In an article in yesterday's Times (click here), Charles McGrath discusses the value of an MFA in Creative Writing. From 1975 to 2004 the number of degree-granting writing programs in the U.S. exploded from 52 to over 300. McGrath says, "In the 1940s and '50s, Americans who wanted to become writers went to Paris. Now they go to Palo Alto or Iowa City." I don't think he names my hometown of Palo Alto because it is the heart of Silicon Valley either. It's named as the home of Stanford and its writing program. So is the best route to becoming a writer getting an MFA?
A new grad asked me and other writers on an online forum what she should do to become a writer. For me the answer was easy -- live. Get a job. Be observant.
In the last few days I've hung with crime-writing friends who write wonderful books after having done stints in advertising, fashion, journalism, teaching, tech writing, legal practice, videography, and medicine. All these experiences serve their writing well. Now teachers like Peggy Lucke, Donna Levin, and Ellen Sussman got me going in the writing game and helped me understand the craft. No reason an MFA can't do the same. But it ought not serve as a substitute for life experience. And an MFA is an expensive option. I took writing courses at night and for a small fraction of what an MFA would have cost.
You can tell what McGrath thinks of the MFA phenomenon for writers from the headline of his article: "The Ponzi Workshop." He worries that "we are conceivably approaching a state in which there are more writers in American than there are readers." Me? I believe in courses, but even more in living and reading.
Did you know that Shakespeare wrote a play based on Don Quixote? That Hadley Hemingway lost a suitcase of her husband's unpublished short stories? That Lord Byron's memoir were destroyed by a publisher who thought them only "fit for the brothel?"
An article in this morning Journal runs through a catalog of such lost masterpieces. (Click here to read.) A search for (or discovery of) any one of them could provide a linchpin for a thriller, don't you think? No need to thank me now. Save it for the acknowledgments page of your book.
His publisher believed printing Byron's memoirs "would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy."
Ellen Sussman, one heckuva writing teacher, has put together a "master class" on mystery writing. She's recruited the incredibly articulate Edgar Nominee Cornelia Read and the critically praised author of 5 books, John Billheimer , to offer hints, insights, and perspective. Oh yeah, and Ellen asked one more local writer of crime fiction. Me.
Here's Ellen's description of the class: Three acclaimed mystery writers, Cornelia Read, Keith Raffel and John Billheimer, will join me in a panel discussion about their craft. I'll ask them about plotting the mystery novel, about character development, about conventions of the genre, about breaking those conventions. I'd like to find out what we non-mystery writers can learn from these masters of plot, character, voice. And for those of you who are writing mysteries, we can find out how these three have succeeded in a very competitive field.
The class is scheduled for May 13 for three hours starting at 6.30 and the cost is $60. If you're interested, email ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Should be fun and informative.
The Holocaust looming, a desperate father takes out a life insurance policy in 1938. The father is murdered in Auschwitz, but at least his heirs get the insurance payout. Wrong. The heirs don't have a death certificate -- the Nazis weren't exactly passing them out -- so the company doesn't pay.
European insurance companies like Generali, Allianz, AXA, Munich Re, and Swiss Re are sitting on around $18 billion that belongs to beneficiaries of Holocaust era policies. Lobbying by these insurance companies has kept Congress from doing anything to make these companies pay up either.
Here's what novelist and legal scholar Thane Rosenbaum says about this theft on a grand scale in The Huffington Post:
Indeed, these companies performed a reverse Ponzi scheme: They took their customers' money, ultimately making payments to no one other than themselves and the Nazis. And, unlike Madoff, whose financial empire deflated and imploded in scandal, these European insurance companies, flush with Holocaust theft, grew into global conglomerates, enterprises that are among the wealthiest corporations in the world.
There's probably a book here and I'm thinking about it. But more than that, just before Passover begins, I'm thinking how far this world has to go before righteousness triumphs.
My dad was an artillery spotter in World War II. I never understood why after having seen the truth of the battlefield, he so enjoyed reading novels, seeing movies, and watching TV shows that took place during the War. I think his favorite TV show of all time was Combat.
Well, maybe I understand now. I guess we can't resist those self-referential stories. I loved Gregg Hurtwitz’s The Crime Writer. Guess why? (Beyond the great writing, clever plot, and terrific hero, I mean.) Because it was about a crime writer, and that’s what I am.
All this is a long-winded way to get around to admitting that there’s a new TV show with no high pretensions which I make sure I see every week. No, it’s not anything hi-falutin like a PBS miniseries or a succès d’estimelike Mad Men or even a popular hit like Grey’s Anatomy. It’s Castle. Guess what the protagonist does for a living? Yes, he’s a crime novelist.
You see Richard Castle is a huge, best-selling author who’s run into a patch of literary infertility. So he asks his pal, the mayor of New York, if he can tag along with a police detective to get inspired. Sure, happens everyday, right?
Needless to say, the police detective is tall, leggy, dark-eyed, brunette, and smart. (Bias disclosure: I married a woman who is tall, leggy, dark-eyed, brunette, and smart.) Castle has a know-it-all daughter. (Bias disclosure: I have three of them.) Castle plays poker with the real-life James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell. (Bias disclosure: I am bursting with envy.)
The identity of the guilty party is pretty clear by twenty minutes in the show. Doesn’t matter. What makes the whole thing worth watching is the répartée between the detective and Castle. Yes, it’s derivative. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis did pretty much the same thing on Moonlightinga generation ago. But who cares? Moonlighting was a great show. About every ten minutes in Castle, either the detective or writer delivers a line where I think, “Gosh, I wish I’d written that one.” I’m willing to pan through a lot of gravel to get to that nugget.
The show airs Mondays at 10. Last week it finished behind CSI Miami but ahead of Medium. I really enjoy the show and, as night follows day, that means it is not long for your TV set or DVR. Catch it while you can. Take a peek and let me know what you think.