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Book Review: MFA in a Box

MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book. John Rember. Dream of Things Press, Chicago, IL, January 1, 2011, Trade paperback, 272 pages. Paperback available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; e-book available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and most e-book sites.

Reviewed by Kent McDaniel.

As the title promises, the book’s author John Rember offers cogent reasons to write, though many of them are stated more implicitly than explicitly. On the other hand, Rember is too exuberant to focus the book on just one issue; besides reasons why to write, there are many tips on how. Every chapter concludes, in fact, with a numbered (and often tongue-in-cheek) list of writing tips. And there’s still more going on in the book: social commentary, autobiography, philosophy, and literary criticism. In fact, MFA in a Box gives roughly as much attention to each of those subjects as to writing. This is not your father’s—or older brother’s—writer’s manual.

It took me longer than it should’ve to understand that this book is written as creative non-fiction, rather than standard nonfiction. Rember spends little time on the nuts and bolts of writing, and suggests looking elsewhere for the fundamentals of writing technique. He’s interested in how to use writing technique to best effect, once you have it. And he has no aversion to wordplay, tale spinning, whimsy, or digressions. For example, he moves from a discussion of Gilgamesh into a meditation on Marilyn Monroe and other glamorous women and on contemporary discomfort with femininity, particularly female sexuality, before returning to Gilgamesh.

It worked for me.

Also interesting is Rember’s retelling of “The Little Match Girl” as Raymond Carver could’ve written it, which he then relates to the topic of The Writer As An Outsider.  Later, Rember analyzes The Book of Job and “Hansel and Gretel” and, in a convincing fashion, relates both to the life and craft of a writer. And did I mention that Rember is funny?  He is. Very. Reading this, I laughed out loud—quite a bit. His humor is dry, mordant, and merciless.

All that is excellent, but I won’t claim that this is the easiest reading you may encounter. The prose is packed with concepts, allusions, opinions, and side-trips, all of which demand focus. My first time through MFA in a Box, I read a chapter a day; the second time through went faster for me but still kept me on my toes. The book definitely merited a second reading, and soon enough I’ll go through it a third time.

For anyone who feels he or she has read enough about writing for a lifetime, this book would be worth trying. It ventures deeper than most and illuminates why and how one might want to write and the relationship between those two questions. All the social commentary, autobiography, asides, and anecdotes could be seen as distractions, I guess, but for me they were a good matrix for Rember’s discourse on writing—and icing on the cake.

The book was a treat.

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