In an interesting piece in Poets & Writers, at least for those of us who have never approached a college writing class, let along a creative writing MFA program, Dan Barden has at creative writing workshops
. What makes this more curious is that he teaches creative writing:
Creative writing workshops don’t, in my experience, churn out the same kind of writing. Nor do they encourage a personality cult centered on the instructor (on my weaker days, I wish). And they don’t destroy tender creative spirits. There’s no writer worth her salt who needs any help with self-destruction.
Rather, my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.
The problems? They seem to include the following:
- Workshop participants get the false sense that others have to read what they write.
- People taking workshops often notice that the experiences seem structured as democracies, which should mean that no one has more of a say or knows more than anyone else, including the teacher.
- Most teachers these days are too nice and don't deliver the bad news and pain that many writers need if they want to improve.
I think there is another reason people often have a low opinion of writing classes, and say that you can't teach writing. Of course you can - just ask writer reeling from the ocean of red ink a decent editor has let flow over the deathless prose. Or would that be prose of the living dead?
You have to get your stuff ripped apart so you can see where you're screwing up. Some has to be done by someone outside yourself, and, eventually, you must build this ruthlessly critical facility inside. But the problem that I see with creative writing MFA programs is that they have become an industry. People churn through, learn the things you do and don't do to get approval, enter editing positions, and use the same sense to propogate the MFA sensibility. Eventually, it becomes very difficult for people who have talent and have put work into their writing to break into literary publications because they don't have the lettered pedigree.
Perhaps the reaction to writing programs also has something to do with the often dull fiction, poetry, and drama that comes out of such programmed writers. Instead of meeting the world in all the ways they might, the writers go into programs, staying within the safe paths of academia. Until a few decades ago, writers travelled, worked a succession of menial but tough jobs, wrestled with what regular people were like, loved and lost, and a thousand other things. They walked into the maelstrom, and eventually came out with something to say, because they had filled themselves with experience. Maybe instead of saying that you can't teach writing the criticism is that you can't teach someone living. They have to do it themselves. And until someone has lived, there will be too little to say.
Labels: teaching, writing