I arrived at my house this evening completely and entirely exhausted. Today sucked the energy from my body through a series of small, unpleasant, and stress-filled tasks. That happens sometimes. I didn’t even think I had the energy to write this post, but some dinner and decompression revived me somewhat. That said, consider this my disclaimer against any rational thought with respect to the contents of this blog post.
I have been making my way slowly through John Rember’s MFA in a Box and finally finished it today. I find his voice, which I suspect is the same voice he adapts when holding workshops for his students, to be witty and engaging. I even picked up his recent short story collection Sudden Death, Over Time before I had even finished MFA in a Box. As usual, my “to read” list is packed to the gills, and I I haven’t even had the chance to crack it yet. When I first started reading MFA in a Box, I found the title incredibly incongruous. It reads like part memoir, part advice book, and part philosophical rambling, each chapter its own little island. It wasn’t until I reached almost the last page before I realized that the title was completely fitting. Each chapter examines a theme, such as violence, family, grief, etc. and infuses it with a mixture of personal stories from the author, philosophy, psychological evaluation and good old fashioned writing advice. It was as if each chapter was my own personal MFA workshop conducted by Mr. Rember. Sure, there were no readings and no discussion, but the diversity of expression draws you into each chapter. So many points of view are expressed in each section, so many stories told, so many threads followed, that you leave the chapter slightly discombobulated but in awe of the possibilities. Chapter 3, titled “Writing Shadows” tackles the deeply psychological aspects of writing. My favorite quote from this chapter highlights the complexity of thought, the simplicity of word choice, and the drama of our situation as writers.
You might think nihilism and hope are contradictions in terms. But lots of contradictory concepts, once they’re embodied in the physical world, exist quite happily together, sometimes in the same object. The empty screen that we righters face every time we sit down to write is both nothingness and hope.
And mixed in with the deeply philosophical questions of why we should write, where we need to go to do it successfully (hint – we need to go deep into the underworld), and maybe, a hint about how to get there, are the zingers. I find Mr. Rember’s feels about metaphors, which he uses liberally in the book, particularly hilarious. “I taught them to go easy on the metaphors, because metaphors are like salmon fillets: if you forget that last grocery bag and leave them in the car over a couple of hot August afternoons, they’ll become hard to live with.” As much as Mr. Remember maligns metaphors, he is apparently alright with the ironic use of simile to make his point. When he reaches the chapter about writing on the unconscious, however, he reminds us that “metaphors are inaccuracies at best, misleading lies at worst.” I don’t recount these quotes in defense of metaphors. As a literary device, they have their place. It is the casual lesson he teaches as he maligns the metaphors. That lesson perhaps is that any rule can be broken if it works.
MFA in a Box is short, dense and multi-layered, but at the same time easy to read. It alternates between entertaining and thought-provoking, and I will probably have to give it another read before I can fully appreciate its nuances. There have been certain craft books that have really resonated with me. I would put MFA in a Box in the same league with Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It aims to draw you along on a journey rather than provide prescriptive instruction. Prescriptive instruction has its place, and I appreciate those books that provide that service to me, but the journey invigorates me for writing in a way that straight instruction cannot. I finished MFA in a Box with a slight sadness that I won’t ever get to a student in of John Rember’s class.
About the Photograph: This is a photo of a poison dart frog that I took at my friend’s house in 2003. She kept them as pets, but they were not poisonous because she did not feed them the foods that make them poisonous in the wild. This one is called the Terribilis.