Some time ago, a doctor friend of mine who dabbles in fiction said, "Why are you getting an MFA? Everyone knows writing can't be taught." About to enroll in Boston University's MFA Program, I thought about his comment for a long time. As a doctor myself, I have long known that certain aspects of medicine can't be taught because, well, they're more art than science. Nobody can teach you, for example, how to feel compassion; you either do or you don't. Still, not a single person ever asked me why I was going to medical school. Not a single person said medicine can't be taught.
Now, as a freshly minted MFA'er, I'm certain the craft of writing can be taught. Sure, having an artist's sensibility might be innate, but possessing the necessary tools to tell a good story usually is not. A writer must learn about structure, plot, character development, dialogue, setting scenes, and a whole bunch of other stuff. My biggest blunder was the constant use of exposition. I explained everything and left nothing to the reader's imagination. At BU, my overly expository narratives drove my classmates crazy. One even wrote on a manuscript, "Kevin, I counted twenty examples of exposition in this story. Knock it off!"
I was perplexed. How would my readers understand if I didn't explain? People often assume that as a doctor, I write about medicine, but this is rarely the case. I'm the product of an Iranian Muslim cardiologist father and an Irish Catholic dairy-farmer mother, so my stories often deal with cross-cultural issues. The concept of home and the yearning for what is familiar are common themes for me. I need to transport my readers into a strange new world, one where well-educated, dark-skinned immigrants in three-piece suits drive tractors across hayfields to spread manure. Of course, I assumed I had to explain their customs and language. How else would the reader understand?
Sitting in Ha Jin's fiction workshop at Boston University—in the same small room overlooking the Charles where John Cheever and Richard Yates had taught—Ha Jin was trying tactfully, once again, to tell me that most of my exposition was clumsy and just plain boring. "Pretend we are already part of the culture," he said. "Pretend we already understand." He suggested using clean, unfettered prose and leaving out all but the most essential information. The omissions would actually strengthen the work, he explained. Finally I got it, and a leaner prose style slowly began to emerge, one based more on action, and less on explanation and reflection.
As an example, here's a paragraph from the first draft of my story, The Vast Garden of Strangers:
Bijan came from the fertile plains of Khuzestan Province, where his family were Ahwazi Arab Jews. They had been farmers for centuries until the government forcibly took their ancestral land to create a sugar plantation under the Official Iranian Land Confiscation Program, which Old Reza knew was a state-run plan of ethnic cleansing. The Persian Islamicists in power hated the Arabs from Khuzestan, which many old-timers still called Arabistan. Bijan said he had farming in his genes and could make anything grow.
Sure, the passage is grammatically correct but less effective than when I omit details that add nothing to the story. In the final version the reader knows just enough about Bijan's background to understand the scene:
knew all about gardening from Bijan, who came from the fertile plains of Khuzestan. Bijan's family were Ahwazi Arab Jews.
Don't get me wrong—I still engage in unnecessary exposition, but most of the time, I catch myself. Why? Because the craft of fiction writing can be taught, and even though I'm still learning, I've picked up some pretty good tools from my teachers. And in MFA programs, your teachers aren't just the professors; they're also your classmates. One of mine once said something pretty simple, and her advice affected my writing more than anything else: "We get it, Kevin. Learn to trust us."