Sunday, June 7, 2009

can creative writing be taught? a poll

Recently, Kelley and I have been discussing ways we might be able to help other writers learn their craft. One of the things that puzzles and disturbs me as I ponder this notion is how many 'writers' think that a course of instruction of some kind--a workshop, a masterclass, an MFA--will provide the magic bullet, the secret decoder ring, the perfect and instant solution...

You can't become a brain surgeon unless you study at middle school, high school, college, medical school, in practise. Two dozen years of study. Tens of thousands of hours. You can't become a writer unless you read tens of thousands of books, and write not tens of thousands, not hundreds of thousands but *millions* of words.

I'll say that again more clearly: the only way to learn to write is to read and to write. A lot.

I think writing classes are like therapy: if you need more than twelve sessions, you are fucked. And time-wasting. And money-wasting. Because the point of therapy is to find out where you need to do the work, and then go home and do it. That is, the therapist doesn't fix you, you fix yourself. So endless therapy is pointless. Endless writing classes are similarly pointless. Go read. Go write. Then take a short course (a weekend, say) to hear someone else articulate some of the lessons you've already learnt by trial and error. Read some more, write some more. Take a class with a different teacher. Get over your shock that there are as many ways to approach fiction as there are writers. Read even more, write even more. Take another class. Get over your horror that the person teaching the class very probably knows less than you. Read and write once again, with very close attention.

Congratulations. You are now officially a beginner.

I've never studied for an MFA, so those of you with experience of such things should speak up and give your input. But I've taught post-MFA students, and it's my belief that an MFA teaches students two things: how to get an MFA, and how to then go out and get a job to teach others how to get an MFA.

I think if you are young, or otherwise new to the game, an MFA can be useful: a structure to underpin your own learning, a way to spend two years not having a job, an excuse to borrow money from the government to support you while you write. Your student cohort may even provide emotional and practical support while you learn your craft and, eventually, practise your art. Your teachers may help you network with agents and publishers when the time is ripe. But it won't teach you how to write. You will do that. And you will do it by reading and writing.

It's simple. It's just not easy. And if you are doing it alone it can be very nearly impossible.

I think I could help a beginner writer (one who has already written the million words) to find a less circuitous path to her or his writing home (or style, or voice, or whatever you want to call it). But does that count as teaching? I don't know. Perhaps it counts as guiding, or mentoring. I believe (today, anyway--I feel tremendous ambivalence about the whole subject) that only the writer-to-be can do the initial work, only the writer-to-be can ensure the gradual formation of The Writer, and that this occurs on an inarticulate level. I think it's only the writer-to-be who reads the novels and ponder them and is moved and changed by them. Only the writer-to-be feels the pinprick burn under her breastbone that grows and grows until it's a fireball that must be loosed.

So, you tell me. Can creative writing be taught by others, or must it be self-taught? Vote in this poll, and then drop a comment. I'm intensely curious.

  • yes
  • no
  • depends on the teacher
  • I don't know
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