05/29/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

Some Thoughts on MFA vs. NYC and Planting My Flag with the Huns

savas keskiner via Getty Images

When I was in my early twenties and had just started my first novel, I worked at a small public relations agency on the Upper East Side. At the time I had a good friend from college who was enrolled in the Columbia MFA writing program. Whenever we'd get together I'd listen to her complain about having writers' block and how difficult it was for her and her fellow classmates "to find something to write about."

Each day around noon my boss would send me downstairs to Burger King to get him his lunch (two small French fries and a medium Diet Coke), generously allowing me to keep the change. One day on line in front of me was a petite woman who placed an order for three hamburgers, a fish sandwich, four large fries, some drinks, and a couple of apple pies. When the cashier asked if the order was for here or to go, the customer answered with disbelief that she was just one person. "Bitch," the cashier answered, with the verbal equivalent of an eye roll, "I don't know your life."

Apart from being an immortal piece of dialogue, this exchange confirmed to me that I had made the right decision not going to graduate school.

The practicality and worth of professional training for fiction writers is a subject that has long been debated. With the publication of MFA vs NYC, a collection edited by n+1 co-founder and Art of Fielding author Chad Harbach, a conundrum has found its catchphrase.

My first book, P, was published by Soft Skull Press, an excellent independent house, in the summer of 2003. Though the novel was reviewed fairly widely and well, especially for a trade paperback from a small press, though I was delighted to have that book on my shelf, though it was rewarding and fun to do public readings, and, thrilling to ultimately hold in my hands a couple of translated editions, it came as a blow that the reality of my working life -- and the difficulties, challenges, and compromises involved in preserving time and energy to write -- remained undimmed. Somehow my $600 advance, which my then-agent (justifiably) took in its entirety to reimburse himself for several years' worth of copying and mailing expenses, did not alter my day-to-day existence in any way.

Writing on your own is lonely work. The process is an interior one. It's difficult to communicate to loved ones that the best, most rewarding thing that occurs to you all day is coming up with a good line of dialogue or what feels like an apt and original metaphor or the successful working through of a tricky plot hinge. It's tough on the friends and family and colleagues who surround a writer because part of you -- often the most engaged and vital part -- is always elsewhere. I won't be the first or last to recognize this painful dichotomy: writers write largely because they feel they have something urgent to say about people and the humanity business; the act of writing, however, often requires them to isolate themselves from the very source of that inspiration.

Fiction writing is also very strange. There's all this stuff going on -- the recession! Syria! Crimea! Kanye and Kim!, personal and professional stresses and crises -- and I can put myself into a funk for weeks and months at a time because a character I created makes a bad choice or does some morally suspect thing in an imaginary situation I invented. Because that's where I need to go, emotionally, in order to invest myself in the thing deeply enough to care to write about it. And that process is just weird.

So, yes, I could very much imagine the comforts of being in a writing program and surrounding oneself with like-minded young people struggling with the same kinds of quandaries. I envied those who could do that. And there were years of anger and loneliness when I questioned my decision.

But also years of pride. Pride in the discipline it took to keep going in the face of rejection. Pride in the ability to transform what I love about fiction into a set of marketable skills as a copywriter. Pride, frankly, in being out in the world and making a living with my pen rather than purchasing for myself luxuries of time and professional encouragement by staying in school.

I have no formal writing training. I went to a good school, but majored in film and took no writing workshops beyond freshman requirements. I read a lot but likely learned more about plot, dialogue, and character motivation watching good actors in movies and television than from novels. It's been heartening to hear an eminence as magnificent as Philip Roth -- as he places the final period at the end of his unmatched career -- say he felt like an amateur each time he began a new book. And it's true that the particular demands of a particular story about a particular set of people place original stresses on the writer every time out. But when it comes to serious fiction writing done without academic buttressing, a rookie error could cost you a year of Sundays. I'm a fast, sloppy writer and my lack of training and discipline took the physical form of an unpublished sophomore effort. And I suppose it's this -- being less aware of some obvious mistakes and pitfalls -- that smarts most about my own decision regarding the NYC vs. MFA question.

I started work on O, Africa! in February 2007 and had a completed draft manuscript by October 2009. It took me a while to find a new agent, but when I did, she was a generous and great-hearted one. Bonnie Nadell, who worked with David Foster Wallace from the beginning of his career, is just a wonderful person with killer writing and publishing instincts. She also beat me up good.

The manuscript I originally submitted to Bonnie was 600 pages long; the draft that was bought by Hogarth/Crown three years later came in at a bantamweight 371 pages. To her everlasting credit, Bonnie worked with me on the manuscript for close to three years, taking it through four significant top-to-bottom rewrites before she felt confident enough to submit the book to publishers, all without our having a signed contract or any kind of formal agreement. She knew what she was doing. After that years-long haul, with a decade between books, O, Africa! sold within a few days of submission.

What did that editorial work look like? After one eight-months-long top-to-bottom rewrite when Bonnie came back to me with still another round of significant edits, cuts, and suggestions (including a major overhaul of the book's ending), I basically threw my hands up. She doesn't get it, I remember thinking, she doesn't get what makes me special as a writer, I'm not even convinced she likes the book anymore. I'd had enough: I felt I was done with the book, had exhausted my ideas and enthusiasm for the material and had severed emotional ties with characters who had grown to be as real to me as friends and family members. By that time the world of the book had come to seem topographical to me, so it made sense when I more or less pleaded with my agent: "I don't think I can go back in."

But she kept pushing: "Don't argue; just make the cuts!" Each time my reaction would follow precisely Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. But after I'd cycled through the denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, I'd calm down, get my ass back to my favorite chair at Starbucks at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, make the bloody cuts, then print and read the thing and see what I could live with.

I came to see these rewrites as a kind of long-distance workshop by email, and what happened during them was this: a lot of the jokiness and glibness of the novel got pruned away, the love story got pulled front and center, and I gave up a lot of fear, emptied my bag of tricks, and pushed deeper into the material. After the book had sold, additional notes from my equally astute editor, Alexis Washam at Hogarth/Crown, followed along similar lines: don't allow opportunities to explore conflict and raising the stakes to get past you; don't be afraid to get into more uncomfortable places with the characters; put the tricks and wordplay away.

Together, my agent and editor made the book tougher, better, more emotionally resonant, more tonally consistent and truer to itself, and I'm forever indebted to them for it. I needed training. I needed discipline to match the ambition. I needed a good ass-kicking. Most of all, I think I needed readers. My agent and editor were the MFA program I never had.

In his review of MFA vs NYC, Dwight Garner quotes Elif Batuman who fears that the prevalence of writing programs is causing "great literature" to be replaced with "excellent fiction." That distinction is oceans' wide, and though I cannot speak from personal experience, my suspicion is that there exists a general kind of flat, minimalist, MFA-approved house style that remains dominant in departments across America. That there's too much factory-approved prose coursing through our national literary blood. That there are too many people who respond more thrillingly to the idea of themselves as writers -- and, therefore, make certain canned and canny professional moves -- rather than ones who approach the work as an almost priestly calling, like Roth who delivered this self-diagnosis in a recent New York Times interview: "If I did not do it, I would die."

In other words, American fiction has never been better nor more boring. There are too many smooth, beautifully written books that get well-reviewed and disappear in a month. Some of the authors I most admire -- Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer -- are what I'd call terrible-great writers: reckless, sloppy, quick to offend, with ideas too big for their talents as prose artists to wrangle into shape. That's not a call for amateurism or a kind of prose barbarism, but I suppose if I had to choose between that camp -- where you can feel the writer sweating the thing out as a kind of existential imperative -- and a kind of well-behaved, glossily professional writing, I'd plant my flag with the Huns.

I'm a big movie lover and my first published works were reviews and essays about film. One way I think about fiction writing is that killer opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark. You remember: Indiana Jones, a cool-looking scruffed-up guy (and academic!), enters some hidden temple where others have failed to pilfer treasures before him. He's got a guide, but he has to do this last most important bit alone. And suddenly there it is, the answer to the search: a gleaming golden idol, shining through the gloom. Dr. Jones recognizes the place as sacred and approaches with an appropriate amount of solemnity. In order to successfully lift the totem from its pedestal, he knows an exchange has to take place, that he'll need to leave something of himself behind. But, despite his every good effort, the temple is booby-trapped to the gills and Indiana triggers the traps: poison arrows, depthless pits, collapsing walls, what appears to be a boulder with a personalized GPS tracking device -- the works!

That's what writing a novel is like. No matter the precautions and preparation, dangers abound. The game is rigged; the odds of success and survival are not good. MFA vs. NYC? Yeah, sure, exactly. Whatever it takes, however you get there, and everything in between. Or, as Dr. Jones might say, "It's not the years, it's the miles."