MFA in a Box by John Rember. Downers Grove, Ill: Dream of Things, 2010. Review by Sharon Harrigan
MFA in a Box is a “why to write” not a “how to write” craft book. If you are looking for instruction on technique, such as point of view, pacing, and plot structure, see Julie Checkoway’s terrific Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. But if you are ready to plunge into the depths of your writer’s soul and uncover the secrets that you might be holding back, then MFA in a Box could change the whole way you think about the process of writing.
The book unfolds through stories—from the author’s life, books, and world events—to illustrate hard-to-understand truths. The chapter “Writing Violence,” for example, uses the story about Jack Henry Abbot and his prison memoir and relationship to Norman Mailer to show a number of ideas, such as the need for irony in writing. Irony is the “struggle against the absurdity of having a god’s mind in an animal’s body,” and without that struggle stories die. Irony is “the difference between the way things are and the way things are supposed to be.”
This chapter was especially relevant to my writing, because I see the need for more violence in my plots, not necessarily physical or actual but a recognition that the world is a violent place, an insistence on not ignoring the Cold War artifact that is the world we live in (which Rember also calls “writing in the Now.”)
“Violence” can mean conflict pushed to its boiling point. Rember says, “When I advise new writers, I encounter people who find it difficult to resolve the conflict in their stories. . . If the conflict has to be resolved by violence, the writer often as not leaves the scene. . . nobody’s life—least of all the writer’s—is transformed.”
Two points at the end of this chapter also made me look at my work in a different way: “You wouldn’t want to write if you didn’t have criminal tendencies” and “Writing will run into taboos that are deep in your genes.” Writers write, and I’m no exception, to question the world because we don’t accept everything at face value or we don’t believe that what’s on the surface is all that there is. And we are cheating our readers and ourselves if we don’t face up to taboos.
The chapter “Writing Shadows” is about images (“if an image sticks in your mind, it will generate a story if you let it”), about Ezra Pound, and about going deeper into scary places–the Valley of Death–in the writing process and hoping we can find our way back. “If I could change the past so it were less embarrassing, my present would be less substantial than it is, because I would have had no need to develop the sort of moral heft that lets me live with shame,” Rember says, making me (almost) grateful for so many embarrassing moments in my life. He tells Ezra Pound’s morally complicated story to show that Pound’s “lack of moral heft might be related to his lack of shame.” These two quotes made me vow to take my writing to a deeper and darker place: “Writing moves you toward a consciousness of everyday life as being just the surface layer of froth on a dark sea of reality.” And: “Faulkner says it’s the writer’s duty to delve deep into grief and scars, in order to lift humanity’s collective heart.”
The chapter “Writing Family” has this brilliant quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.” This chapter gives me the courage not to worry about offending my family when I write (or, perhaps, just the resignation that it’s going to happen, and to try to avoid it is to accept bad writing). Rember says, “Writing is one of the rare professions where a dysfunctional family can help your career.” Because if the family rules are crazy and don’t work, it’s more likely you’ll see them, figure out that they’re arbitrary, and be able to break them.
The chapter gives a number of examples of ways authors have taken family dysfunction and turned it into art. But the only way to do this is to confront the secrets that are easier to keep hidden. Rember says: “Once you have the courage to look at the secrets your secret-keeping machine is keeping, you can gain tremendous energy for writing.”
“The Writer as Witness” chapter tells the story of Rember’s admission into the College of Idaho and transfer to Harvard. It also tells the story of the power of good writing. He found that he could get an A or B in any class as long as he wrote good papers, explaining: “I’ve learned that if you can write well, people believe what you say, because there’s an implicit cultural understanding that when you write something down, it’s like having an extra brain out there.”
The power of writing is even greater than that, he says. It can change the world. Rember says: “When I begin working with a new writing student, I tell her: ‘You’re going to be a witness for mute and suffering people who lack your ability to perceive. Your writing is going to make the world a better place.’” The writing needs to “cross a threshold into a deep and painful place.” “You don’t have to live there,”’ he says, “but you have to be able to go there. And you have to be able to get back.”
I’ve only covered half the book. The rest of the chapters discuss grief, writing depth, and writing mom. I have been lucky enough to study with Rember as part of the Pacific University MFA program, and he is one of the best teachers I’ve ever encountered. Writers not fortunate enough to work with him personally can still learn from the decades of teaching experience that went into this book.
If you are ready to peel away the layers of secrets you are keeping from yourself and your readers, to confront the dark side of writing and stop worrying about avoiding narrative conflict and saving face, then you will be finish this book a changed person. Reading the book is a kind of spiritual experience. It is a Pandora’s box as much as an MFA box, one you will want to keep opening every time you find yourself compromising your writing by hiding the world instead of revealing it.