What Writers can learn from Spies and Artists @ Link Wanderlust


Jennifer duBois’s essay called MFA vs CIA at the Lapham’s Quarterly is as fascinating as it sounds. The author was 23 when she tried her luck with the CIA and the IOWA Writer’s Workshop. She goes back to her impressive CIA course book list to back up her theories.

In The Great Game: The Myths and Reality of Espionage, Frederick P. Hitz notes that one of the requirements of a good intelligence officer is “a profound understanding of human nature”—the ability to get into “the heads and the guts of a recruited spy.”

This is what a writer needs too. Don’t you want to read this essay already? Spies and writers have a lot in common.  Creators need a great deal of insight to make readers feel about non-existent characters in unreal worlds. They also tend to do the disappearing act the way spies do. The author never did become a spy in the end, though she has retained a great deal of fascination for the unreliable narrator…

“The experience haunts my writing, too, in some respects. Some of this is pretty straightforward: espionage has a tendency to weasel itself into my novels and, once it’s there, crash a plane. There are quieter resonances, too. Many of my characters feel a sense of their unlived lives flickering around them; in my first few years of writing almost all of my narrators were men. As both a writer and a reader, I seem to possess a steroidal sense of credulity. “That wouldn’t happen,” I’d hear my workshop colleagues say later on—but the thing about things that wouldn’t happen is that once in a while, they do. And these make for interesting stories, if there is anyone to tell them.”


If writers can learn from spies, they can learn from artists too. This is a more obvious connection. In her article at  the Ploughshares blog called Body Language: What Writers can learn from Artists, Annie Weatherwax says:

“For the writer of fiction, there is no better way to decode the nuances of body language and how to render it, than by looking at how artists handle it. For the visual artist, the study of human form is paramount. Like language is to writers, or the scale to musicians—it’s the foundation from which all other forms come.”

If there is one master of body language, it’s Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read her stories yet, start now- http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: