Here at Daily (w)rite, I run a series of interviews of publishing industry experts: I’ve had poets, authors, and creative writing professors. Today, I’m chatting with Tim Tomlinson, who teaches at the New York University’s Global Liberal Studies program, helped found the New York Writers Workshop, and is an author and poet in his own right.
My first encounter with him was through his book, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, one of the first books that gave me the confidence to go on writing without an MFA, and not lose heart. I took a writing workshop with him some time back, and speaking from experience, if you have the opportunity to go for one of those, do not hesitate.
1. You’re one of the founders of the New York Writers Workshop. What was the impetus behind it?
Solidarity and frustration. The founders of New York writers Workshop were all teaching for another organization whose demands began to clash with our values. We met, somewhat conspiratorially, and we decided that we could do it better on our own. The rest is a combination of history and farce.
2. What do you enjoy most about teaching creative writing?
Meeting new writers, hearing their material, and giving them ideas for presenting the material most effectively. I recently finished two long sessions in Baguio, Philippines. Lots of talent, many wonderful people, but with a need for craft, useful practice, and self-belief. In two days, we made great progress in all those areas, and that’s gratifying.
3. Tell us about your book, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. How would you like a reader to approach it?
The Portable MFA in Creative Writing was meant as something of a substitute to MFA programs, or more accurately, a substitute for the expense of MFA programs.
At New York Writers Workshop we encountered hordes of recovering MFAs—aspiring writers damaged to varying degrees by destructive MFA programs. Writers who’d become convinced their work was garbage unless it matched whatever criteria were being pushed in whatever program (if, indeed, any criteria were being pushed). The Gordon Lish survivors were the most crippled: they couldn’t get beyond sentence one (which, according to Captain Fiction, must be perfect before one can proceed to sentence two). So we wanted to offer an alternative to spending $50,000 on nothing, or worse than nothing. For $16.95, the conceit had it, one could avail oneself of some, many, or close to all of the lessons of the MFA program.
But, and this is a big but, the book can’t provide community, or readers, or encouragement. MFA programs can (although none of these is guaranteed). The book also encompasses a range of disciplines: fiction, non-fiction, playwriting, poetry. Some programs prohibit movement between disciplines; our book encourages movement.
4. Can creative writing be taught? Why/ why not?
It most certainly can, and as we say in the book, one should run away from any program or instructor who says that it can’t. Talent can’t be taught, luck can’t be taught, discipline can’t be taught. But talent can be recognized and nurtured. And when it is, discipline follows – it’s more fun to sit down to the grind and discover that good work, or better work, is forthcoming. And when disciplined practice becomes part of the routine, luck often follows—one creates one’s luck. You teach the craft, you suggest the discipline, good things follow.
5. What advice would you give someone who is applying for MFA Writing programs?
Ask tough questions, of the program, and of yourself. Who will be teaching? What is her approach? (Does she believe creative writing can be taught?) What’s the rate of acceptance? How many nonsense requirements will intrude upon my writing time? Can I afford this? How deep will I fall into a financial hole? Can I achieve the same goals through less costly means?
6. If you had three pointers to give an aspiring writer, what would they be?
Read a lot, write more, and spend time far away from books (or universities). The work of too many young writers is informed by university experience solely, or predominantly. That creates the kind of provincialism you see in American fiction and poetry today.
7. You have taught creative writing in the West, as well as in Asia. What would you say are the key similarities and differences in the two experiences?
Very broadly speaking, Asian writers have more humility, which is a good thing for the development of craft, but maybe not the best thing for career advancement. Aspiring writers in Asia, too (again, broadly speaking) have far greater awareness of global realities than most aspiring writers in the U.S. American writers are freer in their diction, less formal.
8. Which is the last novel you read that you would recommend and why? Which authors would you name as influences on your own writing?
I liked Xiaolu Guo’s Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth: A Novel. Her fragments are fairly large (in comparison to the fragmented fictions of Maggie Nelson, for instance, or Evan Lavender-Smith), but they’re still discrete units of narrative that enable Guo to focus on smaller moments, which build like blocks to a full coming-of-age story.
As for influences, in fiction no one has been more important than Henry Miller, particularly his Tropic of Cancer, for language and spirit. John Cheever for structure, Denis Johnson for lyricism, Robert Stone for rhythm, James Salter for vision, Lydia Davis for options, Junot Diaz for freedom, Mary Gaitskill for awareness, Edmund White for honesty, Chekhov for neutrality. The diction of cowboy movies. Sam Shepard. And the diction of gangster movies. Martin Scorsese, and David Mamet. So many. In poetry, I don’t know if I’ve been influenced. Rather, there are sounds and visions to which I aspire. Charles Wright, Li Po, Merlie Alunan, Mary Oliver. And subject matters that enable my own. Kim Addonizio, Jason Shinder, Philip Levine.
9. You help run a literary journal Ducts.org. Tell us more about it.
I’ve edited the fiction section for the past six or seven years (we also run essay, memoir, poetry, art, and humor). I’ve tried to make the representation global, and non-New-York-centric. I’ve run stories from Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, England, India, as well as from many places in the U.S. Our readership has grown, the quality of submissions has elevated, and publication has become more and more competitive. We have two best-of anthologies: How Not to Greet Famous People, and The Man Who Ate His Book.
Tim Tomlinson is co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Stories and poems appear or are forthcoming in The Blue Lyra Review, Caribbean Vistas, Coachella Review, Writing Tomorrow, and the anthologies Long Island Noir (Akashic Books), and Fast Food Fiction (Anvil Publishing). He is the fiction editor for Ducts. He teaches at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies program.
Do you have questions for Tim Tomlinson? Have you taken an MFA or considering applying for one? Would you like to talk about your experience? Have you heard of the New York Writers Workshop or attended one of their events?
Please join Daily (w)rite on its Facebook Page in case you’d like to be heard by this community. If you liked this post, you can have posts delivered to your inbox: SUBSCRIBE VIA EMAIL , please.
I love it when I am told to read more. Not that i need any encouraging in that area.
I’m late in coming to this article, Damyanti, but just had to stop in and say it’s fabulous. Oh yes, I could generate quite a lot of questions for Mr. Tomlinson! I have a Master’s in lit, but have toyed off and on with the MFA route. Instead, I mashed together a number of literary and non-literary life influences, including editorship for a little literary mag; copyediting for newspapers and medical journals and books; and so on. This book, as “a substitute for the expense of MFA programs,” seems to have been especially crafted for people like me. I’ll have to seek it out. Thanks again for the insightful interview, Damyanti, and to Mr. Tomlinson for talking about his philosophies and influences!
An interesting read. I assume this was today’s WP prompt adapted to your situation.
“Read a lot, write more..” Excellent advice
Very interesting interview and I am taking great tips. I thought I was well read but I have None of the authors he mentions. Lot of learning to do!
I have always enjoyed your blog. That’s why I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award.
Looks like a great reference book. I’ve pondered a MFA, but I know that I’m doing so many other things that benefit me as a writer.
I don’t know if Tim is a native New Yorker, but he has the direct, down-to-earth, occasionally-sarcastic approach down perfectly. I enjoyed this interview, and will now go exploring Ducts.org. Thanks, D.
The old you-can-take-the-boy-out-of-Brooklyn-but-you-can’t-take-the-Brooklyn-out-of-the-boy syndrome. A native, indeed, Brooklyn born and now returned. Thanks for your comments, and please do have a look at Ducts. The new story by Kim Addonizio is a current fave.
Thank you for this honest bit of sharing. This is perfect timing for me. I have been considering MFA programs with mixed feelings. These nuggets of truth are incredibly helpful.
I’ve heard very few good things said about MFA programs and a lot of bad things. Nice interview and information about a book that will save a lot of people a lot of money along with their sanity.
Fantastic article! I’ll be on the lookout for Tom Tomlinson’s book on MFAs
This was an interesting read I love it.
Thank you. Tim is a great teacher.
What an inspiring interview! Thank you.
You’re welcome, Brooke. thanks go to Tim for agreeing to do it.
Reblogged this on The Daily 400 and commented:
I enjoyed this interview with Tim Tomlinson at Damyanti’s Daily (w)rite. I used to consider going back to grad school to get an MFA, but while I figured it would benefit my writing, I didn’t think the financial commitment would be worth it, except maybe for preparing me to be a creative writing professor.
Thank you for this interesting interview.
You’re welcome. Tim has awesome things to say about teaching creative writing.
For Tim Tomlinson: I have published essays in print and online, write two blogs online, and I’ve published a novel, “Perceval’s Secret,” (available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble). I’ve thought of going back to school to get an MFA because so many agents believe that “if you’re truly serious about your writing, you’ll get an MFA in creative writing.” What do you advise I do? Thank you! Cinda
Dear Cinda, given your list of accomplishments, it seems pretty clear that you’re already serious about your writing. Why add an MFA? Well, there might be a few reasons. One is community, another is the imposed discipline of the workshop setting–deadlines can help. And another is getting a foot into some doors. As I point out in the book, in the US an MFA might actually help get a book of short stories considered by a publisher (an MFA, that is, from one of the high profile programs). The question that raises is: what does considered mean? Considered means: instead of your manuscript going straight to the slush pile, an editor might give the first story, or the title story, a quick glance, and if she sees something she likes, she might turn a page. Getting her to the third, fifth, or one-hundred-and-fifth page, however, will have little to do with an MFA. Regarding MFAs and agents: New York Writers Workshop holds four conferences per year designed to put writers with complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts (novels, memoirs, stories, biographies, etc.) in front of editors from major publishing houses, and a few independent smaller presses. Each conference includes a panel of agents who discuss the current realities of the US market. I’ve never heard one of those agents advocate for the MFA. They don’t knock it, either, but for them it’s as if the MFA barely exists. You might check out a book called MFA vs NYC (available electronically), in which NYC = the professional publishing world, and MFA = everywhere/thing else.
Hi Damyanti, what a refreshing interview. I’ll be getting the book. Does
Tim have any suggestions specific to those writers who have come to the craft later in life?
Dear Jill, thanks for reading the interview, and I hope you acquire and enjoy the book. At any point in the writing life, it’s most important to just do the work. I’ve always liked what Toni Morrison said about that: it’s amazing how much work gets done when you turn down dinner invitations.
Thank-you for replying Tim. I have bought your book and I am savouring each page. I found the first exercise very helpful and I intend to repeat it. I can see that nothing beats getting on with the work!
A great man he is. I like the way he responds to the questions. His answers seem deliberated, are profound and broad-minded. I would like to read ‘The Man Who Ate His Book.’ I’ll look it up immediately.
Peter, the workshop with him was a great experience. Sure, do go ahead and get the book!
awesome interview! Yes Talent can’t be taught but it definitely can be nurtured,
Awesome post Damyanti, and I really liked the response of Tim for can creative writing be taught? Wonderful work…
Hi Damyanti. It was enlightening for me. Have you ever published all the interviews you take in one PDF or eBook so I can read it at once?
No, but I think I might, at some point. The first step is to find the time to collect them all together under a tab on the blog! Thanks for reading.
Is this available on Kindle?
Dear Rajiv, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing is available on Kindle and iBooks. Its five sections cover a wide range of disciplines. I provided the introduction, and the chapter on fiction. Hope you acquire and enjoy.
Dear Tim, Thanks. I just went ahead and bought it on the Kindle. Regards
I got the Kindle version of this book. Wonderful! It’s now my go-to reference.
Many thanks, Jacqui. May your publications be fruitful and multiply.