When I first heard Ira Glass’s quote around seeing the difference between what a writer wants to produce and what they’re able with their current skillset described my own journey as a writer perfectly. The quote is twelve years old now and I don’t think it reflects the current state of how even writers with good taste learn.
The books I wrote in my Gap years were quick, fun and snappy. The more I wrote, the better I was at capturing not just what I saw happen but what I could make happen on purpose. I played with stakes until I could make matter whether the world was ending or if it was a relationship falling apart. Eventually, I learned how to do both of those things in the same story.
I’d learned from writers who didn’t think there are no rules didn’t mean no structural foundation of writing had to be learned. Today, modern creative writers, like Buffy’s vampires who all inevitably develop mad fighting skills, claw out of the dirt innately understanding not just how the foundational structures of fiction work, but they would use them in their fiction. If they chose to break the rules without ever having successfully learned how to follow them, they were just that good to begin with.
But the average writers who emerge somehow knowing the foundational structures well to never need to learn them are the writers that tend also tend to be the average MFA instructors. They can write just well enough to write beautiful prose and not well enough to live off the proceeds.
The wall is built with bricks all assuring learners that because Cannery Row didn’t have a lot of conflict, this Yet Another YA Dystopian Novel doesn’t need to have any aspect of that dystopian directly impacting the character’s life for more than a moment or two where it is easily settled in the next paragraph. She doesn’t even need to have a goal bigger than choosing which one of the two and she won’t need any character development to make it.
Ignore the fact that this YAYADN must compete with all the other YAYADNs in today’s YA Dystopian novel market, which is its own dystopia.
Each brick suggests that if great works can do X, no story needs X. The smartest thing a person can do is change their mind but how can a learner even contemplate they may be wrong when their peers and instructors compare their writing to great literature? If the writer intended to tell the reader what the character by having it brought up in a casual conversation, it is how it ever shall be.
Brick by brick, row by row, the Instructor Wall built up so high that even writers with good taste can’t see the difference between a story that shows characters mostly talking about great matters and a story that shows the great matters happening.
It’s to the point where writers with good taste can’t recognize that craft is important and MFAs teach that no Gap exists. The pedagogy is based on the only thing that matters is the writer’s first intention to any given idea.
If work is meant for a commercial market, the sag that a lack of conflict, tension or pacing creates without creating something even more interesting with structure but excluding the difficult parts. Artistic choice or creative missed opportunity, it will have a void that other stories intended for their market the slush pile won’t have. How the exceptional work broke the foundational structure is what provided the meaningful experience. The fact it was broken is not the exceptionality.
MFAs teach the reader’s experience must be sacrificed to author’s intention. It took years for me to learn that if I can’t wow the reader, I don’t. The slushpile only cares for the reader’s experience.