JOHN IRVING — An older, experienced writer can be of use to a young, talented writer. The older writer can at least save the younger writer some time. You can’t (in my opinion) convert young writers to your method, or you shouldn’t try; you can illuminate your method in an un-pushy way, as a means of getting them to discover what their method is, and how it differs from yours. I don’t have a method of teaching writing; I certainly do have a process that I have learned to follow as a writer, but I don’t urge my process on anyone else.
Cocteau used to say that young writers should pay attention to what critics say—only the negatives. Because what the critics don’t like about you is probably the only original thing you have. Well, that may be true some of the time—or true about critics. But writing teachers aren’t and shouldn’t be critics; they should be trying to help you get better at what you already have a feeling or a passion for.
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS — Writing, or any art, is a calling, rather than a career. People enter into an MFA Program, not to “learn” to write, but to spend time in a mentor relationship with an accomplished writer, or a series of them, and to be part of a community for a scant two years that supports literature, reading, and the attempt to write. No one can “teach” anyone to write, but talented writers can find crucial support and encouragement, and learn to edit their own work (half the battle) within the Academy.
In a culture/economy that basically views artists with suspicion or hostility, the Academy has become a last outpost. The more MFA programs, the better, as far as I’m concerned, because those programs are encouraging literary readers, readers who care about contemporary literature. Many of those readers/writers will go on to publish their writing in one venue or another; a minority will publish a body of work.
JANE SMILEY — We go to workshops for community, to meet like-minded people. Most writers don’t succeed if they’re just sitting in a room writing but not getting out. If you look back at the history of the novel, nearly everyone who succeeded was part of some sort of literary group. There is hardly anyone who thrives on being solitary. Think of Virginia Woolf and her circle; they supported one another, and talked to one another, and talked about literature. Thackeray and his friends, the same. People do it in New York City as a matter of course, so the idea that you would somehow not thrive in a more communal environment is absurd.
In my experience of working with students who perhaps have been writing alone for years, they tend to develop the easy parts, but avoid the hard parts; we all do. A student who’s good at plotting will go for plot, and if that student’s not good at characters, the characters will be flat. So you need others to prod you and tell you your plot’s fine, but the characters are flat.