Inside an MFA program: Call & response #1

Posted by @ 1:44 pm on October 10th, 2011

We’ve had a bunch of pedagogy posts recently from inside the creative writing classroom, from the professor’s point of view. I thought it would be pretty cool to let some students chime in. And as luck would have it, I happen to have access to a bunch of MFA peoples (at New Mexico State), because I’m professional like that. So, last Thursday night, during my 500-level Form & Techniques in Fiction class (themed Constrained Prose), I put out my laptop and posed the following questions:

Can you teach creative writing? How? How would you teach creative writing that is different from your MFA? How would you “innovate” or “renovate”? What have you “learned” from your MFA? What has been the biggest surprise? Disappointment?

Below, you’ll find the responses. If you have other questions you’d like discussed/answered, this will be an on-going segment for me, so shoot me an email or something.

Seth Wilson: You can teach creative writing, insomuch as you can teach someone to master the course on Ninja Warrior. At some point, aptitude and willingness are going to come into play. I really can’t think of a different way to teach Creative Writing. I consider this to be a lapse in Creativity. In seriousness, I think the system is fine as it is. If were to do something ending in “vate” it would be to give greater attention to the drafting process, as opposed to turning out a maximum number of original drafts. The one thing I have learned is that the drafting process is long and surprising. My biggest surprise? Couldn’t say. My biggest disappointment? I’m not a genius and I have to try just as hard as anyone else.

Sessily Watt: I’m going to sidestep the first question about teaching creative writing (while splitting a whole head of hairs) by stating that everyone who enters an MFA or MA program in creative writing is already a creative writer. None of us need or want to be told how to write creatively—for the most part we have been doing so for years. Or, at least, that’s true of me. Rather than searching for instruction, I applied to programs wanting to be challenged, in multiple senses. I wanted to be challenged to attempt new forms and modes, some of which I maybe hadn’t heard of or encountered, and I wanted to be challenged on my assumptions, not so they would all be stripped away, but so I could clarify and assess them. I was lucky enough to be challenged that way before entering the MFA and I’ve been lucky enough to be challenged here. The biggest difference I’ve found between the two experiences is the intensity with which those challenges occur when a group of writers is thrown together and allowed to focus almost exclusively on writing.

In fact, what’s been most emphasized by my time here is how important the other writers in the program are to my experience—another way in which I feel I lucked out.  I don’t have any specific innovations (or renovations) that I’m certain would be a good idea, but I do wonder how MFA programs would differ if it was a general practice for current students to take part in the selection process.

Spencer Taylor: If excellent teaching is understood not to be a practice of imparting or bestowing knowledge, but merely inviting the pupil to realize a thing by sharing a view from the instructor’s vantage, then creative writing can be taught. This is to say that teaching creative writing begins with merely showing the student a variety of writing, and ends with the student’s utilization of this view to formulate their own selective decisions.

MFA programs often focus on correcting student “weaknesses”, which may actually be quirks more deeply reflective of the student’s unique voice. I would be curious to see what an MFA program could do by highlighting and harnessing these weaknesses. If a student has poor dialogue tags for instance, perhaps the instructors of a program could work with the student on using this aspect of their writing to innovate a new system of unconventional dialogue tagging. At worst this work in area of dialogue tagging would lead the student to a more thorough understanding of the mechanic, while at best the student may pioneer a more efficient system of tagging which becomes a new convention.

Angela Simental: Creative writing, as I have learned in my first semester as an MA student, is something that cannot be exactly taught. What I mean by this is that reading makes a writer. A better writer. I have noticed that the more I read, the more ideas I have for new projects, the better my vocabulary is, and just the way I perceive ordinary things has changed. Anything, can be turned into an idea that could be a potential writing project. I thrive on turning my “everyday” experiences into something a little more amazing through my writing. I don’t know if that can necessarily be taught either. I am surprised, though, that through workshops I am more cognizant of the “structural” work behind a story. I more and more aware of the message that I want to give each particular writing project. I am aware of how that message will be delivered through sentence structure or diction. My only disappointment would be the time constraint. I would like to spend more time with some of my work; refine it.

Chris Rosenbluth: Whether or not creative writing can be taught seems irrelevant to my understanding of what an MFA can do for a writer. I didn’t apply to and then accept a place in an MFA to be taught how to write by someone else, to be given access to some magical tool kid I can use to pen epic prose, even though the professors in my MFA program are talented, motivated individuals who have already helped my writing grow and develop. My purpose for being in an MFA is to take three years out of my life to concentrate exclusively on writing, which was something I could not do when I was trying to manage a career, family, and the other stressors of life. By enrolling in an MFA, I was telling myself that the next three years of my life were going to be dedicated to the craft of writing, not to the intellectual practice of learning to write. So while there is an inherent student-teacher relationship in the academy, I simply don’t view what I’m doing in the context of that relationship. I see my teachers as a group of dedicated readers with whom I can share ideas about writing and story development and structure and all the other things that go into writing great stories. The bottom line is that when I’m sitting at my computer writing stories I am alone. My teachers don’t sit on my lap and whisper secrets into my ear. They don’t give me formulas to memorize or any other tricks to make it easier. I am alone in that process. In that context, I see my teachers more as guides or mentors who are willing to give me an honest read. That is more valuable to me than any amount of teaching they could do.

Above all else, I’ve learned from my MFA the value of putting my butt in the chair for a few hours every day and writing, whether I feel like it or not, whether I’m inspired to or not. I’ve learned that putting my butt in the chair is the most valuable writing skill I can develop.

Cambria Pritcherd: Creative writing can’t be taught. Discipline, process, close-reading skills, and the fine art of accepting constructive criticism can be learned. Writers write whether they are being paid or earning college credits.

Alland Perez-Cruz: As children we probably composed a thousand stories before we ever learned the alphabet.  As a species, we have an important tradition of storytelling.  Thousands of years of stories run through our collective consciousness.  I like to think that other species have the same sort of tradition.  I imagine elephants telling the story of where they were born through foot prints, grumbles, and trumpet sounds.  But we are talking people here, people.  Here we are, thousands of years later trying to tell the same story in different ways.  The possibilities are intimidating.  Yet, this may be the very thing that stirs that fire in every artist, the possibility of creating something permanently beautiful.

You could make the argument that the only thing that can be taught to an aspiring creative writer is the act of writing itself.  The day we were taught how to turn letters into words, words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, was the day we discovered that we could materialize a story, from our thought to the page.  But for those of us who wish for a nice cushy job at a university some day?  Hell yeah you can teach it!  You can teach the shit out of creative writing!  Lily does it wonderfully every day.  In fact, every creative writing professor I’ve had at NMSU has professed amazingly, and in their own style.  I think that a creative writing teacher should expose students to works that may inspire them to write.  The day I first heard Redemption Song by Bob Marley, was the day I wanted to learn how to play the guitar.  The day that I started reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, was the day I knew I wanted to be a writer.  My enthusiasm for writing is renewed every time I read a great author.  Exposing and analyzing new and interesting work can also teach students what can be done as a writer, and workshopping teaches a student what can’t be done.  Most other things about creative writing seem like they can’t be taught, but can be learned by reading and studying other authors.  Of course there is that instinct that I hear a lot about, that intangible, the infinite thoughts that float around waiting to be caught by your brain and translated through your pen.  That may be what separates the writer from the non-writer.  Maybe the drive to put words together is an indication that us writer types are the direct descendents of those early people who just wanted to sit around and think, a long line of gals and guys who, instead of hunting, traded their words for a piece of meat.  Or it could be the drain of endorphins in your skull, trickling down your throat and through your body, when you create a combination of words that sound like they could have been written by one of your favorite authors.  Without this fire, it would be difficult for me to stay in front of the keyboard.  Now, I haven’t mastered Redemption Song yet, but I can hear it getting better every time I play it.  I’ve come to realize that this translates to most things in life.  So, one of the first lessons for a student of writing should be practice makes perfect, and read, a lot.  I feel very fortunate being the undergrad in Lily’s MFA class.  She has exposed us to the Oulipo, which has made me think about process and those intimidating possibilities.

If I were to teach creative writing, I would first consider setting.  Isn’t that important in any work?  I don’t feel as comfortable creating in most places, as I do my apartment.  This is because I’ve composed an environment which I feel inspires me.  Sterile white walls belong in insane asylums, and I am not ready to go there yet.

I’m reading Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, in it she writes about her experience in Ken Kesey’s class, at the University of Oregon.  Kesey held class at his place.  Talk about inspiration!  They would also get real fuckin’ high, and drunk.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think everybody should be stoned or drunk in class-that may be hard to manage- but it’s these alternatives to the status quo which usually bring the art to another level.  If I were teaching a class I would make sure that the setting was as interesting as the people in the class.  I’m pretty sure that the conversations on top of a mountain are going to be different than those at a coffee shop.  I would bounce the class around and shake it up a bit.  I must say, I am digging the balcony in our current class.  Other than that I wouldn’t take much more of a different approach than my prior and current professors, a bunch of cool writing assignments with some great writing and, boom, you got a class.

Surprises?  Where am I?  I didn’t know what to expect, but luckily the other students in the class are all very interesting and super cool people who like the same things I do, in a different way.  They are also very talented writers.  It has made me want to take my own work to the next level.  My professors are all supper hip and smart.  I can’t really ask for much more.  I’m grateful.

No disappointments.  Haven’t you been listening?

Luke Luna: I don’t know how much of writing can be taught, but I know that most of it can be learned. Craft can definitely be taught and learned. The process of revision and attention to detail can be learned. Writerly sensibilities and knowledge of standard conventions can be imitated. Voices can be discovered (though I’ve heard this can sometimes take a long time), and in addition to all of this, like a well worn path waiting always to be rediscovered, exists for all of us aspiring wordsmiths a rich and diverse literary heritage—the masterpieces of the masters— to draw on and learn from, most of which are almost always available (and cheaply) at the touch of a few buttons, thanks to modern technologies. For all of these reasons, I don’t see why any MFA program, a socially accepted writer’s club, couldn’t be a place where Creative Writing can be both taught and learned.

Of those intangible qualities that seem to separate those writers who “make it”—such as imagination, narrative instinct, and sheer perseverance—from those who merely become really good readers, only perseverance seems to be thing that can not be honed and improved by reading lots of high quality literature from the point of view of the writer and potential reader—a practice that any good MFA program should encourage.

I think the goal of a good MFA program is to foster a supportive environment that is flexible enough to facilitate the process of growth and self discovery necessary for each individual writer, diverse as the group may be, and often is.

What has been most surprising is how that sense of how easy it is to write a sentence in English, and how hard it is to make it memorable has never left, but rather only quickened between the alternations of both perceptions. I feel like I’ve had the same experience standing under a basketball hoop as a teenager, lifting my arms up and only being inches away from the net. What was the big deal? Yet, whenever I watched a college or professionally game, there was no doubt in my mind how impossible it was to compete with these individuals, who seemed to soar through the air like fish glide through water.

Now, when I read a great line of fiction, I can see that it is composed of words in standard English. Yet, when I think about what it means, and I admire the complexity of its ability to capture the interplay of imagination, reality, art, and life…I am completely blown away. When I can catch just a glimmering of that luminosity of the great writers in my own humble attempts, I feel like a young adolescent soaring above the rim for the first time.

I think the most disappointing part of my MFA, or writing experience in general is coming to the realization that even if you do produce something good, a seemingly monumental task in itself, that is hardly enough to be successful in today’s literary environment. You have to be a businessman too! F-word!

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from my MFA experience so far. I think I’m still too close in it to be able to provide any useful perspective to anyone but myself, so maybe this; work harder! The trick seems to be in learning how to not give up— on the line level, in revisions, in the whole frustrating and only occasionally rewarding affair.

Philip Cole Johnson: I believe that creative writing cannot be taught in the sense that math can be taught; however, that does not mean a teacher cannot help the student. The experienced teacher can guide the student to make his or her own discoveries, and can also point out weaknesses in the student’s work and suggest what the student can do in order to improve.  Furthermore, storytelling does have some basic, traditional techniques that can indeed be taught, even if the “rules” are going to be broken later; one needs to master these rules in order to break them. However, I think the most valuable aspect of an MFA program is not the teaching of creative writing, but rather the introduction to a writing lifestyle: the most valuable lesson is that to write, one needs to actually sit down (or stand?) and do it. One learns to care about how a sentence sounds, to rewrite until the story accomplishes exactly what one envisioned, and to read and respond in a helpful way to the work of others. The student learns how to be a part of the writing community. My biggest surprise? It was a pleasant one: the intensity of discussion and the attention to detail that the students brought to each other’s work. My biggest disappointment? Probably that I still manage to find excuses; though I hope that changes.

Kelsie Hahn: It is possible to teach creative writing to the degree that it is possible to teach writing at all. Teaching writing is about teaching attention to the way writing works in the texts we read as well as in the texts we create. Teaching writing is about teaching a way of thinking, and it’s about teaching methods for putting that thinking down on the page, reading what you’ve written, thinking some more, changing the page, and on and on. It’s possible to teach techniques: how to write in first-person or close third, how to utilize strategies for character development or writing about place, how to use syntax to convey importance, voice, or mood. The mechanics are teachable. Forms and vocabulary, ways of speaking about writing. The ability to mine the writing techniques and habits we’ve absorbed and developed throughout our lives. A writing culture of the mind is teachable.

While there are aspects of writing I struggle with that seem un-teachable, I’m resistant to the idea of creative writing as a mystical process reserved for the worthy or the naturally gifted. I am not naturally gifted at basketball. I have an off-kilter sense of balance, clumsy feet, and tiny, tiny hands. But I know the basics. I can dribble, pass, and shoot (sort of), but I cannot play a great basketball game. A great basketball game is more than just the mechanics, yet we don’t look at basketball and say it isn’t teachable. It is teachable – basketball is taught through practice, the minute observation of great basketball players, and the work of coaches. I could get better at basketball. I could be taught. To some degree, I could become a basketball player. And I can be taught creative writing, by practicing, by observing the moves of great writers, and learning from teachers.

My biggest surprise in the MFA is how much my writing has changed. Not just in the sense that I’m “doing what I do” better, but that the things I do as a writer have expanded. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer who experiments with form, yet I find myself doing just that (with admittedly variable degrees of success). I’ve come to cherish writing techniques I once avoided. This has grown from reading more widely, both published works and the drafts of my peers, discussions with peers and professors, and the opportunity to teach writing to others. These aspects teach me to be a better writer.

Josh Bowen: Creative writing is an art, and the vision that produces art cannot be taught. We can, however, teach the skills and techniques required to produce art. We can teach students to read, specifically to read as writers, and this is one of the most valuable skills a writer possesses. We can teach students to view their own work, and the work of others, critically, and we can help develop a vocabulary with which to talk about writing. We can emphasize the necessity of the work, of the time, and of the sweat involved in the production of art. This emphasis, more than anything, is what is missing from the MFA.

I would like to see a more strenuous writing requirement for students. I would like to see students challenged to write more than they think they can to the point that writing becomes a habit, a second nature, to the point that they feel unnatural when they are not writing or thinking about writing. The typical workshop is not necessarily designed for this rigor. It is designed for the refinement of writing, but more attention should be paid to the creation. There could be more flexibility and room for play. We could have room for collaboration and different approaches to inspiration. What I’m describing sounds more like a retreat than an academic program, but I don’t know that the two are incompatible.

I have learned that while we do not all have the same aesthetic, it is important to find ways to talk about writing that does not appeal to us. I have also learned that a few generous, insightful, critical readers are more helpful than a room full of readers who are more interested in what they think your work should be doing than in what you want your work to do or a room full of readers who provide feedback for the sake of feedback instead of investing in your work.

My biggest surprise has been the variety and range of writers accepted into the same program. There are varied opinions about what writing is, what it should be, and how the MFA program should approach those ideas. And while that variety sometimes creates disharmony in the classroom, it also fosters lively discussions about what it is we’re all trying to do here. My biggest disappointment has been the increasing tendency to devalue the study and creation of the arts. While lip service is paid to the value of art and creativity, we continue to de-fund and ignore the programs that generate these products. Instead, we emphasize the programs and classes that teach the knowledge and skills required to generate money. This is not a disappointment in this particular MFA program so much as it is a disappointment in the university system and society at large. But maybe that’s just my narcissism acting up.

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