Monday, February 6, 2012

On Teaching Creative Writing

I once (three days ago) famously (well, seven people responded, and only three of them were me) tweeted, "I don't mean to sound preachy, but why would one take a creative writing class if one hates to read and write?"

The question, I admit, sounds preachy. It looks facile. It seems as though I'm pissing and moaning about a lack of effort on the part of some of my students. And that's all probably true, but something more important than that is at stake for me. I, ultimately, don't have time to worry about how much effort my students put into their studies, their careers, or their lives. On the other hand, the general lack of commitment shown by many students who take creative writing courses, ultimately, devalues the entire process of teaching creative writing.

But, here, let me tell you the story.

The catalyst for this post was my collecting student reading and writing journals last week for a midterm update. The reading and writing journals, I believe, are the most important processes in the course. I have written the following on this blog before; I have said it again and again in the company of many writers; I make the same claims about practicing writing that I make about practicing running and practicing math: if you want to improve your creative writing, you have to develop a sustained, consistent effort. I've said it so often, I have, at times, believed I made up the phrase "sustained, consistent effort." It's in my syllabus. It's on the assignment sheet for both journals. 50% of your grade, my syllabus tells us, will be "the sustained, consistent effort you put into your reading and writing journals."

So I collected both sets of journals last week and found that a full half of the class was not only not halfway through the completion of their journals, but some had only written two or three writing-journal entries out of a possible thirty. Some had less than ten percent of the minimum reading-journal requirement completed.

Some students included apologetic notes, "I'm sorry. I know this journal isn't where it needs to be. I'll work harder." To whom, I always wonder, are they apologizing? Certainly not me. They have not hurt my feelings. They have not let me down. I have four kids, a spouse, two parents, some pets, several friends, and my own thousand words a day to put on paper -- I have better things to do than be let down by students. For me, grading is strictly business, nothing personal. I tell them, "I'm the Michael Corleone of grading." I will help any student with any problem, academic or personal, to whatever extent that I can. "Come to my office hours," I tell them, "if I can't help you, I'll find someone who can." But I am not going to be sad about a student's lack of interest, intensity, or commitment.

Well, then, this seems like a non-issue, Jackson. If you don't care, and they don't care, then . . . what?

Just this: there seems to be a great sweeping belief that just signing up for creative writing classes, and just showing up from time to time, and just talking about what one likes or does not like about a piece of writing is enough to pass the course.

But such students are not going to pass my course. I tell them on the first day of class: "If you think you can just show up and talk about what you like or don't like about a story and pass this class, you're wrong." It's in my syllabus: "We are not here to talk about what you like or don't like about stories." Your reading journals are a place to experiment with what you are learning through your reading -- through imitation, celebration, and engagement. Your writing journals are the place where you will sit down every day and give the muse access to your pen. Students who don't do the work in my course, fail my course. I tell them this, and, each term, some of them are surprised by low grades. They then say awful things about me, and that's too bad, I think, for everybody concerned, because it's hard to get a letter of recommendation from a worthless piece of shit, but it's their prerogative.

The question has larger ramifications.

The best creative writing instructors* in the country, I believe are under constant scrutiny: "Can you actually teach creative writing?" They are asked by students, administration, parents of students, colleagues, other writers, each other, themselves: "Is it even possible to teach creative writing?" The easy answer is: "Of course." And, for me, that's the truest answer. But, again, I point to an ancient Greek whose name I can never remember, who once said, "Every question possesses a power that does not lie in the answer."

*Let me take a moment to point out that I am not suggesting that I'm in this crowd of great cw instructors. I have my moments, but, ultimately, have a lot to learn about teaching. I will, however, remind you that I just compared myself to Michael Corleone.

Anis Shivani is the most recent writer I know of to garner a great deal of press for writing a scathing** piece about teaching creative writing. He writes:
Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities -- except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of psychotherapy. More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop. Life lessons and living a more authentic life are always just beneath the surface of any workshop discussion.
** I think Shivani would agree his piece is scathing. I think he means for it to be scathing. But I am not writing this in an attempt to refute the creative writing naysayers, only to point out that they get a lot of attention (some of it earned), and that attention (often unwarranted) hurts creative writing instructors. It hurts the whole field.

That said: I have heard of this kind of creative writing course, where writing is synonymous with therapy. I have imagined this kind of creative writing course. I have feared this kind of creative writing course. But it has never been my experience. I have rather been taught by great teachers and writers to create a space for myself to access the muse. I have been taught to learn from what I read and to practice craft and to consider perspective and to weigh options and to think about the ways in which my own writing might fit into writing throughout history. I have been taught to value, above all else as a creative writer, reading and writing. It is not easy. Learning creative writing, I believe, is a constant lesson. It takes constant practice. I don't imagine Melville saying, "Well, I guess that's all I need. I'll write Moby Dick now." But writing is not therapy. I have never written about my feelings. I have never been psychoanalyzed by a peer or an instructor. I am not sure, exactly, what Shivani means by "the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop," but I'm pretty sure that's never happened to me.

Rather, I believe, we can teach creative writing. It was taught to me. I have seen it taught to others. I will teach it to anybody who wants to learn. Still, the power of this question lies in the asking, rather than the answering. I can't recall hearing or reading anybody ever ask: "Yeah, but, can anybody really teach history?" or physics or astronomy -- three subjects that seem infinitely less teachable to me. I mean, can anybody seriously imagine teaching history? What the hell would that look like? I can imagine encouraging somebody to read a book. I can imagine grading somebody on how many dates and places and events she remembers. I can even imagine suggesting to somebody that history books are always written by the winners. But teaching somebody to weigh conflicting reports of a factual event; teaching somebody to search through artifacts and determine which one is most accurate, most true (who would say that? most true? what's that); teaching somebody to understand the ramifications of The Magna Carta*** on contemporary American civil liberties . . . forget about it: can anybody really do that?

*** Turns out, it's not, in fact, spelled Magna Carter. Thank you, wikipedia.

For two years, as an undergraduate I studied secondary math education. I meant to be a middle school math teacher. I wanted to teach math because I was awesome at it, and I wanted to teach sixth, seventh, eighth grade, because I wanted to help kids through some rough years. But can one really teach math? In my experience, it's no easier than teaching creative writing. I can draw numbers and symbols and apples and arrows on the chalkboard for forty minutes a day; I can encourage students to practice at home; I can collect and grade homeworks and quizzes; I can test students on their retention. But getting them to understand math. Not a chance.

I think, in fact, we need to change the question. I think, when we say, "Can you even teach creative writing?", maybe what we mean is, "Can you evaluate creative writing?"**** I think that's a much less insulting question with a much more meaningful, if infinitely more complicated, answer. For the purposes of the University system, of MFAs and Ph.D.s in creative writing, I think the notion of evaluation is much more important, even if the individual answer is only relevant to a particular program, a particular school, or a particular instructor.

For me, for the Introduction to Creative Writing Course that I'm teaching, I am not evaluating the quality of students' creative work. I grade the quality of their self-analysis and the thoroughness of their peer responses, but the 50% of their grade that is their creative practice, I only grade their sustained, consistent effort.

I also make professional comments on a single work of fiction each quarter, and offer to them on a daily basis that if they would like to meet with me in my office to discuss any aspect of writing (theirs or somebody else's), I would be happy to do so.

**** In fact, the even better question might be, "Should we evaluate creative writing? And by whose standards? And what kind of magical criteria?" But those questions, I think, have much more to do with whether or not we're getting into Heaven than whether or not we're getting tenure.

[Meanwhile, I just thought I should note, given my belief in the power of questions, that I have changed my initial (perhaps rhetorical) question to: "Why would anybody who refuses to read and/or write take a creative writing course?" The hating is optional.]

1 comment:

  1. I teach creative writing to kids, and I stumbled on a really effective trick. Let them listen to audiobooks. There's something about hearing the stories read aloud that engages the kids differently. It almost becomes theater to them. Then they try to emulate that. There's lots of sites where you can download audiobooks for kids, but I use this one a lot because their stories are free, and also original. So much better than letting them hear stories they've already heard a million times. Here's the link, if anyone is interested.