May 15, 2011 3:25 AM   Subscribe

The Guardian has a new series of webchats with various people in the publishing industry starting with literary agent Karolina Sutton. Also various writers are asked: Can you teach creative writing?
posted by fearfulsymmetry (17 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
In short, they mostly learned to be good writers by spending a decade writing, and discussing their writing with others, while employed as screen writers.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:06 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you teach baseball? Maybe not if your students have never watched a baseball game before. Can a high-school coach teach useful techniques to kids who've played a lot of informal ball but have never watched tape of their swings or thought about infield positioning? Hell yeah. Is the fact that baseball players play in many different styles and different positions an argument that "baseball can't be taught?" No.
posted by escabeche at 6:05 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, folks in Creative Writing programs aren't the ones interested in teaching writing.

That field of study falls to Composition and Rhetoric. But my impression is that there are too many Creative Writing MAs floating around to hand those classes over to another department, even if it would be exponentially more effective at the task.

If 80% of creative writers believe their specialty can't be taught, and the other 20% believe that only creative writers can teach it... I'm not sure why anyone is surprised that Creative Writing programs aren't particularly useful.
posted by pokermonk at 6:35 AM on May 15, 2011

Who are your top ten contemporary writers? How many of them came out of a creative writing program?
posted by pracowity at 6:52 AM on May 15, 2011

I dunno about top 10, but here's a few. David Foster Wallace, yes (Arizona.) Michael Chabon, yes (Irvine.) Sam Lipsyte, no, but studied creative writing in college and teaches at an MFA. Ben Marcus, yes (Brown.) Jonathan Lethem, no, but teaches creative writing at Pomona. Mary Gaitskill, no, but is from a previous generation, and did win the award for best creative writing student as a Michigan undergrad. Matt Derby, yes (Brown.) Let's see, poets? Rae Armantrout, yes, San Francisco State. Monica Youn, sort of, was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford...

I forgot what point I was trying to make. Except that lots of very good writers with a wide variety of styles went to MFA programs, I guess.
posted by escabeche at 7:07 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can teach technique. You can teach discipline. You can't teach talent.
posted by Failure31 at 8:31 AM on May 15, 2011

Most of the professional writers I know who have MFAs have said that the MFA is useful, not because it teaches you how to write, but because it gives you two years in which your main job is to work on your writing. I never knew how much I needed that until I found myself with a book contract and a day job. (I never tried for an MFA -- it's bad having zero spare time, but it's worse having lots of student loans).

The people who say it's not possible to learn creative writing are the ones who focus on the difference between a genius and a pretty good writer; dazzling originality of voice is not a thing you can be taught, though it helps to have someone telling you to think harder and look deeper. An internal compass of what you want to say, and how you want to say it, and how you will know if you're not being true to your own aesthetic sense, is not a thing you can be taught. All the rest -- plot, dialogue, symbolism, structure -- is necessary, and can be taught, but I think the real reason so many great writers have MFAs is that they have the single-minded commitment and devotion to think it's reasonable to go $40,000 into debt in service of their craft. It's that single-minded commitment that makes the difference, more than the classes.
posted by Jeanne at 8:32 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can write good.
posted by Webbster at 8:50 AM on May 15, 2011

I don't know that anyone ever suggested that a CW course is like giving steroids to an athlete. It's more like taking an athlete and stuffing them full of Little Debbies and heroin.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:30 AM on May 15, 2011

uh huh
posted by clavdivs at 9:37 AM on May 15, 2011

I want to see what a MFA/ writing class looks like. I have a feeling it could be the best comedy ever. Perhaps DFW wrote on these programs, anyone?
posted by clavdivs at 10:10 AM on May 15, 2011

Writing has always been part inspiration and part work. Those who ignore one aspect or the other don't do as well. To be a great, even a good, writer one has to have some innate talent, some drive and dedication, and some basic brass bolts knowledge.

While philosophy, profound insight and depth of feeling can't be taught (okay, except maybe familiarity with philosophy) plotting, pacing, grammar, proper use of dialogue, characterization, avoiding cliché, proper use of epilogues and prologues and things like that? Not only teachable, but ONLY teachable, so to speak. There's no way to just intuit that stuff, really- there is to some extent but not fully, and at least at the editing stage you have to have some conscious awareness of rules.

(This says nothing about the worth of MFA programs and whether or not they have anything to do with teaching anything. I suspect one can learn all or most of this from the publishing industry, books, websites, or classes in undergrad.)
posted by Nixy at 12:03 PM on May 15, 2011

My impression of MFA programs took a hit when a friend of mine took such a course and was told by the writer in residence that only a worthless cretin of no talent ever writes anything in genre or for children; dabbling such marks one as a non-serious writer forever. Which would come as quite a surprise to Dahl, Gee, and Nobel Prize winner Lessing, I guess.
posted by rodgerd at 12:23 PM on May 15, 2011

Can you teach baseball?

Also, to examine this analogy: coaching sports isn't a sinecure for players who want a nice steady income on the side; it's a discipline in and of itself where many top performers have limited experience at the highest levels. It one follows along the path, notable writers wouldn't run MFAs, editors or specialised lecturers would.
posted by rodgerd at 1:07 PM on May 15, 2011

But aspiring dancers go to the Royal Ballet School, and actors to Rada – why should writing be any different?

Interpretive vs creative. Can you teach choreography? Discuss.

Kind of impossible to know if the CW thing really makes a difference, though it is clear that a lot of money is changing hands in the process, which always brings out the cynic in me. And like we don't already have way too many writers out there already.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:34 PM on May 15, 2011

Artists go to art school and designers go to design school. There are film schools and game-design schools.
A lot of the learning going to any art school is the opportunity to discuss ones work with peers and professors. And with that: the pressure to deliver stuff of high quality for those discussions.
As an extra bonus, you get to meet (some of) your heroes, and to study and analyze good art in a structured setting.
Once, I met a guy who had started a creative writing course. He explained how the whole thing had been there for years, informally, as a gathering of writers of all ages in his private apartment. Starting the course just meant that people who couldn't find the informal channels now had access.
posted by mumimor at 3:00 PM on May 15, 2011

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