Creative Writing Can Be Taught: Creative Writing Professors Answer More Important Questions

On January 11th, 2012, Anis Shivani published a screed called "Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy for the Disaffected Masses." He's not accurately portraying what we do in creative writing. We invite him and others to take a closer look at the exciting things happening in our field.
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Dianne Donnelly, Anna Leahy, Tom C. Hunley, Tim Mayers, Dinty W. Moore, Stephanie Vanderslice. Compiled by Anna Leahy and Stephanie Vanderslice

On January 11th, 2012, Anis Shivani published a screed called "Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy for the Disaffected Masses."

We usually don't engage with him, in part because he doesn't engage with the work we do in creative writing. We're responding now because we think Anis Shivani is asking the wrong question, which he himself must know, because he answers his triggering question in the first sentence of his post (a familiar rhetorical strategy.)

When he writes of the workshop, "the student sits quietly while his work is read in front of him, not allowed to intervene as peers shred his work or occasionally praise it," he's not accurately portraying what we do in creative writing. We invite him and others to take a closer look at the exciting things that are happening in our field.

To begin, we offer some of the more important, more complex questions here.

Is there a crisis in literature?

TIM MAYERS: Those of us with even a cursory knowledge of literary criticism know that literature as a concept, as a canon, or as a term has been contested throughout its existence. To assert that a stable notion of literature has persisted throughout the history of writing is a spectacularly ignorant claim. Alexander Pope, for example, penned broadsides against the so-called hacks populating Grub Street. Not only does literature change in meaning over time, but it also is--and has been--the subject of deep disagreement among contemporaries. Yes, of course, literature is in crisis. That's its very nature. And that has little to do with the rise of creative writing in the academy.

ANNA LEAHY: Literature suggests a host of assumptions, including genius, isolation, and inspiration that only partially capture the writing life--then or now. Charles Darwin claimed that his idea of natural selection came to him in a flash, but Steven Johnson points out that Darwin's notebooks indicate he'd worked it out over almost three decades.

In a New Yorker article a few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell highlighted that the experimental innovator is at least as important as the precocious genius when we look at artistic talent and production. Creative writing is about doing the work of writing, and the experimental innovator benefits from time, support, and guidance. That's what creative writing classes and programs provide. That's what novelist John Irving said to John Stewart on The Daily Show, namely that a creative writing program and his mentor Kurt Vonnegut showed him, "You do these things better than those things. Why don't you do more of these things and fewer of those?" Irving remains grateful for the time this saved him in his development as a novelist.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Conflating creative writing and literature doesn't serve a useful purpose, especially if the main issue is teaching. Thousands of creative writers--some publishing during their time, some not (Emily Dickinson)--aspire to write work of literary merit that will transcend their own era, or perhaps they merely aspire to a writing life because they are compelled to do so, just as a painter is compelled to paint. Most of these artists have evolved past the desire to simply express themselves. In fact, as studies like Greg Light's "How Students Understand and Learn Creative Writing in Higher Education" in Writing in Education show, realizing that making literary art transcends self-expression is the first step in the writer's development. Like most artists, they struggle to define their own aesthetic and to find their place within any number of literary traditions.

What's the role of therapy in creative writing?

DINTY W. MOORE: Creative writing as therapy is an easy charge to make because, to be honest, some folks do use it that way. There are, in fact, so-called memoir coaches who have made an industry out of helping people explore past trauma or family tragedy on the page, as a way to touch and understand hidden feelings. You can judge that as you wish, but that is not what happens in any college classroom I've observed and it is certainly not what happens in our many graduate creative writing programs. Critics of creative writing as an academic pursuit take a small, small part of the whole and attempt to paint the entire enterprise in one, inaccurate color.

TIM MAYERS: It would be silly to deny that some students--and some teachers--view writing as therapeutic. But it would be even sillier to box the entire enterprise of creative writing within the bounds of therapy. Many creative writing teachers actively discourage aspiring writers from focusing on the therapeutic or confessional aspects of writing. For example, I discourage my students from writing fiction that is based extensively on their own personal experiences, and I use story-generating prompts that compel students to write from perspectives different from their own.

ANNA LEAHY: Therapy may be a welcome side effect for some writers or in some workshops. Writing to express yourself? Yeah, you and everybody else. Self-expression is inevitable when we write, but that's not the goal of our classes. Creative writing is a different medium than the other ways we express ourselves, and those differences--the characteristics of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction--are our focus. That's why creative writers usually talk about craft, revision, and how a poem or novel works, not merely what it says or means.

DIANNE DONNELLY: Anyone who studies a range of creative writing programs or has witnessed the emergence of new theories and practices over the last three decades or has looked at the books we've written (or even at the indices) will have trouble concluding that therapy is the dominant approach. Many of us are exploring the range of knowledge areas that distinguish the ways in which creative writers read, write, and respond differently than writers in other domains. Pointing to therapy, when discussing creative writing, dismisses the work of creative writing and its contribution to new knowledge.

How do writers in creative writing programs interact and learn?

ANNA LEAHY: In a book called The Creating Brain, Nancy Andreasen (who is a professor of psychology and a former professor of Renaissance literature) argues, "creative people are likely to be more productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people. This too produces an environment in which the creative brain is stimulated to form novel connections and novel ideas."

A creative writing program is this sort of environment. Students in a workshop learn from writing, which is usually done in isolation, but they also learn from interactions over time, whether that's brainstorming ideas, receiving feedback from the instructor and peers, or offering critiques. In fact, my students comment that they learn how to revise from responding to others' work even more than from direct feedback they receive. This process leads each student toward distinguishing her voice. The interactions nudge innovation because, as Andreasen says, "creative people are individualistic and confident." They don't want to be just like everybody else.

TIM MAYERS: In most of the workshops in my classes, I do not ask students to consider how the poem or story in question could be made better; instead, I ask them to consider various ways it could be made differently. I encourage people to see more of the possibilities inherent in their own writing and the possibilities inherent in their classmates' writing. The idea is that the more possibilities the writer sees, the more the writer might be able to make an informed decision about how to change the piece in question or, in some cases, whether or not to continue working on it at all.

TOM HUNLEY: In the poem, "Shatterings," from his new collection, Here and Now, Stephen Dunn writes: "My class is called Whatever I Feel Like / Talking About. No matter what the subject, / over the years it's been the only course / I've ever taught." The speaker of Dunn's poem is describing an old-school approach to teaching creative writing that, happily, is on the way out.

In Colors of a Different Horse, one of the dozens of fine books on creative writing pedagogy, Wendy Bishop recalls a graduate workshop in the 1970s in which students sat at the feet of "a famous white-haired poet" who "returned no annotated texts, gave no tests, shared no grading standards, kept to no schedule or syllabus, designed no curriculum." This kind of old-school teaching has proven unproductive and frequently destructive. That's why it's rare to find these days. Many of us are good teachers who interact with our students and their writing and who work hard to encourage their learning. Good teachers don't just do whatever we feel like.

DINTY W. MOORE: Good creative writing teachers demand that students isolate specific craft-based strengths or flaws in their critique: Is the chronology confusing? Are the characters under-formed? Is the language flat? Are there inconsistencies in tone, voice, plotting, or metaphor? I like to use the metaphor of an auto mechanic: in my workshops, we lift the front hood to see into the engine of a story or essay, study the moving parts, determine which parts are properly aligned, which are slipping, which are leaking oil, and which are perhaps not needed at all. You learn a lot about writing by studying hundreds of narrative engines.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Some serious studies--again, I'm thinking of Greg Light in particular--show that students move through a series of stages as learning writers, stages that demonstrate they are improving, not as imitators of their teachers, but as artists who have gone beyond self-expression to grapple with serious literary and aesthetic considerations, considerations that result in literary accomplishments. Those of us who have taught creative writing over a long period of time--and the six of us have--can probably attest to this development. We see it in our students.

Why don't creative writing professors explain what they're doing?

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: We do! Teachers of creative writing are engaged with each other--this post is not our first conversation--and with our students about what we do as teachers in creative writing programs. In the past ten years or so, there has been a great deal written to share and analyze our approaches. Books in creative writing pedagogy include Katherine Haake's What Our Speech Disrupts, MaryAnn Cain's Revisioning Writer's Talk, and Carl Vandermeulen's Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing. Of course, all six of us in this conversation have published books about writing and teaching.

TOM HUNLEY: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference recently issued a new version of The Director's Handbook, a compendium of guidelines for creative writing programs. And AWP's annual conference is coming up. Many of us will present on and attend panels about teaching. Topics range from teaching the novel to critiquing the workshop to online teaching strategies to using unconventional methods from other fields to K-12 teaching. And that's just a sampling from the first day. The conference is a month away, but it just sold out, with 9,300 attendees. That's a lot of teachers getting together to examine their teaching.

DIANNE DONNELLY: Indeed, there's a lot going on in creative writing. Graeme Harper cautions us not to moor our students' learning to one specific island when he suggests that the "learning of creative writing" by our students "gains nothing at all from being considered the remit of only one type of learner or one type of teacher." Many writer-teacher-scholars, like Harper, more accurately describe creative writing as fluid and as an academic discipline that does not stand still for very long.

DINTY W. MOORE: In law school, students analyze past cases, construct arguments, and write opinions, so that eventually they can do these things well enough to practice law. Could they do this outside of law school? Yes, but law school facilitates the process, and the law professor offers guiding thoughts along the way. Writing instruction is no different. The goal is to offer the occasional guiding thought or idea, the craft lesson, a few instructive models, and the occasional critical nudge, while all the time encouraging the student to practice writing, practice revising, and practice, practice, practice as a means to improvement. It works.


Dianne Donnelly, Ph.D., is the editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing. She teaches at the University of South Florida.

Tom C. Hunley, M.F.A., Ph.D., is the author of Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach, The Poetry Gymnasium, and the poetry collection Octopus. He is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University.

Anna Leahy, M.F.A., Ph.D., is the editor of Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom and author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, and co-writes the Lofty Ambitions blog.

Tim Mayers, Ph.D., is the author of (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and The Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Dinty W. Moore, M.F.A., is the author of Crafting the Personal Essay and The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. He directs the graduate creative writing program at Ohio University.

Stephanie Vanderslice, M.F.A., Ph.D., is the author of Rethinking Creative Writing and the co-editor of Can It Really Be Taught? She directs the Arkansas Writers M.F.A. program at the University of Central Arkansas.

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