Teaching Creative Writing
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.)
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.)
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.
Tags: creative writing, donald barthelme, Frederick Barthelme, gilbert sorrentino, Guy Davenport, I Ching, John Cage, john gardner, Joy Williams, kathy acker, Language Poetry, lyric poetry, mississippi review online, oulipo, raymond carver, Roger Reeves, roxane gay, Steve Katz, teaching, Yuriy Tarnawsky
No one that believes in ‘craft presentations’ has business leading a creative writing workshop.
“All of this is basically to say that creative writing (all writing) is a
social activity with a vast history and attendant conventions…”
Yes, thanks for emphasizing this. Something that is too often lost or overlooked in CW pedagogy.
Out of curiosity, why not?
Please! Teaching creative writing is a way for a ”writer” to make a ”living” without having to work in fast-food.
As Dean Young put it, we’re making birds not birdhouses.
Creativity and artistic interest can be facilitated to a degree but they can’t be taught. Craft has a place but it’s a small one. None of the elements of craft mentioned in the OP were alien or mysterious to me beyond HS English. Any ‘craft’ work beyond the 100-level is nonsense and a lazy crutch. I don’t think the majority of CW workshop leaders (especially at the graduate levels) are particularly effective facilitators. ‘Craft’ is more tangible, more easy to teach, more easy to measure, it’s cozier for some and no wonder they get defensive. I think a pedagogy at the level of CW education as it’s discussed most often on this site would do itself (and its students) a grand service to take off the arm floaties and have the more abstract and difficult discussions that surround the creative process itself. The OP does this nicely actually–issues of breadth, variety, and discipline are supremely important I think. I was less slamming the OP entirely than the idea of ‘craft presentations’ at anything resembling a moderate level of the academic ladder.
I just think too many people get uncomfortable when you declare that some people just can’t / won’t be able to do it. Even accounting for taste and aesthetic variation, it remains true.
I think the suckage thing is SO important to remember when teaching undergrads (and probably even grads, though I never have). They have most likely never thought about writing in any kind of formal way beyond genre (which is exactly why you teach them craft and break writing down, amen). Everyone sucks when they start writing. Which is why that whole school of thought that says you should discourage young writers who suck gets under my skin. Sucking is a whole thing you have to do to become a better writer.
Respectfully, I disagree. I thought I knew what caesura was—I’m in PhD program in Creative Writing—but my classmate’s presentation revealed to me how little I knew about the subject.
In other words: shit’s complex, yo.
There is that, too. Are you saying that’s a bad thing?
I agree absolutely. I kinda hate it when my teacher friends ridicule bad papers, bad stories, bad poems. I can see why they do it—they’re overworked; it’s a release valve—but, honestly, even the worst undergrad may go on to do something good. My own undergraduate work was pretty miserable. As was some of my grad work. (Hell, my work now may not shine the hottest.)
My thoughts here, by the way, have been heavily influenced by James Elkins’s Why Art Cannot Be Taught (University of Illinois Press, 2001).
Yes. It’s a dishonest line of work.
I’m not sure I agree. I took a class on craft with Dave Jauss as an upper level undergraduate and I’d love to take a more in-depth one now. Not because I don’t understand those elements, but because for me, a large part of improving my writing is learning to recognize those things I do naturally and revising to do them more effectively. If I can put words to what I’m doing, if I have tangible rather than amorphous things to look for when I’m looking at other writing, then I have the tools to look for exactly what I need.
I wouldn’t presume to say things work this way for everyone; all writers are different. But that class certainly helped me, and I don’t think it’s any accident, either, that Dave Jauss also leads one hell of a fine workshop.
No doubt, if one is passionately inclined to become in expert in birdhouses there will be no end to the insight such detailed discussions might offer.
Or rather, this is arguing for an understanding of aerodynamics RE: birds flying.
I did say quite clearly there’s a place for craft. I didn’t mean to say it ends entirely at the basic level, but is it’s place in a CW workshop? No, especially not at the higher levels. If you want to talk intro. class levels, it’s hard to imagine a device for turning students off to the creative process of writing like a handout on Day One on sonnets and demanding they go write one. Again, a difference between teaching / facilitating. The latter obviously requires something of the former but how often does it eclipse it?
As you said, all writers are different. In my experiences if someone can put into words what they’re ‘doing’, it’s usually not something that’s all that interesting. Bring on the amorphous!
How to write what? Technical manuals? Resumes? Poems? As you said, shit’s complex yo. Can you probably teach someone how to write a sonnet, mechanically speaking (i.e., how to ‘craft’ a sonnet)? Sure. How far are they from engaging in an artistically invested way in the process of writing poetry they actually want to write, feel the need to express? I doubt most people would say you can’t do the former, I just think there are many that question how big a accomplishment that is, how interesting it is, how valuable it is.
Many CW grad programs offer “forms” classes to address craft separate from the workshop.
It sure is to students who do write well – or who want to.
I mean that if writing “well”–if quality–isn’t a criterion and a goal, in class or any ‘where’ else in life, then what’s the meaning or purpose of writing at all?
If one wants to leave a note on the fridge, causing the effect that one wants is essential to how one scribbles the thing. If you want to tell a story or paint an image or generate emotion or inflame an ambiguity with language, you have a target that you want to hit: you have a sense of what “writ[ing] well” would be (to you).
Ridiculing a trusting (or at least vulnerable) person with less power than one has is always grotesque, but ridicule isn’t – by far – the only way to present to a student or class a teacher’s working parameters of “writ[ing – or doing anything] well”–which parameters are, I think, always at work when a teacher teaches anything.
TODAY I SCUTTLED A WINDPIPE & BLEW INTO HIS HOLLOW HORNS WITH ABUNDANCE CRACKING ABACK, SPLITTING ANEW FROM MAW TO SHUTTLE A BAND OF BLOODY, LATENT BROTHERS & SISTERS HUNKERING HIGH IN HIS BREAST, HOLDING BACK THEIR REBUTTALS UNTIL THE DEMON WAS DEAD & GRADES RECEIVED LIKE WAVES WROUGHT BY THE MOST EPIC TEXTBOOK EVER WRITTEN ON THE FECAL CONTENT INHERENT TO STEAK
What’s the difference, here, between ‘to facilitate’ and ‘to teach’? Is there something in teaching which is not facilitation (of some kind)?
Also, I’m amazed to see someone who advocates a creative writing regimen of “abstract and difficult discussions that surround the creative process itself” on, what, a credit basis? as opposed, for those lessons, to learning to write creatively by writing then “discuss[ing]” what one has written??
I promise: I love “abstract and difficult discussions”.
–but the only things they reliably get one better at is: abstract and difficult thinking and conversational expression of abstract and difficult thought.
I haven’t noticed or heard of a shortage of students at any level – K through PhD – in any field who engaged/indulged themselves in “abstract and difficult discussions” of their “process[es]”. Is such a paucity the case with advanced creative-writing students?
Wish you were my teacher
I actually do believe you can teach people to be creative. It’s not that hard, in fact. You can teach people associative thinking, and expose them to unusual situations that call for unusual responses.
Mind you, I’m staying totally away from evaluation here. Will the work produced be good? Some will be, some won’t be. And what’s more, a lot of that evaluation will depend on the viewer! You and I might like totally different things; I’m totally cool with that.
Another way of looking at it: a person can’t go write a sonnet if you don’t teach them the craft of writing sonnets. So there’s value in doing that—almost as much value as people put in the writing of sonnets.
I think you and I may just have to disagree. I may be overly focused on craft—I’m something of a craft junkie—but I do think there’s room for it in CW workshops of all levels. And why not? In order to be expressive, writers (and artists of all stripes) often need tools. Those tools are often quite complex and take a long time to master. Not to mention, there’s a great deal of value in returning time and again to basic lessons. I don’t think I quite understood the importance of several basic lessons until I’d taught them repeatedly. And a mistake I think we often make when teaching is to assume that, just because we’ve covered some portion of the material, the students now understand it (magically!). Repetition and reinforcement are necessary parts of learning.
And of course the goal is not to turn students off; your day one assignment strikes me (in the abstract) as a terrible one. I’m not calling for bad instruction, please understand. Any intelligent pedagogy understands that there’s a time and place for openness, and a time and place to insist that students follow instructions quite carefully. It’s a balance—because writing’s a balance, too (between innovation and adherence to convention).
The practices can be implemented in a variety of ways. What’s important, I think, is that all five portions of the pedagogy I describe above be implemented.
Is what I think. I also wouldn’t want to be responsible for an entire program’s curriculum.
I love abstract and difficult stuff myself, and have never found them to be in short supply in college. Meanwhile, I have often felt cheated on the craft/technique end of things, which may explain my desire for more of that.
This divide is also not so simple. Craft and technique—even simple, basic things—can be employed to create many abstract, difficult things.
Always good to hear from you, deadgod! A
I both agree and disagree with you. Analysis of course has its limits, and intuition and irrationality play important roles in art (and in any creative endeavor). But I think it’s foolish to rule analysis right out.
The question is not what you find interesting. The question is, how to teach people to do things? Those people may then go off and do things that you and I find interesting. Or they may not. Or they may utterly surprise us; isn’t that a nice thought?
Teaching writing is by far the best job I’ve ever had—it’s not even close—and many of my students have told me they found my classes rewarding, and made them better writers. I’m not trying to brag; I’m just saying I personally haven’t found it to be all that dishonest. I also try very hard to be as honest as possible with students, and to not promise anything I can’t do.
I basically say to them, “Here’s an analysis and a methodology, and here are various techniques. I’ve worked hard to develop this pedagogy and to communicate it as clearly as I can, because it works for me. It may therefore work for you; why not try it? You can change whatever you don’t like.”
Except maybe not in those exact words. I throw some “ums” in there, too.
I would prefer that my students write well, of course. But what does that “well” mean? Does it mean the students would achieve what they want to achieve? Maybe what they want to achieve is stupid? (A lot of the stories and poems I wanted to write when I was 20 strike me now as stupid.) Do we mean well by my standards? Why should those be the student’s standards? Because I’m the teacher and “know better”? (Maybe I do?) But why should I—someone who interacts with the students for sixteen weeks, or less—feel the right to impose my aesthetic and ideological preferences on fifteen other people? Aren’t I supposed to be teaching them to be “creative,” and not tote some party line?
Here’s what I try to do instead: I try to show the students how some things are conventional (and therefore “approved”) and other things are unconventional (and therefore “disapproved”). The students who want to write conventionally—good for them! There are better and worse ways to do that; we can discuss that. The students who want to write unconventionally? We can discuss that, too, although maybe it gets a little harder to judge whether the writing is “good” or “bad” (as unconventional stuff always is).
But I don’t really see my job as judging students’ writing. I can judge assignments, and I can tell when students aren’t really trying. I can suggest things if they want or need suggestions. But beyond that…I encourage them as best I can, and help them think more objectively about their own work. But I also think it’s vitally important to let them decide what they want to do with the material. I try to show them a lot of different things, so they have choices. I don’t try to make them like the things that I like, though I do often show them things that I like, and try to explain to them why I like them.
Here’s something that happened to me a lot in school: I’d take a course and then, five years later, I’d suddenly understand what the professor had been trying to tell me. Does that make me a bad student? I think what matters is that something, ultimately, was communicated to me, and I then had the choice of what to do with it.
You look so unhappy! I’m sorry to see that. In my experience, post-it notes, while convenient, are not a nice way to break up. Texting’s better.
I agree (haven’t had a chance to read your post closely). I also try to take a “long haul” approach with my students.
In general, I think people need to spend more time distinguishing between graduate CW and undergraduate CW. Too often in these discussions, “creative writing” is assumed to be “MFA,” despite the fact that more undergrads major in CW in America than graduate students, which means more people are teaching CW to undergrads than funded MFA students.
Why are these distinctions never discussed? Half or more of the jobs in CW now are not in MFA programs.
As for my own experiences, many aspects of the workshop experience that helped me a great deal as an undergrad had the opposite effect at the graduate level, and I’m sure this can work in reverse, too. Point is: CW pedagogy is mind bogglingly inflexible, satisfied with itself, rigid, unadaptive, and conservative in this country, and it’s high time people shook things up a bit. I mean, just look at the progressiveness in rhet/comp these days and compare it to a CW, a field still highly influenced by a conservative publishing model and/or the publishing industry.
Just a quick question for a non-American whats MFA? Would be good to clear that up for those who aren’t American, and I’m sure there’s a lot of readers out there.
I agree to. To me that was the thing I got out of the post: the ways in which to teach people how to be creative.
I went to an exhibition/poetry reading the other day here in Alice Springs, Australia. It was for an Indigenous Uni and consisted of students reading from their work. Subjectively I found the work to be alright, some better than others but none outstanding. The thing though was that that didn’t matter. For the students the purpose in doing a creative writing course was to learn to write and learn different creative skills. to get up read was to show these to other people and learn more about their abilities.
I liked your post Adam because I found that its focus seem to be on developing creative skills and approaches to writing. I think some of the comments have missed that point rather focusing on the evaluative aspects of good and bad writing. If a person has learn different ways to write creatively then as a teacher you’re successful.
What’s dishonest? Being a writer, being a teacher, or working at McDonald’s?
A Master of Fine Arts, which is a two-year terminal degree offered by lots of graduate English departments. It’s a “performance” degree, akin to a Master’s in the visual arts or music: the student takes lots of writing workshops and (usually) writes a creative thesis (book of poems or stories, or a novel); the understanding is that this project will become their first book.
By terminal degree I mean that there’s no degree after it, so a graduate can—in theory—use their MFA to secure a tenure-track job. The rule of thumb used to be that an MFA plus two books would be “enough” for a full-time position; that’s now changing due to the glut of MFA’s on the market. (There are hundreds and hundreds of MFA programs.) As always, publications trump just about anything else, but an MFA is considered the basic requirement for even getting in the door (although there are, of course, exceptions).
Many MFA’s are “free” in that they offer tuition remission and a stipend, however pitiful. The school makes its money back (and then some) by requiring the student to teach some mixture of undergrad creative writing classes and composition. This is part of the adjuncting of American faculty one hears so much about, and has helped stigmatize the degree somewhat.
I myself do not have an MFA; I received an MA in creative writing (from Illinois State University), and am now in a PhD program in CW (at the University of Illinois at Chicago); neither of those schools’ English departments offer the MFA. The PhD was created for various reasons, one of which was to provide some way of escaping that MFA market glut.
MFBomb, I’d love to hear you explain your final paragraph further, if you’re so inclined! Thanks for the comment…
Well, the McDonald’s job is, I’ll grant you that.
Thanks, paradigm. And I agree that most discussions about teaching creative writing get too bogged down in evaluation. Which should play a role, I agree, but shouldn’t command all our attention.
My undergraduate work was pretty dreadful (both my critical and non-critical writing)! As was most of my Master’s work! And yet I think I turned out OK. It just took me a while to internalize what my teachers were telling me, and to figure out what I found important.
Which is hardly surprising! I was a writing student for a total of five years (2 undergrad—I changed my major—plus 3 grad); meanwhile I went from being 20 to 26 (I worked for two years). Why on earth should we expect someone to write a great book in such a short period of time, especially after just being exposed to so much of the craft and the discipline? And especially when they’re figuring out so much else in life?
One of my writing students from last spring just emailed me. She got married in the middle of the semester, and was obviously distracted by that (as she should have been). She nonetheless produced pretty good work. Now, she says, she’s ready to buckle down and “get serious” about writing; she thanked me for my class. She may go on to do something great. I just hope that the things I showed her are useful.
i was totes sincerely hoping your link to “discipline myself” would flip me to a blog entry where you described how you actually, um, did that. i opened the wikipedia and was like “daw, you got me!!”
but how DID you do that? could you share a little i’m very curious?
what line of work isn’t these days?
Great post. I took a lot of writing classes in undergrad (in terms of # of credits I almost could’ve had a second major) and, while I found the classes useful and liked my professors, we almost never talked about technique or craft. I think that kind of thing can be very useful even if you’re going to disregard it completely. Certainly if I were going to pay the $ I would expect an MFA program to be holistic, rather than just a series of workshops.
This is a great post.
To AD’s detractors in the comments: can any single writing class turn Joe Average into Hemingway? Of course not. But neither can a semester of Chinese teach you how to translate the Analects. This doesn’t prove that Chinese lessons are useless. We generally don’t see “violinists” becoming violinists because they do it at a much younger than many fiction writers. But the process of struggle and practice is similar.
For readers who don’t like the idea of craft in fiction writing, I recommend Robert Paul Lamb’s “Art Matters,” on Hemingway’s stories, which studies how the young Hemingway taught himself his skills, using each vignette and group of stories to improve one of his crafts after another.
TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY SIS/BRO WHEN YOU WILL SCALE VALLEYS AND PLUMB HEIGHTS, THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD AT AND BACK TO, ROCKING THE BOAT OF DESERT CRADLES
SHIT IS INHERITENT TO FACTICITORY PHARMS WAY NOT TO STAKES, CATCH UP IS SOME THING ELSE
I’m not sure I even understand the argument that craft doesn’t belong in the workshop. How is that even possible? Isn’t “craft” an inevitable component of almost any workshop session anyway? Don’t peers and instructors respond to stories via craft?
My issue is that too many of the discussions are ONLY about craft, if that makes sense. I think creative writers should spend more time discussing culture, politics, morality/ethics, other fine arts, literary history/tradition, etc. Too many writers today live in an insular world of “craft/aesthetics.”
That’s cool, but, at the risk of being or at least sounding quibblerulous over the word “well”, I think you’re listening past me.
You say above, in a perfectly dedogmatized way, what “well” “means” and on whose terms the judgements should be made (my paraphrase): ‘Here’s my trip, which I’ve means-tested. Why not try it–knowing all along that your “in” is provisional? Take not what I’m giving, but rather, what you need/want/like.’
Well, that’s a fair, dialogical way for a teacher “to impose  aesthetic and ideological preferences”–which, I’ll re-assert, is going to happen, softy-hippy or hateful martinet.
What you’ve said here is that you decide what the convention/experiment distinction is, you decide what the ‘better’ and ‘worse’ ways to achieve goals (or at least discernment) in the framework of that distinction (and surely others), you detect when students are faking, you “suggest”, you “encourage”, you “help”, you “show”, you promote your enthusiasms, you “explain”.
–and why not?? You’ve demonstrated that you’re to be trusted–at least provisionally–that’s what degrees are supposed to be evidence of . . . as we know from the Scarecrow’s diploma.
I don’t think you’re saying to the students that they will be writing “well” if they’re obedient to you, but you are communicating that solidifying their confidence in their efforts is (one of) your goal(s), as it is theirs, right?
Well, first of all, I agree with your belief in “bad writing” (or, how about, “shitty first drafts?”) With this in mind, imagine the kind of “bad writing” an under-read and inexperienced nineteen-year old submits and the subsequent feedback he receives that points him to techniques to employ vs. the kind of “bad [first draft] writing” an experienced, published writer producers–a writer who knows he can go back and “fix” certain things and already knows the craft-angles to facilitate those fixes–and the subsequent feedback he receives that is too similar to the kind he received as an undergrad because the model never seems to adapt to the experience levels of writers. It’s the same language. The same codes. The same rituals. I guess there’s a reason why most established writers stop attending formal workshops–it’s not like these writers spit out gold on most of their first drafts.
Granted, the shitty first drafts of experienced writers will be far less shitty than the first drafts of college sophomores, but the model still won’t bend to fit or match the writer’s experience level, either–at least not enough.
Which is why I believe that instead of relying so often on traditional writing workshops, MFA programs should offer special topics workshops to their students, since many of these students arrive on campus having already learned the basics as undergrads. Pretty much every college or university now offers an undergrad CW major or concentration, and I believe there comes a point when a developing writer is in the zone somewhere from no longer needing traditional workshops but still needing some formal instruction.
*in the zone somewhere between no longer needing traditional workshops and still needing some formal instruction.
I agree with you that graduate writing workshops should be different than undergrad ones—I basically read your comment as saying, “the workshops shouldn’t patronize more experienced writers” (?). I still think that everything I wrote above applies, though.
There’s simply no way that a four-year undergrad program can exhaustively teach all five of those aspects I laid out above. And even if they somehow could do that, there’s still value in going through all of it again. I’ve been going through it all as a teacher for five years now, over and over again, and I learn new things every time.
Well, I decide the pedagogy—that’s my job as the teacher. But the material I’m talking about it also pretty conventional. There are millions of books out there that will teach you “the writing process,” and it’s all pretty much the same. I didn’t invent that or anything. My demonstrating it to students, and running them through exercises that practice it, isn’t really a judgment call. The products of that process are, and it’s there that I try to be as hands-off as possible.
Sometimes a student comes to me and says, “I don’t like freewriting.” Well, I don’t really like freewriting, either; I’m more a brainstorming/clustering kind of guy. I can’t fail the student for not liking freewriting. So I tell him or her, “Some people find it valuable, and you should give it a chance. I myself rarely do it, but sometimes when I’m writing I realize it will help me solve a problem, and I do it. So keep it in mind.” If the student is just being lazy, and avoiding the work, then I criticize him/her. But it’s ultimately the student’s call whether he or she wants to free write.
Ultimately, what I want the students to know is that I can show them a way to write—I can “pass on” to them an analysis and a methodology. They’re going to have to write, so they may as well know some way to do it. Other teachers might be able to show them different ways; they should experiment as much as possible. Later on, if they don’t want to use my way, or modify it however—that’s totally cool by me. In the end, what matters is whether they can actually do it.
“There’s simply no way that a four-year undergrad program can exhaustively teach all five of those aspects I laid out above.”
Touche. Excellent point that I thought of after hitting, “post.”
In fact, maybe I’m just bitter about some of my experiences as a PhD student in workshop (many of my peers, in fact, were completely tired of workshops once they entered PhD programs).
I will write a whole separate post on that. Look for it!
But mostly it involved forcing myself to sit down and writing every day.
I also made spreadsheets, because I like making spreadsheets.
It also involved me trying out ideas I had previously been closed off to. For instance, using a writing process. Like MFBomb said above: I learned that it was totally OK for my first drafts to be really shitty. In fact, I came to enjoy writing really shitty first drafts. Part of the discipline meant learning to trust the process, and to learn the patience that writing requires.
I stopped trying to write the greatest thing ever on the first go, and started drafting, then revising. And I taught myself to scrap vast amounts of writing that wasn’t working—entire drafts of novels. That was hard at first, but since I was writing every day, it wasn’t the end of the world to throw away three month’s work—I knew there would be another three months after that, and another three months after that.
That was six years ago.
I had a similar experience on the undergraduate level. My professors—all of whom I liked, and still like—were very hands off. They mostly told me things like, “Show, don’t tell.”
I graduated very hungry to learn more about craft. I taught myself a great deal of it—I never took a rhetoric class, for instance (I wish that I had). I think writing programs should teach more of that kind of thing. The one thing I had going for me, I think, was that I took a few poetry workshops, which really opened my eyes as to how many options one has when one sits down to write.
Which is what craft is, really: options.
MFBomb, I agree that all those things should be discussed. I would want to see a pedagogy that incorporates those things. Professional training, too. CW programs should spend some time preparing writers for what they will need to be able to do to become professional (or career) writers. Add all those things to my list. (I was focusing more on actual writing classes; we can throw all this other stuff into one or more other required courses.)
As for Daniel’s comment, I don’t think he’s too far off base. A lot of people out there don’t think that writing can be taught, and that craft is “soulless” or somehow anathema to “great writing.” (See that Dean Young quote above, “We’re making birds not birdhouses.”)
Me, I don’t get that argument. I mean, sure, great writing is often inspired, and we might wonder where that inspiration comes from. Maybe it has nothing to do with craft? Maybe it does? Whatever. Personally, I think that great writing is often the product of tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, that truly risks something in the present day and age. Knowing craft is one half of that dialectic. Most people I know who want to write “inspired, brilliant, untainted” stuff without knowing anything about technique usually—again, this is just in my experience—just churn out unedited stuff they’ve unconsciously absorbed from common sources.
(Which is sometimes still quite good!)
The “abstract” and “difficult”, to me, seem to be the major factor between someone writing as they are taught and someone writing to expand themselves, the techniques they employ, and their readers. If you take abstract and difficult in the sensibility of being for its own sake, then of course it only makes you better at those things themselves. But the trick and value of this to a writer is being able to assimilate a great variety of ideas and understanding their application to the tools they use and the things they express. I would be nothing if I never learned “craft” and how to use the tools at hand — but I would be even less if I had never studied rhetoric, philosophy, science, and taught my mind how to consume and utilize their abstractions to use my tools in new ways. Someone who conceives of craft as this be-all-end-all kind of dogma leaves creative writing as being little more than putting together an Ikea coffee table. It takes both to push yourself through to the “art” level.
When I’m teaching students and they start going on and on about “symbols,” my heart sinks a bit but I have a hard time explaining to them why. Symbols and foreshadowing.
Who was it who said “philosophy progresses, not by solving problems, but by losing interest in them”? Maybe Rorty quoting Wittgenstein? Anyway, this is my trouble: I’m a half-smart person, smart enough to know which avenues of inquiry are uninteresting, but not smart enough to be explain developments in the history of thinking about literature.
What exactly is it that’s being foreclosed when a student starts talking about a story solely in terms of symbol and foreshadowing?
This may not have anything to do with CW. I’m just a grad student who has to teach in a few hours.
this is really lovely. thanks. i’m looking forward to it. speadsheets!
and i like the idea of obvious gone revelatory (“write shitty first drafts” >>> “write shitty first drafts!!! yah dawg! like you mean it!”)
I know nothing about symbolism. Other than that I don’t really like them. But I think that’s a symptom of this present day and age; in the past, at certain points, people seem to have been nuts about them. Now, they’re verboten.
I love that philosophy quote, but don’t know who said it. (I don’t seem to know anything today.)
Trying to think of a good reply–I can imagine (at least) two possible views of how “craft” fits into a workshop setting. One is a “weak” view of craft, where participants talk about (for instance) point of view, why they thought a particular page or scene did or didn’t work, but rarely or never talk about “craft” as though it was a coherent body of knowledge greater than the story being critiqued. You see this sort of view’s dominance when someone tries to get technical about plot, and everyone else in the room seems uncomfortable, as if the speaker is merely pontificating. It is as though everyone’s sense of craft needs to be forged anew with every story discussed.
A “strong” view of craft imagines that there is a body of knowledge that participants in the learning process need to know before they are considered competent to discuss / submit work. In this view, we’d all have to be familiar with Freytag’s triangle and its implications prior to starting fiction workshops, as one part of a whole list of terms and techniques related to point of view, sentence construction etc–the full list is hard to imagine.
What’s funny is that the teaching of most other arts is “strong craft” without having any (much) worry that this is too controlling or limiting. The teaching of composition / expository writing is also “strong craft”–no one worries that students lose their creativity when they learn what a thesis statement is. Few comp teachers would teach by asking classes simply to hand in essays and then point out, one by one, the lack or presence of a thesis statement.
Yet teaching “craft” as a thing in itself sits so strangely in a fiction class.
Good post, Daniel. To clarify, I was actually responding to the “detractors”–the people who think “craft” doesn’t belong in the workshop in the first place. That doesn’t even seem possible.
We agree! Sorry about the mix up. My desire to pontificate often overwhelms my reading ability.
The poetry and the world of the story are narrowed and so distorted – I’d say falsified – when someone talks solely in terms of any single pair of elements of it. –even one’s sensitivity to, say, a pattern of imagery that could reasonably be called ‘symbolism’ is occluded or neutralized if considered not only separately from, but to the exclusion of other motors of emotion and thought in and of the story.
One practical, constructive thing that can be done when someone is sticking distortedly and distortingly to, say, the ‘symbolism’ of The Scarlet Letter is to ask how the heaviness and patterns of its symbols relate to the elegance of Hawthorne’s sentences? or to the long-wave structure of the novel? or to how one feels, albeit fictively, about the characters’ experiences?
I think a key to circumventing the ‘foreclosure’ that worries you is shaking free from the grip of any sole focus: catholicism and ecclecticism of reception as virtues in themselves.
[…] These aren’t only about the MFA/P&W controversy, for clarification. Some are just in reaction to it; some are totally unrelated. In the future, it’ll probably be more things about writing and about writers and interviews and whatnot. I might, possibly, have two separate regular roundups: one about books and one about random things I think are cool; for now, though, it’s all here. Thoughts? Should this all be in one post, or should the literary roundup be its own thing? Roxane Gay – How the Hell Do We Teach Creative Writing? and in response, AD Jameson – Teaching Creative Writing […]