoned.” We know that if we say “I know this (or that) like the back of my hand” it is a cliché. And we know that clichés are not wanted because they are already a gloss, a blur, a smear of seeing. The phrase doesn’t work to help us see how we see. “I know this (or that) like the back of my hand” doesn’t work because, in truth, you don’t know the back of your hand, you’ve taken the back of your hand for granted. And here is another cliché, though perhaps a more instructive one: Someone so stoned who for hours is taken by the strangeness of their hand, the drug allowing them to see it for the first time. Being “stoned” allows the stoned to see the stone as stony. We seek that sensation of sensation through art as well as chemistry. The chemistry of art! Of course we need the biological and psychological filters in everyday life (everyday life!) to smooth out, edit, filter the sheer massive volume of incoming stimuli in order to function. Writing is a method to glimpse that strange strangeness and see the way we see. And like the previous discussion of genre bending and hybridization, defamiliarization is up to the same task in the disordering and confusion of category that opens up sidelong possibilities and stone-cold wonder.
SB: Black Warrior Review is known for promoting innovative and boundary-pushing fiction. As a judge for our contest, what key qualities will you look for in the submissions? What are some elements of a story that make you feel excited or challenged as a reader?
MM: This has been a strange interview for me. I mean you are asking me questions, doing the interview because I am judging this year’s contest, and many of your questions too are in a form that asks me to make a judgment. And my answers, I think, keep worrying the whole notion of being a judge, being critical when what I am and I want to be is creative. Still, I am in a situation where I have to decide.
“To decide” derives from “to cut,” “to strike” as from a list. I think I am by nature more a horizontal thinker than a vertical one, more curious than critical. “To favor” is lodged in “to resemble.” The qualities that our key, I guess, are not constant for me. I don’t write reviews, or criticism. I am a blurber though. I love the blurb as a form. I should write a book of blurbs.
But, yes, I am a judge for the here and now, so the one thing I would suggest is that the writers who submit to my judging don’t try to figure out what I favor and write to what they might glean in my answer here. I have my own obsessions for sure, my own favorites, but I am not looking for a piece of work that shares what it thinks are my interests.
Here is a secret. During my 40 years of teaching, I did have to act as a judge each year. No, I didn’t grade papers or performances. Everyone got an “A.”I did have to decide out of 400 applicants, which dozen would be admitted. The secret is that I didn’t use the writing sample so much to guide my choice but instead counted on the Statement of Purpose to help in choosing. There, I looked for enthusiasm, a voice, an honesty, a vision. Essays like the SOPs are interesting to me because of their bold and bald attempts in figuring out purpose, intent. Give yourself a prompt that you can respond to with vim and vigor. Ask yourself an interesting question, create an interesting puzzle to solve. I’ll try to make a judgment. Or I could take all the stories to the top of the stair and throw them down with the one going the furthest the winner. Now if that last sentence makes you hesitate, you probably shouldn’t be in the contest. You should be in the contest because you just wrote a story you love that surprised you and you don’t really give a hoot about what I think about it.
SB: You’ve been a mentor to countless writers over the course of your career. Could you share a piece of advice that you often find yourself giving to new writers—something that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out?
MM: Countless? You are kind, I think, to think so. Definitely a finite number. What I learned is that the workshop (the traditional Iowa model) had a fatal flaw that focused only on the thing on the table. It is designed to privilege quality and seeks to perfect one piece of writing at a time. Over time, I tried to change the workshop’s focus, emphasizing quantity instead and encouraging the construction of the life a writer to be lived over a lifetime and not just a semester, or time in the program.
I’ve mentioned the strangeness of creative writing being in the university, how it is antithetical to the creative by emphasizing the critical. The traditional workshop is designed to have the creative writer act as a critic most of the time. Over time, I realized I should no longer teach or give advice about writing and a writer’s work. I began to try to make the classroom a collaborative space where all the writers in the room were working to help each other write the work each writer wanted to write. I was attempting to turn off the critical part of the mind as much as possible. This is difficult in everyday circumstances, but made worse if you are trying to create while embedded in the structure of the university and classroom. So, no advice for me, from me. Not what I think you should do but what is it you would like to do and how can I help you do it.
I’ve told this story many times of how I have changed. In my first class, in 1980 at Iowa State, a writer brought in a fan fiction about Star Trek. I remember saying, “Well, this is very interesting, but have you read Chekhov?” I was already ready to norm the writing into a very narrow idea of what was good writing. By 2020, I believe my (and many of my colleagues’) approach to creative writing at the university relaxed, became more fluid and responsive to the individual writer writing and not to the fixed idea of genre or what is good or publishable.
Okay, I will pass on one bit of advice. It was always amazing to me that writers who had been writing for a long time before coming to the university, who spent time and effort and money to apply to an MFA program when accepted found, often for the first time in their lives, how difficult it was to write. They had now made it. They were on the way to being a real writer (they thought). They couldn’t waste their time now playing or trying things or seeing things. They had to get down to business and write, by the program’s own definition, “a publishable book.” and they stopped writing. So the advice I gave, cribbed from William Stafford: “Lower your standards.” So that’s my advice—Lower your standards.
The university asked me to put on my syllabus my expected outcomes for my classes. My expected outcome for the writers in my classes was this: I expected that in 20 years they would still be writing—it didn’t matter to me if it was good writing or publishable writing. Just be writing.
Any advice I can give that will help anyone to keep writing, I’ll give it.