Last night, the Columbia MFA program concluded its creative writing lecture series with Saïd Sayrafiezadeh – acclaimed writer, professor at Hunter College and NYU, and man with a nearly unpronounceable last name. Betsy Ladyzhets – significantly less acclaimed writer, student at Barnard, and girl with a nearly unpronounceable last name – attended, and thinks she might have learned something.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh walked to the front of 501 Dodge and immediately requested that the audience, consisting of thirty or so MFA candidates, move up a row or two. “Tonight’s gonna be seminar-style,” he said. And, after a moment of that half-confused, half-nervous panic all first-years feel when the professor of a class marked lecture starts asking questions of their students, we complied.
Sayrafiezadeh didn’t waste much time with introductions. He simply stated that tonight would be focused on “how not to bore your reader,” then took us right into our main activity of the evening: making assumptions.
“The moment we start reading a story, we start making assumptions about what’s going to happen,” Sayrafiezadeh explained. With that thought in mind, he hooked up his phone to a speaker and played the first ten seconds of a song. He then asked us to guess: who would the speaker be? Would it be a man or a woman? What kind of tone would the song have? What would the narrative be?
After a couple minutes of guessing, Sayrafiezadeh played through the first chorus of the song. He then stopped and asked more questions: were we surprised? Did we think the lyrics of the song matched the introduction? What kind of story was this song telling, and was it interesting?
The audience seemed slightly confused by the exercise at first – wasn’t this supposed to be a lecture on writing or something? – but soon warmed up to it, calling out answers and attempting to explain inferences. Most of us had assumed the first song (which featured a slow drumbeat and low bassline) to feature a male singer, and after we realized that the singer was, in fact, a woman, Sayrafiezadeh asked if that was surprising. “It could still be a man!” one audience member shouted in response.
Sayrafiezadeh must have thought we hadn’t quite gotten the point yet, because he then played two more songs. The first – an Amy Winehouse number – had attributes not too difficult to guess, but the second – Lose Yourself by Eminem – definitely threw some people for a loop. (Who remembers that Lose Yourself has a quiet, sad-sounding piano introduction? Not Columbia MFA students, that’s for sure.)
After that, we graduated from music: it was time to watch a movie. Or, to watch the opening credit sequence of The Shining, while pretending that none of us had ever seen The Shining, and while Sayrafiezadeh played a romantic Ella Fitzgerald song instead of the actual intro music. He asked us to make assumptions about what the movie was about, from just that credit sequence, then from the credit sequence plus the first couple of scenes.
The guesses were, well, very far from the actual content of The Shining. People suggested that the movie was a romantic comedy, or a family comedy, or maybe something reminiscent of Home Alone. One audience member resolutely insisted that there was still something spooky about the opening, but Sayrafiezadeh questioned her at every turn.
And then, he played the credit sequence again – this time, with the actual music. This left no question in anyone’s mind: this was a horror movie.
Sayrafiezadeh explained that, with the creepy music that plays at the beginning of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick lets his audience know that some horrible shit is going to happen in this movie. That realization colors the boring, exposition scenes in an entirely new light; the viewer knows something that the characters don’t. “This movie is going to have something, just wait for it,” Sayrafiezadeh said.
But fiction is different from music or movies – we don’t have any ominous soundtracks to fall back on. How can writers build up dramatic irony from the very beginning of their stories?
To answer this question, Sayrafiezadeh brought out a third type of media: a short story. He gave each person a copy of a three-page-long story by Bryan Charles with the title whited out. The audience read the story popcorn-style, with each person reading a paragraph or two. The story seemed mildly interesting, but typical: a would-be writer is unsatisfied with his office job and fantasizes about women to pass the time. His internal and external selves are in tension with each other, but the tension doesn’t build enough to be really engaging – or so the students in the audience said.
In response to our criticism, Sayrafiezadeh asked the audience to come up with suggestions for the writer. How could the writer raise the stakes? “Give the character a pet,” one person suggested. “Hint that he’s going to commit suicide,” another said. Sayrafiezadeh acknowledged those ideas, then made a suggestion of his own: what if the writer gave the story a really killer title? A title that heightened tension and gave the story dramatic irony. Could a writer do all of that with just a title?
Yes. A writer could. Sayrafiezadeh proved that to us very conclusively, by walking around the room and revealing the title to each person in turn. I watched the shock appear on each person’s face, but I didn’t understand it until I finally learned the story’s title: “World Trade Center, Spring 2001.”
The story’s first line – “Because nothing changes.” – suddenly seemed almost cruel. As we reread the story with our new knowledge, it gained a new level of emotion that we hadn’t thought possible before. Scenes that seemed boring before were now frustrating, angry, even sad. “That title is the writerly equivalent of Stanley Kubrick’s creepy-ass music,” Sayrafiezadeh said.
There were no grand, sweeping statements about writing made at the end of this seminar. Sayrafiezadeh just answered a couple of questions (some more related to his lesson than others), then said he hoped we’d learned something, but wouldn’t be offended if we hadn’t, and invited us to partake of the free wine in the back of the room. It was very much unlike other lectures, on creative writing or otherwise – in fact, it wasn’t even much like a creative writing class. But it was far from a waste of time.
As I headed out of Dodge Hall, it occurred to me that Sayrafiezadeh had set us up in his seminar the same way he’d instructed us to write: by promising to teach us how to not bore our readers at the very beginning, he’d given us incentive to stay through all of the music- and movie-related activity that ostensibly had nothing to do with writing. Was it possible that his lesson on engaging the reader was designed to engage the writer? And did the way I wrote about that lesson in engaging readers by engaging writers engage you, the readers of this article? (Am I meta enough for Columbia’s MFA program yet?)
Meta or not, Sayrafiezadeh’s seminar was a refreshing break from the kind of seminars I’m used to – seminars that rely on everyone in the room having similar ideas about a topic and fifty plus pages of dense reading under their belt. After I got over the weird sensation of being invited to make assumptions, it became fun to shout out what I was thinking. And Sayrafiezadeh focused on one concept solidly for the entire seminar; this truly solidified his point: that finding a way to build tension for the reader, letting them know that something is going to happen, is the most effective way to keep them from getting bored.
Last night’s seminar was the last of the MFA program’s creative writing lecture series for this school year. The department is starting to plan the lineup for next year’s lecture series already – which is probably a wise idea, because Saïd Sayrafiezadeh will be a hard act to follow.
A man with more opinions on The Shining than we expected via Columbia School of the Arts Website