There’s definitely something to be said for encouragement. It might be that half of what MFA students are seeking is just a pat on the back, the thumbs up signal for something bigger than they’ve ever conceived of writing.
I recently experienced a little push in the right direction from my nonfiction professor. He teaches both of the writing workshops I am taking this semester, and he’s quite good, both in terms of conveying concrete details on how to actually construct a good piece of nonfiction and in encouraging students who have reached a certain plateau in their writing. This is not to say that he doesn’t encourage other students. One thing I like about him is that he provides encouragement and positive feedback where it is deserved, but manages to convey what’s not working about a piece of writing in a constructive but honest manner. And he’s not afraid to push writers further, both when they need to get to the next level and when they’ve arrived — that is, they’ve written a great piece that doesn’t generate much criticism. It’s this that I, and probably a lot of other students are looking for.
I watched this happen in my workshop yesterday. A guy in my class had turned in a very well-written, well-argued political essay. He’s young, perhaps only a year or two out of undergrad, and by his own admission, getting an MFA to avoid having to join the real world. He comes off as a bit of a slacker when you meet him, both in dress and mannerisms. But he turns in this essay, which frankly, from what I knew of him, really surprised me. The writing was mature, focused and had style and humor. It was excellent. And my professor, after we’d discussed the merits and criticisms of the piece, told the student that the writing was at a high enough level that he should consider writing a book-length piece of the same kind of material. Something along the lines of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The student is kind of quiet and thoughtful in class, but I could see that this encouragement was something he hadn’t gotten before. He looked grateful and overwhelmed, which is what happens when someone tells you that you should write a book.
It’s strange, how much of a difference there is between a friend saying over dinner, “Oh that would make a great novel, you should write that!” and your professor saying that you have the ability, motivation and creativity to write a full-length work. The difference between can write a book and should write a book.
It seems like this is what MFA students are paying for, searching for, working towards. It happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. I wrote a 20-page piece about living and teaching in Korea, and my professor (and classmates) decided I could turn the piece into a longer work. They even laid out some of the chapters for me. Of course, when I think about it, this is what I wanted all along, to write a book like this. But it’s almost as if I needed permission. Even after reading numerous memoirs and travel books about young people living abroad, it never occurred to me to write one of my own. Until now.