Alistair McCartney teaches Fiction in the MFA program, directs the BA Program’s Creative Writing Concentration and curates the BA Program’s Literary Uprising reading series. He is the author of The End of the World Book: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008). An encyclopedia of memory–from A to Z–The End of the World Book intertwines fiction, memoir, poetry, and cultural history. TEOTWB was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award 2009 and the Publishing Triangle Edmund White Debut Fiction Award 2009, and was in Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. McCartney’s writing has also appeared in Fence, Animal Shelter (Semiotexte), Bloom, Lies/Isles, Gertrude, Crush Fanzine, 1913, James White Review, Scott Heim’s The First Time I Heard series, Karen Finley’s Aroused, and other literary journals and anthologies. He is finishing up work on The Death Book, the second cross-genre novel in a five book cycle. Born in Perth, Western Australia, he is based in Venice Beach, California. A graduate of Antioch University MFA’s inaugural year class, he has presented at institutions throughout the country, including CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison. You can learn more about his writing at www.alistairmccartney.com
My teaching philosophy is actually pretty simple: I see it as my job during your time here in the MFA Program to help you become the best writer you can possibly be.
And how will I do that, you might well ask?
Well, primarily by giving the stories you write the utmost attention, by reading your work closely and responding to it rigorously and authentically. There’s a lot of talk these days that publishing houses don’t really give their writers close line edits anymore, so it’s crucial we learn to edit and refine our own work with the most scrupulous eye.
Each month you’ll submit between 10-20 pages of prose, double spaced, 12 pt font, ideally by email. Ideally, I expect the work you submit to be revised to a point where you feel you can no longer revise it, though as we all know, we don’t live in an ideal world, so sometimes the work may be at an earlier stage. I’m more than happy to work with a writer exploring any genre and am comfortable with work that is traditional or experimental. For me, those categories fall by the wayside. What matters is great writing.
I’ll respond to your work in two ways, local and global. First of all, as mentioned above, I’ll provide a highly detailed line edit. An editor of mine told me that I was one of the most obsessive readers she’d ever worked with, which I took as a compliment. Obsession is good for writing.
To keep the exchange a dialogue, throughout the edits I’ll not only make comments but I’ll also ask you questions, to get you thinking about your own intentions, so you can come to the right decision about what to do.
My editing style is based on a principle of addition and subtraction: I’ll indicate what I think needs to be added, to make the world you’re creating on the page as believable and as beautiful as possible. In this sense, you might think of me as your seeing eye dog, seeing elements in the work that you might be unable to see, because you’re too close to it.
As for the matter of subtraction, I loosely follow the writer Shirley Hazzard’s guidelines to cutting material; when asked what she looks to change as she revises, she listed these three qualities, “falsity, infelicity[inappropriate style of expression] , banality.” I’ll make cuts to material that is extraneous or inessential to the life of the story, to places where you’re overstating something, offering images or metaphors that are too obvious, and where it would be far better to leave something unsaid or suggest that thing by implication.
Apart from focusing on the usual elements of character, detail, setting, plot etc., I’ll pay particular attention to your sentence style, which is an area of writing I’m especially interested in. I’m getting mathematical again in my metaphors, but sometimes I think great writing really comes down to a question of substance and style; we want to write work that flows directly to the reader’s heart, that most frightening of organs, and we achieve that through writing perfect, exact sentences.
So I’ll be editing your sentences in a manner that is at once technical and organic. Technical in the sense that I’ll be focusing on periods and commas and semi-colons and adjectival overuse or underuse and structure. Organic in the sense that I’m a great believer in the notion that we can hear if the sentences are hitting the right notes, as Raymond Carver would say. I’ll be listening intently to your sentences.
Accompanying my line edits will be a detailed letter in which I’ll go over your work in depth, talking about the issues that have arisen in a more general, global sense, and raising questions you should think about in terms of the entire manuscript. Although I don’t require it, I recommend to my mentees that one of your later packets be a revision of a packet submitted earlier in the project period.
Of course along with your creative work you’ll submit annotations of the books read that month, both individually and as part of the reading conference. You’ll be reading a minimum of ten books, five as a group, five individually, and the annotations should be 1-3pages each. These annotations should be creative- critical responses to each book, commenting on both the text and particular structural aspects of each book that might inform your own writing practice. You’ll participate regularly in both the reading and writing check in conference; I won’t actively participate in either conference, but will read postings and may chime in from time to time. I’m more than happy to work on critical papers and final manuscripts. The guidelines for submitting work month to month will probably change if you find yourself doing either one of these.
Ultimately all of my work with you will be geared towards assisting you in forming a clearer perspective on your writing and to make sure that you continue writing.
Kafka famously said that “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” I really think we need more books like that in the twenty-first century and we can achieve this through any genre. So basically, I’m here to help you turn your book into an axe. I’m here to be useful.