Saturday, May 24, 2008

What are we teaching when we say we teach Creative Writing?

[Bill Watterson, "Calvin and Hobbes" (1985-95)]

I'm giving a paper with this title at the School of Social and Cultural Studies seminar series at Massey Albany on Wednesday 28th May at 4 pm.

Here's my abstract:

I've noticed that the idea of teaching Creative Writing tends to elicit negative reactions both in other writers and other academics. I've had solemn lectures from both sets of colleagues on the impossibility of teaching someone to be "creative". The Romantic idea of the divinely-inspired artist obviously dies hard.

With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to clarify what it is that I personally think I'm doing when I presume to teach Creative Writing, to compare this to various other practitioner's definitions, and generally to try to demystify the whole vexed subject.


It's not that I'm unsympathetic to either of the responses listed above.

The Writers are, presumably, afraid (on the one hand), of an army of institutionalised clones marching out to take over the literary world; on the other hand, they're concerned that the mysterious character traits which make them happiest when sitting by themselves in an attic poring over mysterious pieces of paper are unlikely to be transmissible through formal instruction.

It's not hard to empathise, too, with their fear of being replaced by a pre-programmed, predictable robot artist. They know that such an artist would probably suit society's purposes far better than they do. It wasn't by accident that Plato excluded poets from his ideal Republic.

The Academics, for the most part, seem to feel that it's just an excuse to let students lollygag around the quad staring into space and trying to imagine what it's like to be a tree or a bird – an essentially vain and frivolous way of evading the realities of solid, quantifiable research and easily assessable sets of skills.

Assessment is really the rub here, I feel. I mean, these are university courses we're talking about – not consciousness-raising exercises. Therapy sessions and confidence courses undoubtedly have their place, but should one get a grade for completing them? How do they contribute to a coherent pedagogical schema?

Well, luckily, the subject is a lot less mysterious than it might at first appear. Perhaps you'll permit me to quote here from my own introduction to our Stage One course in Creative Writing (Poetry and Fiction) here at Massey Albany:

Be concise; get to the point; be clear on what you want to say.

... Effective writing means communicating as clearly as possible with your reader. Stories and poems, the two specific forms of writing we’ll be working with, have always been considered particularly potent ways of getting information across. It’s how to promote that exchange of meaning that we’ll be concentrating on in the course, rather than the fostering of “creativity” in itself. That (hopefully) each of us was born with. Clear communication can be taught.

Whether you’re an English major, a Communications major, a Media Studies major, a Psychology major, or you haven’t yet decided what to specialize in, I can promise that this course will be relevant to your other studies. As well as teaching you techniques for expressing your own ideas in poetry and fiction, it will help you to analyze and understand other people’s work in greater depth.

If your interest is in Communication specifically, it will also help you to see the issues involved in choosing a medium of communication. Advertisers, PR people, News Reporters and Creative Artists all face essentially the same dilemma: how to reach a target audience with a particular message in the shortest possible time.

Obviously that explanation begs a lot of questions. "Stories and poems," I say above, "have always been considered particularly potent ways of getting information across." But of course that's not really the way they're usually regarded. What is a story? What is a poem? Why have most human cultures throughout history chosen to express themselves in these two forms (as well as in music, painting, sculpture, architecture etc. etc.)?

I'm not uninterested in these questions. In fact, I continue to speculate about them a good deal. But what I'm claiming above is that one can corral off that field of speculation from the actual technical practicalities of how to express one's ideas as effectively as possible (notice that I don't say "express oneself" – that really is too loaded for me).

And that, it seems to me, is what this field of study has in common with other disciplines here at the university. Can one teach religious studies without having strong religious views? I don't see why not. There's a whole series of events and concepts which can be discussed before the teacher obtrudes his or her own views – his or her own agnosticism, for that matter.

That, at any rate, is the theory behind English studies. A properly-trained English Academic is presumed to be a reliable guide to literary history, literary theory, and even literary appreciation. Books, after all, are written for readers (and, by extension, critics) – not simply for the delectation of other writers.

However, when we extend this to the teaching of professional practice within a particular field of study – the planning and construction of actual buildings, say, rather than architectural history or criticism – then I guess we apply slightly different (though still analogous) standards.

There’s no reason per se why the practicalities of a subject requiring technical knowledge as well as aesthetic judgement shouldn’t be taught by a pure theoretician. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to claim that our culture still places a certain value on experience. Overseeing the construction of a real, concrete building undoubtedly involves a lot of unforeseen hurdles and difficulties which have to be solved on the spot, and it’s then that the advice of someone who’s been there and done that can be most valuable.

For that reason, I think students are right to expect to be taught the practical details of their craft from teachers professionally active in the field (whatever field that happens to be). In the case of Creative Writing, I believe personally that that means someone who publishes – or at least has published – in that or analogous media. Which is not to say that such instructors are bound to be correct on any and all points of detail. Not at all.

What at least that degree of engagement implies to me is more along the lines of Shakespeare’s adage: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” How can a teacher empathise with the fear and trepidation their students feel in exposing their own work for critique, if he or she has never experienced that precise emotion, in that particular way?

You may reply that reading out an essay, or an academic paper, is every bit as daunting as reading out a poem or a piece of fiction. Perhaps - but then again, perhaps not. There are ways in which the full panoply of academic method and procedure can be deployed to deflect self-exposure in the case of critical work. With creative work, the masks of style and artifice are seldom sufficiently impenetrable to disguise the fact that one actually is setting up one’s dearest notions for appreciation or ridicule: "all my precious things / A post the passing dogs defile," as the poet W. B. Yeats put it.

So, to answer my initial question: yes, I think one can legitimately teach a subject called “Creative Writing” in a university context.

Mind you, it seems to me more a matter of refining process, rather than sitting in judgement on a student’s choice of raw material. The two inevitably affect each other. Nevertheless, I feel the distinction can still legitimately be made.

There's no getting round the fact that a degree of subjectivity will inevitably enter into each teacher’s choice of models and texts to study. Prior practical and theoretical decisions about what are and are not fruitful creative "directions" will also appear in his or her choice of what to stress both in class and when grading student compositions.

If our students are chided for lack of concrete detail, precise language, memorable situations and individual characterisation, it will be (of course) because we consider those traits to be not only intrinsically desirable in both poetry and fiction, but also because we consider them to be teachable. They are, in short, an excellent starting point.

If we continue to use such hackneyed formulae as :“Show, don’t tell,” or William Carlos Williams' "No ideas but in things," or Ezra Pound's “Nothing you couldn’t, in the stress of some emotion, actually say,” then that might appear to denote a residual obeisance to Modernist aesthetics. But isn’t it really more analogous to what we're doing in English studies when we instruct budding critics in the – undoubtedly theoretically outmoded – skills of New Critical close reading?

Finally, are we attempting to train our students to become good writers or good readers (or, for that matter, good writing teachers)? I would humbly suggest that it makes very little difference in practice. I certainly feel that students who have struggled to compose their own poems and stories, will be more knowledgeable about – and appreciative of – the craft that goes into admitted masterpieces of the genre, than those who have stuck entirely to the field of exposition and critique.

Whether our students go on to develop their abilities in the field we’re trying to equip them for seems to be more a matter of temperament than innate talent. Could either Jeffrey Archer or (say) William McGonagall be said to have mastered fully the technicalities of their respective genres? Both have nevertheless pursued writing careers with vigour and determination – both continue to be widely read (for whatever reason).

Trying to supply our own students with a similar sense of mission and dedication is, I feel, where our teaching responsibilities should end. If writing constitutes their particular bliss (to adopt Joseph Campbell’s formula) no doubt they will pursue it. If not, at the very least I hope we'll have equipped them to compose a better webpage or business letter.


So how does one actually set about imparting this rather notional set of skills?

Let's go to the experts on that one. Robert Graves' 1934 novel Claudius the God includes a hair-raising description of how the ancient Druids assessed competence in poetic composition:

The candidate must lie naked all night in a coffin-like box, only his nostrils protruding above the icy water with which it is filled, and with heavy stones laid on his chest. In this position he must compose a poem of considerable length in the most difficult of the many difficult bardic meters, on a subject which is given him as he is placed in the box. On his emergence next morning he must be able to chant this poem to a melody which he had been simultaneously composing, and accompany himself on the harp. [pp. 259-60]

The penalty for any failure is, of course, death.

Moving to more recent times, here's the renowned American author Ursula K. Le Guin in the introduction to her aptly-named Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (1998):

Collaborative workshops and writers' peer groups hadn't been invented when I was young. They're a wonderful invention. They put the writer into a community of people all working at the same art, the kind of group musicians and painters and dancers have always had.

... Groups offer, at their best, mutual encouragement, amicable competition, stimulating discussion, practice in criticism, and support in difficulty. These are great things, and if you're able to and want to join a group, do so! But if for any reason you can't, don't feel cheated or defeated. Ultimately you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work ... Group criticism is excellent training for self-criticism; but until quite recently no writer had that training, and yet they learned what they needed. They learned by doing it. [pp. ix-x.]

That sounds more than a little defensive to me. Are writing groups really so recent an invention? Some of the literary salons of the eighteenth century would certainly seem to have anticipated them. And then there were the groups of friends such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien's Inklings, who read aloud, then critiqued one another's work. Is the idea so different, in fact, from what Coleridge and the two Wordsworths were doing as they walked and talked together in the Lake District?

John Singleton and Mary Luckhurst, the editors of The Creative Writing Handbook: Techniques for New Writers (1996) sound rather more positive about the benefits of the group experience:
We feel strongly that writers should not work in intellectual isolation.

They go on to specify:
This is a challenging era for a writer. On the one hand, there is a strong camp arguing that the process of writing is one of self-discovery and a means of understanding yourself in relation to the world. On the other hand, post-modernists are telling us that the search for a fixed self is pointless; that we will discover only selves and that none of them will be 'real'! So theoretically we're in a double-bind: but don't let it stop you writing! [p.16]

That last sentence may sound a little bland, but it's hard to argue with it. How you write and how you theorise about your own writing are not and never can be side-issues, but if you succeed in arguing yourself into silence it's hard to see who wins from that.

G. K. Chesterton perhaps summed up the argument for perseverance in a craft one can never hope to master in the phrase: "If a thing's worth doing it's worth doing badly." If you try to say what you've got you say then there's always the chance that something will get across - though, to be sure, never everything you hoped. If you give up and throw it away then even that slender chance is gone.

Finally, Colin Bulman, in his Creative Writing: A Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing (2007) points out that:

No book or teacher can make anyone a great artist, but most great artists are masters of basic techniques ... This book is largely about basic fictional techniques; no book can show the reader how to be an innovator in fiction. [p.2]

Quite so. The Woolfs and Joyces and Nabokovs will continue to follow their own tortuous creative trajectories, but even they might have useful tips to pick up about what does and doesn't work on an audience - in this case, that initial audience of their creative writing workshop. Not everyone has a Lytton Strachey or an Edmund Wilson (or an Ezra Pound, for that matter) to bounce their ideas off.

The Exercise

This is the bit I can't really describe on the blog, unfortunately. I'm going to try and get my audience to participate in a group-marking exercise. I've chosen some actual poems from my Stage One Creative Writing class (extensively disguised to prevent identification of their authors, of course).

If all goes well we'll end up agreeing that there actually are objective criteria for assessing them, and that it isn't a purely arbitrary expression of personal preference. If not, then I'll have to resort to Plan B.

Maybe some of the rest of you can suggest what that should be.


Anonymous said...

Since I started the first creative writing course at Otago, I know all too much about what drives the resentment of traditional lecturers for creative writing courses. For most of them, it's envy and laziness. Teaching a traditional lecture course requires almost no thought after the first year. I watched people deliver set-piece lectures unchanged, year after year, and come off the lectern convinced they'd given a great performance. The notion of shifting to courses in which students' writing is the centre of gravity makes such drones extremely nervous. In general, they hate anything that places the student at the centre of the educational experience. In their view, the student's job is to sit in sullen boredom at a little desk way up in a big lecture theatre, carving "Bored 2 Death" into the wood.
It's a mistake to assume opposition is grounded in rational thought. The core reason is sinecures, safe easy dull lives, and the dimly perceived threat to them wafting from courses like creative writing.
John Dolan

Dr Jack Ross said...

Once upon a time I would have said you were just being paranoid - but now I'm forced to admit there's a lot in what you say - those terrifying wodges of yellowing, type-written paper which have to have the dust blown off them every year before being droned through once again ... those set texts that never change decade to decade ...

Anonymous said...

Yet again I have had cause to wave this at someone. Thanks.

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