In Defense of Teaching

What can be learned in a creative writing class?

By David Baker on 8.26.09

I start this column for Poems Out Loud on Day Four of the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, held for eight days each late June in sleepy Gambier, Ohio. This year six of us teacher-writers are working with ten or eleven students apiece, with sections in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Typically we offer two special sections for new writers of poetry and fiction. We have all come from our homes, families, and jobs to sit in little rooms with each other and talk about our chosen genre—to write it, inspect it, study its history, retool our drafts. What, I asked my group, brought them here?

“I have been in a rut, and I want to be shaken up so I can write something new and different.”

“I work alone and want a community of writers who know what it’s life.”

“A chevrolet.” (There’s one in every group.)

Photo by ni dieu ni maitre! on Flickr

Among my group are two teachers, an ex-teacher, ex-public-service worker electrician-apprentice, a bookseller, laid-off journalist, editor with a Manhattan publisher, freelance journalist, librarian, pre-med undergrad. Some have no formal literary training while a couple have MFAs; a few have been to other summer conferences and a few to this one before, sometimes for several summers. A distinguishing feature of the KR workshop is that we write here and workshop what we write, rather than workshop material written beforehand. That is, the participants write a new piece each day (and night) for the following day’s workshop. It’s exhausting and thrilling.

It’s also a recent phenomenon, the summer writing workshop, and seems to me to run parallel to the growth of writing programs in universities. Mark McGurl’s new book, The Program Era, is an analysis of this recent phenomenon, and Louis Menand—in a recent New Yorker—is an analysis of McGurl’s analysis. There are now, reports Menand, more than 150 creative-writing MFA-granting universities in this country. This does not count PhD’s in creative writing or MA’s with a creative emphasis.

It seems to me that English departments in universities have seen creative writing as one of the few areas of expansion—a growth industry—in the past three decades, along with various flavors of composition and critical theory. Writing programs express and often (but certainly not always) fulfill a genuine need for community and companionship, as well as formal study, for aspiring writers. I also suspect that writing programs have grown in proportion to the numbers of students driven out of literary studies by the sneer, the arrogant self-importance of theory.

Still, I hear and sometimes share some fundamental objections. Creative-writing programs and workshops are a commodification of the art. They attempt to express or enact something that is finally and importantly solitary. They water down our sensibilities, as they corrupt the notion of individual style. You simply can’t teach vision, so you can’t teach creative writing.

Well, can you?

What happens in a creative writing classroom? It’s typical and true to say that mostly what we teach is craft, the technical and stylistic elements of the art. Those in and of themselves are important—entirely necessary. But of course that’s not the magic of a literary text. The history of the genre can be taught, too, as can the works and methods of the great and good writers of that genre.

So how about the vision thing? For myself, I do not believe that craft and vision are separable. I do not buy the dichotomy. Vision arises inside and concurrent with the unfolding of tactic and craft, and in fact we don’t have a vision until we have the tangible expression of a poem or novel. Is Van Gogh’s vision—the torment, the strange organic connection of things—separable from the sweep and swirl of his blue and yellow oils and brash brush strokes?

Or perhaps I am simply committed to the teacher’s task and honor. I became a teacher long before I became a poet, a writer. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had half a dozen guitar students, and I taught them and others through college. As an English major, I decided to go into teaching—literature—before I had taken creative writing. In fact, for those poets who complain about teaching, or who go into teaching as a fall-back with no other viable means of vocation, I have little patience.

And less for those who say that poets shouldn’t be teachers.

Working in a classroom with other poeple seems to me one of the most honorable ways of shaping one’s vocation. It is also one of the most hopeful forms of social interaction. Don’t painters teach painting? Don’t musicians teach singing, and performing, and composing music?

I don’t get it when people say, well, creative writing shouldn’t be taught. Should anything? Where should poets congregate to talk about their work and to aid the young and the apprentice? So again, can creative writing be taught?

Marvin Bell has the best answer I have ever heard: “Maybe nothing can be taught, but anything can be learned.” And that’s the point: to be present in our students’ lives, to guide them as they learn , to help them learn how to learn to write.

That’s why we are all here in Gambler, Ohio, and in a classroom and workshops, apparently, everywhere. The work is lonely, and the vision is personal. That’s why we hunger for each other’s presence for a little while.

topics: Columnists


Mandy Brown said on 8.27.09 at 4:56pm:

When people say “writing can’t be taught,” it’s often a way of preserving a sense of alchemy about the art—the vision of a writer hidden behind a closed door, where something inexplicable and magical happens. It’s not necessarily a denial of the teaching so much as an affirmation of the allure.

David Baker's avatar

David Baker said on 8.28.09 at 8:22am:

Hi Mandy, you’re right. And the writing does happen there behind a closed door. But what a writer brings into the room, before she closes the door — some of that can be enhanced and suggested and offered by a teacher. A good teacher can make the solitary room bigger and more bountiful with possibility. Then the door closes and the work starts.

Sobia Khan said on 9.04.09 at 12:54am:

The painter teaches the many ways of mixing and applying colors, makes the student study the works and technique of other painters as the student confronts the canvas herself. As a new creative writing teacher, my aim is to make that confrontation with the blank page eaiser. The transition from being a student writer to a writer is nurtured and cajoled onto the page. A teacher then becomes a facilitator. It is ultimately up to the student to take advantage of the learning opportunity.

sheila black said on 9.04.09 at 6:55am:

I am interested in your comment about “vision and craft.” If you do not believe that vision and craft are separable, then why do we need people on this so-called personal quest of finding a vision to express or expressing the vision we have found (presumably one reason for enrolling in a creative writing class). What is the purpose of having a vision that rises up from something inside of us? After a writer gets past the angst of the whole process, hopefully the vision turns outward. But beginning poets and writers often tell me their process involved not only listening to their vision, but also indulging in writing a lot of uninspired or dull “crap” first. I am one of the learning teachers. I learn more from my students every year that I teach. They are teaching me actually and they inform my writing.

Tony Powell said on 9.04.09 at 7:49pm:

Of course writing can be taught, and I have to disagree about the separation of craft and vision. Perhaps you meant that the vision cannot be expressed without craft, therefore they are inseparable. In any case, it is the expression that is taught, not the vision (though I do agree that it is within the exercise of craft that we later discover a vision we may not have been able to recognize without the tools of craft).

I have an MFA, and my number one annoyance with the entire learning process was a lack of specific criticism. Art teachers, for instance, teach perspective and line and are specific with their comments: “Your perspective is off a little.” Yet many writing teachers (at least in my experience) didn’t know what to say about my stories beyond, “It’s not working for me. Go try again,” and continued in that vein until I got lucky.

geoff leone said on 9.07.09 at 6:22am:

Re. Creative this and that.

Is education possible? Do we ever learn anything? Many will admit that the beef steak of a good education is what you learn incidentally — often by woefully inappropriate, out of print, dusty tomes that fill us with immeasurable joy.

Many never have the experience but talk of their college days as unremitted boredom. Pity.

I take everything back to Truman’s surrogate, Plato, yes, the buck stops there! What was Plato’s beef?

He invented the university and transmitted his works undisturbed in that way at least until the Arabs presented them to the West. Education, he sternly preaches is not a human function but something to do (what exactly its pathways may be, defies alas definition) with a form of recalled experience. From another life.

This of course does not begin to chip away at the glacier called, what is experience, and does it really have an input and output, etc.

Whether creative writing is possible, is intimately related to all this.

One thing is sure, logic cannot be taught, as not even the Jesuits could thrash it into me.

Where was I?


David Baker's avatar

David Baker said on 9.08.09 at 9:12am:

Thanks for writing in, folks. About the craft/vision thing, once more. I mean to say that, without a refined or remarkable artistic capability (craft, technique, style, etc.), one cannot articulate a remarkable vision. We can’t say amazing things in mediocre language. Likewise, we may not even be able to FEEL or comprehend amazing things (our “vision”) without the linguistic capability to “create” those things. A mastery of craft does not assure a masterful vision, no doubt about that; but without a mastery of craft, a masterful vision is likewise impossible. It’s often in the PROCESS OF WORKING THROUGH craft that an artist discovers/creates his or her vision.