Thursday, July 23, 2009
Creative Writing: Can it be taught? A recent article in The New Yorker brought up this very question. Offering creative writing courses are borderline controversial, because people are divided on the issue. Some people truly believe that one can be instructed towards becoming a better writer, and others believe that creative writing is something that is natural and cannot be taught.
A friend of mine asked me yesterday, "How do you teach someone to write who has no idea how to do it?" Being an English teacher, it can be a complicated question, but it is a part of the English teacher's job. How does one teach something to someone that comes so naturally? And, how does someone, with a completely different writing style, help someone else with a completely different writing style write truly on their own using their own voice?
Different writers have signature marks and devices that they use. Teaching these techniques and devices can be really difficult. Perhaps the style that made Hemingway famous could help one person, but another person would simply hate that technique. One person might really identify with Chuck Palahniuk's repetition, but how do we know which technique to show to others? Most people find their own niche, but when it's not so obvious, how do you show that to the person?
Many have skepticism over creative writing programs, Writers Workshops, and various degrees that are now offered for creative writing. Normally, in a creative writing class, students write their own material, share it with others who heavily critique it (people who have not been published), and then the author edits and revises carefully for a finished product. The student reads various authors to help develop the writer's own style and voice in order to develop into his/her own writer.
The best piece of writing advice that I ever received was from a professor at Cortland for an introductory writing class. He told us, "If you want to be a good writer, read better writers." In essence, you will start to see how a good writer presents his plot or argument. You will see how his mind thinks and how he organizes his ideas. You can steal one device from this author and another from this author to make your own style. It's not stealing if you make it your own.
Hunter S. Thompson swears that he became a better writer by re-typing works that he thought were genius: The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald being one. He wanted to get inside the minds of the writers and feel how it felt to type like a good writer. That worked for him, but it might not work for everyone.
I can see how advice and strategies other writers use can help, but can a course really make someone a better writer? That's the question at hand here.
Can a really good writer, a published author, teach others skills and give them sound advice that can lead them to become good writers? I recall reading an essay by David Sedaris (I forget the title of the essay) where he explains teaching a creative writing class. He had no idea what he was doing, and in the end, he admitted that he really didn't make anyone a better writer. Just because he knew how to write doesn't mean he know how to teach it or communicate that skill to others.
Perhaps some teachers can communicate certain aspects of writing to help the writer develop on his/her own: "Writing instructors have techniques for stimulating production, exercises for developing an awareness of how literature works, formulas encapsulating their particular notions of craft." But isn't dissecting writing too much taking the creativity and individuality of it?
Thinking of on the lines of how creative writing can be taught, the article "Show or Tell" notes an author, Mark McGurl, who wrote a book called The Program Era on how to use the creative writing workshop well. If used successfully, it can do three things well.
First, "it interprets works of fiction as what philosophers of language call illocutionary acts. The meaning of one of Raymond Carver's short stories is not only what the story says; it's also the way the story says it."
Second, it "treat[s] the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and creative-writing program is a means of tooling."
Lastly, one of the main ideas is, "How can we make people more productive and creative? These are the philosophy of education and management theory. Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the 'learning-by-doing' theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning."
Maybe you agree with these main points--maybe not.
Famous authors who came out of a creative writing program: Margaret Walker, Toni Morrison, Tobias Wolff, John Irving, Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Alice Sebold, and many more.
But think of all the authors who did not attend any formal instruction on creative writing. Maybe it helps some people and works sometimes, but I don't think everyone needs it. Maybe some need help, but not all do.
I don't think it's a straightforward yes or no answer, but I think some people might think that it is, which is fine. I don't know if there can be any evidence to prove either way. I think it's more of an opinion that one might think to be true. One might have strong arguments one way or the other, and I might agree with both sides. If offered, I would try to teach a creative writing course to students, hoping I could get through to them, but like any course, you never know how much effect you really have on students' work until years later.
So, do you think creative writing can be taught?