Writers: Know Thyself in Excess

Why read MFA-trained writers writing about writers training in MFA programs?

If it is easy to mock the MFA writer, then it is easier still to mock the MFA writer who writes about a writer getting an MFA. How self-indulgent! How clichéd! How many more novels about young writers struggling to write must we suffer? In studies of this genre, critics of contemporary fiction often fixate on its definitive, and most frustrating, characteristic: “self-awareness.” They meditate on how slippery a concept it is, how strange it is to venerate it as a goal, how small a step toward true moral awakening.

All valid, perhaps. But critiques of self-awareness in novel form tend to portray the concept as merely a personality trait, a quality that characters (or even authors themselves) have either too much or not enough of. Yet, as the latest batch of self-aware fiction—in particular, Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk; or, The Real Poet; or, The Origin of the World (2019) and Andrew Martin’s Early Work (2018)—makes clear, self-awareness need not stop at the individual. Even with no shortage of figures vain, self-obsessed, or plainly insufferable, Ives’s and Martin’s novels exemplify how an author might deploy self-awareness to gain crucial insights into the very environments that cultivate self-aware tendencies, in writers fictional or real.

Ives’s and Martin’s project is an investigation into what we might call “institutional self-awareness.” In such efforts, authors put under the microscope an array of writer-characters and the principles of authorship and creative labor they navigate within specific contexts—and in the case of Ives and Martin, specifically academic contexts.

Seen through the lens of institutional self-awareness, the self-directed obsessions of Ives’s characters extend beyond those characters’ individual psyches. Through her varyingly self-aware figures, Ives offers a broader view onto the limited kinds of writing practices that the institution of the MFA rewards.1

Meanwhile, Martin’s self-aware characters take us one step further. In Martin’s usage, the self-aware writer demonstrates how MFA programs sculpt not only the writing but also the people within their orbit, regardless of whether they are MFA educated themselves. Early Work shows how such programs in fact program the innermost thoughts, fears, and even desires of self-identifying writers, both within and beyond the walls of institutions.

This is to say, for Ives and Martin, self-awareness shows nothing less than the forces that shape art and the lives of art’s creators.


“Loudermilk” and the Awareness of MFA Doctrine

Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk is a campus novel rife with immature hijinks, departmental politics, and literary subterfuge. Its major characters—students newly matriculated into “the Seminars,” a top-flight MFA program evocative of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—include a libertine,2 recently postcollegiate bro masquerading as a poet (the titular T. A. Loudermilk), his debilitatingly introverted ghostwriter (Harry Rego), and a fiction writer unable, after the death of her estranged father (himself a famously obscure poet), to write (Clare Elwil).

But where many a campus novel turns a critical eye on academia, Loudermilk appears uninterested in critique. Instead, Ives reveals the literary possibilities—both generative and destructive—that arise in the collisions between varying experiences of creative-writing values.

Ives’s characters are themselves test cases for the effects of self-awareness on the creative willingness and craft of students within the MFA program. What happens, Ives asks, when students of wildly different personalities and histories give themselves to a program that predicates creativity on productivity? And what happens to these students when they take to heart the famously self-conscious dictums of creative writing: “write what you know” and “find your voice”?3

In particular, Clare and Harry provide inverted images of what it means to take up or break from institutional directives to be self-aware. For Clare, the prospect of writing from what she knows after the loss of her father proves paralyzing—in no small part because she had embarked on the trip coinciding with his accidental death explicitly in pursuit of experiences from which to write, “lust[ing] delicately after new material.”

So, as Clare falls prey to the twin tortures of writer’s block and imposter syndrome, she also experiences creative anxieties made doubly reflexive by an internalized, and departmentally reinforced, understanding of the MFA student as incessantly productive.4Is it OK not to be working?” Clare obsesses, a thought made all the more distressing by her belief that, as a writer, “one must work to justify one’s being.”


Elif Batuman’s Apprenticeship

By Maggie Doherty

Similarly, as Loudermilk’s ghostwriter, Harry comes to understand his literary task in explicitly quantitative terms: “He needs to find out how people write a lot of poems, because he’s pretty sure that he and Loudermilk—or, rather, he—are/is going to have to write a lot of them.” But unlike Clare, whose initially uncritical adherence to writing what she knows brings only self-doubt, Harry is described as having few life experiences at all to draw from.

Absent institutional guidance, Harry develops an approach to verse in which the impersonal poet functions like a radio tower: catching, scrambling, and rebroadcasting the noise of the George W. Bush era, in which the novel is set. Ironically, this approach receives unequivocal celebration in the Seminars, though this praise is funneled through Loudermilk, who workshops Harry’s poem as his own.

In this way, Ives refashions institutional directives into literary conflicts. She tinkers with what might happen if a character were to hold too closely to a particular rule or to never have been capable of following it. And in so doing, she not only stages the self-awareness that MFA dictums command but also shows how the writers negotiating those dictums might find their writing energized or obstructed.

Ives’s investigation reaches its apex on the subject of “voice”: a quality of writing broadly understood as a matter of personal authenticity, something a writer must well up from inside themselves and nourish (in other words, “find”).5

For Clare and Harry alike, the imperative to foster one’s true, singular voice begins as an impediment. Because she may only express the experiences that she herself knows, Clare can neither engage nor fathom the engagement of her voice. Harry’s aversion to his own voice is both bodily and creative. Physically, his voice is awkward and grating—“a little in between and out of bounds of normal registers”—but in Harry’s self-aware conception, his voice “is not even his.” So repulsed is Harry by his own voice that he conceives of an entirely separate being who articulates his words, a presence who, as a poet, is “capable of acts of perception obviously beyond [Harry].”

For some writers self-awareness is a wellspring, while for others it is a morass.

Yet these conditions are far from final. For Clare, it is only by failing to write from experience and meditating in torturous self-consciousness on the limitations of the adage that she eventually discovers how to sidestep her obsession with productivity. “Clare can write,” she realizes, “as long as she does not do it”—that is, by betraying programmatic directives and writing, like Harry, in an imagined persona, and from a voice, that “sounds nothing like her.”

Meanwhile, Harry’s self-aware aversion to his voice resolves in an embrace of his own vocal characteristics. As a suspicious classmate eventually coaxes Harry into a poetry-recitation contest with Loudermilk at a departmental soiree, the audience quickly recognizes Harry’s voice as that of the celebrated poet. So, in a reversal of Clare’s epiphany, the voice that Harry had previously separated from himself he accepts as authentically his: a voice, in poetry as in person, “high and low both at once … [with a] superwavy tonal filling that makes you feel it really hard, right at the center of your body.”

From this perspective, Ives portrays self-aware characters not simply for narrative purposes but to instruct about broader questions of literature and institutions. Having spotlighted how the MFA reproduces self-awareness through literary values, Ives neither critiques nor lauds. Instead, she explores what a literary mandate for self-knowledge can mean for the experiences—and, ultimately, crafts—of different writers. And in taking the production of literature as material for storytelling (writing what she herself knows), Ives demonstrates the randomness of those very principles: how for some writers self-awareness is a wellspring, while for others it is a morass.


Desire Across Institutions in “Early Work”

Like Loudermilk, Andrew Martin’s Early Work presents a cast of self-aware writers defined by the writing they should be—but, crucially, are not—accomplishing. Yet where Ives highlights self-awareness as a quality deliberately cultivated by institutions, Martin explores the personal repercussions of such self-awareness for the writers who bear it. Martin shows how, even for writers unaffiliated with the MFA program, a fixation on institutions can warp their very self and relationships.

Martin asks: If self-awareness dictates not just a writer’s output but also their capacity for human connection, must one unlearn self-consciousness to become a better person?

Early Work centers around an infidelity between two stalled writers, Peter—a disillusioned English PhD candidate who has followed his poet partner, Julia, to Charlottesville, Virginia, for her studies as a medical student—and Leslie, a scriptwriter who has left Texas both to write and to rethink her impending marriage. The true aspirations of each lie in fiction. And while neither writes for much of the novel, Peter and Leslie’s common penchant for ironizing their own unproductivity and literary interests becomes the basis for their mutual attraction.

“I only read books without stories,” Peter quips in their first encounter. “Why not skip the words, too?” Leslie responds. “Move right along to the cold particularities of life.” In such instances, a clever self-consciousness gives Peter and Leslie a grammar for flirtation; in deprecating the time they waste on “nothing good” or on being “stoned and thinking about, like, the ideal character-defining gesture,” they make clear their intellectual and cultural compatibility.

Alongside these self-aware tendencies, the novel configures its partnerships through an awareness of institutional affiliation, with the initial pairing of Peter and Julia presenting a dichotomous picture. Although floundering in both research and fiction, Peter retains the closest ties to the university. While characteristically ironic in his treatment of professional training, Peter recognizes its necessity; he conceives of doctoral study as “like an MFA, but I’d actually learn something.”

Julia’s associations run opposite. Unaffiliated with academic letters, she separates writing from her medical studies for periodic “poetry fugue[s].” And while Peter’s “half-finished” submissions to literary journals are summarily rejected, Julia’s win acceptance at “good” venues.

Through these differences, Martin depicts Peter and Julia’s relationship in not just contrasting personalities but opposite creative frameworks. The consequence of this opposition is that Peter’s desire for yet another creative in Leslie cannot be understood merely as romantic or erotic. Instead, for Peter, to desire another writer is also to fantasize about writing from a different professional circumstance, or as a different writer altogether.

Seen in this light, Peter’s lust for Leslie maintains his aversion to institutions but relocates it into a relationship with a writer unlikely to threaten him with superior productivity. In Leslie, Peter can continue to live vicariously through the achievements of his partner—“It was … exactly what I would have written if I’d had any idea how,” he thinks on reading a past publication of hers—while also seeing his own frustrations reflected in her stagnation. She is, as Peter puts it, one of the “badass writers” that “this town needs more [of]” (i.e., not the typical MFA student, and therefore desirable), but not a writer who threatens to complete much of any writing. So, in Martin’s design, desire, infidelity, and partnership coalesce to demonstrate how for a writer such as Peter, ever conscious of institutions, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the logic of “creative writing” from the logic of life itself.

Yet, like Ives, Martin does not posit self-awareness as an obstacle writers must overcome. Instead, he reframes it as a perhaps inevitable phase of artistic—and personal—development. None of the novel’s characters transcends self-awareness; rather, they modulate their self-aware habits, learning to live with them in better ways.

After partnering anew with Leslie in Missoula, Montana—another flagship-university town boasting a top MFA program (which Martin himself attended)—Peter comes to accept that “his true calling [is] in PR” and not fiction. And while this realization does not ameliorate his habitual self-deprecation, it does appear to set his stalled life in motion.

Maintaining a literary trajectory, Leslie tempers self-awareness with an earnest, if cautious, self-seriousness. “It did seem possible lately,” the novel concludes,

that there was a chance she was what she’d long imagined herself to be: one of the chosen few to whom the task of chronicling the inner life had been given. There were hours—single hours, sometimes just minutes—when her thoughts moved down into her hands and transformed into something different on the screen in front of her, an eloquent translation of what had been in her head into something smarter, more substantial. She was chasing that now.

No less self-aware, Leslie reclaims her capacity for writing by attuning herself to her own creative promise. If she is to write, Leslie realizes, then she must—terrifying as it may be—regard herself as a person whose talents demand putting expression into words.

The novel does not, however, settle on a reductive portrait of Peter as a failed and Leslie as a successful writer. Rather, through their experiences Martin demonstrates how, in the lives of writers, the self-aware habits, ambitions, and desires predicated by the institution of literature are, however inevitable or irritating, also the stuff of personal growth.

It may well be that a writer’s self-awareness cannot be severed from institutional concerns (such as productivity and affiliation). Even so, the experience of self-awareness remains profoundly human—and even constructive—in art as in life.


Self-Awareness Beyond the Self

Difficult it may be to wrestle with self-awareness. When a character spends an entire novel contemplating their own self-presentation, genius, or intellectual and aesthetic commitments—as do not only the writer characters of Ives and Martin but also those of Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and others in the most recent wave of “autofiction”—readers could be forgiven for losing patience.

But in viewing self-awareness as a concept both personal and structural, Ives and Martin throw new light on our frustrations with the self-aware. In their works, we find that novels of self-awareness—and novels of self-aware writers in particular—provide grounds for teasing out the differences between productive self-awareness and stagnant self-centeredness, not only in literary figures but also in real people.

While the self-aware writer may still rank among the least appealing of contemporary fiction’s recurring characters, those patient (or masochistic) enough to sit with them can learn to discern the systemic origins of what resembles self-obsession, or how what presents as narcissism might in fact be a step toward maturity.

This is not to go so far as to propose self-awareness as either essential or desirable. Neither Ives nor Martin is in the business of moral instruction, and their characters are, fundamentally, instruments of narrative conflict. What both ultimately offer is a better question to ask of self-awareness in its cultural manifestations: Where does this quality come from, and where can it take us?

We should be aware enough to listen. icon

  1. The characterization of MFA programs as aesthetically, formally, stylistically, or otherwise limited is itself a source of much debate in recent scholarship on literary institutions. But regardless of the veracity of that characterization, the notion has grown so prevalent as to become a structuring concept for much fiction about MFA programs.
  2. Ives’s description, not mine, in the provocative afterword to her novel, which I have no intention of spoiling here.
  3. On the institutional history of these principles (as well as “show, don’t tell”) in US creative writing, see Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard University Press, 2011).
  4. Within the academic building that houses the Seminars hangs a prized painting of the program’s founder shaking hands with Henry Ford.
  5. This depiction of voice is endemic not only to creative writing; for much of the late 20th century, it was also central to the pedagogy of academic writing writ large, especially at the introductory level. Case in point, Peter Elbow’s landmark 1973 work of writing pedagogy, Writing Without Teachers: “Maybe you don’t like your voice. … But it’s the only voice you’ve got. It’s your only source of power … if you abandon it, you’ll likely never have a voice and never be heard.” Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 5-6.
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