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The Wag Chats with
Elizabeth Ayres

Elizabeth Ayres discusses the drawbacks of MFA programs and tells us why everyone is capable of being a writer.

WAG: In your new book, Writing the Wave, you call yourself a personal trainer for writers and suggest that Writing the Wave should itself be considered a workshop. How closely is the book modeled on the teaching methods you use at the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing?

Ayres: The only way to get Writing the Wave more like the workshop would be for me and a bunch of little people to pop up from the page! Seriously: the book is the workshop. That's why it has that special "Stop 'n' Go" format: the numbered footsteps and hands that say "Don't go on until you finish Step Whatever" imitate the piecemeal instructions I give in the classroom. They give me a chance to put explanations where they naturally occur—in between the stops and starts, as the person is actually working. Which is also why we've included write-in-the-book exercises: to reproduce the immediacy of the classroom environment. And the Concept Pictures: that's me, standing in front of your personal blackboard.

WAG: Could you describe how the Center began and how you came to design its teaching system?

Ayres: The Center began because I saw a need that wasn't being ministered to. I saw that there were all these people running around with great ideas inside their heads and a burning desire to write, to express themselves creatively through the written word. Yet, when they'd sign up for the traditional creative writing class—you know, where you bring in your work and everybody sits around and tells you what's wrong with it? All those great ideas would wither away, burned to a crisp by the Critique Dragon. And all that potential would get repressed, and the world would remain the same old place it always was. I wanted to change that—to unleash all that creative potential—an earthquake—a tidal wave, if you will. The Center's teaching system is an organic outgrowth of the special needs of what I call the "intimidated fledgling" writer. They think they don't know how to write. I say "think" because actually they do know how to write, they just don't know that they know. So what I do is, I break the writing process down into tiny steps, each one so simple that someone will say, "Well, maybe I can't write, but I can do that!" And through these tiny little steps I lead people here, then here, then here, and pretty soon, without even knowing it, they've produced a surprisingly deep and joyously creative piece of writing. Along the way they've learned a basic principle of the creative writing process—a principle which gets concretized as a technique, a tool, something they can hang onto, take home with them, then repeat over and over whenever they're facing the blank page.

WAG: What is it about your teaching method that makes it better than the standard experience to be gotten from a good MFA program?

Ayres: I love this question because I get to get up on my soapbox now!

Let's take that word "good." What is a "good MFA program"? Good enough for what? That word worries me, because it's a value judgment, and it implies a standard, an agenda. You're okay if you match my criteria for "good" or "successful," but you're not okay if you don't. The problem is, creativity is not amenable to those kinds of judgments and standards. True creativity has got to be free, has got to set its own agenda. True creativity comes from a deep source within the individual soul. It's delicate, spontaneous, experimental, difficult to categorize. I guess this is what makes my teaching method different: I have no agenda except to midwife whatever's there in the person's psyche, soul, unconscious, whatever. I tell people to stop worrying about categories, genres, forms, all that. Instead of criticizing what comes out because it doesn't meet some unspecified condition for perfection, I praise what comes out because it is a perfect expression for that person at that time. I mean, how does a little kid learn to walk? What parent in their right mind would criticize the crawling because it's not walking? Would they criticize those hesitant first steps because they're not as graceful as a ballet? The traditional MFA program is designed to produce replicas of the current writer-in-residence. Those who succeed in becoming what the famous writer wants, they get the praise, they get the degree, they get the publications and the jobs, they get the chance to turn out another generation of replicas, this time twice removed from the source. And pretty soon you've got people saying things like, "You can't tell a story in first person" (sorry, Marcel). Or, "You can't tell a story in third person" (sorry, Leo). Nonsense! At my Center, you get to tell a story any way you want!

WAG says, "If Oscar Wilde were alive today he'd be reading us." Can you imagine Oscar sitting still for "the standard experience to be gotten from a good MFA program"? I don't think so. He wouldn't last past the first workshop. Then he'd sign up for a class at my Center and say—like all my other students—"At last. I can be the real me!"

MFA programs are about politics, product and sales. The Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing (www.creativewritintcenter.com) is about creativity and artistic process. I leave it to your readers to make their choice.

WAG: What is the hardest thing to teach a beginning writer?

Ayres: Beginning writers have a very hard time accepting the fact that the books they read—the final products they see—don't flow forth from the writer's pen just like that the first time around. It seems to take them a long time to realize that it's okay for the first draft to be terrible, awful. I've found an image to be very helpful in this regard. Most people have heard this little story: someone says to Michaelangelo, "Heh, Mike, was it easy to make the Pieta?" And Michaelangelo says, "Yeah, it was, I just took a block of marble and carved away everything that wasn't the Pieta." But the thing is, Michaelangelo had it easy. He could go to the quarry and order a ton of marble and have it shipped back to his studio. We writers can't do that. First, we have to make the marble before we can even begin chipping away to find our Pieta.

WAG: What is the hardest thing to teach an established writer?

Ayres: The hardest thing to teach an established writer is that they, too, are beginners. Zen mind, beginner's mind, all that. If an established writer is seeking help, he or she is stuck. Which means they've got to let go of something, and that's hard. We'll always tend to cling to what worked before. Even when it's not working.

WAG: Is everyone capable of becoming a good writer, given proper training and discipline?

Ayres: There's that word "good" again! Good enough for what? Good enough to get published? But surely there's a lot of lousy writing getting published. Good enough to get a Pulitzer? Good enough to be read six hundred years from now? Everyone is capable of using the written word to express themselves. Authentic self expression (and I'm talking authentic here, not some show-off-y drivel produced by the ego to prove itself better than everyone else) guarantees its own success, brings with it an automatic writer-reader bond. As I'm always telling my students, "When you write from the place where you are most yourself, you write from the place where you are one with everyone else." And what is "good" writing except the magic that happens between a writer and a reader on the page? So yes, everyone is capable of allowing (notice I didn't say "making") that magic to happen.

WAG: Many writers lament the difficulties of making a living as a writer today. Writing short stories sometimes seems like a cross between an ennobling hobby and a stepping stone to making (real) money through novel-writing. Is this a fair assessment of the fiction market today? And if so, what do you think will happen to the short story as a viable medium of expression?

Ayres: It's hard to make a living as a writer today because a huge wall has been put up between the writer and his / her audience. Most writers seem content to hide behind that wall. What I mean is, we live in a materialistic culture that doesn't value the gifts of soul, of spirit, that the writer possesses. And writers, being very sensitive people, fight rejection with rejection: if you don't want my gift, the hell with you, you're a stupid ignoramus anyhow. So writers tend to write for other writers, and the people who desperately need the true writers' gifts are forced to content themselves with the schlock that the publishers think the people want because the publishers are American and materialistic and want to make a lot of money.

I've been very influenced by the shamanic model. In tribal societies, the person who knew how to enter into the realm of spirit and bring back to the people what he or she found there was supported by the community because the community knew it needed the healer's gifts. I believe that, as writers recognize themselves as healers first and "Writers" second—when they start taking responsibility for the fact that their gift is not for themselves but for their community, for the people—as this happens, the community will begin to wake up to the fact that it needs what the writers can show them and they will give fair exchange for it. Money. Support. I think America is waking up to the fact that she needs to find her collective soul if she is to grow and thrive in the 21st century. Americans are accustomed to paying for what they want. They'll pay for soul. If you need proof of that, take a look at the billions of dollars now being spent in the "New Age" and "Spiritual" markets.

So I say, if you want to make a living as a writer today, stop looking at dollar signs and start looking inside yourself, to the realm of spirit, intuition, imagination—truth—which is your natural dwelling place, your natural gift. Believe me, Spirit will out! Spirit wants to be shared and it's not going to be stopped by any so-called market realities. Spirit is reality. But you have to trust that it is more powerful than illusion. Trust, trust, trust. And follow where Spirit leads.

WAG: The same laments could be made about poetry today—only the situation seems worse, since poetry doesn't have a rich uncle like the novel to draw on. Is poetry, in fact, dead? And if not, how long can it last if poets can't make a living off of writing poetry? Does the burden then fall on MFA programs to provide teaching positions for every good poet who wants to pursue her field vigorously?

Ayres: I don't think MFA programs have much to offer in the Renaissance I see coming. I think the burden needs to be shouldered by those responsible: the poets, and the people.

Poets need to accept their role as healers, as men and women with an essentially spiritual gift, a gift meant not to shore up the poet's self esteem, not to support the poet's ego, but to do something useful and necessary in the community. I stopped applying for grants in the early 70s, when someone won a ten thousand dollar award for a one word poem: "Lighght." Very clever. But where is the fullness of purpose, meaning, vision? Where is the dignity of the poet, someone who has fought the good fight in the intangible realm and wrestled to the ground some tangible treasure of vital importance to the community? More to the point of your question: why on earth would anyone (except the politically and ego-motivated grand committee) pay for it?

The people also have a responsibility. They have to wake up to the fact that they need something they don't have. They have to admit they're hungry, thirsty. They have to stop hiding their genuine need for spirit, soul, truth, whatever you want to call it—stop numbing themselves with television and stupid movies and the vacuous books on which the movies are based.

I'll end with a little story, which some of your readers have probably heard. It's about the difference between heaven and hell. In both places, there are people sitting around a fully-laden banquet table. Each person has a fork two yards long. In hell, all the people are miserable and starving in the midst of plenty, because each person is trying to feed him or her self, and the forks are too long to bring the food to their mouths. In heaven, all the people are happy and well fed, because they're feeding each other across the table: their forks are just the perfect length for that.

Every human being has a fork two yards long. I hope all of us—writers and readers alike—learn what the forks are really for.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted May 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Lloyd McNeill

Elizabeth Ayres has a Master's degree in writing from Syracuse University and has taught writing for twenty-five years at New York University and the College of New Rochelle. She is also the founder of New York's Center for Creative Writing. Her new book, Writing the Wave, was published in February of this year.



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