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.