Kurt Vonnegut wrote, way back in 1967, "You can't teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do."
Every once in a while, someone seems compelled to attack the profession of teaching creative writing. I usually find this amusing, as well as more than just a bit irritating. No one seems equally compelled, these days, to attack music teachers, or dance teachers or even art teachers. But in places like the New Yorker, Salon, even the venerable Guardian newspaper, there seems to be traction in attacking creative writing programs.
It is interesting to note that most of these pieces are written by people who don't teach creative writing. Some of these pieces have been better than others, such as this one; others, such as this one, are fairly even handed, while others seem to consider the whole thing a scam, and want to tear Master of Fine Arts programs apart.
But I do teach people to write, and to write well. I have been doing it for a long time.... And now I even teach people in graduate school to teach creative writing. I teach teaching, as it were -- a weirdly double-headed profession if there ever was one. And, of course, I also write books, poetry, novels, memoir and books for kids.
I began teaching writing in 1985, in the extension program at the University of Alberta. Since then, I have taught in community halls and small colleges and arts programs and people's living rooms and in libraries and in graduate school. I have taught people of every age and every level of education and with diverse backgrounds.
Moments like this happen: Many years ago, I was teaching a writing class at my local community hall in a small rural community on Kootenay Lake. There were eight people in the class, all elderly, including my mother who, after a lifetime of hard work farming and raising children and grandchildren, wanted to learn to write poems and stories. She wrote one very beautiful poem and then stopped.
One afternoon, I asked them to write something innocuous, about a happy experience in their childhood. A couple who had moved here from Germany wrote about their idyllic summers in a lost Germany before the Second World War. Every person, when they read their piece, wept, and when the German couple each read theirs, we all wept. Then we sat together in silence for a long time. "We were enemies then," someone said softly.
Making order from chaos
So what do I really teach when I teach creative writing?
Many things. Generosity, for one thing. Listening, reading, ideas, thinking. Playing with language. Shifting sentences around. Patience. Attention to minute details. And, of course, writing itself, as a craft, an art, a skill, a form of music, a way of thinking.
I often begin a class by talking about how contradictory the practice of writing is. After all, a writer works with his or her mind, heart, memories, emotions, thoughts, ideas and sense of self. He or she brings these very private elements into the open, into a story, and then presents the story to a reader. If it is done well, the reader will live in the story as well, whether it is a poem, fiction, or non-fiction, and understand something new. If it is not done well, then there is frustration on both sides and the writer goes back to work looking for clarity and coherence, for language and order and engagement.
The skill in writing well is often hard for the reader to see because within a good or a great piece of writing, the reader and the writer both disappear into the story. As the great Ursula K. Leguin says, "The purpose of a sentence is to get you to the next sentence." If, for whatever reason, the reader is pulled or stopped or blocked from reading, the writer needs to find out why and fix the problem.
Until someone has actually done it, it's hard to appreciate the amount of time and patience and nitpicking and technique and care that goes into finishing a piece of writing. Writing moves from chaos to order. Writers often aren't sure what their story is about when they begin it. But they need to be sure when they end it. When they are done, they need to have a good idea of why they wrote it and why other people should read it.
People think writing is about stories, and of course it is, but it is also about language and the music of language. The story sits within the language and the form of the language determines a lot about how the reader understands the story.
Language is incredibly complex. Words have meaning but they also have connotations, histories, cultural reflections as well as class, ethnicity, politics and other subtle markers built into them.
Language, just like music, has sound, rhyme, rhythm, cadence, dissonance and pacing. Words make pictures, movies and images within the reader's head. So a writer must choose one word over another and then place them on the page, one after another, forming these words into sentences, linking the sentences to one another, forming the sentences into paragraphs, linking them together, forming the paragraphs into scenes, building a story, word by word. And then he or she goes back and breathes the missing words onto the page and breathes the extraneous words off the page.
All of this can be taught and must be practiced. People come naturally to a sense of story. Research tells that people are inherently imaginative, although no one seems to know why. Small children, as soon as they begin string a few words together, begin telling stories. But writing stories down doesn't come naturally; it's an art that can be learned. And being taught writing by someone who understands how it works can save an emerging writer a huge amount of time.
And, the one thing no creative writing teacher ever tells a student is what to write, any more than a music teacher tells his or her students what music to love. Only how to make the story more readable, more coherent, more true to itself.
What I ask
When I teach creative writing, I am conscious that I am working on many levels. I am aware that people are nervous if not absolutely terrified when they first walk into a writing classroom. I am aware that they might come into the classroom with an idea for a story but this idea will probably change. I am aware that in the course of the class, some people might laugh, some might cry, some might get angry, some might feel hurt. We are, after all, working with the very stuff and material of people's lives and selves. So part of what I do is pay attention to how people are listening to each other, what they are saying to each other. I ask them to treat each other with great kindness and great honesty, also a useful skill in other areas of life.
And I am aware that I am asking them to turn their lives and stories into a product of some kind, a product that can be critiqued, shaped, rewritten, revised and eventually, I hope, sold into a market so that other people can read it. I know that they have to go through a process of not only learning the craft of how to do this, but the emotional and intellectual toughness and balance as well to learn to sell it.
I am also asking them to think very hard, analytically and deeply about other people's writing, both their fellow students and any books or magazines or articles or comic books or whatever else they are reading. I ask them to find and read books and articles that are like what they want to write. I want them to place themselves within the huge and august and overwhelming tradition of literature. I want them to read and read, and also learn to read like writers and then forget everything they have read, including their fellow students' work and just write. I want them to write original fresh innovative work and still build on the tradition of the writers who have come before them.
I want them to save a lot of time and solitude for their own writing and still find ways and methods to include themselves within the writing community -- to create or join a writer's group, take more classes, go to readings, join writing organizations. And then go home and write their own material.
Because these are writers, these people in my classroom. Some will become colleagues, many will become friends. We will encounter each other at conferences or in publications or as names in reviews. I am there as their colleague, coach, guide, mentor, but never as someone in charge.
And ultimately, and oddly, it isn't them that matters most to me; it is their work. I am finally, and always on the side of their writing. I want it to be the very best it can be. I want to find whatever is blocking it from coming into view as wonderful writing and help the student to find that as well. I am on the side of literature, of books, of writing. That's my job. That's what I do.
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