Sunday, June 14, 2009

Creative Writing

I am once again in Seattle where, a week from now, Clarion West will begin its famous six-week SF-writing workshop. I am not teaching this year (Clarion likes to rotate instructors) but will be attending readings and parties (stay tuned). So it seems especially timely that the The "June 8 and 15" issue of The New Yorker has a terrific article about creative writing workshops.

"Show or Tell," by Louis Menand, is an ostensibly a review of Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era, about writing programs in America. In actuality the long article reviews not just McGurl but the whole concept of creative writing programs. How did they get started? What are their advantages and disadvantages? Do they, as some critics claim, produce homogenized writing? What do their graduates and long-time instructors think of them? And most important, can writing actually be taught at all?

Neither Menand nor McGurl answer that last, all-important question, but the article provides all sorts of interesting information along the way. Some examples:

-- Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three Poet Laureates are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

-- Some instructors end up hating the whole idea of writing classes (Kay Boyle, after sixteen years teaching writing at San Francisco State: "All creative writing programs ought to be abolished by law.") Others fervently believe in them: John Barth (twenty-two years at Johns Hopkins), John Gardner (State University of New York at Binghamton).

-- One writing class at Stanford included -- all at the same time -- Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, and Tillie Olsen. What those discussins must have been like!

-- The emphasis of most writing classes has shifted over time, Menand claims, from "Show don't tell" in the 1950's to "Find your own voice" in the sixties and seventies. (I need to think about this one.)

There is more, much more, enough more that I immediately ordered the book. McGurl apparently relates writers' styles (Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates) to their socioeconomic origins, and I'm dying to read that exegesis. However, my favorite line in the article was this opening description of a writing workshop: "a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-to-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of other aspiring writers." True enough, but those "aspiring writers" are also readers, which makes their reactions -- if honest and constructive -- immensely valuable to the author. Despite the ritual scarring.

13 comments:

annie said...

"ritual scarring" has no place in instruction of any kind. In writing workshops, or any classroom really, it's the mark of a lazy (and/or weak) instructor and the insecure students, who need to be taught to get a grip and be constructive.

Nancy Kress said...

I think what the author meant is that ALL criticism -- even when apt and constructive -- is a bit scarring. I've been in professional workshops and come away feeling both enlightened and bruised. Also, the "ritual scarring" remark is partly humorous simile, to primitive inititiation rites.

Ken Schneyer said...

As I'm 13 days from starting Clarion (wish you were there!), I'm skittish about commentary denigrating the value of writing workshops, and grateful for commentary touting their value. But I'll probably read the book -- after my six weeks are over.

But the "group therapy" metaphor strikes me as especially apt. The goal of group therapy is to have other people around you to see through your self-deception, so that you can eventually see the truth yourself. I imagine that a writers workshop serves much the same function.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Let's lighten up!

What's the one thing a director must not say on the set of a zombie flick?

PLACES, EVERYONE! LET'S LOOK ALIVE!

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Let's lighten up!

What's the one thing a director must not say on the set of a zombie flick?

PLACES, EVERYONE! LET'S LOOK ALIVE!

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I don't believe "ritual scarring" has any use at all. It's like an old-time piano teacher hitting the hands of a tiny learner when she or he hits a wrong note. A perfect way to make a child hate music, or a beginning writer hate fictioneering.

Nancy Kress said...

It's a METAPHOR, people!

Andrew said...

...and I don't think that Clarion students count as "beginning" writers :)

Ken Schneyer said...

Thanks for that, Andrew. ...But I think we all feel like beginning writers, given how much we have to do and who's teaching us. We've already confessed to each other that we're afraid we won't measure up, etc.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Yeah, I understood it's a metaphor, Nancy. See, I only =look= stupid.

(This site really needs emoticons.)

Luke said...

I thought "show don't tell" was still bigger than "find your own voice." Especially if your own voice is obnoxious and quasi-illiterate.

Andrew said...

Luke, I think you hit on the danger of writing courses, especially of the 'find your voice' variety, as group therapy. Constructive criticism can easily cross the line into I'm-OK-You're-OK territory where everyone agrees to respect everyone else's difference of voice/style/etc, unable or unwilling to say that something sucks.

Clarion of course has an excellent reputation and I doubt it devolves easily into that form.

James A. Ritchie said...

If I want to know what other aspiring writers have to say about my writing, well, I can get that easily, and without taking a workshop. I want to know what a good, professional writer has to say about my writing, else why both paying for a workshop?