Cathy Day, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice have a wonderfully thoughtful discussion about teaching creative writing over at Fiction Writers Review. From the article's introduction:
It’s time to get on with creative writing pedagogy. Can creative writing be taught? Yes, we’re not charlatans, though teaching looks different here than in other disciplines. Should college-level teachers of creative writing be practicing writers? Yes. Though being a great writer doesn’t make you a great teacher, creative writing teachers are strengthened by engaging in the practice themselves. What’s the relationship between creative writing and composition studies? While creative writing is not in opposition to composition studies, neither is it a variation of or sub-discipline within composition studies. Should we grade creative writing? If we are working in institutions that require grading, of course. There exist ways to approach the evaluation of students’ skills and written work that can be minimally intrusive on the writing process and even useful. Is the workshop monolithic? No, the workshop is an adaptable model.
Why do thousands of creative writing instructors who teach courses professionally — who speak and write about teaching creative writing — proceed as if this growing body of pedagogy doesn’t exist? We need this conversation — we need it now — to examine the current state of creative writing pedagogy and propose several areas for further investigation.
I've mention before now that I find the sport of MFA-bashing a serious bore, especially when writers themselves do the bashing. Can an MFA or PhD in Creative Writing create a homogenized writer who never takes any risks and never challenges the status quo? Of course. Can the same program help to develop risk-taking, challenging writers whose work is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating? Of course. The idea that a creative writing program "hurts" writers or writing seems to me akin to saying that studying vocal performance hurts music. I realize, of course, that one of the arguments against creative writing programs has less to do with individual writers and more to do with a kind of aesthetic hegemony that such programs can supposedly create. I'm not sure that charge is fair, but I don't have any hard numbers to back up my position.
To be fair, I don't teach creative writing exclusively. I teach a lot of composition--a lot. I've adapted some creative writing techniques to my classes, though I am ambivalent about a purely workshop approach because the workshop model assumes that all the writers invovled are invested in their work. Unfortunately, that's just not always the case in the undergraduate composition classroom. Still, I've taught many talented writers; and I've yet to see any of them hurt by instruction in writing.
I think that creative writing programs can be very good for a developing writer. Should a writer mortgage her house to attend one? I don't know. That decision is personal; I can say that I was one of the lucky ones who already had a job when I returned to school for my Ph.D. Many of my peers stil adjunct at various small and large campuses. One of the best writers I know is a triple threat with a novel, a book of poems, and a slough of published essays under his belt. He works part time because he can't find a full-time tenure track position. However, I think that the issue I'm highlighting here have less to do with the field of creative writing and more to do with academia in general (a different blog post, most certainly).
As an undergrad, I once wrote a newspaper story for our campus paper about the poet in residence. In an interview, I asked her, "How can you grade a person's soul?" referring to academic grades placed on what I then saw as the intimate/above-reproach genre of poetry (I've since changed my views).
She looked at me for a long moment. Then, she laughed and said, "If I thought that I were grading someone's soul, I'd be in another line of work."
I feel the same way now. When a student of mine fails an essay about her dead grandmother, the F that the student has earned says nothing about that student's personal life. That F has everything to do with the quality of the prose. The creative writing classroom is the same, I believe. Creative writing programs don't hurt writers. Writers can do that all by themselves.
For the past six months or so, I’ve been reading a lot of what many term “crime fiction.” In many of the snootier literary circles, crime/detective fiction gets a bad rap. Formulaic. Two-dimensional characters. Stock devices. Sensational. Many other dismissals come to mind, but they all come down one thing: the idea that genre fiction cannot be serious (or even taken seriously). Although writers like Michael Chabon have exploited genre fiction with a lot of success, rarely do contemporary writers use an identifiable genre without commenting on it in the narrative. The genre becomes self-aware. For example, in Victor Gischler’s early novel Three On A Light, Detective Dean Murphy is a two-dimensional character in search of a third dimension. That dimension comes to him in the form a cursed Zippo lighter.
I don’t advocate for a celebration of genre without introspection. Good art always comments on itself in some way or another. Still, when the Modernist writers and critics elevated character-driven fiction to the status of “high art,” they missed an important point: character-driven, literary fiction is a genre, as well. And like crime fiction (or science fiction or any other kind of genre writing), literary fiction has its own set of stock characters and situations. Perhaps this stock set provides the backdrop for what has become known as a “workshop story,” meaning a competently-developed, character-driven short story that features (usually) some kind of epiphany for the main character. Note that I’m not against fiction workshops at all. All the current MFA-bashing makes little sense to me (but that's probably a different blog post). I merely want to highlight the fact that literary fiction is a genre, too.
All of which is to say that the work I’ve been reading lately has been both fascinating and in many cases artistically liberating. I started reading James Lee Burke’s fiction about a year ago, and I was immediately fascinated with his use of landscape and setting. In Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, New Orleans and southern Louisiana are more than a backdrop. The locale becomes a character. It’s impossible for me to imagine Robicheaux outside of his New Iberia, and even when Burke has him travel far away from home (as in Black Cherry Blues), the character constantly compares his surroundings with Louisiana. Indeed, Robicheaux himself is an outgrowth of Louisiana: a Cajun with liberal sensibilities and a moral code as certain as the Gulf of Mexico but often just as mercurial. He’s a fully-drawn, three-dimensional character whose psychology drives Burke’s fiction. It would be hard to dismiss Burke as a mere “genre writer.”
Writers like James Lee Burke, Victor Gischler, Anthony Neil Smith, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett fascinate me possibly because my academic instincts tell me that I shouldn’t take them seriously. Why? I’m not sure. No professor I ever had said anything resembling, “Do not read genre fiction. It’s bad for you.” I did have creative writing teachers say that students couldn’t submit genre fiction for workshop. Still, I wonder why for so many years I have crinkled my nose when I encountered detective fiction. There’s a lot yet to say about crime writing, and I don’t pretend to have scratched the surface in this scant blog entry.
As I often tell my students, “There’s probably a dissertation in all this.”
I grew up with a record player.
And no, I didn't grow up in the 1970s (I graduated high school in 1992). My generation was the generation of cassette tapes and Walkman. But my father owned a Sears-model turntable, and in one of the great happenstances of my life, he held on to all of his record albums. So, in the 8th grade, I not only loved Guns-N-Roses and Megadeth, but I also adored Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke, and Johnny Cash. I could recite the words to Michael Jackson's "Beat It," but I also knew every word to The Statler Brother's "Counting Flowers on the Wall." Those albums opened up worlds to me and my brother, and i can't imagine a greater gift that my father unintentionally gave me.
These days, I wonder if the huge collection of books in my house will be to my son what those record albums were to me.
Only those with more optimism than I believe that the physical book will survive the current e-book revolution. I'm saddened by this fact because, for the record, I adore books. I love their smell; I love their texture. I love the way print looks on a cream-colored page. I love the feeling of a book's spine on my palm. I love holding a book open while I run a finger down the page, eating the text. But facts, as they say in North Florida (my neck of the woods) is facts, folks. As Johann Hari writes in The Independent:
The book – the physical paper book – is being circled by a shoal of sharks, with sales down 9 per cent this year alone. It's being chewed by the e-book. It's being gored by the death of the bookshop and the library. And most importantly, the mental space it occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all. It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books.
I couldn't agree more. Our culture has made it easy to sink into the distraction. Smart phones. Smart pads. Netflix on Demand. You name it: a million Weapons of Mass Distraction are right at our fingertips.
Reading, after all, is a contact sport, not a pasive activity. Reading, one has to wrangle with the words on the page. One has to make the words make sense, and this kind of mental activity is necessarily a solitary quest. As Hari rightly observes, "To read, you need to slow down. You need mental silence except for the words."
I'm not a believer in the good old days. I don't think they ever existed. I think that what we remember as the good old days are convenient fictions. However, I do believe that culturally speaking, we've lost touch with our desire for what Hari calls "mental silence." It's hard to imagine parsing through a difficult text like The Wasteland while texting a conversation with three friends, Yelping where you ate lunch, and listening to the manufactured ennui of contemporary pop music.
Ultimately, I believe that e-readers have a place (and an important place) in our culture. I am the proud owner of an Amazon Kindle, and I've read numerous books on it. My current obsession with hard boiled/noir writing wouldn't have developed outside of Kindle. I just don't have immediate access to those books; Kindle allows that access. However, Kindle has a really crappy browser; so while I'm reading on it I don't feel the need (as I often do) to check my email messages or my friends' Facebook walls. I can't log into CNN.com to see the latest apocalyptic crisis facing the world. Reading on a Kindle is almost like . . . well, reading a printed book. Again, Johann Hari wisely observes"
We have now reached that point. And here's the function that the book – the paper book that doesn't beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration.
Perhaps one day, my little boy will discover a dusty shelf packed with books by William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Lynda Hull, Larry Brown, and Cormac McCarthy books. Perhaps my son will pull one down, flip open the crumbling cover, and lose himself there, as I did. And maybe, just maybe, these books won't be anachronisms, the kind of thing you can find only at collector's outlets. Maybe the demise of the printed book has been great exaggerated. Vinyl, after all, survives, despite the digital revolution.
Even from my cynical perspective, I can always hope that books will, too.
The end of Seamus Heaney's "A Personal Helicon" in many way sums up the way that I feel about the idea of inspiration:
Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.
The image of the poet staring down into the darkness of a dank well certainly makes sense to me as poet. I think that most of us who continue to write do so to try to figure out the world, but we do that figuring out in our context. We--or, should I say I--become the Narcissus of Heaney's verse.
But the crux seems to be the action of going to the well.
When I think back to when I was doing my graduate coursework (between 2005and 2007), there were days when I wrote sometimes two or three poems. I could just sit down, & the words came from somewhere. Post coursework (and post graduate school), I've found that I rarely have that kind of productivity. That fact has depressed me in the past.
However, now, I think I understand. When you're in the pressure cooker that is graduate school, you're thinking about poetry all the time. I went classes in which we read contemporary poetry & talked about contemporary poetics. I read my peers' poems; they read mine. In short, my life revolved around poetry.
Outside of the writing community I had in graduate school, I've discovered that if I'm not reading well, then there's no way that I can write well. If I'm not nourishing my poetic voice, then there's no way that I can produce good poems. Scratch that. If I'm not reading, then I can't write. Period. That includes prose, for me, as well.
Every so often, a student will stop by my office at school. Usually, some other faculty member has sent him or her to me. They shadow my door, clutching a stack of hand-written poems. I invite them in. They want me to read their work. I do.
"Who are some of your favorite poets?" I often ask, expecting the Beats, or Poe, or maybe Jim Caroll.
I'm always stunned into silence when the poet tells me, "I don't read poetry."
If you don't read poetry, then you don't have a lot of business writing it, much less publishing it. Imagine trying to write a song when you've never heard any music. I know; I know: some hold this theory that an "authentic voice" (whatever that is) might be subdued by reading others' work. That's silly & demonstrably untrue. Great art emerges from great art.
Which is not to say that reading good work makes one a good poet. Writing good poetry & finding your voice comes from practice, revision, & yes, failure. So, for me, the Muse or Inspiration isn't what's found at the bottom of Heaney's well in "A Personal Helicon." Instead, inspiration is the will to talk to the well.
2011 has been a year of writing disappointments, at least so far. I've gotten more rejection slips the past six months than I have ever in my writing life. Of course, I have been submitting to high tier journals; so that fact may have something to do with the rejection slips. I didn't get into a writing residence I applied to, a residency I was certain I'd get. I can't seem to write any poetry that doesn't bore me to absolute tears. I've sent out my full-length collection to several places, but I've hard nothing.
What's going on? This too, saith the Good Book (or maybe somewhere else), shall pass. But that passing feels like a mental kidney stone.
I have been writing, however, working on a novel. I hate to even type that sentence. I mean--how many people do you know who say, "Oh, I"m working on a novel." Those same folks spend their time playing video games and watching Dr. Phi. That's probably an unfair assessment. Nonetheless, I am writing a novel, a story I've had in my head for quite a while now. It's quasi-literary, quasi-detective story. I'm trying to do what writers like James Lee Burke and Michael Lister do: plant one foot firmly in the terra firma of literary, character-driven fiction & another foot right in the middle of the seedy downtown of Detective Genre Fiction. I'm impressed by writers like Larry Brown & Harry Crews, too, artists who can write compelling, character-driven fiction but who aren't afraid of a gun going off somewhere in the story.
Aside: why am I writing a novel? Answer: because I don't have any new poetry to write. Even Seamus Heaney leaves me silent, & he's the poet I most often turn to these days for inspiration.
I have around 120 pages or so of usable prose, but every time I write 40 pages, I find myself backtracking to rewrite 20 pages. I wonder if this is the nature of beast, so to speak? It's hard to believe that not fifteen years ago, I considered myself a really good prose writer. I was in my early 20s, & I'd written a longish, talky book about four guys in a band. The name of the band & the name of the novel was "Mystery of the Egg." I've still got a good portion of the manuscript somewhere, but it's terrible: page after page of four guys talking about life, death, sex, drugs, sex, rock-n-roll, sex, drugs, liquor, sex, God, sex, rock-n-roll, & sex. I remember sitting down to work on that book & feeling as though I knew exactly what I was doing.
Now, when I sit down to work on my current project, I feel lost a lot of the times. I worry if the prose is crisp, if the action moves, if I'm telling a good story, if the narrative makes sense . . . you name it, & I worry about it. I realize that this self-consciousness isn't helping me. At the same time, however, this hyper criticism makes me think about the book all the time. Was it Harry Crews who said that a novel owns you when you write it?
I worry that I'm too much a poet to be a novelist. But at the same time, even as I typed that sentence, I'm not even sure what that means. Am I too focused on the lyric moment to effectively unfold a complex story? Do images trump narrative for me? I don't know. But I do keep writing, & maybe that's the key.
O for a muse of fire,