June 01, 2009

Learning to Show and Tell (Warning: Soapbox!!)

So, a. fortis does not usually step into soapbox territory (nor refer to herself in the third person) but today is evidently an exception. Perhaps I'm merely giddy about my recent good writing news, but honestly, I think it's because of the thought-provoking New Yorker article by Louis Menand examining the history--and value--of academic creative writing programs (thanks to Susan at Chicken Spaghetti for the link). It turns out, having gone through a graduate writing program, I have a lot to say about this. Imagine that.

Anyway, one of the questions brought up by this article is: What is the real purpose of a writing program? I had to think about this. On one level, I DO think it exists simply to give the already-talented and the promising (the ones lucky enough, anyway, to get their work in front of the right person at the right place at the right time) the indisputable validation of that all-important piece of paper—the fancy diploma that tells everyone (including us) that we aren’t just loopy and deluded creative types wasting our time on projects of dubious lasting value. That’s a cynical point of view, to be sure, but there’s truth in it.

On the other hand, there’s a lot potentially to be gained from a writing program. I entered an MFA writing program because I wanted to develop my writing further, as someone who DID NOT have an undergrad degree in the field and in fact came from a different (yet equally conflicted in terms of relevancy of academic training) area of the arts. I wanted to learn more about the luminaries of the writing canon and the stars of the contemporary literary sphere. I needed that all-important feedback from others about my work. I wanted to learn what it means to "be a writer" in today’s world.

And certainly, you can get all that from a good writing program. Arguably, that’s a lot more important than the piece of paper. As the article states, "Teachers are the books that students read most closely, and this is especially true in the case of teachers who are living models for exactly what the student aspires one day to be—a published writer."

As Menand points out, the workshop format is useful despite itself. I feel like I had the advantage of knowing that coming into my writing program, having already spent a year in a post-baccalaureate program in fine art (i.e., the visual-art equivalent to literary writing), where the Big Personality and what you are allowed to absorb from their genius is sometimes the entire basis for a class.

However, once you get past all of the blather (justifiable or not) about the purpose and ultimate effect of literary writing, I think what it comes down to for me is a love of words as an artistic tool (among other artistic media that also speak to me), a love of stories, and a need to create things. The attempt to incorporate an effete self-consciousness of one’s own process and where one’s product lies in relation to the canon DOES NOT have relevance to my underlying desire to create.

On the other hand, I truly believe that to mystify the creative process, as so many writing and art professors do, is to encourage the myth that it does not involve work but instead relies solely on some elusive genius, a talent which you’ve got or you don’t got. And it’s dangerous, in my opinion, to focus on that as the obstacle, when time would more productively be spent on figuring out and working with the fickle realities of the publishing world. You can all too easily fall into the trap of thinking that the problem lies with the misunderstanding of your work by the outside world, instead of with trying to identify what you want your work to achieve, who you want it to connect with, and how best to accomplish that from a craft perspective, to hone your raw creative ideas into their most effective form.

Okay. I'm off my soapbox now. Happy Monday!


Beth Kephart said...

Oh my goodness. WHy didn't I see this? I have the same questions myself, often, and now I'll be teaching an academic literary course in the fall.

Thank you so much for the tip (and your thoughts).


Susan T. said...

Go, A.F., go!

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks for cruising by and commenting! I thought this was such an intriguing article--so many interesting points brought up about the way we think about the teaching of creative writing, and how it's changed over the decades. Just like the teaching of fine art! Back in the '50s and '60s it was apparently not uncommon for fistfights to break out during critiques...or at least that's the mythology. :)