Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Against creative writing

I have been charged—by whom is irrelevant—with being “against creative writing.” And it is true that I have been hard on creative writing, both here at A Commonplace Blog and in the afterword to The Elephants Teach. But as I say in that book, the debate over creative writing has been settled. Anyone who would be “against” it these days, in the sense of opposing its very existence, would be wiping at the front of his trousers after he had already wet them.

What is at issue is how creative writing should be taught. What ideas, principles, models, or parallels should be kept in mind when thinking about creative writing as an academic discipline?

My complaint is that not enough thought has been directed at the question. Creative writing is taught in classrooms around the country (indeed, throughout the English-speaking world) pretty much the same way it has been taught for a generation. As I described it in a memoir of Raymond Carver, who taught it like this, “[S]tudent work, mimeographed and handed around in advance, provide[s] the text for study and dis­cus­sion; and in the name of establishing a ‘community of writers’ which offer[s] its members ‘communal criticism,’ students dominate[] the dis­cus­sions.” The photocopier and the .pdf have replaced the mime­ograph machine, but the basic mechanism has remained unchanged.

Francine Prose’s Blue Angel contains an accurate, and telling, portrait of the creative writing classroom. Swenson listens to a student reading her story to the class, and then must “think of something to say, some way to improve this heartbreaking, subliterate piece of shit. . . .” He is not per­mitted to say that, of course; “classroom etiquette” stops him from saying even that a student can do better. He must never say that she—or anyone—should “bag it and start over, as if no real writer would do that, as if he himself hadn’t pulled the plug on dozens of stories and novels.”

Swenson’s first rule in class is this: “We usually start off saying what we liked about the story.” Then and only then is the class unleashed to tear into the story. They criticize it invariably from the standpoint of anecdote and personal experience. The “most sacred covenant of the workshop,” however, is that the author must never defend her own story.

The students offer suggestions for improving the story, primarily by making it more authentic:

     “So what are you saying?” asks [the student author]. “That I’m supposed to do . . . research?”
     “No,” says [another student]. “Close your eyes. Concentrate till you see the street and the girl and her boyfriend. Till you’re sort of . . . dreaming them. Then write down what you see.”
Swenson doubts that his students can do it, but so what? They have been “charged with faith in the power of observation to make something come to life on the page, in the power of language to make something walk and talk.” And that, he realizes, is all that a creative writing teacher can hope to give his students.[1]

It is not enough. For two reasons. First, good writing requires more than the “power of observation,” even more than the “power of language.” As Auden says, it is sometimes necessary to write badly in order to write well—in order, that is, to tell truth, to realize an intention, to keep a prom­ise to the reader. And, yes, something like research is needed too. In other words, good writing must be a discipline of knowledge.

But this is the second and more significant reason why teaching a faith in observation and the power of language—the current aim of creative writing—is not enough. As it is now conceived and organized in the university, creative writing is not a discipline of knowledge at all. It is merely a bureaucracy for the public employment of writers and the boost­ing of English course enrollments. It has no larger purpose; or none that has been thought through.

What purpose should it have? I cannot say for certain, but perhaps the question might at least be debated. When it comes to specifics, I am on this question a reactionary: I believe that creative writing ought to return to its original model. Literary criticism and even literary scholarship ought to be integrated into the writing of stories, poems, and memoirs.

But I am not saying that this is the only possible conception of the subject, that the original model of creative writing should be adopted wholesale, replacing a discredited practice with an untried one. In his book Creative Writing and the New Humanities, the Australian poet Paul Dawson argues for a very different model. He says that creative writing should undertake a social purpose, that it should train writers who will “act as a medium between the academy and the public sphere.”[2]

Dawson and I could not be farther apart in our thinking about creative writing. At bottom, though, is a fundamental agreement: creative writing must be reconceived and reorganized as a discipline of humanistic knowledge, with a far more rigorous pedagogy than is now indulged, and with the recognition that writing demands learning. The “power of observation” is something that writers can develop on their own time. Closing your eyes and dreaming may be essential to the creative process, but not in the classroom.

I guess I don’t see how such a stance as this puts me “against creative writing.” Indeed, I am more for it than many of its current practitioners. I think it can be better, and do not subscribe to the etiquette that prevents me from saying so.

[1] Francine Prose, Blue Angel (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), pp. 51–55. Ellipses in original.

[2] Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 203–04.


Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I often think of myself as a Creative Writing Curriculum survivor. Like cancer the thing and the way it is done continues to eat away at one. Your critiques are germane and to the point.

My favorite class was with John Gardner who sat at the front of the class read out the title and author of a piece and either toss it into the trash with, "Don't bother" or something more colorful and the others were set aside for discussion. He made no bones about telling people that they should think of lucrative careers in the food service industry and, in fact, this is quite productive. If you are are writer you'll try like hell to prove him wrong, and if you're not, you'll mope your way into a more suitable career.

However, even this isn't a curriculum. And the present state of creative writing makes a person incapable of producing even adequate writing. (I know, I interview people for "writing jobs" on a regular basis and most of them are incapable of composing even a decent cover letter.)

Well said, and much agreed.



ADDeRabbi said...

Your final paragraph reminds me of a statement attributed to the noted French food critic Anton Ego: "I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow."

A.J. said...

The purpose of creative writing should be to teach the skills to enable a student to write professionally.

D. G. Myers said...

This is true for undergraduate students too, Adlai?

A.J. said...

I think that an undergraduate should be able to, after graduation from a creative writing program, write a solid story.

D. G. Myers said...

What do you mean by “solid”?

A. J. said...

A solid story is one that would be published by a genre magazine.

D. G. Myers said...

So what you really want to see taught is magazine writing.

D. G. Myers said...

On this conception of creative writing, see “The Problem of Writing in a Practical Age,” in The Elephants Teach (Chicago, 2006), pp. 56–76.

A. J. said...

Swenson listens to a student reading her story to the class, and then must “think of something to say, some way to improve this heartbreaking, subliterate piece of shit. . . .” He is not per mitted to say that, of course; “classroom etiquette” stops him from saying even that a student can do better. He must never say that she—or anyone—should “bag it and start over, as if no real writer would do that, as if he himself hadn’t pulled the plug on dozens of stories and novels.”

Also, this makes me think about the issue of making fiction too complex, something I wrote about on my blog. Writers push themselves to new heights, but never ask, who cares, who will spend the time excavating the hidden dimensions of their prose?

If the writing is so complex as to become inaccessible to most readers, then the subliterate piece of shit may actually be better writing, if it manages to reach someone. But, of course, literary fiction today is not aimed at the general reader, just at other academic fiction writers, MFA students, and academic fiction critics. Critic Lee Siegel put it this way,

"For about a million reasons, fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers."

Curiously, however, these writers complain that the public doesn't read their work.

And so I think that the graduate of a BA program in creative writing should, at the least, be able to tell a solid story, one that is available to the general reader. The MFA should be able to do this too, and many feel that writing for the public is beneath them, which is a pity. Deresiewicz put it best, expressing what this attitude is like,

"There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house."

Amateur Reader said...

Has any university creative writing program actually tried what A. J. is suggesting? It's such a promising idea.

Forget teaching students how to wrote like Alice Munro or Raymond Carver or whoever, since that's not really possible. Instead, teach them how to write like Nora Roberts and Brad Thor, skills that are likely to be highly teachable.

That Deresiewicz article is one of the stupidest things I have ever read. I'm ususally so nice, but it inspired me to go on the attack. I bashed him up against Joseph Epstein, which was probably cruel.

A. J. said...

What about you, D.G., do you find Deresiewicz's essay ridiculous? I think that he's right on the money--elite education breeds insufferable snobbery and contempt for the average man.

ZV Woods said...

The only way to teach someone how to write is to teach that person how to read closely and critically, and then how to apply those skills to his own work. A bad reader cannot be a good writer. Beyond that, the two wild cards are taste and style.

We could argue all day about whether David Foster Wallace and Thomas Hardy are good writers. There's no denying they're both literary and brilliant, but intelligent people can disagree on accessibility and relevance. And someone whose writing voice is in the mold of DFW would suffer mightily in a workshop where the teacher tried to wedge him into a Hardy-like aesthetic. Yet sadly, this happens all the time.

Writers need critical feedback, but I'm not convinced workshops and MFAs are the way to get it. These mills grind exceedingly small and uniform. Anyone who values creative integrity would be well-advised to stay away from them altogether.

Amateur Reader said...

That's how we're going to evaluate an essay - whether we agree with part of a one sentence summary of part of its argument? Is it possible to agree with an argument, and still think it's badly made?

Plus, that is not the entire argument of that essay.

Even if it were, here's an alternative that gives the exact same results: "elite education selects on insufferable snobbery and contempt for the average man".

PWells said...

I wonder if it might be important to make a distinction between creative writing on the undergraduate level (BA) and creative writing on the graduate level (MFA).

The issue of purpose ties in to this distinction: we might expect a student earning a BA in creative writing to also need training in close reading, literary history, and thoughtful criticism. An MFA student is more likely, I would hope, to come in already practicing some of those. It seems to me that an MFA student is more likely to be at the level when she can be trusted to read a diversity of works intelligently. (And yes, I realize that I am arguing here against the straw MFA student who boasts about reading nothing. Are there such MFA students? Are there more than one or two in a program?)

In other words, a BA/BFA might need to be part of a literature and humanities curriculum. An MFA strikes me as much more of training for journeymen. MFA programs, while ostensibly offering the benefit of critique and audience may in fact offer other important things writers need: time, a chance to take what they do seriously, etc. Those are, perhaps, not scholarly goals, but an MFA is in fact, an arts degree, not a scholarly degree. But I wonder, too, how much MFA writing programs are focused exclusively around creative writing workshops—many, I think, also require graduate level literature courses as part of their programs.

I have no knowledge of other types of MFAs programs beyond writing programs. But are MFAs in painting or theater or photography or music more academic? More based on performance and practice? A blend of the two? How do they relate to the academy? What are their purposes and goals?

PMH said...

I've been teaching both fiction and poetry writing for 13 years and I see benefits beyond those few cited above. For one, a good writing course is a good reading course, close and critical reading, both of published works (as many as time permits in a typical academic term) and student writing. While it might seem too obvious to say, students are very poor readers, even those passionate about writing. Close reading leads also to close analysis of form, which is almost never taught anymore. It also leads to an understanding of why a piece of writing moves readers, how the elements of fiction or poetry combine to produce an experience that we return to and attempt to emulate. I always say that writers read like carpenters look at houses. They see pieces of literature as objects and constructions, as products of craft, and they see things in language that ordinary readers, even English majors, do not see. More to the point (and I think DGM mentions this in his book), writers can read for reasons now absent from English classes. They can read for the beauty and the power of language, for the well-turned phrase, for voice, for the compelling character, conflict, or idea, for literature's ability to make us feel something intelligently. Unlike the contemporary literature classroom, writing students need not be bogged down by half-understood ideas about sociology, psychology, history, linguistics, etc.
When it comes time for the student to write and read aloud, he or she also learns humility, how difficult it is both to imagine anything effectively, pointedly, meaningfully, and to communicate it orally. Good writers have a tremendous sense of empathy, for they have to imagine all the time that they are someone else, either the people in their stories and poems or their readers (deciding what to do based upon its effect upon the reader).
Creative writing teaches active engagement, politeness, and respect, for in the workshop, the writer is in front of you, and the student must take seriously his or her new role as a critic who wants to help (to teach, actually) his or her classmate. So the student also has to imagine what it is like to be this other person so that he or she can articulate efficiently, economically, and humanely how a piece of writing might be improved.
Creative writing also adds a dimension to college life for it typically spins off student groups, publications, and performances.
It is true that there is not enough time to make a mature writer, but there is enough to get a serious and talented student off to "a rolling start" at the same time that it communicates (indeed dramatizes) the sheer amount of work and self-sacrifice it takes to make anything good and lasting.
BA gives a picture of a bad teacher in class that suffers his own poor craft and lack of caring, both for writing and for students. His style of teaching produces the kind of class culture and output that the novel describes. While the advantages I note may not be seen as academic subjects, they are essential to learning and to functioning in many other settings.

Susan Messer said...

I'm currently reading Gary Shteyngart's RUSSIAN DEBUTANT'S HANDBOOK, a crazy-world-in-a-book, but the main character, Vladimir Girshkin, passingly thinks of MFA writing programs as good models for Ponzi schemes.

PMH said...

I’ve taught creative writing for 17 years. I agree with the criticism that taught badly (as in Blue Angel), its benefits are few. Taught well, however, it has the following positive effects:
1. CW teaches close reading for form: stylistic choices, voice, effective verbal effects, sophistication of figurative language. Students (many for the first time) learn how writing works on this level, both by studying it and using it. They are asked to understand writing as both intimate and flexible. For the first time, students begin to understand issues like active versus passive voice, syntax, and the effect of differing points of view.
2. CW reinforces the importance of life experience and its effect upon writing choices. Being asked to write from their lives, they gain insights into how life may have influenced pieces of other published literature.
3. CW teaches empathy, the projection of sensitivity and imaginative involvement with other writers and with the human presences within stories and poems.
4. CW allows students to identify with the writers of literature who suddenly become in their minds fellow travelers embarked upon the same adventures with language.
5. CW says its okay to say something is beautiful or moving, remarks that in most English classes invite criticism for being “sentimental,” “belle lettristic,” humanistic, or “reactionary.”
6. CW teaches another view literature entirely, one much more associated with effectiveness, efficiency, and aesthetics, and frees English students momentarily from the half-understood sociology, psychology, and historicisms (and other politically inspired half-truths) that dominate the literature classroom.
7. CW provides opportunities for students to practice writing, and to see this practice as “craft.”
8. CW launches literary careers by giving a student one place in an entire college’s curriculum to create imaginative writing and to begin to study the writing profession and the world of publishing, although this happens only rarely.
9. CW, in summary, allows students to have an intimate relationship with intelligently verbalized ideas and emotions. It allows them “to imagine” in constructive and useful ways, which is, again, a much different experience from the literature classroom.

For the institution, there are also benefits, for CW classes typically spin off student publications and performances, giving literature geeks a role to play in creating campus culture.

As DGM so ably describes in his history, CW has an uneasy relationship with an English department. As an art, it probably belongs in some sort of arts division with other fine arts, but I believe that done well, CW can enrich the culture of an English department, if it is taught professionally and responsibly and given respect by other professors.

A.J. said...

"elite education selects on insufferable snobbery and contempt for the average man".

So your argument is that people who are attracted to elite schools are a priori insufferable snobs?

This is not quite true. Education is a process and that process shapes a person's world view. Elite schools attract very bright academically, but they shape their perception that because they are so bright, they are superior to everyone else, and that they are entitled to special deference. That was Deresiwicz's point. So much so that these people can't communicate with the average man. Which is, tangentially, what most MFA's suffer from too--they can't write fiction the reaches the average man because they have been taught to only cryptic literary art pieces are the legitimate form of fiction.

PMH said...

My apologies to readers who noticed that I posted two very similar sets of comments. The first was a draft that I didn't think was sent (for my computer wouldn't stay on the site). The second was an edited version. The difference in "years" (13 to 17) came from the melancholy realization that I'd been at this crazy business longer than I thought.

A.J. said...

PMH--17 years of teaching creative writing. Can you even tell a solid story?

Amateur Reader said...

I don't want to continue the discussion of a two year old essay here. Anyone wanting to talk about the distinction between an argument and a hypothesis can visit me at Wuthering Expectations.

So, a creative writing question. Is that true, that MFA students are taught that cryptic literary art pieces are the only things worth writing? I thought that the knock, to stick to fiction, was that too many students are trying to write New Yorker stories or confessional poems, which may be art pieces but are rarely cryptic.

Would Prof. Myers suggestion, that MFA programs add more criticism and scholarship, decrease the status of cryptic literary art pieces, or increase it? Scholars and critics are usually pro-literary, pro-art, and maybe even pro-cryptic, if I can substitue "complex" for "cryptic". Will the average man be any happier?

D. G. Myers said...

PMH wrote a solid novel called The Knowledge Tree.

A. J. said...

Amateur, a hypothesis is the scientific equivalent of an argument, relating the relationship between two variables. Hypotheses are tested through empirical means, such as statistical analysis.

Yes, it appears that this is a solid novel. Sadly, it is unavailable. Has PMH thought of making it available as ebook on the Kindle?

A. J. said...

Anther question, why do literary pieces strive to be complex? Why not strive for parsimony?

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

Have you seen Elif Batuman's review of Mark McGurl's book on creative writing programs over at the LRB yet? No word-count restrictions over there!


D. G. Myers said...


Dave Lull directed me to Batuman’s piece in a comment on “Getting Creative Writing Wrong.” I was thinking the same as you when reading it: does this thing ever end?

Still, Batuman and I arrive at a similar finishing line. She writes:

“[T]he fact that the [creative writing] programme isn’t a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean we should celebrate, or condone, its worst features. Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves? Why can’t it at least try? The programme stands for everything that’s wonderful about America: the belief that every individual life can be independent from historical givens, that all the forms and conditions can be reinvented from scratch. Not knowing something is one way to be independent of it—but knowing lots of things is a better way and makes you more independent.”

Too bad that Batumen could not come right out and say that, to be better than it is, creative writing might become a liberal art.

But her point is much the same as mine, even if she must disguise a love of freedom as the self-help mantra of “mak[ing] you more independent.”

Jonathan said...

I should have known the OWL would have already found that.

D. G. Myers said...

The more links the merrier, I always say!

D. G. Myers said...

I see that the New Yorker’s book blog linked to Elif Batuman’s essay-review of Mark McGurl’s critical study The Program Era under the tag line “Down with creative writing,” which isn’t even close to what Batuman is saying.

I guess I can see how you can gain a reputation for being “against creative writing” when all you really do is to propose a reform of it.

Sebastian said...

Last semester in a graduate level creative writing workshop, one of the students called the professor out in class as a literary snob. He was teaching what I consider a fairly standard workshop for that level; a heavy emphasis on Burroway, Gardner, and Chekhov, a smattering of literary criticism, some current novels – the usual fare.

But not everyone in the class was loving the program. This student’s main beef was that she didn’t appreciate being taught to write literary fiction when all she was interested in was writing genre fiction. In fact, she continued, it seemed like the professor didn’t even like or read genre fiction.

He countered that he did indeed read genre fiction; he read science fiction and one of his favorite writers in the field was Andre Norton. Not that Andre Norton wasn’t a great writer – she was – but that’s like saying you like baseball and but only the guys in the 600 homerun club.

I had a lot of sympathy for her point of view. She wanted to be taught how to write the kind of things she liked to read, and for her, Gardner, Carver and Chekhov just wasn’t her thing and she didn’t see how learning to write like that was going to get a book contract in today’s market.

Fair enough; I’ve wondered about this myself. I grew up reading genre fiction, I love to write it, I’d give an as yet-to-be-determined body part for a book contract to write fantasy or sci-fi. And it would seem that in a master’s program geared toward writing as a profession as opposed to an art form there would be less emphasis on the classic creative writing workshop.

(To be fair, the program offers tracks in creative, applied, and comp-rhet; one could matriculate and never take a creative writing class.)

That being said, I found myself arguing in favor of the workshop, Chekhov and all. Everything we were learning in the class was geared toward making us closer readers and better writers, no matter what genre we wished to explore. Learning the fundementals of the craft or writing is no different than learning how to mix paint, improvise a melody, or how to hit your mark. These fundemental lessons form the base; from there you can take it wherever you want.

Maybe this is indeed a satanic mill and we’ve willingly entered into a mass delusion that a degree in writing means something. But I don’t think so. There will be people who graduate and never write another meaningful word, and there will be those who will teach, and those who publish, and maybe even some that break out and become cultural phenoms. The degree is meaningless, the lessons could be learned on your own, and if you want to write urban erotica, maybe dissecting “Lady with the Dog” isn’t going to help you as much as immersing yourself in the world of urban erotica.

Are we artists? Or just assemblers of language? The computer has generated a book, but did anyone have the desire to read it?