MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book

MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book

John Rember, the writer, dispenses writing advice in “MFA in a Box.”
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‘MFA in a Box: A Why To Write Book’

By John Rember
Dream of Things, 2011
262 pages; $16.95

John Rember’s “MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book” is full of deep literary allusions, such as this one to “Gilgamesh”: “Editors view apostrophe mistakes the way they might view a worm dropping out of the nose of a corpse, and as far as they’re concerned, the corpse belongs to the writer whose flawed manuscript they’re reading.”

As we all know, becoming a writer involves becoming a reader. It’s true whether your aims for writing are more immediate—get through English Composition 101—or more fantastical—write a novel that wins the National Book Award and Pulitzer in the same year.

For those writers and teachers searching for rejuvenation in their work and affirmation of it, this book is a sacred read. For the rest, Rember’s book is a must-read. If you still know why you want to write after reading Rember’s book, go for it: “get the butt in the chair.”

If you don’t want to write after reading his book, go outside and play and feel fine. There’s no shame in discovering your dreams were misplaced.

As with Francine Prose’s “Reading Like a Writer” (Harper Perennial, 2007), Rember’s “MFA in a Box” sets out stories about living, reading, and writing: why we read, why we create, why we interpret, and why we project onto that blank page. Yet this is not a relentless drumbeat. Rather, Rember’s voice is much like the authentic “ah-ha” that you wish you had experienced during your actual MFA and didn’t.

Through explorations on family, place, grief, race, violence, travel, and love, “MFA in a Box” explores the inner sanctum of a writer’s life. Why does one thing lead you to another? Why does metaphor weigh you down? From the lofty to the mundane, Rember stays present: I finished that sentence—now what?

As Rember writes, “The final step is when you realize that writing is all artifice, and when you’re good enough at artifice, you can pay attention to what lies beneath it.” As an example of how Rember ties together different themes, crafts, abilities, and texts herein, he continues: “One of the reasons I like the effect photography has had on writing is that it makes artifice explicit, and turns writers into artisans with an illusion to create.”

A writer needs practical, technical skills to create, but a writer also needs the ability to observe, to bear witness not just to the outside world but also to the inner life. Through textual examples, and examples from his own life, Rember takes us on a journey that challenges inner and outer demons. His practical advice is fun, too, with various rules for writers included at the end of each chapter:

  • “That guy with the flaming sword is your friend”;
  • “If Zeus’s punishment for your defiance seems not to fit the crime, just remember that your liver will be as good as new tomorrow”;
  • “Dream as a god, write as a mortal. They’re not called deadlines for nothing”;
  • “You will not get to listen to a discussion of your book during Thanksgiving Dinner, unless you’ve written a book about turkeys. Don’t write a book on turkeys.”

Rember’s irreverent helpful tips are matched with deep knowledge. Rember confirms and affirms that after reading, one needs to sit down and write. And then revise. Another trick, intuitive but set out here with gusto, is to live with authenticity and without fear. Confront others, but most of all: confront yourself.

And in the form of awards, praise continues for Rember’s “MFA in a Box”: it is a silver winner in the Writing/Creative Process category for the 2011 Nautilus Book Awards; it is a finalist for the 2011 Midwest Book Awards (reference category); and it is on the short list for the grand prize of the 2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award.

When Rember argues that “every successful writer has the courage to confront the violence of the mundane,” he’s not arguing to a cloud. Rember has done the work—as an example, read his extraordinary “Traplines: Coming Home to Sawtooth Valley” (Vintage, 2004). In “MFA in a Box,” Rember shares his extensive pedagogical experience, so we can all better walk the walk, and set it down in our own creations.

Renée E. D’Aoust