FR: One of the unusual things about The Writers Studio is that there are different levels. Each one is very specific and students pass through these levels with a great deal of consideration and concern. Can you talk more about these stages?
PS: Yes. I’ve taught people in their 30s, 40s and 50s alongside people who were 18 and 19 years old, and I realized that although individuals developed differently at their own rates the one noticeable thing about teaching writing was that everyone passed through certain stages of development no matter what. Some people stayed in a stage five minutes while others stayed five years, but they all passed through the same ones. I came to realize that in the teaching of writing it is extremely important for these various stages to be addressed. The first stage, for instance, is realizing that everything one writes isn’t God-given and blessed, and that there’s a difference between keeping a diary and preparing one’s feelings and thoughts for other people to consider seriously. Then, there is the stage where one realizes that writing is a form of real communication where what one thinks is interesting and has to be made equally interesting to others. There is also the growing out of the great impatience of wanting to show everything immediately the way a child does, which comes from a need to receive praise for it. And so on.
FR: So, you turned these stages into different levels?
PS: Yes, in many classes elsewhere you have people with five years of writing experience sitting next to someone who started the day before; it’s inhibiting both ways. I realized that people in one stage shouldn’t be in the same class with people in an altogether different one. This grew into five completely different levels where different techniques are taught on each level. Each stage assumes a specific degree of technical sophistication on the student’s part. The way of teaching these techniques is the use of exercises designed to practice these skills.
FR: All the classes do exercises, from the introductory level to the advanced classes. Students work with these exercises based on the poetry and fiction read in the Craft Class. How did the importance of exercises come about?
PS: I found that in the beginning we would do what most workshops did and that was to respond to work the students brought in. This put us in an entirely reactive position, meaning our criticism was limited to the direction students chose to take. Often I found myself wishing I could say certain things about what students weren’t bringing in. I wanted to encourage them to focus on technical areas that they were avoiding. As a way of doing this, I began to give students assignments designed to help them work on particular areas. I found that these exercises helped their writing incredibly. So, we started to develop exercises to help students move through these recognizable stages of development.
FR: In all of the workshops there is an ongoing discussion of “agenda” in writing. Would you define agenda material for those who may not be familiar with that term.
PS: Most writers, especially young writers, want to write out of their own lives and, in fact, it’s usually said in the beginning: “write what you know.” Well, this doesn’t work for many people because they want to write in so purely an autobiographical fashion. By placing such rigid restrictions on their imaginations, they get stuck and aren’t free to experiment with form. Their writing becomes purely confessional and often lacks the freedom of play. I believed that exercises could be designed to take the focus away from oneself which, in turn, would free people from any unconscious agendas they might have. Often in the beginning, young writers are not even aware of these agendas, which include such things as personal motifs on getting even with someone or demonstrating how poorly one was treated in childhood, etc. Such agendas have little to do with successful writing because they inhibit the kind of pure play of imagination and language that excites good writing. I gave students exercises that specifically required them to engage in a point of view other than their own < the point of view of a persona narrator who doesn’t suffer their own limitations. The results were immediately wonderful. People were suddenly free of their autobiographical entanglements and surprising things would happen with language. Then students would go back to writing “I”, meaning “me,” becoming stuck in the same realm of confessional writing. Once I began to see these patterns over and over again, it became pretty clear to me that something needed to be done to give writers the freedom necessary to become inventive. Basically, I believe that most writers have a power source that they want to connect to and write out of but they so often have misgivings about going public with these strong feelings…
FR: With their material?
PS: Yes, with their material and with their strength and power. It’s almost a separate issue from writing < young writers see it as showing off, as bringing attention to some secret part of themselves. In any case, it makes people nervous and very anxious. It’s not that uncommon that some very retiring people are terrific writers: the Emily Dickinsons, the Eudora Weltys and Elizabeth Bishops, all wonderful writers who perhaps in their writing connected to something that was very hard to do in their lives. The techniques explored through exercises are designed to let students have a persona that’s often the opposite of who they feel they are < if they’re shy, their personas are aggressive, etc. When you look at so many good writers you see that “I’s” and “She’s” are purely manufactured presences, personas that the writer has created. To show a young writer that an “I” isn’t autobiographical and is an invention in itself allows them to invent even greater things.
FR: One of the interesting things about these exercises is that when writers give themselves this sense of play they become excited with the language and connect in a deeper way to the material they desperately want to deal with.
PS: Exactly, and not with the literal material or the literal biography. When I first started teaching writing, I also realized that students were often attempting to write like who they imagined certain established writers they admired were as people. They were mistaking a writer’s narrative persona for a personality, which can lead to trouble of course. One imitates a writer’s technique and use of persona, not what one imagines their real personalities are. In other words, young writers would imitate Hemingway’s attitude or personal persona in their own work, which is a good way of not really appreciating the wonderful invention of his style. I could give you so many examples < you wouldn’t believe how many poets want to write like James Wright without understanding that he too used a persona…
FR: It seems to me that what is happening in The Writers Studio is that people are finding the means to realize their own true voice, which is not necessarily what they thought it would be when they started to write. It’s every bit as powerful as anybody they ever attempted to imitate . . . because it’s their voice. Speaking about exercises, I wanted to ask you something. In the course of any 10- week session in the Craft Class, we cover a wide variety of writers. We might do Elizabeth Bishop, or Kafka or Barry Hannah and Lorrie Moore, writers whose techniques are so different because the writers themselves are different. If a student is doing all the exercises in the 10-week session… how is it that in doing them one after another, they’re finding their own voices?
PS: For one thing, they’re practicing, the way pianists practice, the way every other kind of artist practices in order to master his or her techniques. A young writer who only writes with publication in mind doesn’t allow him or herself the pressure-free time to experiment with various techniques. Doing exercises takes the pressure off, allows students to be less painfully self-conscious, and gives them the time necessary to master various technical skills. It’s just too much to think you have to write a great story or poem every time you sit down to write. So, instead, students work hard, get better and better through all this practice, and then, almost magically, the exercises turn into stories and poems, naturally. This development comes about when students are truly ready both technically and emotionally to write stories and poems. When people start doing that they’re ready to go off on their own. However, right from the start we encourage students to use the techniques they’re learning on other things they’re working on, which they occasionally bring into class.
FR: I remember something that was helpful to me, the time you said something to the effect of “Frazier, no one is interested in your family,” when I was trying to deal with agenda, with confrontational family material. At the time, I didn’t understand you meant that as long as I had a persona in place and we were talking about the persona’s family and not mine then everything was gold. But that took a long time to realize.
PS: I meant of course that no one is as interested in your family as you are. You must develop the skill to make them interesting to others.
FR: I wonder, Phil, if you could tell me about the history of The Writers Studio, how you came to start and when?
PS: It grew out of a private class that I was asked to teach back in the fall of 1977. The class was a mix of poets and fiction writers. In 1988, I left NYU, where I’d taught for ten years, to start The Writers Studio full time, and have been so extraordinarily lucky with the people that I’ve had the chance to work with that the whole school developed quickly, almost of its own energy.
FR: What were you doing specifically in these workshops that you couldn’t do in an academic setting?
PS: Well, to begin with I wanted to hold onto the kind of creative energy that occurred when poets and fiction writers were combined in the same workshop. I also wanted to continue the ideas I had begun to develop about the process young writers need to go through in order to be able to produce strong, connected writing. An important aspect to this process meant being able to work with students over a long period of time, rather than just for a semester or two.
FR: Thank you.