Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why To Study Creative Writing

An allegedly positive follow-up to my previous post is . . . why might one take a creative-writing course--in the community, informally (a writing-group), at a college, or at an M.F.A. program?

Let's try for ten reasons--no particular order:

1. Structure: sometimes it's good for artists to learn within a structure of some kind. It provides some discipline, some routine, etc. It brings tradition on board, in a good way. When someone takes a ballet class, he or she is doing something specific that day but also joining a long, long tradition. What's not to like? Same goes for creative writing.
2. It saves time. You can learn about all sorts of moves to make and mistakes to avoid in a hurry. I borrow this argument from Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town.
3.You get to "test" your work with a real audience. You will get varying responses. You will have to sort them out. No need, usually, automatically to dismiss people's reactions to your work--or to take them to heart. Consider them.
4. You get to meet other writers--at whatever level of expertise. Misery and creativity sometimes love company.
5. You get to look at, to study (if you will) literature from a different angle--the angle of the ones who produce it.
6. Imitation. An ancient idea, going back at least 2,000 years but really much further. To learn how to do X, you practice by imitating an example of X produced by someone else. Read a sonnet, write a sonnet. Look at Quintillian's program for the liberal arts, way back when. It involved reading and then imitating good writing.
7. Stretch. Often in a creative-writing class (of whatever kind), you'll be pushed, usually not rudely, to try something in your writing you might not otherwise try. It's kind of like going to a yoga class and stretching a tendon you thought would never stretch. It's a way to experiment.
8. "Give it a try." If you never "thought of" yourself as a writer but you think you'd like to try it, a class might be the place to do so. Often in my introductory poetry class (e.g.) I'll get a senior majoring in business, and she (for example) will find out she can write good poetry. What a nice discovery.
9. Make connections. Whatever one's interests are, it's often nice to share them with a community.
10. You get to represent--in writing (as opposed to in conversation, painting, or repression--something, anything, important to you: ideas, experiences, whatever. You get to share the representation with others to see how it goes. To see if it does what you wanted it to do.

For every one of the 10, there's also a good reason NOT to take a creative-writing class. Much depends at what stage you are in as a writer, and on where you are in your life. Maybe you don't need structure. Maybe you already have learned the basics and saved time, maybe you're at a point where you just need to put backside in chair and write. Maybe your experience in the class isn't productive. Whatever.

It's not an either/or situation. Studying creative writing in a group or a class can be just the ticket. It can also be not right for someone at a particular time. This avoidance of dumb binary-thinking is another reason to dismiss the lame, simple-minded thinking about "abolishing" creative writing classes. Why not keep all the options open?
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