Thursday, July 26, 2007

creative writing 1

I thought I'd do a couple of posts on the idea of 'creative writing' as something that can be taught. While I've never been in a creative writing program, I have a couple of experiences with courses I've taken at different times, and I thought I'd write about how neither of them did that much for me as a writer.

The first experience was in a course offered in high school. I took a creative writing course during my final year, and it was the first time I'd shared any of my writing with people who weren't close friends. I did well in the course, but looking at the level of my writing at the time--who cares? Let's just say that I would never show any of the stuff that I wrote back then to people now, for even if their was an occasional good idea or image, that alone does not make a good poem. While I remember some of my prose stuff getting more critique from my instructor, with the poetry I wrote it was fairly light. Oh, there were some comments written in here and there, but nothing that flat out said that my worst poems should be tossed, and that the others needed revision. So what was the effect of that? I don't think I had much impulse to push forward and improve, so when looking back, I can't say that there was much growth that resulted, at least with poetry. How does this connect to creative writing programs & contemporary literature? Well, if those writers aren't given candid criticism and held to the highest standards in literature, what incentive to they have to get better? Especially if they are getting 'good marks' and certification and access to publishing anyway--all of the surface perks. This is why the 'hard' criticism on Cosmoetica would probably be a bit of a shock to some of those writers if they actually read it--they probably aren't used to it.

And for the record, I had a nice dose of humility not long after that course, when I went to university and, in a more concentrated study of literature, saw the best poems by people like Eliot, Dickinson, Plath, Blake etc. all at once, and knew that there was a huge gulf between where I was and what they had achieved. And once you've seen the standard that those people set with their best work, you cannot go back to your teenage doggerel; you must progress, or not move forward with it at all. At least, that's how I saw it.

The second experience came after I was finished university. In a bit of a reaction to the theory-heavy direction my studies had taken me, I took some hands-on film production courses during the summer at another university. Bundled in with there was a screenwriting course. The instructor for this course was probably one of the worst teachers I've ever had, in that he really didn't teach us anything, and probably couldn't even if he had wanted to. I kid you not when I say that the main thing he stressed was having the correct formatting for spec scripts, and that he was more adept at measuring the margins of our scripts than offering any insightful commentary on what we'd written, or how we'd written it. His reference point for 'good' writing was basically bad Hollywood blockbuster films & various "#1 bestseller" novels that he would adapt (his schtick)--write something outside of that mode, and he seemed puzzled. I don't think he knew what to make of the script that I wrote, because even though it wasn't the greatest thing ever written, it wasn't modelled after the kind of film & the kind of writing he was used to.

As to how this connects to creative writing programs in general, it is evidence that the universities that offer these programs and hire these instructors a) don't necessarily know what a good writer is when it comes to looking for someone to teach others, and b) don't care. The instructor didn't care either, and why would he? It's a pretty sweet deal from his end. And in this instance, specific to film, I would say it also shows that the people running the program were not serious enough about the writing component of film. No writer can just use blockbuster films as their sole reference point--the quality is too low.

So while those are just two isolated courses, and not full out degree programs, I think you could look at them and connect what I've described to the teaching in MFA programs and the resulting bad writing out there. The high school course was free obviously and cost me nothing; the film production stuff did, and I've certainly had to pay for my mistakes. I don't mind putting that out there, if maybe it makes someone reconsider how to go about developing oneself artistically. In my next post, I will talk about some learning experiences I've had with writing that have nothing whatsoever to do with school.


  1. The best point is that they do not care.

    MFA classes are just easy ways to bilk money. They also perpetuate mediocrity.

    Since there is no practical application for an MFA they exist to merely proliferate. I.e.- they are badges, signs of membership in a club, to get crap published that only other MFA types will read, or would want to read, and this excludes the LCD majority, and the minority that actually appreciates the art of writing- that minority that makes up Cosmo readers.

    In my Hempel review, was there an image or a line that any non-writer, given a formula, could not reproduce? No. Since she lacks all narrative sense, she's the perfect example of someone w/o talent, and all formula.

    This is 'Creative Writing'- no creativity,, just rote. 'Formula Writing' wd be more honest an appellation.

  2. Great post, I enjoyed reading it. You have a lot of the same feelings I did at the time, as well as that ability to recognize the big 'gulf' that exists when one is 1st starting out vs. someone like Blake, Dickinson, etc. Maybe people don't think they should reach for those levels?

    I think I'll have to do a post on this, since I haven't done a long one in a while.

  3. While your lovely blog touched on many things I myself have come across and innately felt but sometimes doubted, it left out some things, and so let me explicate. It’s not only in the creative writing programs but in many creative pursuits from film-making to designing, etc, of which a Cosmoetica essay touched up on in how atrophied the American imagination is. Having come here from Zimbabwe, Africa, to pursue a graphic design career, and naïve to have been sold on the propaganda that if it’s American made, it’s a top tier product (art, after all, is in ways a product) I’d say the bad writing in the MFA programs is only a pond of what’s really a lake worldwide. Also for those of us who pursue excellence, we do so most importantly intrinsically motivated (objective passion over practicality), and most people aren’t, especially the artists who are perpetrating a fraud. They want it easy, and so if you can get published without producing great works, I mean, really who cares, where the bar is. When was the last time you went to a movie or read a great book that made you appreciative of being alive, which as we know can be a nice side-effect of great art. Yes, you, me and others out there walking that long lonely road may care where the bar is because we know the level of commitment it takes, but still in many ways they win. Their publication is a win, much as we hate it, and the world sees this as success. It was Rilke who said it best, that it takes a lifetime of experiences to write one good line, yet how many out there are writing out of that sacrifice, mantra or notion. The other sad fact of all this, is it has the effect of disheartening the aspirant hopes of some young poets out there who have talent but will lose their way, before they find the oasis of perhaps a Cosmoetica. I know, because I speak from experience, but my internal radar thankfully was good and so I found my way, yet for every one of me who makes it out of the desert, how many must die in it. I’ll say it, but bad art cannibalizes its hopefuls, talented or otherwise. Walking into the poetry section of any bookstores, it’s always the same nauseous feeling, afterwards, seeing how well stocked they are with the likes of Mary Oliver, Nikki Giovanni, or Sharon Olds, yet a Wallace Stevens, might be missing in action, even though he made it. I hate it, but sometimes, I wish my calling was something other than art. After all, it’s the only business where you might get your break after you die. For those of us who never see it, really, who wins: again, they the frauds do too.

  4. You know, I've thought about this a lot.

    I think that one of the problems is that people go into these sort of classes, or degree programs, with ridiculously high expectations. The truth is, all they can ever teach you in craft. They can never teach inspiration (although an individual teacher may be an inspiring teacher), and they can't teach you how to become a better writer, only give you the tools to make yourself a better writer.

    In 11th grade in high school, I took a creative writing class, too. It was a good class, and my teacher became my mentor and friend, and coached me a lot extra. I came out of that class with a short story that won national awards. A lot of what I wrote was crap, sure.

    But it seems to me that people expect to come out of these classes with finished works of art, when really all you should ever expect to come out with is a lot of reasonably acceptable but not great studies. Etudes. Sketches. Fragments. One or two might be re-workable into actual poems or stories.

    I learned what they can and cannot teach in the classroom when I was in music school; I have a bachelor's in music composition, and one of hte first things we all learned is that they can teach music theory, but they can't teach you how to be a good composer. In fact, I was again lucky to have a good mentor who led me through the process of composing; he let me write what I wanted to write, then guided me through the process. He was very objective in his assessments of the finished work, which was a gift.

    But the high expectations people have of such situations is a guaranteed set-up for disappointment, disdain, and mediocrity. I think it's an easy judgment to make, to the point of being a cliche in and of itself, that "writing workshops suck." Maybe they do, and maybe they don't. Since we're not all at the same place in our writing skills, or careers, you could also try to avoid the cliche of blaming the system and go in with clear eyes and low expectations. You COULD try turning the usual complaint on its head, for example, and go in with NO expectations. Then, if lightning does strike, it's gravy.

    Of course, the question might be asked, Why bother taking such classes at all? It's a fair question. There are some answers, but that's another topic for another time.

  5. I think it's a fair assessment that most people who have toyed with writing have at one point went to a creative writing class to check it out for themselves. Even I, who was skeptical, gave it a try. Ultimately, one can't expect too much from it, but most will want to at least test it out for themselves. A class is one thing. Dumping 30 grand for a degree is another. Art, what you say about music is the same, you can't teach insight or tone or style. That's something one either has or does not. But it's unfortunate how really 'uncreative' these 'creative' classes really are!

  6. I don't disagree with the assessment of the lack of usefulness of such classes, and it does indeed seem a waste of money to thousands for an MFA. I'm just saying that low expectations for all such endeavours are usually a safer bet.

    For more on the topic, here's an article I saw earlier today:

  7. Dan: I agree with what you've said. Making money is the primary motivation behind the whole thing. It gives writers a cushy, 'stable' position that is difficult to come by simply by living off of book sales. I think that, and the idea of being legitimized by teaching at a university, is what attracts many instructors. Whether they have anything to actually impart to young writers seems to be irrelevant.

    Whinza: Hello! And I agree that many people see publishing as the actual 'success' and not the quality of what was published.


    I agree that no program in the world can make a person into an artist, whether they have the talent or not. But I don't think lowering expectation is the solution, because the problem isn't that student expectation is too high. I think many of these programs are flawed in that they a) don't feature instructors who actually can teach something to aspiring writers, and b) they admit people who aren't really talented so that they can make a profit. For instance, in the article you linked to, the guy says:

    "At one of the workshops I sat in on at Bennington, David Gates and Amy Hempel co-taught the workshop, and it was just a pleasure to sit back and listen to what they had to say about writing."

    Don't know who David Gates is, but after reading Dan's recent Hempel review, how can I take that seriously? His answer about why they don't teach the kind of writing in more lucrative genres says it all--the universities are snobby yet not really discriminating when it comes to quality. It's a problem in the humanities depts. that is bigger than just creative writing. If a university can't get an English dept. that can zero in on the best works, how can it manage an effective creative writing program?

  8. The more you know, the harder it is to imagine sitting in one of those classes. I could never, never, ever do it, especially with someone like Amy Hempel there. Blech.

  9. Great post. Fortunately, I've never taken any creative writing courses, nor do I plan to. I did have a wonderful 7th grade English teacher that helped my poetry alot in its fledgling stage; we still keep in touch, though she doesn't really critique me anymore. The difference there is that I was the only person she really critiqued, since she saw some potential there. It was more of a mentor-pupil relationship as opposed to a teacher-students connection.

  10. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, which I typed up and glued to my school binder in high school:

    "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

  11. Neil, I read your HP article and some of the...passionate responses it inspired. There's a girl I know who wrote in her online journal that "anyone who says these books are for children is a..." I forget what expletive she used. People can be really fanatical about the whole thing. I saw my first Harry Potter anything last Friday--the latest film installment. Fun, I can see the appeal.

    Art, I like that quote too! I wish I'd had it written on my binder in high school.