Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Creative-Writing Under Almost-Attack


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Periodically, someone dusts off the old argument against teaching creative writing (especially in any kind of academic setting) and launches it like a rusted scud missile that lands harmlessly in a dry field. (Thanks to Fran for alerting me to this most recent harmless launch.)

This time it's Louis Menard in (gasp!) The New Yorker. I teach creative writing, so I think I'm supposed to be offended, but I can't quite muster offense. I'll make myself a candidate for the New Yorker's "block that metaphor" feature by saying that the "attack" isn't even rusted-scud material but more like that of a wet noodle, or a glob of wet noodles. Ouch, not the wet noodles again. Oh, stop. Oh, not the New Yorker.

How quickly can I summarize the argument (but fairly, too)? Let me try. Creative writing as a subject is bad because students can't teach students, writers can't teach students, teachers can't teach students, "genius" and "talent" can't be taught, some writers who have taught creative writing later disavowed it, some writers-in-residence are just louts pocketing cash, Somebody or Some Place Famous (Iowa) said it can't be taught (but will cash your tuition check), there are too many programs, if you write poems "for tenure," you've been compromised, the products of creative-writing classes are derivative, and I think that's about it.

I'll make this easy. Substitute the words "music," "reading," "painting," "dance," or "sculpting" for "creative writing" and then ask the same question. I don't believe I've ever heard an argument against teaching such things in an academic setting (or other settings).

Second, creative writing is, more than a little, another way to study literature and reading. It demystifies those parts of writing that can be demystified, and that makes for better readers. It is also a humbling process. Try to write a sonnet, for example. Or a successful five-page short story. Setting aside the question of how well you do, you will have deepened your appreciation for sonnets and short stories--and also, perhaps, cleared away a lot of rubbish about "artistes." Creative writing is--this will come as a huge surprise to dancers--a lot of damned hard work.

As to the "if you write poems 'for tenure', you've been compromised" argument: please. Not another wet noodle! When have writers not been compromised--by the State they live in (as in nation-state), by agents (if they're novelists), by publishers (who are now owned by multi-national corporations, which care deeply about literature), by their own tattered souls, etc.? Academia is no picnic, but it's no more corrupting to poets than fussy, misguided editors or having to work in a factory to make a living or growing up in poverty or growing up in wealth.

As to the "derivative" argument--all art is derivative, even when it sets out not to be. Creative-writing classes neither accelerate nor retard that process. Look at how derivative poetry was in any era--Renaissance, 18th century, Victorian (to settle on England). If you reach past the famous poets and the Norton anthologies to what was being written and published in general, you will say, "Gee, this all sounds the same." Well, of course it does. That's what happens with art. And then a breakthrough of sorts happens, or technology changes, or the tectonic plates of history shift, and "new" art arises.

Oh, and the article comes with the standard black-and-white photo of Robert Frost at Bread Loaf or wherever. Old photograph, old argument.

Social scientists would probably have a better shot than I or anyone who's closely involved with the topic at explaining what's going on, but what may be going on is that, as usual, Americans, including allegedly literate, "cultivated" (whatever) ones are habitually ambivalent toward academia in general, teaching in particular, art in general, and writing in particular. Get all four in the same room, and there's just too much to despise. The bile rises, and some clever fellow like Menard launches an almost-attack and suggests the teaching of creative writing be abolished. Enter Seinfeld. Yadda. (Yawn.) Yadda. Or in this case Yaddo. Yaddo.

Dang, and I was going to post a poem--by me or someone else. Much more interesting, even if it had been one of mine.
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