Young, inexperienced writers are often faced with a difficult dichotomy: they are told to write about “what they know” while at the same time, nothing makes for a more dull topic than a writer’s life. The art of writing is, by its very nature, solitary. Most art is, and require a kind of obsessive personality to deal with the persistent solitude, a willingness to forge ahead with nonexistant relationships — sometimes at the expense of real ones. But the idea of “writing what you know” is just as important — how many tv shows are plagued by screenwriters writing about things they don’t know, and thus losing a certain degree of authenticity. (Try watching an episode of “House” with my mother and her medical degree — the “good” episodes she diagnoses immediately — others she claims are a hoax. Even worse are crime procedurals with my prosecutor father or friends — what is meant to be a serious drama is undermined by a lack of accuracy).
In “After the Workshop” John McNally ignores the first rule of writing and embraces the second — he writes a quasi-memoir about a man who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (the holy grail of MFA programs) and works as a media escort following graduation. McNally did both things as well. The “quasi” in quasi-memoir derives from the difference between McNally’s own success as a writer and the protagonist of the novel, who is incapable of finishing his own novel, twelve years after he’s graduated. It’s a book of contrivances and pratfalls, with a narrator whose voice is poignant at times and scaldingly sarcastic at others. It’s a well-timed satire at MFA programs, the publishing world, and the lives of writers themselves. The world is inundated with the different “types” of writers: The James-Frey-esque novelist who fakes her own memoire; the reclusive savant who has the world’s worst case of writer’s block; the romance writer who sees a story in everything she sees but can’t maintain her own romance; the high-strung magical realist, the hipster cheater, the false pretenses of a John Steinbeck-esque trust fund baby.
It’s fun to follow along with Jack, the narrator, as he pokes fun at all of the archetypes, but there’s something sad about it, too. Each of the archetypes, after all, has succeeded where he has failed. He complains about one character who pretends to be “salt of the earth” but whose background is as yuppie as possible — that character has, however, earned commercial and critical success, while Jack’s own life is stagnant. He begins the novel by scoffing at the pedantic writing of the romance writer — by the end, however, there is something beautiful about her ability to see a story in a statute, a typewriter, a sleepy community. He hates the New York hipster who draws from old stories, fables, and myths, updating them for the new age — yet Jack himself longs to type on a dated typewriter.
The lovely Beatrice, muse and guide throughout Dante’s Inferno.
There are other archetypes, too, of course — there’s a muse who wanders in and out of the writing, an ex-flame of Jack’s, his Beatrice, his lost Lenore. There’s the wise mentor, in the form of an old teacher, who must himself die before the acolyte can succeed. And, living across the hall, is the perfect foil to Jack himself, in the form of another loser, but one who failed not at creative endeavors but at scientific ones: a man known as “M. Cat” based upon his repeated failures at passing the MCATs. As Jack himself remains shuttered off to the world, M. Cat is forced (via a series of ridiculous circumstances) to literally “bare everything” as a bad case of frostbite renders him unable to clothe or disrobe, so that he spends half the novel wandering around naked. The point at which M. Cat finally decides to clothe himself coincides perfectly with the moment that Jack recovers his desire to write, and, metaphorically speaking, to himself bare all.
The plot of the novel is meandering and oftentimes silly — deus ex machina appear wildly, and characters repeatedly run into one another. Jack wanders hopelessly from one situation to another, and most of the characters are little more than thinly drawn archetypes.
Where the book succeeds, however, is in its meditation upon writing itself, upon the art. The Beatrice in this book is not a great muse — Jack’s ex-fiance is a glimpse at what life could have been, if he’d put his nose to the grind, worked hard, had a 9 to 5 job and raised a family. She’s not a muse to his writing — the only person that can inspire himself to write, he finds by the end, is himself. His mentor may have helped to hone his craft, but the indebtedness that Jack feels to him ends up hurting more than it helps. The death of the mentor does not spur him to embrace his own heroism, but rather leads to a depression of being certain that he is never “good enough” that he was an early success only due to the mentor’s influence. Perhaps the strongest character in the book is the act of writing itself — there’s a certain sense of wonder that attaches to the art, a kind of magic the defies modernity and the mercantile practices of publishing. The greatest writer in the book is a former weightlifter on steroids, who writes because he loves it. The greatest writer is a woman who finds a story in an eroded statute and a college legend. The greatest writer is a man who steals another person’s work, because he is so desperate to chase fame, but also because he is so desperate to have the story told.
Stephen King’s quasi-memoir quasi-guide is the best instruction book for writing I’ve read.
In some ways, it is an easily dismissible story. It is in the vein of Nick Hornby, who can tell a funny story, but not always a story that sticks. But to those of us who write — to those of us who know the perfect satisfaction that comes of sitting down and having words flow seamlessly, so much so that our fingers can’t keep up with the words, and the words can’t keep up with the images, and nothing can keep up with the theme and the characters and the story that is just spinning out there, just out of reach — for those of us who love writing for the pure art — for us it’s an interesting novel, with the potential to give insight into a craft that is equal parts masochism, hard work, and obsession.