The Ploughshares Round-Down: Why Learning To Write Plot Matters

A few years ago, my cousin was just about to graduate from a small state school with an English degree. He told me he wanted to be a writer. I had never read any of his writing, so I was unbelievably discouraging. Try a job in the real world, I said, before you fill out all those MFA applications. Move to Pittsburgh, and work at a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it. A few months later, my mom told me he had finally gotten into some program, but it was only some small one in the Midwest…. Maybe Idaho?

“Can you find out if it’s Idaho or Iowa?” I asked. “It kinda makes a difference.”

Turns out it was Iowa.

dhulsddI was pretty excited for my cousin, because he’d always have that stamp of approval, and he was going to make good connections. But I didn’t tell my mother (or his) that I didn’t expect him to actually learn everything he needed to learn.

Hanif Kureishi also thinks writing teachers cover all the wrong things. The most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was a widely circulated article about him in The Guardian, which included the amazing quote: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”

In fact, I agreed with Kureishi so much it made me realize something about my slush pile. When I get something in from a writer, seeing he or she has an MFA can sometimes make me dread reading it. 

What’s Gone Down

Kureishi teaches in a creative writing program himself, which makes his criticisms both ironic and informative. He is reporting from deep within the mines where new writing is carved out and crushed. He made the statement above at a literature festival, and he was talking about plot, which doesn’t tend to be the focus of most creative writing classes. (To Kureishi, the most important thing to gain from graduate school is a single reader who can help you develop your storytelling over years of work.)

Some other writers quoted in the article disagreed with him vehemently. Jeanette Winterson took the exact opposite side, arguing that helping writers with prose is the whole point. “Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language.” Another novelist chose to read this not as about prose versus plot, but talented versus not. “I do think some people will never be writers,” Matt Haig said in defense of writing programs. The disagreement, as he apparently sees it, is nature versus nurture. Which can you teach, language or plot structure? Which skill do you have to be born with?

But perhaps the most common (and succinct) objection to Kureishi’s position came from a commenter in Reddit’s “writing” section, where the article also got a lot of attention: “Why don’t you watch the movies then? Reading is about the prose.”

Why I Dread Reading MFA Submissions

One interesting thing about all this blowback is that no one argued that creative writers are teaching plot structure to their students.  (Heads of MFA programs near me: I’m available.) I suspect the reason for this is that plot is looked down on as a lowly concern, or at least not as important as prose, character development, and so forth. It’s even seen as a genre fiction concern.

I have a different take. To oversimplify: genre readers want a familiar plot with unfamiliar details, while literary fiction readers want familiar details with an unfamiliar plot. In other words, literary fiction writers have to be so much better at plot structure than a genre writer because it has to feel fresh and the seams can’t show. I can understand why novice writers think their favorite writers don’t care about plot; it’s disguised so well, they think it isn’t there.

Like most agents, much of my slush pile is weak YA fiction by beginning writers who didn’t bother to research agents and agencies. My bread and butter is serious narrative nonfiction, and my agency takes on very few fiction clients. However, the stuff I get in from people with writing degrees, often with a few published short stories, is hard to dismiss so easily. It’s clear they have talent from the first page, but if they haven’t already been scooped up out of their program by top fiction agents, like first round draft picks in a sports league, I already know what the problem is.

I ask them to send me a two or three page plot summary, something they’ve probably never been asked to do before. I try to be helpful, and in lieu of saying no, I try to point them in the direction of thinking harder about structure and come back to me later. I can’t sell something, no matter how polished it is, if I put it down and nothing compels me to pick it back up.

Isn’t This Totally Subjective?

Of course it is! As another Reddit commenter wrote, “I often enjoy reading books purely for the way they’re written, and I believe some works do have prose that transcends plot.” Some of the best books I’ve never finished fall into that category, too: Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust…

It’s also true that not all writing teachers are created equal. Presumably Hanif Kureishi teaches plot to his students, and there are doubtless many other professors in many other programs who believe in its importance. For example, Andrew Ladd, my editor here at the Ploughshares blog, took several classes at Emerson in which the professors explicitly discussed plot.

But here we get to the things that aren’t subjective. Students enrolling in an MFA program plan to make a living as writers. Making a living as a writer requires a successful literary novel more than it requires an MFA. Nearly every successful literary novel of the past few decades has a strong plot. (The Marriage Plot even has the dreaded word right there in its title.)

Not teaching plot is like having boot camp for soldiers where you never shoot a gun. Sure, it’s really useful for the people who already know how to use weapons, but you’re sending everyone else to die.

So Why Cheer Someone Going to Iowa?

That’s easy—as we all know, Iowa is sui generis. Getting into Iowa is essentially winning a literary prize, and it’s something you can point to for the rest of your career.

But there are also reasons to cheer people getting into any MFA program. For a start, writing is a career, and going to an MFA program helps people get professionalized. They realize this is a thing to which you have to devote serious time and effort.

Just as important, every writer needs a community. You need readers and mentors. You need other writers who can explain not just the writing, but the parts that aren’t writing: agents, editors, advances, self-promotion, teaching jobs, fellowships, grants, book reviews, and so forth. You can get that without an MFA, but it’s much harder.

So if you went to an MFA program or are considering it, I don’t blame you. There are lots of great things you can learn at one. Just know that you might still learn more about writing a plot by listening to the DVD commentary on a Pixar movie.

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