Steve Fellner's comments on my last post regarding creative writing pedagogy, and particularly his observation that students (and not only students) often approach poems strictly from the perspective of subject matter and paraphasable meaning, have prompted me to post another piece of my essay on the teaching of creative writing, one that more directly engages classroom issues. Once again, I hope it will spur some useful conversation.
Students come to creative writing courses with three major impediments to learning the art and craft of writing. First, they tend to assume that because they speak English and are at least officially literate (though some lack basic mechanical writing skills), that they know how to write in the sense of writing poems. This is something one encounters to a much lesser degree in other artistic media: because people don’t work with pigments or clay on a daily basis, they don’t have quite the same conviction that they already know how to paint or how to sculpt. (Though it is true that painting or sculpting students often cultivate a premature sense of their own expertise, of what is or is not relevant for them to know how to do.) But because language is used and abused as a medium of exchange in everyday life, students (like people in general) find it very difficult to conceive of it as an artistic medium.
In a literature course, students usually agree that, for example, the professor has not only read Paradise Lost or King Lear, but that she or he knows more about these texts than they do, though they often question the point of such knowledge. But students tend to enter creative writing classes unconvinced that there’s a subject to be taught at all—the class is simply the forum for them to express what’s already inside them, to do what they already know how to do. A common expression of this is the assertion that creative writing is too personal or subjective to judge, criticize, or grade, which makes one wonder why such students have signed up for what is after all a course, one of the bases of which is judging and grading student efforts. Some of the work one has to do in such a class is simply to persuade them that it’s a class at all. A student once said to me, “You act like you know more than everyone else in the room.” I explained that she would have had cause to complain if I didn’t know more than they did (at least about the topic at hand).
There is nothing wrong with writing only for oneself, or for one’s boyfriend or girlfriend, for example, with writing as a purely private act, a hobby like collecting different mixes of one's favorite song. But when one takes a class in creative writing, one is implicitly bringing one’s writing into a public forum, agreeing to its terms of judgment (however various), and placing one’s work in the larger context of what has been written and what is being written. One is staking a claim, however slight and tentative, to a place in literary culture, in writing as an artistic practice. That is, one is deciding not simply to write for oneself. Indeed, one of the most valuable things that students can learn from a creative writing course is to see their work from the outside, to see it as others see it—that is, as a reader. If a student learns actually to read his or her own work (and hopefully that of her or his classmates, and that of the assigned writers), then I have at least in part succeeded.
This leads directly to the second impediment to student learning in creative writing courses: students find it very hard to separate themselves, their thoughts and feelings, or at best the subject of the poem, from the poem on the page, whether it’s a poem they have written or a poem someone else has. Indeed, they are often literally unable to see what they have written, because what they meant to say fills their vision to the exclusion of anything else, very much including the particular words that they have put down on the page. To ask “What does this line say on the literal level?” is too often to hear a long explanation of every thought in the student’s head related to the line in question except those that might illuminate why these particular words occur in this particular order at this particular point in this particular poem. Frequently one receives a narrative of the incident that inspired the poem. These anecdotes can sometimes be more interestingly vivid and specific than the poem, to the extent that I will sometimes tell a student “Write that down. That’s the poem.” Students sometimes don’t even know the definitions of the words that they use, and will frequently dismiss such knowledge as unimportant—since poetry means anything that you want it to mean.
Because students look at their own poems and see not the words they have written but the thoughts, emotions, and experiences the word point to, they tend to write poems as captions to pictures that aren’t there, providing the meaning of something that isn’t present. The meaning is presented without giving the reader the object or situation that would actually be doing the meaning. If they do include images and concrete particulars, they will often not trust those to convey the meaning or “message” without such commentary or explanation.
This also means that students look not only at their own poems but at those of their classmates and those they may be assigned to read purely in terms of what they mean or (assumedly) intend to mean: they like a poem because they like or identify with its subject matter, and dislike a poem because they don’t. The poem is purely a vessel or vehicle of subject matter, any of whose surface complexities are mere impediments to grasping that matter. Any poem that doesn’t have an immediately identifiable topic will often be dismissed as pretentious nonsense, except among those students, often those who dress in black and think of themselves as artistic (I used to do this, so I empathize), who have decided that poems aren’t supposed to mean anything, that nonsense is the definition of poetry. Or the poem will be forced into a more identifiable mold, as when a student wrote of her poem in response to a reading assignment in John Ashbery that “Ashbery’s poems seemed sad, so I wrote a sad poem.”
As any teacher of creative writing knows, students take criticism of their writing as criticism of themselves in a manner and to a degree which usually doesn’t happen in literature courses. To tell a student that her poem about her son, for example, is sentimental can be taken as an attack on her maternal feelings. This also applies to getting students to provide substantive criticism of their peers’ work, which often feels mean to them. About the only work that students feel free to criticize is that which the instructor has assigned, since in general the instructor’s viewpoint counts for less than anyone else’s in the room (after all, he or she is neither a potential date, a dorm-mate, nor a drinking buddy).
To provide students with feedback that is both honest and usable, couched in terms which they can understand, to encourage them to real effort without misleading them about the challenges such effort entails, to point out ways in which their productions are not yet aesthetic objects while not making them feel that they have failed at a task in which they have no hope of success, to point out potentials in their poems without misleading them into thinking that those potentials have already been realized, is a delicate balancing act. Constantly telling students that their work is wonderful (as one former colleague claimed to do, telling them only what she believed they wanted to hear) does them a great educational disservice and makes it more difficult for them to become better writers. Too harshly judging their tentative steps into a realm many of them have never before explored makes them despairing and angry, and ensures that they will never hear anything you say.
This is a problem found at the graduate level as well, where students’ personal investment in their work is mixed with a premature professionalization and a conviction that they are already Poets (very much with the capital P): insecurity and vulnerability commingle with arrogance and a sense of entitlement. A former colleague once explained to me that our English department’s MFA program was a kind of support group; another former colleague in the same program said in a departmental newsletter that she thought of her writing workshops as therapy sessions. Besides pathologizing creativity as a psychological symptom (the idea of the artist as neurotic is commonplace in our society), this notion of art as therapeutic (though administered by those with no training in therapy) is wholly incompatible with the ideal of an MFA program as a place where students seek to improve, expand, and even challenge their writing and their notions of poetry in a context in which writing and reading poetry are taken to be of intrinsic value.
The third impediment to the teaching and learning of creative writing is that students are very resistant to reading. They want to write poems without having read poems (sometimes they profess to actively dislike poetry, or at least not to understand it, while claiming to write poetry themselves), and frequently their only models for poems are pop song lyrics and greeting cards. Far from understanding that poetry comes out of poetry, or that they can learn from reading the poetry of others, often more than one can learn in a single class, they too often see reading as an impediment to their free self-expression. As a student once asked me, “Why are you making us read all this stuff and stifling our creativity?”
Obviously, students in all courses and all disciplines are often resistant to reading, resistant to having to work at all. Many students see attending classes and doing schoolwork as an imposition on their time. (One student rather disarmingly admitted during a class discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets that “I can understand this when I work at it, but I don’t like having to work.”) And students, like people in general, frequently value their own notions and opinions more than whatever some book might have to tell them. But creative writing students tend to dislike reading not only out of laziness or self-involvement, but out of a sense that it is actively antithetical to their own “creative process.” It rarely occurs to them to ask who would want to read the writings of those who are themselves unwilling to read. Indeed, the idea of audience rarely occurs to them at all.