By: Marcus Brighton
In the fall of 1997, I was working as an editor for The New York Times Magazine when my friend and colleague Michael Kinsley asked me to read his new book.
His title: “The Unfinished Revolution: How Teddy Roosevelt’s Legacy Remains Elusive.” We met at his apartment on East 75th Street in Manhattan; he had just returned from spending some time with friends in northern Minnesota. He was dressed casually—flannel shirt, jeans, cowboy boots—and we began talking about books.
It turned out that one of his favorite writers is John Updike, whom he has known since they were students together at Harvard. But even though they are both graduates of Smith College, where many years ago they played football against each other, their friendship is not based on shared alma mater or mutual interests in sports.
They have something else in common: Both men love history. And what does this mean? Well, it means that they see themselves as historians first and foremost, who happen also to be writers. What can you do if you want to write well but don’t know how to begin? That’s the question that Michael posed for me. “How did you learn?” he wanted to know.
So I told him about writing workshops here and there over the past ten years. Then I said, “I’ve never taken any classes.” For two reasons: First, because I didn’t think I needed them. Second, because I knew that most people thought learning to write took place only after someone taught you how to do it.
When I started teaching myself to play guitar, I learned by reading music magazines and listening to records. When I decided to become a writer, I figured I would do the same thing. I’d figure things out as I went along. This worked fine until recently, when I realized that such a self-teaching approach isn’t very efficient. You’re always going to find yourself having to backtrack, reexamine your assumptions, rethink all sorts of questions—like why should I bother trying to understand anything before actually doing it? Why am I wasting so much effort on thinking up ideas instead of getting down to work? If I’m serious about becoming a better writer, shouldn’t I take more than half a year off between college graduation and starting graduate school?
Shouldn’t I make sure that I really am ready to dive into the deep end before putting on those swimming trunks?
These thoughts led me to wonder whether anyone could teach me how to write without making mistakes along the way. Could I get help without being forced to follow rules and procedures? Was there a teacher somewhere around who might guide me through the process of creating stories?
I remembered hearing about a program called Writers’ Workshop offered by New School University that promised to provide instruction in creative writing. I contacted the university to inquire about its program and found that the deadline for applications had passed months earlier.
There wasn’t another workshop like it anywhere. So I wrote to David Rieff, the director of the Program in Humanities and Social Science Writing at Columbia University Teachers College, asking if he knew of any programs available elsewhere. After receiving my letter, Rieff put me in touch with James Wood, then vice president for academic affairs at Queens College. Wood happened to know of a similar program run by the City University of New York Graduate Center, which offers MFA degrees in fiction, poetry, criticism, nonfiction studies, screenwriting, journalism, and theater arts.
Since neither Queens nor CUNY offer undergraduate courses in literature, however, I had to look outside these institutions to find a mentor willing to advise me. I made inquiries among professors whose names appeared frequently in _New Yorker_ articles and reviews. One name kept popping up again and again: Jill McCleary. She teaches English Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she specializes in nineteenth century American literature.
A native of Baltimore, Maryland, McCleary is best known for her book _The Middle Ground: Romanticism and the Politics of Popular Culture_. Her latest publication was an article titled ” ‘What Is Left?’ The Future of Criticism.” It dealt with some of the issues raised by the recent debate over literary theory. At first glance, McCleary’s essay seemed to be written from the point of view of one of the combatants; but upon closer examination, one discovers that this perspective is only apparent.
In fact, most of what she says applies just as well to writers who are sympathetic toward or opposed to postmodernist theories. For example, McCleary argues against theorists who claim that modernists were wrong because they failed to recognize that their own works contained ideological structures and content. We can see this argument played out in various ways today.
Literary critics have been divided since early 1990s over the question of whether Joyce’s Ulysses represents a celebration of male sexual power and domination or a critique of patriarchal society. Some scholars argue that the novel contains hidden layers of meaning meant to expose the workings of patriarchy. Others say that while certain themes may reflect gender dynamics within Irish culture during the late 19th century, the text itself does not present a subversive message.
Even though both sides agree that the characters in Joyce’s novel use language to express themselves, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing by using words in different contexts.