Workshop Prose

My in-flight companion during the past long weekend was a galley of a forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver. I’ll scribble more about that when the time comes, I’m sure (it’s out in November), but for now I’ll say that one of the many striking things about Carver’s life was how much traveling he did as he was launching his career—from college to college, program to program, anything that was going to allow him to stabilize his always-wrecked finances and give him a quiet space to write. The shame of his lost years is how much of his time was squandered on drinking instead of working; in Iowa City he and John Cheever timed their mornings to show up at the liquor store just as it opened in the morning.

Still, those programs were critical to him as a writer. Well before Gordon Lish allegedly “made” him, Carver worked hard under the tutelage of Grendel author John Gardner at Chico State University, where he learned the importance of revising, revising, and revising some more. Years later he’d put some of that advice into a letter to his daughter: “When something feels complex or complicated to you, write it out carefully and thoughtfully, several different times if necessary, until it flows smoothly and expresses exactly what you want it to communicate and nothing else.” Sounds like a no-brainer—you read it and wonder why we need writing classes at all, practically everything you need to know is in that one sentence. But for Carver that simple guidance was hard-earned. And of course, it’s advice that’s damn hard to execute.

Carver is of course now synonymous with “workshop prose”—once his reputation was made in the 80s, so many aspiring writers were seduced by the simplicity of his writing that they thought it was simply achieved, and they signed up with MFA programs en masse to achieve it. I suspect that much of this is covered in a recent book I haven’t read, Mark McGurl‘s The Program Era, but as a shorter defense of the workshop, I liked the comments by Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner. She’s teaching fiction for the first time, and talked to the National Post about it:

There’s this argument — I mean, you see it percolating up in the Amazon review comments — that, ‘Oh, this reads like workshop prose.’ But the idea of the workshop is not totally new. Flannery O’Connor took a workshop. Nabokov was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher. So at least in the United States there’s a real tradition of this. And most of what I’ve learned as a writer I learned after the workshop. But the workshop allowed me to place myself in a context of peers and try to assess with a colder eye wether or not I should keep going.

If “workshop prose” is showing up in Amazon review comments, it’s probably time to officially designate the term a tired cliche and move on.