The Conversation I'm SO Done With . . .
. . . but I keep coming back to anyway.
The conversation regarding the teaching of creative writing (can it or can’t it be taught/ should it or shouldn’t it be taught) comes and goes. I was thinking we were in a fallow period, but then I came across this, and it reminded me how this conversation is always back at square one.
Still and all, I’m continually surprised that this conversation has to keep happening. But it does. As long as people keep giving platforms to those who argue against the teaching of creative writing, then articles like this will continue to be necessary.
Must we, though, have this conversation again? Really, must we? It reminds me of the wonderful exchange between Frank O’Hara and Jack Kerouac that John Ashbery read from a letter O’Hara wrote him in the early 60s. It was recounting a reading, where O’Hara was at the podium. It was a raucous event. And there was Jack Kerouac being Jack Kerouac.
Kerouac: O’Hara! You’re killing poetry!
O’Hara: That’s more than you ever did for it, Jack Kerouac.
Yes. That’s my metaphor of the day, and probably my favorite come-back of all time. Whatever creative writing teachers are doing that’s messing up art is more than those who argue against them have done for it.
Here we are, 2012, the apocalypse year, still defending what shouldn’t need any defending. What interests me in this conversation is what people who are arguing against the teaching of creative writing really want, because they’re not against advice to writers. They’re full of it. So what is it then? I keep going back to the notion that there’s a large measure of sour grapes in arguments against creative writing classes. And such solipsistic divergences need redirecting.
Here’s a helpful redirection from Anna Leahy: “That’s what novelist John Irving said to John Stewart on The Daily Show, namely that a creative writing program and his mentor Kurt Vonnegut showed him, ‘You do these things better than those things. Why don’t you do more of these things and fewer of those?’”
That’s succinct and persuasive enough, I should think. (But I’ll go on a bit longer, because it’s a Saturday, and the kids are watching a movie.)
And what is the strong argument against creative writing classes anyway? That it fosters sameness? That it will lead to generations of writers who write the kinds of poems that “go over well” in creative writing classes?
I should think, then, that doing a quantitative study of everyone who went through creative writing classes and then who taught creative writing classes of their own would show that people are being normalized into writing very similar things over time. And, of course, that’s not true.
As Dinty Moore writes: “Critics of creative writing as an academic pursuit take a small, small part of the whole and attempt to paint the entire enterprise in one, inaccurate color.”
And that’s the point people who argue against creative writing classes can’t seem to get. Yes, there are terrible classes and terrible teachers out there. But those we will always have with us.
I’ve been in many creative writing classes, and, at the undergraduate level, I’ve lead a good many as well, and even across the classes I’ve lead, they’ve been radically different over time. So much of a discussion-based class, as creative writing classes tend to be, is contingent upon the whole of the group, that generalizations across classes are close to worthless.
But these are old arguments. The fact that the conversation is still at this stage is depressing. As Vanderslice and Leahy say, there are more interesting, “more important, more complex questions” we should be spending our time on.
I’ll leave with this bit from Anna Leahy:
“In a book called The Creating Brain, Nancy Andreasen (who is a professor of psychology and a former professor of Renaissance literature) argues, ‘creative people are likely to be more productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people. This too produces an environment in which the creative brain is stimulated to form novel connections and novel ideas.’
A creative writing program is this sort of environment. Students in a workshop learn from writing, which is usually done in isolation, but they also learn from interactions over time, whether that's brainstorming ideas, receiving feedback from the instructor and peers, or offering critiques. In fact, my students comment that they learn how to revise from responding to others’ work even more than from direct feedback they receive. This process leads each student toward distinguishing her voice. The interactions nudge innovation because, as Andreasen says, ‘creative people are individualistic and confident.’ They don’t want to be just like everybody else.”
[JG: Side note: I’ve seen way too many creative people who are not confident to completely sign on to this, but I agree with the general point.]