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Arthur Plotnik gives names, talks MFA programs and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and offers a bit of advice

Day 5 in Down the Writer’s Path’s series with Arthur Plotnik. This segment is part of an interview with Arthur Plotnik, author of the newly released, Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style by Briget Ganske, Spring 2006 and posted with their permission.

Which current writers do you most respect or admire? Why?

Recent favorites for style or sheer power include novelists Roth, Tom Wolfe, Dom DeLillo, E. Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Fay Weldon, and Mark Leyner. Poet Billy Collins. Critics Anthony Lane and David Denby. Columnist Maureen Dowd.

I like the linguistic bravado, the inventiveness, of some of the British novelists—writers like Martin Amis, Rupert Thompson, Will Self, Zadie Smith.

My most recent discovery in language reference books: Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner. Should be on every writer’s desk, as they say. Right next to my works.

Where did you go to undergrad? Did you concentrate on writing there?

In my third year at the State University of New York’s Albany campus, as editor of the school’s literary magazine, I published a few stories then considered off-color for a teacher’s college. The worst of the offending tales was mine. A city-wide, freedom-of-speech hullabaloo erupted, and ultimately the university president himself booted me out. (I was since named an honorary alumnus. Yay.)

I’d lived by the pen during those years, and now I’d died a small death by it; the karma was in play. I sold my first short story the next fall to a men’s magazine, then got myself into the state’s young, open-armed Binghamton campus, where I edited the literary mag and studied writing under a nurturing English faculty.

Tell me about your experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Exhilarating and terrifying, as I imagine most such programs are. Imagine that first day in the Fiction Workshop, when a tall, intense, 26-year-old snapped the creases of his chinos, settled himself on the front edge of the instructor’s desk, and announced softly, “I’m Philip Roth.” Or when Lost-Generation novelist Vance Bourjaily handed back a comic story saying, “I laughed all night.” On the other hand, picture our barracks classrooms as the frigid Iowa nights descended, when the reading of a student’s best effort drew a killing silence from sourpussed classmates, or when the nastiest critics, smelling blood, swooped in to pick the poor student clean.

What do you think of MFA programs in general? Are they necessary for writers?

Many writers succeed without them; ergo, not necessary. But they’re a good framework, a motivation, for coached writing and revision, for learning to profit from criticism, for getting to feel like a writer in the writing community and perhaps finding your niche. Of course, you’re gambling a year or two of time and tuition that might be spent on a more practical graduate degree, like information science, education, or journalism. If aspiring writers can get the workshop experience within other degree programs (as I did for an M.A. in English), they should consider doing so.

MFA programs vary, but I suspect most of the fiction workshops teach the basic lessons described in my autobiographical writer’s guide, The Elements of Authorship. In brief, they tell you to understate, surprise, reward, focus, be accurate, particularize, justify actions. dramatize, get attention, and be sincere.

Your books are packed with useful tips, but if you had to give just one piece of advice to writers, what would it be?

Language counts, even in this supposedly dumbed-down world. People will care about language as long as they use words to symbolize everything they care about. Has anything stirred juices and moved souls more than the well chosen word? People may be dazzled by graphics, by Manga, by video, by offensive cartoons—but what do they want to do next? Talk about it. In words.

And if you want your words to stand out from the competition, the secret is freshness—the power of novel, inventive expression. If a modifier, a sentence, a passage seems stale, spavined—forceless—then labor over it until it feels newborn. Yes, everyone else is out there having fun while you’re moiling away with words. But you are a writer, and your kind of fun is, well, different.

If you’ve come to the interview late, be sure you read the four previous posts. Check out Spunk & Bite and see for yourself why so many are praising Plotnik’s latest work. You might also want to check out Art’s website, Spunky’s Blogrr, and, Plotnik’s official bio. If you haven’t already, read my review of The Elements of Authorship then return for more soundbites from the Great Plotnik!

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