Teaching Creative Writing
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.
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O for a muse of fire,