Can creative writing be taught?
Arguably, creative writing has become one of the most popular majors at Southern New Hampshire University where I work as an associate professor of English. For the last several years I have seen more and more incoming students decide to major in that discipline with dreams of writing, not the next great American novel, but the next Harry Potter or the next great work of science fiction or fantasy. I’m not sure what to think of the deluge of incoming freshmen that intend to make a literary name for themselves, but I am more than a little dismayed for reasons, which will become clear.
Let’s start with the positive. I do find it heartening that so many incoming students have decided to major in a discipline that is housed in the humanities. I speak with dozens of potential students each semester and I find their enthusiasm for creative writing to be admirable, and in some cases, infectious. In 90% of the conversations that I have, these students inform me that they want to write science fiction and/or fantasy novels and stories. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I do wonder at the motivations behind that decision. Nevertheless, the students I speak with are all serious about the art of writing and in most cases that come to our university with the highest GPAs. In most cases they have already written a great deal and have a good grasp on the work involved and, more importantly, the demand for solitude that creative writing requires. In my conversations with them I can immediately tell the serious student from the not so serious by the look in his or her eye. Those who are serious become immediately passionate about the potential of entering into a program that will allow them to write creatively as a major course of study.
However, and this is a big however, most, if not all of the students I have spoken with have not made the connection between writing and reading. Much to my dismay, when I ask which writers they read, nine times out of ten those students either cannot answer me or they provide me with the name of some obscure science fiction/fantasy writer. I am not against science fiction or fantasy, in fact I read a great deal of it, but a student with aspirations of becoming a writer must expand his or her horizons to include all kinds of writing. So the problem, then, is not that these potential students are unaware of the work involved in writing creatively, it’s that they are woefully ignorant of what good writing sounds like. Some of this is due to their age. At 17 and 18, I was ignorant myself, although I did have a good understanding of Poe. Our incoming students, and I suspect most incoming students at universities around the country entering into creative writing programs, have no idea what good writing sounds like. So, what does good writing sound like? Consider the following sentence:
“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”
The sentence above is the opening line to Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, first published in 1951. In addition to the complexity of this sentence, it’s perfect because it opens up a world for the reader by introducing the reader to a consciousness that is fictional, yet recognizable. This sentence gives the reader a glimpse of the soul of writing when it comes from a place beyond the page. Writing like this simply cannot be taught; you either have it or you don’t.
Five years ago I served on a search committee for a creative writing position. Together with two colleagues we made our way down to Washington, D.C. for the annual MLA Convention. One night over dinner the three of us discussed questions we would ask the candidates. I offered to ask: “Can creative writing be taught,” and was immediately told that the question was not “really relevant.” I was upset because I thought that this was precisely the question that should be asked. Nevertheless, I was not “allowed” to ask that question. We did go on to hire a candidate that contributed a great deal to the success of our program. But I never got around to asking her that question.
I ask this question now, under much different circumstances and with nothing at stake. Can creative writing be taught? My quick answer is “no.” Those of us who teach, and especially those who teach creative writing, have an ethical obligation to require that students read widely and deeply. Although most students will not bring the talent that Bellow had, students can learn to recognize what great writing sounds like. Creative writing programs must go beyond the workshop mentality of sharing writing and discussing it with fellow students. Creative writing students should be required to take more literature classes where they will be exposed to all kinds of writing and they will also learn what it means to read well. A really good writer is also a really good reader.
I’m not convinced that creative writing can be taught. I am convinced that we can teach our students to recognize good writing and explain to us why that writing is good. It seems to me that this lesson is more important than any fiction, non-fiction, or poetry workshop the creative writing student will take.