Learning techniques may not work for learners inside MFAs and out

My MFA is in talking about polishing techniques for stories that still mostly needed to figure out how conflict can be used internally and externally to create plot complications. I honestly thought the UBC just didn’t understand it wasn’t teaching anything.

Imagine my surprise when educational professionals honestly couldn’t tell the difference between a program that has set learning objectives and a program that was based purely on class participation. Looking back, the fact that 70% of the class mark came from the participation in it should have been a red flag.

We learned that if the author intended the first draft to be entirely made up of exposition, dialogue, and description, it ought to be. If the prose was nice, it was as good as a story as a rare work that showed a character attempting to change their fate in a work with thematic resonance that left the reader with a meaningful memory for having read it. Those two stories and those two writers were treated exactly the same.

Only one was written by someone who could use their craft to write a work with a character’s whose world felt lived in and whose choices mattered. The other was a story where the characters talked about their problems to other characters a lot.

It’s that first writer who can watch a Brandon Sanderson video about using setting to manipulate plot and character problems and think, “Okay. I see how that works.” They already knew how to create realistic settings in the most fantastical of places and they know how to manipulate character and plot. Figuring out how the two aspects can interplay is the only new thing learned.

The second writer, who can only record what the character sees, says and does, listens to the same video has one of two possibilities. If they’re lucky, they’ll nod along because of course, their writing does that already. When I read Writing the Breakout Novel, I genuinely thought I was doing everything Donald Maass talked about. Seven years later, I reread the book again and realized I didn’t know how to do any of it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a powerful one. If that first writer honestly believes they’re already writing setting and character choices well, listening to Sanderson will only confirm their confirmation bias no matter how far their writing is from the Sanderson Ideal prose.

If they’re unlucky, they’ll convince themselves “no one needs to do that.” And the learner will be right. Learners can’t fix holes they can’t see. This method teaches the writer who has not yet learned they need deliberate practice how to never see any problem they don’t understand.

If they break through all that dissonance and realize that craft is more important, they will have had to have deprogrammed themselves.

It’s the writers that still struggle with the character’s actions to do what the author wants instead of what just happens on the page that are harmed the most when they’re told there’s an ideal way to write anything. They didn’t know how to manipulate choices but now they know that the setting should have an impact on what they already couldn’t do. Instead of giving them something to help them thread the needle better, the technique made the hole smaller and the thread thicker.

At best, techniques confirm the confirmation bias in the writer who still needs to learn. They think they’re already doing whatever is being shared because all they can do is filter the new information through the limited knowledge base. Techniques are refined knowledge, not shortcuts. Without knowing *how* to deliberately manipulate the text, learning how to manipulate plot, character and setting in a way that builds something bigger is even more difficult.

When the writer’s confirmation bias is confirmed, they write with confidence and that confidence occasionally pays off. A writer who is afraid of doing something wrong may never be able to accidentally do it right again.

Between MFAs not even trying to teach learners how to climb mountains if they weren’t already near-professional mountain climbers themselves and professional writers only sharing how to get up the last 5% of the peak, we’ve lost the ability to teach writing to learners who still need to learn.

There is no good answer to the question, “how do I write _____?” The only question writers who still need to learn the fundamentals should be asking is “How would I write _______?”

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