My voice is a flower. A weird, ugly flower.
June 4, 2009 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Louis Menand in The New Yorker surveys American creative writing education, past and present, and asks whether it should still be taught. (via)
Once, on the first day of class, Angela Carter, who taught at Brown, was asked by a student what her own writing was like. She carefully answered as follows: "My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis."
posted by shadytrees (17 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Do writing workshops have any real value? Are they helpful to young writers? Do they impose standards of style and subject matter, perhaps unwittingly, on their graduates? And, sometimes with a prosecutorial wink: can anybody really be taught how to write? I have answers for these people. Put briefly: yes, yes, I don’t believe so but maybe, and yes. - Michael Chabon
posted by Joe Beese at 7:10 AM on June 4, 2009

If we take the article's premise, its as though writers workshops are like a self-perpetuating cult. People come in, and they come out saying "this will turn you into a writer!" I do wonder if a more didactic approach to teaching creative writing might work better.

For poetry, the problem is even worse in that while lots of people want to be poets, it doesn't seem like anyone else wants to actually read much poetry, and whenever I do come across a poem by these poet laureates I find them pretty dull.
posted by delmoi at 7:19 AM on June 4, 2009

What's with the excerpt? It is a funny anecdote but it is incidental to Menand's argument.

I read the article with interest a few days ago. I took a year-long short story writing seminar in Iceland a few years ago. What was interesting about it was that not a single student had ever taken one before (there have been only a handful of such seminars before in Iceland) and so the dynamic was very different from what friends of mine here in the US who've taken writing seminars told me. There was very little competitiveness, for one.

I have a novel coming out early next year in Iceland and I'm sure the experience had an effect on me as a writer, though other writerly things I've done (writing poetry every day in my 20th year, writing a collaborative novel, studying comparative literature) were probably more important. What was very important for me was the opportunity to try out various styles and see how people reacted to them. I wrote a Borgesian story, a surrealist story, a Hemingwayan narrative about Icelandic expats in Catalonia and an emotional monologue.

I hope I improved over the year, I know almost all of my fellow students did. Writing isn't any different from any other kind of skill, it can be taught and learnt but there's no surefire method of doing it just like there's no surefire method of teaching anything. Some people learn from creative writing workshops and some people don't. I'm not entirely sure what I learnt but one thing I know it taught me is that working on the craft of writing gets results.
posted by Kattullus at 7:21 AM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Kattullus: "What's with the excerpt? It is a funny anecdote but it is incidental to Menand's argument."

The subtitle of Menand's article is "Should creative writing be taught?" Chabon's answer is "Yes".
posted by Joe Beese at 7:25 AM on June 4, 2009

Oh, I suppose you meant Carter. Never mind.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:29 AM on June 4, 2009

My semester-long experience with a creative writing class in a liberal magnet high school in New York left me pretty jaded about the whole thing. Grading creative writing is inherently difficult, I feel. And as the semester droned on, I found myself trying to match our specific professor's expectations rather than being free to experiment with my own likings (I was applying to colleges that year after all).

Also we spent a lot of class time "interpreting" poetry written by other students, which was an exercise in over-analysis: Our class would marvelously find all sorts of metaphors and connections in a featured classmate's work, upon which the classmate would quietly confess to me that he wrote his poem on the subway ride to school that morning. I find it particularly funny how we spent a whole class praising a piece of writing I did which was written to purposely appease my teacher. Perhaps a by-product of classroom learning is that students in the same class become more homogeneous as time goes on?

Though to be frank the class did present some useful advice regarding character development, plot structure, etc. for short stories. It had its merits.
posted by gushn at 7:46 AM on June 4, 2009

Donald Barthelme, at Houston, assigned students to buy a bottle of wine and stay up all night drinking it while producing an imitation of John Ashbery’s "Three Poems."

Reason #587,642 to love Barthelme.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:57 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything

So totally true (I have a degree in Creative Writing).

Workshops work when the instructor is both a trained teacher and a successful author, and s/he has the skill and discipline to run a tight class. The insights and feedback would-be authors receive is pretty helpful.

But some of the instructors are there because they are writers and you don't make much money as a writer and so your buddy from CW school 25 years ago who is now department chair has got you this gig for 4 months to keep the lights on and the car insured.

By the way, thanks for posting Louis Menand. He's such a great writer.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:58 AM on June 4, 2009

I really dislike the fetishisation of nebulous, inherent talent over learned technique and hard graft. I studied creative writing at undergrad level then took an MA in prose fiction. I'm not claiming to have mastered the craft but I was certainly a damned sight better at constructing sentences and considering my audience at the end of those four years than I was at the beginning.

You can't set up control groups for judging this kind of thing, which creates fertile ground for magical thinking and pseudy creative types opining whatever the hell they like, on the basis that it's unfalsifiable and therefore nobody can conclusively disprove their stated position. Poetry is particularly vulnerable to this sort of pretentious insularity - a full rotary washing line's worth of Emperor's New Clothes that perpetuates a massive, unhealthy asymmetry between producers and consumers.

I've known most of my writerly friends now for many years, and I've watched them, and myself, improve with feedback and tuition. Basic elements of style stuff, like recasting passive voice sentences as active ones, cutting down on unnecessary adverbs, thinking about syntax and avoiding cliché - none of these was something we knew upon popping out of our mothers' wombs. Pointing towards some recondite wisp of 'writerly-ness' behind all of these massed techniques is silly and illogical. Yes, you can't force somebody to be a writer who doesn't want to be, but for everyone who chooses to have a go, it's simply a matter of synthesising techniques with content, and the long process of experimenting, failing, experimenting again and failing better, etc.

In the end, years and years of tuition, workshops, posting online and getting feedback from friends wasn't enough to get me to the level where I could write a publishable novel. My final, four year attempt was a bit of a mess, and it got turned down. It was actually pretty traumatising. So many people paid lip service to this idea that authors are born, not made, that the only logical conclusion seemed to be that I just hadn't been born an author.

But all the skills I'd been taught were still there. They were far more real than some ridiculous sense of destiny. And they were what got me through. I tried my hand at journalism, started doing performance poetry, and even attempted a little bit of memoir. It turned out all that self-mythologising crap about being born an author had been holding me back. Uh... and the upshot of all of that is my first ever book (non-fiction) just came out today.
posted by RokkitNite at 8:21 AM on June 4, 2009 [12 favorites]

As someone who has sat through more creative writing workshops than I care to remember, I think they are only as good as the people involved. That includes both students and teacher. I had the privilege of workshopping with a fun group of students and a great poet who was also a committed teacher. I have also suffered through a semester with a bitter drunk who had one good novel years before and who hated us as much as he we hated him.
posted by vibrotronica at 8:32 AM on June 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

In one of the many creative writing classes I took in undergrad, I somehow managed to find myself in a class full of education majors-- none of them had ever done 'serious' writing before (the kind that people write in creative writing classes, I mean). At the semester's outset they were all uniformly awful at everything. By the end, though, they were all producing interesting, thoughtful pieces-- maybe not professional publishable stuff, but I enjoyed reading everyone's final piece. The remarkable thing about this was that the class was entirely workshop, with hardly any direct input from the prof-- He was essentially a genius at refereeing conversation and setting up situations in which people would learn and improve simply by helping one another.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:03 AM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Simplified, Menand's point is that creative writing may or may not be teachable, but practicing it will always benefit you as a person. That I can agree with, and I'll even give it a "no duh."

This piece should also be placed in a broader conversation about the business of modern universities. University education, particularly literary study, used to be about making a good man. That's fallen to the wayside in favor of studying specific discourses.

Now, take a look at your local big university. I bet the buildings going up are science (and medical) and business buildings. Literary study, creative writing, and humanities in general are becoming increasingly overshadowed by study that befits goal-oriented, competitive (capitalistic even) behavior.

The question "should it be taught?" should be in the context of "in the modern university."
posted by hpliferaft at 9:08 AM on June 4, 2009

Every good writer who has opined on the subject of writing says some variant of "Writing is Work." People have to learn how to work properly and efficiently.
posted by absalom at 10:18 AM on June 4, 2009

I will never take a creative writing class, but I sure liked Stephen King's "On Writing" book.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:51 AM on June 4, 2009

I took two years of creative writing. The classes really helped me develop my writing skills, because writing is not just an art, it's also a craft and there are skills to be learned (for me - plotting). That said, the quality of your teacher really matters; I learned more in my first, less intensive year, because I had more feedback from the teacher on what was working, and what was not.
posted by jb at 6:23 PM on June 4, 2009

I wish I had been able to include this link: Comments Written by Actual Students Extracted from Workshopped Manuscripts at a University (McSweeney's).
posted by shadytrees at 2:42 PM on June 5, 2009

To be honest, this kind of thing is one of the reasons why I never bothered going to grad school. I do think to some degree talent can't be taught. You can ram grammar and editing and corrections into someone's head, but if they don't have the stuff, you can't finesse it. If someone has the stuff, you could improve it, but can you take Joe Blow with no talent and get them published via schooling? Probably not.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:49 PM on June 5, 2009

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