a little UBC bullshit

opinions, rules, and degrees of learning

My MFA taught me one thing over three years — that things should happen in a story proved nothing ever needs to happen at all.

“‘Things should happen in a story’ is a rule and rules exist to be ignored,” is the new coke of modern creative writing “pedagogy”.

More accurately, the knowledge that only events a character can’t easily overcome for whatever reason are meaningful to that character was definitely the collective opinion most writers shared until about the middle of last decade. After about the middle of last decade, any advice like “things should happen in a story” became just like, a rule, man.

And if it’s just like a rule, man, it means it is not necessary. Most of the authors in my MFA program couldn’t be convinced meaningful events needed to happen in their story.

I keep going back to my example of the child who has one last piece of paper and absolutely doesn’t want to ruin the card they want to make for their parent by making a hard crease down the wrong length of it first.

A scientifically-minded, curious young child might not need to be taught to pre-fold the paper so as to not make a hard crease to know for certain what shape the paper will make when folded down hard. They may give themselves a mnemonic to not forget it — fat like a hamburger, not skinny like a hot dog for the card shape with the most writing room — until they’ve created enough muscle memory to not even need to think as to which direction makes the optimal card for writing the most.

It’s how learning works. Problem –> potential solution attempted–> reliable solution found becomes ingrained –> no more problem.

But when that child becomes a parent and their child wants to show them how much they love them, telling the kid to “make a hamburger” will make no sense to them unless that child is A) taught by the parent what “make a hamburger” actually means B) has gone through the same learning experience as the parent or C) Is smart enough to figure out what “make a hamburger” means on their own.

Because D) The child then folds the perfect card each time, every time after just being given the in context instruction alone never needed to be told to make a hamburger in the first place.

The adult in this situation has — for as long as they remembered — have always had the contextual knowledge that makes “make a hamburger” make total sense. Their child has a 99.999% chance of not being the child in D).

“A story needs things to happen in it” is the “make a hamburger” for writing. It was a common opinion, once. Stories that allow meaningful conflict to challenge their character’s flaws in a way that challenges them to change their state in a meaningful way create works the reader will remember long after they’ve forgotten what, exactly at the plot level made them change.

Instead of teaching “nice prose” as the ultimate goal of writing, taking the ideal reader on a journey should be. I do not care if popular books are “poorly written”. If anything, it shows how unimportant being well-written is. People read for their enjoyment in their spare time and literary-shaming tends to fall down very gendered lines.

My MFA sold the lie that authors could not care about the reader’s experience in the slightest to want to make a single structural change to their first draft and it would still find an audience in a commercial genre.

You can teach one or the other. Teaching both is a fabricated lie sold to the learner.

The literary market is a commercial genre. The reader’s experience still matters. What should have been treated as the bare minimum of story — having nice prose — is taught as the only thing work needed to have to accomplish commercial success even in the speculative market. To even suggest otherwise is heretical.

“Just fold your cards any way you like” works if children are given infinite pages of paper and all the time in the world to not just find all the possible ways to fold a paper but to find the way that folds the best given the need for the card.

“Fold it any way you like, once, and then take any suggestion on how to improve its form and function as a card to show your mom how much you love them as a direct insult” is also an opinion people can have.

It’s just not a very good ideology to have in a card-folding class. So it seems odd to me to cater a program’s “pedagogy” to serve the learners who just wanted to fold the paper the way they knew how to before they paid for a ‘learn how to make better cards’ degree.