Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the Difficulty of Teaching Creative Writing

Cross-posted at A Fugitive Phenomenon

I've been teaching creative writing on and off for 25 years and have written and spoken many, many words on the subject. But this -- from a short story called 'WritOr' in a book called Touchy Subjects by Irish-Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, of whom I had not previously heard but of whom I most certainly expect to hear more in the future -- says it better than anything I've ever said myself, or anything I've ever read or heard. It doesn't quite cover all the bases -- but it covers most of them.

The writer considered whether to tell BJ that to print five hundred copies of his so-called coming-of-age novel was a criminal waste of trees as well as his ex-girlfriend's money. That it would never get reviewed, stocked, or bought. Instead he dragged the dog-eared manuscript towards him and opened it at random. "This sentence doesn't have a verb."

The gilt shades looked back at him blankly.

"If you don't know what a verb is, BJ, why the fuck do you imagine you can write a novel?"

Tears skidded down BJ's face. The young man tried to speak; his Adam's apple jerked. He bent over as if he'd been stabbed. There were salt drops on the writer's desk, on the manuscript.

"I'm sorry," the writer said, breathless, "I'm so sorry --"

But BJ didn't seem to hear him.


elsewhere said...

Oh, I can just imagine a furore breaking out in some quarters over the snobbery of asking someone to know what a verb is.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, exactly.

Even if s/he wants to be a writer.

Especially if s/he wants to be a writer. But when they cry, their tears are agonising for you as well as them. Not only because it is heartbreaking, but also because you know that the next hour has just been spoken for -- whether you have a lecture to deliver 65 minutes from now or not.

Fyodor said...

"Well, exactly."

No subject and no verb in that sentence, but plenty of "heh".

The best movie I know about frustrated writers is Throw Momma from the Train. Goddamn, that's one fecking funny moofy.

Kate said...

So you're saying I should reconsider my vagueish half-an-idea of doing some creative writing sort of classy thing?

(Yes of course it's all about me, as usual.)

But I do know what a verb is! It's a doing word, right?

Elsewhere said...

What about people who want to use fragments (often without verbs) deliberately in their writing? Some high profile writers do this (Tim Winton, for one) but on the other hand, too many fragments strike me as being maybe too much of a good thing.

(N.B. all the Virgos who've immediately written back to you!)

Bernice said...

To verb or not to verb - I would have thought the bigger question is that it was just shite(sic)? And perhaps the virtual happy land of blogness gives an out for the budding John Kennedy Tooles - set up your blog, and post your opus verbless, gosh you could even set up a website and offer it for sale as a pdf!( the jingle of money was oh so sweet)No trees need die. No readers may come either but at least its out there. Or is this just needless encouragement, forestalling the day of reckoning. It's shite, boyo, go back to tax law.

Bernice said...

PS the cache on your comments field seems rather short-lived or tis my habit of inappropriate tea making?

Pavlov's Cat said...

Fyodor, yes, I do like me a bit of heh.

Kate Moment, is that you? I take it you mean teach writing, not learn it, since you are already doing it for a living? It has its, erm, moments, certainly.

I didn't mean to call attention to literal verblessness per se, which has its place, so much as to the fact that people persist, with great vigour, and I have seen an awful lot more of this in the blogosphere even than in Creative Writing classes, in thinking they can be artists without being craftspeople and learning the tools and techniques of their trade. Which one cannot transcend effectively, or at all, unless one knew what they were to start with.

Some accept the (to me very obvious) analogies of being an oil painter who doesn't know how to mix colours or a musically illiterate opera singer with no breath control, and at that point when you see the little light globe come on over their heads you remember all that is good and fine about teaching, but many more come back with the 'What about John Kennedy Toole?' (or whomever) line. The correct answer to that is 'That person is a complete freak with a freaky sh*tload of talent and YOU ARE NOT', but these days that would probably lose you your job.

You'd think people who claim to be desperate to become writers (note these people never say they want to write, they say they want to be writers), and who mortgage their houses and cats in order to pay the fees for courses in creative writing, then ignore what the course teachers tell them because for some reason they're not prepared to lift a finger to learn how the language works or what the history of literature is or any other God-damned thing.

I'd say (/rant) but this particular rant never ends. I do not understand it and I will never understand it.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Bernice, yes, people (including me) are having so much trouble with the comments I've started thinking again about switching to Wordpress, except that it seems much harder to set up and run. (What I like about Blogger is the same thing I like about my Mac: it doesn't mind that I'm not computer-minded. Cache, eh? Who knew?)

Blogger claim they're 'out of beta' but frankly I doubt it. I hope they are still working on making comments easier. At least you don't have to register -- although if I set it to that, it might work better.

ThirdCat said...

I am just wondering, has that attitude become any more prevelant since the fees got so high? It seems to me that if you have just mortgaged your cat and so on, then you have even more reason to make yourself believe that you have what it takes.

I do kind of understand that, because at this stage of my life it is the (outlay of) money which stops me applying for such a course.

ThirdCat said...

And wordpress is just as easy as blogger if you use their standard one where they host it and everything (and it is even easy to set up your own domain - as evidenced by the fact that I did it).

Pavlov's Cat said...

But ThirdCat, you don't need it. We should maybe have an actual conversation about this.

The short answer to your question about money is Yes. The cash nexus corrupts the pedagogical process, as it has always done -- too many teachers can't afford to be straight with students, and too many students are paying (though not consciously) to be told they are geniuses.

I would never want to discourage people from thinking they have what it takes, but what floors me is their refusal to accept the fact that one of things it takes is a willingness to be patient and thorough about learning the craft properly. I wonder whether music teachers have this kind of trouble with getting kids who want to be musicians to play their scales. People have been encouraged in earlier stages of their education, I think, to believe that Being an Artist is all about inspiration and not at all about perspiration. Being a Writer is the worst of all, since most people can, physically, write (unlike playing the alto sax or whatever) and it is so much easier than with music or painting to delude oneself about one's gifts, and about what the art actually is.

I have seen an awful lot of people pay an awful lot of money to get affirmation rather than instruction. From a teaching point of view it is heartbreaking, and what is most heartbreaking of all is their steady and complete refusal to see that they might be better prose writers if they knew what a sentence was, or better poets if they had a bit of a look at how other poets have done it in other places and other times.

lulu irigarati said...

They mortgage their cats?

These people could never be serious about writing then!

(Sigh -- it's all about the EFTSU. That's what people, including the students, keep on telling me.)

I wonder if 'writing' is seen as natural, like breathing, because it is quite a literate society and many people would have no conscious memories of learning to write? (this argument breaks down in the case of Suzuki violin students, I'll admit. Oh, and finger-painting.)

There's a lot of baggage these days around the idea of having one's unique story to tell and a novel being in everyone, etc.

Kate said...

Yes, it's me.

Ackshually, I wouldn't mind taking a course in creative writing as a student. I do write for a living (goodness me how did that happen?) but I write a very particular way, and I have been thinking about doing some short story/poetry/first chapter of a novel sort of writing. Fiction. Which is quite different from what I do the rest of the time.

Now, the reasons I thought about taking a class were:

- To learn a bit more about the structures of language, plot, conventions, and so on. I learned a lot of this stuff at Uni but my, time flies, and one's brain gets rusty.

- To have some sort of outwardly-imposed discipline and 'exercises' if you will, that would give one a bit of a kick up the bum in terms of motivation. Otherwise, there is the couch, the knitting, and so on.

- As you say, writing is a craft, and it should be practised and worked at. In some ways I think having a bit of structure in that way would be helpful.

Anyway it was only a vagueish idea and I seem to have talked myself out of it (I'm better suited as a reader I think), and into a conversational Spanish class instead.

Also, I have no house to mortgage.

Ariel said...

Kate, I know exactly what you mean. I make a living(ish) as a writer too, and have thought about a course for the reasons you cite. The opportunity to get professional, critical feedback to help develop my work appeals, too.

PC, it's disappointing if teachers' experience of students reacting badly to that kind of feedback is colouring their ability (or desire) to deliver it.

kate (poorlycontrolled) said...

It's not just writing, I think of it as the 'Australian Idol' factor. It's all the thousands of kids who line up to audition because no one has ever had the heart to tell them that they are either no good, or just ordinary. They may well have the potential to be half decent, but by the time they get to uni it may be too late to convince them they are less than perfect.

So I'd like to thank my year 11 English teacher for making sure (armed only with her red pen) that my classmates and I knew there was always room for improvement. She managed to do it without making you lose hope altogether, which is what I suppose lesser teachers (or parents) are scared of when they tell kids they're brilliant, and forget to add 'for your age'.

redcap said...

The novel without verbs makes me think of the novel Adrian Mole wrote without vowels. Of course, he was trying to be arty and cutting edge. It had hundreds of pages and he faxed it to Terry Wogan, from memory.

I keep toying with the idea of a creative writing class, too, for many of the reasons Kate mentioned, but mainly the kick up the bum factor. Without a deadline, I seem incapable of writing anything but my blog. Also, some pointers on characterisation, plot and how to stop people falling asleep during dialogue certainly wouldn't go astray.

Rather than affirmation, I'd be looking for an unbiased opinion on some of my old rubbish. After all, being a pen for hire doesn't automatically mean that one has what it takes to write good fiction.

Bernice said...

But don't we need the half-decent as well? Where would we be without Ella Wheeler Wilcox or Austin Dobson?

lucy tartan said...

That's an interesting question Bernice. I suppose it's worth noting that at the very least Dobson was capable of stringing together an acceptable sentence. Coincidentally I have been reading some of his introductions to reprints of English novels this week - they are all boring and instantly forgettable, but he filled a gap, served a need, and for sure he contributed to the formation of the English canon.

I would say he was a mediocre writer and his literary gifts were modest, and wouldn't say it in a put-downy way since that level of achievement is honourable and I'd be delighted to reach it myself before the end of my life. But he was plainly a very very well read person, highly literate as a reader, and in no sense an au naturel in the way that the lad in the story who doesn't know from a verb appears to be.