This blog was originally posted on January 6, 2015.
This semester I’m teaching a graduate workshop called Forms of Prose. If you are a nonfiction writer, this suggests things like the lyric essay, narrative journalism, and the personal essay. If you’re a fiction writer, it probably suggests only short story vs novel. But I am teaching the class as an examination of any of the implied or stated rules imposed on a work of prose. Some might be arbitrary rules about rhythm, rhyme and repetition (as in much formal poetry), and others might be the unspoken rules of reader expectations. For example, we will look at how the workshop story bemoaned by the world at large (or just the anti-MFAers) might actually be a consequence of an abuse of form. That when form is poorly executed it becomes formula.
By way of example, let’s take the fad of six word stories and essays. I’m generally not a fan. Especially not of the possibly apocryphal Hemingway version: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” Supposedly Hemingway said this is all the story you need to tell. But I suspect one of my finest teaching moments may have been when I said to a totally-disturbed class: that story is only interesting if that baby has no feet.
Listen, I get it. It’s heartbreaking; that story can make me cry, because anything suggesting the mortality of babies can make me cry. But a reliance on abstract emotional manipulation is not the same thing as great storytelling. Which is not to say a six word story couldn’t be great. Because herein lies the difference between form and formula. Form forces a writer to rise above restrictions to reach originality; formula allows a writer to rely on restrictions to be relieved of the burden of originality. Formula works on some readers, of course (including me: hello, Sophie Kinsella, I love you), but it isn’t what anybody enters an MFA program aspiring to, so my class is going to set all kinds of rules, just to show how well writers can surprise readers when we follow them.