Should Mamas Let Their Babies Grow up to Study Writing? Setting the Record Straight on What Writing Students Do, Part 2

You'll find students who think the course is an easy "A." This group is usually disappointed; creative writing courses are much more work than they anticipate.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Coauthored by Dianne Donnelly, Dinty Moore, Tim Mayers and Stephanie Vanderslice.

As a group, we represent a large swath of the field, graduate and undergraduate, public and private colleges and universities both large and small. Here, we let readers in on what really happens inside our creative writing programs and classrooms.

On undergraduate creative writing students:

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: You'll find students who've written all their lives, finally thrilled to be studying the subject; students who want to explore their literary, artistic side; and, occasionally, students who think the course is an easy "A." The last group is usually disappointed; creative writing courses are much more work than they anticipate. Students who major in creative writing tend to love words, books, and the literary arts; they want to do something with that in their lives, perhaps going on in publishing, editing, or new media. At the University of Central Arkansas, like a small but growing number universities I describe in my book, Rethinking Creative Writing, our focus isn't just on the workshop. It's about helping students make a life in creative fields after they graduate.

TIM MAYERS: A small majority of students in my undergraduate courses are English majors yearning for an alternative to the interpretive focus they find in literature classes. These students are not resistant to analysis, but they want to direct analysis toward productive rather than hermeneutic ends.

DIANNE DONNELLEY: Whether students want to write within an interactive environment, experiment with poetic or fiction forms or other genres, or explore creative literacies, our courses satisfy a broad spectrum of student interests. About the "graduateness" of our students as writers, Maggie Butt says, "They have developed their ability to write well, to express themselves with clarity and vividness in a range of genres; a skill which can be applied to writing a good business report, as much as to writing fiction, and satisfaction which comes with any creative activity." Writers can use their skills and strategies to work in other creative industries: advertising, public relations, broadcasting, multimedia and digital content industries, journalism, film, website design, games, animation, and more.

ANNA LEAHY: At my university, the introductory course counts as a general education requirement so students come from all majors and with diverse interests. Business majors make great leaps of imagination, the kind that Richard Florida as well as the National Board of Governors might argue are necessary for the Creative Class to lead us into renewed economic prosperity. Psychology students ask how they can fit a creative writing minor into their plans because they've just realized that practicing as a psychologist requires graduate school. And students who major in creative writing aren't one type: introverted or extroverted, hyper-organized or scatter-brained. Mostly, they're enthusiastic about reading and writing and, with some nudging, excited to try new things.

On undergraduate coursework:

DIANNE DONNELLEY: Based on a survey I did for Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, teachers of undergraduates still rely on the workshop. But because the workshop is predicated on critical reading acumen and response skills, the beginning writer is often thrust into these reading and response roles before knowing how to perform them, developing a sense of how to use key terms and vocabulary, the awareness of genre differences, or the skills of reading as a writer. That's why, in introductory courses, I focus on invention exercises and in presenting a wide range of literary choices/voices early in the semester, then introduce the workshop later, after students have gained a better sense of how to read and respond.

DINTY W. MOORE: My experience from years of visiting schools as guest teacher is that undergraduate courses are widely varied. Some teachers adapt a standard workshop method supplemented by readings, others use the workshop method only after weeks of reading and discussion to familiarize students with contemporary writing in the genre, and some abandon the workshop entirely, saving it for advanced classes. What goes on, in all of these cases, is introducing students to close reading, revision, and the questions and concerns an author and editor ask of a work (rather than those a critic might have, something students are likely exposed to in English classes).

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Having studied a wide range of approaches to the undergraduate course, I've found the most successful courses move students slowly from invention (understanding different ways a piece of literary art might be made) to creation (the act of making itself) to critique, with the least emphasis, until advanced courses, on critique. Undergraduates need to spend a lot of time in and out of class actually writing, creating the material. This works best when teachers determine what elements of craft on which to focus -- say, dialogue or tension -- and lead students in writing exercises that help them understand, from the inside out, how those elements are deployed.

TIM MAYERS: In the vein Stephanie suggests, my introductory courses are organized mostly around invention exercises. Students start to build poems, stories, and novels from specific criteria. One poetry exercise starts with ten randomly selected words from books students bring to class. These words become end-words of the even-numbered lines in a twenty-line poem where each line must fall within a certain syllable range and the total number of end-stopped lines is limited to nine. This (at least temporarily) transforms composition of a first draft into a technical problem that must be solved. For a moment, the desire to write a poem about some abstract theme is moved aside, and the results often surprise and delight the students.

On graduate coursework:

DINTY W. MOORE: A graduate student in creative writing has presumably come to some understanding of craft and technique. To use the painting metaphor, the student has studied how paint is blended, how different brushes create different textures, the effects of varying thicknesses of paint, the use of perspective, and so on. Graduate school is where a student finally tackles the bigger questions: What are my subjects? What is my voice? What questions am I exploring in my writing? This usually culminates in a major project, a book-length work of poetry or prose connected by an idea, theme, or concern.

ANNA LEAHY: I develop a focus for each graduate course, in part because it makes for fruitful conversation when each student engages in work that intersects with that of classmates. One course used a poetry chapbook (a booklet of 10-16 poems) as the final project so we read published chapbooks and students considered how poems they wrote might be connected by form, theme, or something else. This fall, I'll focus on voice and persona, using the new anthology, A Face to Meet the Faces. Students will experiment with writing in the voices of others (and in doing so, also learn more about their own voice), and we'll culminate with a public reading by students and anthology contributors. Such courses offer students sustained study and writing.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Graduate courses help students focus on their material in such a way that they can maximize its potential while at the same time teaching students how to look closely at their own work so that, once they leave the program, they will be able to continue a lifelong process of making art through creation, self-critique, and revision. A good graduate program will also help initiate students into what it means to make a professional life as a literary artist. Some bemoan this early professionalization. I believe it's necessary in our flattened publishing world.

Finally, students need to be savvy about how to cultivate themselves as members of the creative economy while they're in school. They need to seek out internships that will give them experience in that economy, often more than one, they need to seek out coursework that will give them the skills in content creation across new media, and they need to stay on top of the latest trends in the creative industries. If they work hard at this, they will ultimately succeed. It's not just about the workshop anymore.


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.

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 in Higher Education and the co-editor of Can It Really Be Taught? She directs the Arkansas Writers M.F.A. Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas.

Popular in the Community