Teaching Creative Writing

Posted by @ 5:26 pm on September 8th, 2011

This is a response to Roxane’s recent post, “How the Hell Do We Teach Creative Writing?

I am a firm believer that creative writing can be taught; I’ve been teaching it for years now (at DePaul University, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, and StoryStudio Chicago). Below, I’ll break “creative writing” down into five pedagogical areas (I’m a rather analytical fellow); when viewed from that perspective, I think, a whole host of practicable exercises and activities become apparent. (Note that this will be a blanket overview; I’d be happy to discuss any of this in much more depth.)

1. The Writing Process

Writers and readers often talk about “writing” as though it is one thing, but it is, I think, actually many separate tasks. Being a good writer requires mastering each of those small tasks: considering one’s audience/venue, brainstorming/freewriting/clustering, note-taking, background reading, organizing one’s ideas into a rough structure (outlining/planning), identifying useful rhetorical forms and structures, doing research, documentation, revision, polishing, and more—and then, after that, there’s the whole peer review / publishing side of things, which is a whole world unto itself.

This process can be taught; its pieces can be demonstrated, broken up into exercises, practiced, tested; meanwhile, the steps can be “added back up” and viewed holistically. The more students enact the process, the more they learn the importance of each step, which parts they’re good at and which parts they need to spend more time on, and ultimately how to customize the procedure into a methodology that works for them. (Obviously not everyone writes the same way; this process should be viewed as a place to start.)

2. Craft

Just as the writing process is the accumulation of numerous small tasks, a piece of writing is made up of many small parts (what the Russian Formalists would call “priem,” or “devices”). I recently taught an intro to creative writing workshop (at StoryStudio) where we covered a whole range of narrative devices: major and minor characters, summary and scene, direct and indirect dialogue, plot vs. presentation, showing vs. telling, the narrative present, exposition and flashbacks, point of view, tense, narrative and character arcs, differences between fiction and creative non-fiction, definitions of narrative itself—and after eight weeks, we’d only scratched the surface of narrative craft (leave aside for the moment the question of whether the students could enact any of it).

In my experience, poets tend to understand writing as craft better than fiction writers do, because poetry workshops focus more explicitly on this subject. For instance, I’m taking a poetry workshop at UIC this semester (with Roger Reeves), and each week a student is required to give a half hour craft presentation (they’re actually called that). The first was on caesura, the second on ekphrasis. Furthermore, in two weeks of workshop we’ve already discussed all kinds of stanza forms and meters, alliteration and rhyme, the concept and use of metaphor, rhetorical devices like periphrasis, voice and its relation to grammar, and more. This is pretty par for the course in poetry workshops (I’ve taken four and taught two), and a good argument for why any writer, regardless of genre, should take at least one. (I would also recommend at least one class on rhetoric. If I had my way, creative writing programs would require—or strongly encourage—students to take workshops in every genre.) (I’d also want to see students try their hands at writing mainstream commercial work.)

3. Writing Techniques and Procedures

This topic is related to craft, but worthy of its own category. When you sits down to write, there are numerous ways to go about it. Let’s say you want to “construct a character.” You can interview yourself or friends. You can sit in a cafe and observe random people. You can examine your work formally and puzzle out what characteristics will be most useful for executing your plot. You can throw dice and consult the I Ching. You can use the Oulipo’s n+7 technique (or have a computer do it for you). You can steal a character from another literary work, a la Gilbert Sorrentino (and others). None of these techniques are necessarily better or worse than any other, but they all have their own qualities, and learning to master them requires practice and attention.

A current limitation of many creative writing programs is their tendency to too strongly align themselves with particular schools or camps, thereby limiting the range of the techniques their students are exposed to. Perhaps this is sadly inevitable? Students should understand, of course, that lyric poets often fight with Language Poets (or, rather, that those two camps ignore one another), but they should also be encouraged to explore writing both formal lyrical verse and New Paragraphs. Similarly, a student can spend some time playing with some of John Gardner’s exercises, then try Oulipian procedures. (In my own writing, I regularly mix realist and anti-realist, as well as mainstream and experimental, practices; I happen to like a lot of things.) (It should also be obvious by now that I don’t consider my pedagogy the only pedagogy.)

4. Historical Precedents, Contemporary Concerns

Writing requires some knowledge of what others have done before us, as well as what others are doing right now. Creative writing programs should spend a not-insignificant amount of time assigning representative texts to serve as examples. (I believe very strongly that most people learn to do even “creative” things by means of imitation.) I wouldn’t be the writer I am today if my teachers hadn’t told me to read Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Donald Barthelme, and dozens of others. (And the writers I disliked probably did more to shape my interests than the ones I enjoyed! A visceral hatred of all the shit you see around you makes a great incentive to write—and to write well by really risking something.) (The first few decent stories I wrote were parodies of pieces in journals like The Kenyon Review and Ploughshares; a few of them ended up in my first prose collection.)

My first published story, back in 1998, was a horrible terrible Donald Barthelme imitation; I cringe when I see it today (I’m very grateful that it no longer seems to be online), and I’ll never collect it. (Frederick Barthelme took it for the Mississippi Review Online, and I wonder now sometimes what on earth he thought of it.) But writing that piece was an important step in my development as a writer—I had to learn that it was possible to write a story like Donald Barthelme. After him, I moved on to imitating Guy Davenport, as well as Kathy Acker and Steve Katz and Yuriy Tarnawsky, and somewhere along the line, “my own voice” emerged—meaning, I recognized some common thing that interested me about those five very different writers, and I began pursuing that thing in my own way. (I also learned that it was OK to be OK with my own interests, even if others didn’t share them—it was John Cage, I think, who taught me that.)

5. Discipline

More than anything else, writing requires time and steady effort (unless, of course, it doesn’t—lucky you!). In 2005, I decided to stop kidding around and to discipline myself; I started writing every day. Six years later, I’ve published two books, completed three others, and produced a ton of other work (probably too much). Now my problem is that I don’t have enough time as I would like in which to write.

Creative writing programs and classes can and should provide students with time and space (and encouragement) to write—as well as the all-important deadlines, without which very little would ever happen.

It’s Perfectly OK for Student Writers to Suck Horribly

All of this is basically to say that creative writing (all writing) is a social activity with a vast history and attendant conventions, and that in order to write well, one must embody a tremendous amount of knowledge, using it to find one’s place within that ongoing cultural conversation. (Can one learn these things outside a school? Certainly. Does one need to learn everything? Certainly not.)

But can creative writing programs teach students to write well? Perhaps. Studying all of the above probably doesn’t hurt. I believe that the time I spent in degree programs made me a much better writer (so did the time I spent on my own, outside of school, studying writing—as did the time I spent reading X-Men comics and watching movies…), and it’s a matter of record that many great writers have graduated from CW programs.

But here’s a question I rarely see asked, and which I personally consider more worth debating: is it important that students write well? I honestly don’t think that it is. I completed my undergraduate degree without producing a publishable poem or story (or even publishing one—the relationship here isn’t necessarily causal). My honors thesis was an experiment that’s now sitting in a box somewhere. My Master’s thesis wasn’t (in my estimation) publishable (I later revised it—very heavily—into my first novel). Similarly, while earning my MA, I didn’t produce a single page of worthwhile critical writing. (One of my professors even told me—and I agreed with him, at the time—that I shouldn’t consider getting a PhD, as I wasn’t very good at critical writing.)

So when I’m assigned a section of freshman comp, or an intro to creative writing class, I don’t expect the students to be very good at doing the things we talk about—even after the class is over. (I expect them to do the assignments and to take the subject matter seriously and to try new things.) I studied and practiced writing for over a decade (1995–2005) before I finally “became a writer” (according to my own standards)—which meant being able to produce a bunch of stories that I thought were more than exercises (which is still setting the bar pretty low). And it took me a few years after that to write a novel (I scrapped at least six), and longer still to write a decent critical article. Writing is an unnatural activity that requires a great deal of time and effort to master. What creative writing programs should offer is access to a wide and varied body of knowledge, as well as the time and space to study, experiment, and practice.

What students go on to do with all that afterward is their business.

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