Getting to the “Click”: Teaching the MFA at Bennington

October 12, 2021   •   By Sven Birkerts

TEACHING WRITING, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction. But with all the fussing about craft — anyone who teaches has a personal punch-list — we almost never hear about or get close to the real business, the meld. Maybe because each teacher is different and each interaction draws on a unique set of human variables.


Let me start at the beginning. Bennington MFA: the residency


Day one. The residency begins: greetings all around, the hors d’oeuvres and the better wine laid out in the big cafeteria space. Reminders have been posted and emailed that the first workshop starts tomorrow at one o’clock in the Barn. But really, the whole business has begun already. Because, of course, the student-teacher assignments have been made, and the first workshop packets have been sent to everyone, and it’s a good bet that everyone has read everything in order to suss out the field. Most students have surely Googled their instructor.


The atmosphere in the big cafeteria is at once convivial and tense. Faculty mostly stand with their colleagues, and the students, new and returning, are gathered in small clusters, everyone doing some version of the swiveling lighthouse maneuver. One student bends close to another to say something, then both look over. Are they mine? I don’t know yet. There are student and faculty photos on the bulletin board next to the mail room, but I haven’t checked there yet. That will come soon enough. I have read over the five workshop submissions and have some sense of what I’m in for.


One or two of my students will drift over during this “social” to introduce themselves, and I’ll profess myself delighted, for at some level I am — the thrill of this first inkling of fates entwining. The faces are new now, but I know from experience that in six months’ time — after the 10-day residency and the five “packet” exchanges — I will know them quite well. I don’t yet try too hard to line up the names with what I remember of their prose.


I teach the nonfiction workshop. The first class meeting — five students waiting around a table when I walk in — is revealing in so many ways. Of me to them, of them to me, and, since we are a group, of us to each other. We exchange greetings and then go around the table, with everyone filling in their basic background. Where they are from, what they are working on, what they hope for, what they most feel they need to work on. At this point, I’ve read through each of their submissions with some care and I’m starting to line up the prose with the person, making the most preliminary private notes to myself. Sometimes it’s clear as can be what will need to happen, other times there’s not enough to work with yet. Reading their work, I am screening for basic writing ability — language command — and now in the room I’m looking for clues about how deep and personal their investment might be, whether they appear pleased with what they will be showing, how volatile or resistant they might be …


I should say here that, almost without exception, over my 20 years of workshopping nonfiction, pretty much everyone has been working on some kind of personal narrative. They are here to get their story told, but also to get it out into the world.


After we’ve gone around the room, I take a few minutes to introduce myself. I tell them I’ve been a book reviewer, a topical essayist, a writer of memoir. Not much more. And I don’t make any promises. Privately, I believe that some things about writing can be taught but that there’s much that can’t, though a teacher might, by getting into close consultation, help with the psychologizing of a piece — help the writer to discover what prompted the writing and where she wants it to go. That, I believe, is really the most of it — so much follows when that is clear. I remind them that we will meet twice over the 10-day residency, and that we will confer closely in packet exchanges, in which I will line-edit their work closely and respond with substantial commentary.


I taught undergraduate writing at several schools for a number of years, and the experience could not have been more different. Undergraduate writers are in for the credit — most of them — and they heed advice only insofar as they think it will earn them a better grade. They are tractable, but only to a point — because deep down most of them don’t care deeply about the actual literary quality of the result.


MFA writers, by contrast, are after something, they are invested. They are also usually older. In many cases, writing was something they dreamed about when younger but then back-burnered when work and family claimed them. They are returning, looking to make good that dream, and willing to accept serious instruction. Unlike undergraduate writers, they have stories, angles on things, and they are, to a one, devoted.


They are also readers. And reading is a big part of the pedagogy. Before leaving the residency, each student presents a reading list for the coming months, with the understanding that they will “annotate” two titles a month. An annotation is a close commentary, ideally focusing on the aspects of the book that have some bearing on the student’s own work in progress. I always consult on the list, and based on my assessment of their project as well as what I see could benefit their project, I usually suggest several titles. The writer who tends to generalize might be prescribed a dose of Nabokov, the overwriter a bit of Beckett, and so on.


¤


The workshop sessions begin. After the introductory meeting, on the first full workshop day, there are two pieces on the table — meaning that over five workshop sessions the writer will get to go twice. When workshops are team-taught — two instructors — the 10 students only go once, but they get the benefit of comments from two instructors and nine peers.


Each writer gets an hour in the workshop. The others in the room will have read and written comments on the piece in question. I usually begin by asking the writer to pick a passage and read for a minute or two. “To put the sound of it into the air,” I say. How a writer voices her work says a good deal, underscores the emphases and inflections in the prose. Also — and this is key — the chosen selection is nearly always what the writer believes is the most effective and well written.


The reading of the excerpt is followed by the group discussion, which it is my job to choreograph, curbing what I feel are misguided responses, pressing the responder to say more when I feel they’ve touched on a promising point. I hold back my own opinion, except to offer the most general thoughts. I say what I can that might be useful to all, reflecting on the uses of suspense or the importance of strong transitions. I save my more specific offerings — and questions — for the private conference, which I consider the real heart of the pedagogy.


Group discussions are necessary insofar as they give the writer a sense of what others feel has, or hasn’t, worked. Consensus matters, though always with the proverbial grain of salt. In my view, the discussions are minimally useful on the craft front, just as often pulling the writer away from what she should be doing and amplifying easy effects. But there’s no easy way in workshop to tell someone that their well-intentioned response is wrong. Everyone is entitled, etc. But there is also no way that everyone can be right.


Right, wrong. The autocrat now speaks. Workshops may appear to be egalitarian, but at heart the pedagogy is a bit authoritarian. It’s harder to voice this sentiment than it used to be, but it needs saying. You came to this program because you want to write, to shape a meaningful work, to learn the most effective strategies of presentation. I was hired to teach in this program because I was deemed to have the writerly skills needed to impart that instruction. When the person to your left says the opening is brilliant and I give reasons why it’s not, I am right. At least according to the rules of the game we’ve agreed to play.


¤


So much for the more public part of what we’re about. Now I need to move in closer. The student has presented in workshop a section of memoir. The writing is direct but lacking specifics in important places. The voice is even. The narrated events follow in sequence. The presentation makes it clear that something important is at stake, but that something is not yet coming through. Workshop response is solid, with compliments on the pace and the use of dialogue. One student remarks that it needs more tension and on the other side of the table another student nods. I hold back but say that some good points were made — which is usually true. I thank the student and then ask if she has any response to what she’s heard. She says she agrees about the tension but isn’t sure how to bring more into the piece. The minute hand has reached the top of the clock. “You and I will talk,” I say, and we set up a conference time.


¤


I’ve been thinking about this student a good deal before we meet for our conference. I’ve read the work twice; I’ve decorated the margins with my coded comments: closer, say more, trim here, that sort of thing. Based on all the evidence I have — including workshop participation and the student’s perceived affect, as well as the words on the page — I try to figure out how I will approach her in conversation. Knowing, of course, that my first take is provisional and that things will shift and shift again once we start talking.


I gear up for what will be something like a therapy session as much as a writing conference. To be clear, I’m not implying that anything is psychologically amiss, just that I follow the basic idea of the so-called “talking cure,” except that what together we will try to cure is whatever ails the work at present.


In this case, the piece in question, like so many pieces, involves family members. The incident described has the narrator disobeying her mother’s instruction about having nothing further to do with a boy in her class. The narrator disobeys — she likes the boy — then the mother finds out. Mother and daughter argue, things get heated, and from something her mother lets drop, from the way she says it, the daughter understands that she has been holding something back. The mother, realizing what she has said, quickly changes the subject, and instead of punishing her daughter says, in effect, “just be careful, please.”


Lots of possibilities, I think, but though written clearly, with some animated exchanges, the piece still lies flat. It lacks urgency, the sense of necessity that puts the edge on subjects like this. Before I meet with the student, I strategize. By which I mean, I apply the “if it were me, my story…” proposition. Alas, I can only go so far — I don’t know the two characters or the nature of their relationship well enough. But I know a few things right away. If it were my narrative, I would not tell it in order. And I would not have things end on such an easy conciliatory note — the mother/daughter dynamics obviously go deeper. When we meet, I will not necessarily bring these thoughts forward, but they will inevitably guide some of my questioning. I want the student to take my nudging and then get to the ideas herself.


That’s what a conference is, in essence, a therapy session that doubles as a Socratic dialogue. At least in the way I teach.


Teaching nonfiction, and especially working with memoir, offers a different challenge than what teachers working with fiction face. With standard-issue fiction — by which I don’t here mean autofiction — there is the assumption that the work does not mirror, or even necessarily reflect, the writer’s experience, even though it often does. The teacher conducts the conversation about the piece in isolation.


There is no such bracketing-off with personal writing, where it is presumed that the narrative voice is the writer’s or — following Phillip Lopate’s distinction — the writer’s “persona.” Working with the writer of memoir, it is difficult to avoid focusing on the connection between words and the real experience that underlies the presentation. With a student like A., who is writing about herself and her mother, finding the most effective way of presenting the material means finding out what the material is.


In conference, looking at a specific essay, I always preface my inquiries by making it clear that it’s up to the student to decide how much to tell. Though I do believe that the stronger the reticence, the less likely it is that the writer will find the real heat. It’s not necessary to put the hard truths directly on the page, but the writer needs to face them squarely herself.


I move in slowly: “There’s some good stuff here — the interaction between mother and daughter, the way you show who knows or thinks what about the other, the sense that there’s much more behind the mother’s reaction. What do you think is the payoff? Do you think you’ve pretty much gotten it?


I listen closely. “So, you don’t think you’re quite there yet. What’s the feeling you want to leave the reader with?


I agree, it’s good material. And it’s true, I did sense that it wasn’t always easy for you to portray your mother and your interactions with her — back then, anyway. But you’re remembering this now. Have your relations changed? Do you think it might be possible to turn what you have here — basically a line — and make it more of a circle? Is there some way to bring past and present together?


Questions, questions … And of course, A. is doing her best to answer. I see her asking herself about how things have changed. I don’t push on it. I might turn to a scene at this point, the interchange that leads to the mother’s revelation. As we talk, I’m watching her think. That’s presumptuous, I know, but I’m not sure how else to put it. I note that part of her attends to our conversation, but another part is elsewhere. And then I see it — that not-so-subtle change of focus that is the equivalent of a click. She is getting an idea, maybe she has it already.


“You’re right,” she says, a bit more animated now. “Things have changed a lot. In fact, I talked to her last week and we had a good talk. And I realized it was good because we aren’t working around that stuff anymore.”


“So, did you meet in the middle? Or…?”


There is no actual A., but there have been hundreds of conversations that followed this basic flight path, and which led to a makeover, a deepening of the piece. Almost every solution had to do with breaking the original linearity of the telling and finding a shape that can bring the reader to what the writer most wants him to get.


¤


My teaching has mainly been about getting the writer to the “click,” and then heeding where they go next. One of the joys of teaching for me is to get the rewritten version back and see right away that the writer has entered her material. Finding the structure is entering the material. The structure is the material. The structure represents how the event or situation unfolded inwardly for the narrator. There is no way to teach that, really. The realization arrives via epiphany, and my role is to set up the conditions in which that can happen.


All writing teachers have their own ways, and those ways are surely connected to, or derived from, their own writing experience — what they found that works for them, and how they found it. My approach to teaching has everything to do with how I think about my own work, but not in a way I can easily pin down. I can say that so much of the process has to do with waiting. Not right at first, but after some things have been decided. After all, waiting has to be waiting for something. If bringing the writer to the “click” is what teaching others is about, then knowing what to do with it is what writing is about. The click comes when you look at the what and realize the how.


¤


As the residency ends, the correspondence portion of the semester begins. Every 30 days, the student mails me or emails me a packet containing some new work, mostly first drafts of things outlined in our second conference, and one or two annotations of the books on the list. These, as I noted, are not book reviews but rather specific discussions either exploring some aspect of that author’s craft (use of tenses, narrative shaping, opening strategy) or theme, reflections that might resonate with what the student is writing about. I also ask for a substantial letter reflecting on the work done, difficulties or revelations, plans for the next month’s packet. Basically, all of it is grist for my response letter.


For my part, I read the packet several times, once casually, just to get the flavor, then more closely, with an eye to points I will want to make. And then again, with pen in hand, zeroing in on places already flagged. Finally, I write the letter — for me the second most important part of our collaboration. I don’t write until I feel I’ve internalized the submitted work, annotating craft-based things in the margin (“streamline,” “more suspense here”…), and then laying out what I feel is the gestalt — how the voice and form are serving the piece, where more context is needed, where description is wanted … In the letters, I try to find the right balance between needed critique and praise where it’s deserved. I ask questions and offer thoughts about what might come next. Over the five packets I develop an ever-closer sense of the ambition of the writer, always steering — mostly lightly — but, where needed most, also goading.


After the fifth packet, we are done — except for what we call an “exit meeting” at the beginning of the next residency. That’s more casual. We reconnect, talk over the big picture. I sum up what I saw as the semester’s progress, I ask what’s next. All the time I’m remembering when we first sat together and talked about the work. When we part, when they thank me, and we hug or shake hands, I am always moved. We went through something unique together. Our exchanges, teacher and student, invariably got us over and above our stated roles. It was largely inward. I found my way to the writer and her subject, and she — at least this is the idea — felt read, which is to say heard. That could be said to be the real instruction: the point of it all, the definition of writing and reading.


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This is what I miss now. I stepped away from teaching a few years ago. It was, as the wise ones say, time. But one thing remains, a kind of negative space. Not the classroom, not the workshop table and the conversations, which were very often enlivening, but sitting with one writer and a specific work-in-progress, inching toward the mind-meld that feels so real when it happens, and that then translates to the page and sticks.


My MFA students are all out in the world now, some writing and publishing, some gone to other endeavors. I forget a good deal — don’t we all — but with most I preserve a memory of that work-in-progress, and our sitting together with it between us.


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Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University. He taught in the Bennington Writing Seminars for 20 years. His most recent book is a reflection on Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory in Ig’s “bookmarked” series.