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What Is Creative Writing Anyway?

We thought we'd share more of what we do in creative writing programs and why we think they're not the bane of contemporary literature but, rather, good for writers, higher education, and culture.
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On February 4, 2012 in the Huffington Post, this group of six creative writers and teachers answered some basic questions about creative writing, literature, and the relationship between teaching and learning. We felt it especially important to include multiple perspectives and welcomed the lively conversation. You can read that piece here.

The comments to that post, along with some other responses online, raised additional questions that deserve answers. As we get ready for our field's upcoming annual national meeting in Chicago, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2012 Conference, we thought we'd share more of what we do in creative writing programs and why we think they're not the bane of contemporary literature but, rather, good for writers, higher education, and culture.

How is creative writing like other disciplines in universities? And how is it different?

TIM MAYERS: Creative writing, like other disciplines, is a way of knowing. Patrick Bizzaro argues that creative writing has an "epistemology," or its own distinctive way of encountering language and the world. It is an approach that focuses on how things are put together, always entertaining the possibility that things might be put together differently.

DINTY W. MOORE: Part of what we're up against in this conversation is the popular notion that creative writing classes consist of celebrated writers lecturing the kids about how exactly it should be done. Anyone who thinks that's what we're doing in classrooms today is stuck back in the 1960s.

ANNA LEAHY: Creative writing is a discipline of practice, one that's akin to studio art, in which emerging artists learn about art of the past and the science behind color complementarity and paint components but also grow to understand composition, color, and paint characteristics by actually painting. Creative writing shares this prioritizing of practice with medical programs, too, in which book learning is combined with working with patients. During their education, visual artists, doctors, and creative writers learn the habits of mind of the field they are entering. For example, in creative writing, the question of how a text means--how a story makes meaning, how a poem is put together, how a change alters the effect of the words--is more central than what a text means.

DIANNE DONNELLY: Writers gather anecdotes, bits of conversation, observations, field notes, reflections, research. They synthesize material, flesh out details, make connections, remediate or reshape images and text. These creative processes lead to insights--discoveries that occur through the active practice of writing and problem solving. Scientists proceed through similar creative processes: preparation, incubation, illumination. While the creative processes of creative writers and scientists may proceed along the same lines, the practices of creative writing are not associated with certainty, with exactness, with a formulaic methodology of systematic questioning and replication that is located in the scientific realm.

TOM HUNLEY: A biologist studying bacteria through a microscope, a criminologist examining the demographics of homicide offenders, and an economist seeking ways to reduce the national debt--all of these share with poets and fiction writers the "rage for order" that Wallace Stevens spoke of in his poem "The Idea of Order at Key West." Like students in other disciplines, our students are entering into a long conversation in which they become immersed so that they can add something of substance.

Writers don't need a degree in creative writing to publish, so why is the academy a good place for creative writing to be fostered?

TOM HUNLEY: Why do health enthusiasts join gyms? Why do religious people gather in churches? A university is one place where writers can be with folks who share their passions and can offer encouragement and support.

ANNA LEAHY: Creative writing could be considered an aspect of an individual's lifestyle, like gym membership or religious affiliation, and each might be considered more meaningful with regular practice, but exercise, religious belief, and writing are not really analogous pursuits. It's also unfair to assume that mainstream book publication is the singular goal for creative writing programs. Even if it were, not all students who pursue a career stick with it. In fact, a Huffington Post piece points out that the attrition rate of schoolteachers within the first five years is almost 50%. I don't know anyone in my field who asserts that writers need a degree to publish, nor that a degree promises publication. We do talk about and model how those who want a writing life, regardless of publication timelines, can stick with that life.

DINTY W. MOORE: The degree is marginally helpful if you want a teaching career, but the true value of an arts degree is that it offers a young artist time and space and a community to grow. Can you do this on your own, perhaps attending a writing center discussion on weekends or workshopping with a local writing group? Sure, you can, and if it fits your life and goals, you should. But creative writing programs facilitate the process, and often offer up a modest living stipend to boot.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: The academy is far from perfect--and we argue for ways it might be revised in books like Rethinking Creative Writing in Higher Education, Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, and (Re)Writing Craft--but it's the best mechanism we have to bring people who care about the subject together to attend to the next generation of writers. Certainly there are writers that emerge outside of it--Dave Eggers and Chuck Pahlaniuk come to mind--but academia provides a fertile soil.

TIM MAYERS: I think it's even bigger. Universities and colleges are hubs within this nation's--and the world's--intellectual culture. Creative writers should be immersed in the debates and discoveries in other fields: in philosophy, in theology, in theoretical physics, in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. There's no better place for interaction among different disciplines than a college or university. Poets and fiction writers (at least some of them) also need the community of each other, just as the Shelleys (Mary Wollstonecraft and Percy Bysshe) and Byron did when they headed a literary community in Lake Geneva and Hemingway and Fitzgerald did under Gertrude Stein's tutelage in 1920's Paris. Today's creative writing programs have simply formalized those salons.

What's the difference between an undergraduate degree in creative writing, an MFA, and a PhD?

ANNA LEAHY: I've completed creative writing degrees on all levels, mostly because I craved time to develop, regardless of what I'd end up doing for a living. Programs vary widely, but each degree made sense for who I was at the time and helped me develop. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs' The Director's Handbook is a great resource for general principles, including distinctions between undergraduate programs, which tend to be steeped in this country's ideals of a well-rounded liberal education, and graduate programs.

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Undergraduate degrees in creative writing are necessarily more taught. They should focus on what beginning writers need to know, a foundation of the elements of writing to engage a reader, how deploy craft to various effects. They also need to dismantle myths that most novice writers bring to college--for example, that writing is "easy" for "real" writers, that there's a one-size-fits-all approach to the process--and teach various ways into subject matter. Those who pursue an undergraduate degree may go on for advanced degrees or into any number of creative fields. We should respect that desire with a varied undergraduate curriculum, including digital media production, editing, publishing, and so on. MFA students are those who have self-selected to pursue their writing intensely for a period of time (and hopefully afterward) and who want to hasten its development by focusing on writing as an art. Though the MFA is a terminal degree that includes a thesis, those who pursue a Ph.D. (like me) have often decided they want to teach in academia and specialize in the theory and/or pedagogy of creative writing.

DIANNE DONNELLY: Differences among programs are influenced also by institutional requirements, objectives, and economic realities. Generally, undergraduate programs introduce important writerly and readerly concepts. Even here, there are further program delineations, which consider the ways students acquire knowledge at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. The introductory course, for instance, often covers more than one genre.

TIM MAYERS: Rather than focusing on degree programs, I would like to address undergraduate creative writing courses. A significant number of such courses exist not as part of any degree program per se, but as options or electives within English majors--or in some cases as parts of larger writing programs that also include technical writing, business writing, journalism, etc. These creative writing courses can accomplish many things, the most important of which is that they give students a glimpse of what it's like to try to make fiction and poetry, as opposed to merely deciphering their meanings, as many literature courses do.

What's the relationship between talent, creativity, determination, and other qualities of successful creative writers, and what does that have to do with creative writing programs at colleges and universities?

STEPHANIE VANDERSLICE: Writer Fred Lebron, speaking at the 2009 Association of Writing Programs Conference, said, "Writing is a war of attrition. Don't attrish." In a world that's rather inhospitable to people who want to lavish their attention to becoming artists, to devoting years of their lives to this process, it's my job to show students how to sustain their writing lives no matter what they end up doing for a living. We talk about this in my classes: What's your plan? How will you keep going as a writer during times when no one cares that you're doing it except you? Writing is a marathon, not a sprint.

DINTY W. MOORE: Students bring their own creativity and determination, though these can be nurtured, encouraged, and strengthened with a good teacher and serious, committed fellow students. Talent may be inborn, but talent is often just one of the deciding factors. For many working artists, determination makes the difference in the end.

TIM MAYERS: Recent books by David Shenk, Malcolm Gladwell, and Steven Johnson make the case that talent is far more a matter of relentless practice and preparation--nurtured and supported, especially when people are very young--than an innate quality or gift. Good creative writing programs and teachers make this abundantly clear to aspiring writers. I suspect that many of the writers who went through creative writing programs, but years later claim that these programs can't really teach people anything, have forgotten how their own persistence and determination were sparked in classrooms and professors' offices.

DIANNE DONNELLY: Doesn't each quality inform the other? In other words, writers who are determined tend to (1) immerse themselves in the practices of writing, (2) develop a reading acumen that reflects a breadth and depth of writing styles, (3) become observers of the world and the human condition, and (4) seek not only factual information, as Michael Meehan says, but "texture" so that they create an "insider" sense of foreign, unfamiliar, past, or future environments.

TOM HUNLEY: Louis Pasteur put it best when he said, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the trained mind." Unless Arnold Palmer put it best when he said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get." The world--and creative writing--is full of talented people who never accomplish much. I can't teach anyone to be any more talented than they already are, but I can light a fire under them, I can design a rigorous course of study and model a good work ethic, and I can coax each student's best writing out.


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 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.

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