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?
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.
Could you describe how the Center began and
how you came to design its teaching system?
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.
What is it about your teaching method that
makes it better than the standard experience to
be gotten from a good MFA program?
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.
What is the hardest thing to teach a beginning
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
What is the hardest thing to teach an established
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.
Is everyone capable of becoming a good writer,
given proper training and discipline?
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
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?
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
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?
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.