Posted by: oneyearbook | June 4, 2009


At the New Yorker, Louis Menaud talks about whether creative writing should be taught; the writers, and commenters, at Jezebel weigh in.

Menaud’s opening paragraph certainly tears a few holes in the idea of a creative writing degree. (For any readers that don’t know, I am the possessor of such an item.) “Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem,” he says. Ouch. He mentions that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (pretty much the most prestigious place to go in America and study writing) claims that they simply search for top-notch talent and encourage, rather than teach, the writers. “Iowa merely admits people who are really good at writing; it puts them up for two years; and then, like the Wizard of Oz, it gives them a diploma.” (Oof!)

He goes on to talk about Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era, in which the influence of the creative writing programs on modern American literature is much discussed. He believes it may be the most important event in the history of the post-war American literature. In the end, “McGurl argues that, far from homogenizing literature or turning it into an academic exercise, creative-writing programs have been a success on purely literary grounds. ‘There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period,’ he says.”

And: “university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.”

Anyway, you can read on (it’s long, of course) to see what conclusion Menaud eventually comes to.

At Jezebel Anna N. seems to think that her creative writing degree, just acquired, was useful; she points out that the people she met, the living she did, helped inform her writing, and that the cheapness of the degree allowed the participants to come from a very wide variety of backgrounds. She thinks that rather than homogenizing today’s writing, the programs help, in a sense, diversify it: “creative writing programs have had a hand in making multicultural literature something all serious writers and readers are expected to know about.”

The commenters are back-and-forth on their feelings on the topic; interesting, as usual, to read the discussion.

Now, as to my opinion. I, too, am divided. I think I’ve probably learned more about the craft of writing just from the two months of labouring over a first draft of a novel than I did from my three years in my Bachelor’s. But this is in no way damning: would I have learned twice as much as that if I had made the effort to write a novel during those three years, and brought it into the discussion there? Possibly. Yes, I have a degree in creative writing, and I received good grades in the getting of it. But I know, looking back, that I did not take advantage of the opportunity it afforded me as I should have. I should have been making the effort to find a long-term writing community that I could join, people I could continue to correspond with later about the craft; I should have taken more risks, written more, put it in front of my teachers all the time, rather than simply doing the assigned tasks. I should have studied more widely – taken the screenplay class, the advanced fiction class, the radioplay class, everything that they offered. I should have thickened my skin and pushed forward with the projects I wanted to do, rather than drop them at the first hint of criticism. I would like to go back and get my MFA, eventually – not just because of the learning experience, but because someday down the road I’d be interested in teaching writing.

But, you ask, do I think creative writing can be taught? Yes, I do. I think if you took someone with no experience in the field and gave that person a mentor, or a workshop, and some assignments, you could push them down the road to unearthing or learning a talent. Genius cannot be taught, but craftsmanship can. You can’t tell a great sculptor what topics to tackle, or what material, but you can give them the tools and teach them how to use those tools to make what they envision, one stroke at a time. That is something a writing teacher can offer, one word at a time.


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