Monday, March 19, 2007

A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom

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.


scotland said...

Dear Mr.Shepherd, a strange feeling came over me reading this post and I reflected on time spent in music composition courses. One thing I remember was how my would be mentor wittled down the class by the difficulty of work assigned,his active criticisim, and standard for work acceptance were formidible. Assignments at the early levels required understanding components which defined specific models and which had to be followed to even get a grade. There were no fully free writing exercises,but there was no doubt,we were paying the price to break into the upper sections. and learning how to be taken seriously in this dicipline. I remember that half our grade was also dependent on ear-training exercises which were different than the standard music theory exercises. We were expected to identify all the tonal permutations possible within the limits of three tones,their possible inversions and their expansions into reasonable extentions of the audible range. Remarkable about this is that it essentially covered all possible harmonic practice in 12-tone based western music. It was friccin' hard ,but became a shorthand and guide for an expanded,easily referenced harmonic vocabulary. Talk about parental figures whoa!
It cranked my gears and made me listen to my own effort in which greater terms, and a real sense of personal responcibility. SPH

P.S My personal nickname for Dr.G.K was the White Rabbit.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Scotland,

Your music composition teacher sounds quite amazing. I admire the way he set up the course as a kind of gradus ad parnassum, taking one step at a time up the ladder, breaking down the compositional process to its smallest units, making sure that one had a solid footing before one took the next step. I also admire the way that his exercises, each apparently small and delimited, also introduced students to the larger world of musical practice. That kind of rigor (and that kind of scope) is sorely lacking in most creative writing courses, in which, as I've written, much effort often has to be expended simply to convince students that there is something to be learned, that there are basic skills and techniques to be mastered before one can even approach the question of expression. As you so aptly put it, students in any artistic medium must learn how to be taken seriously in the discipline, and that requires that they in turn take the discipline (in all senses of the word) seriously. But while no one (I think) believes that they intuitively know how to write music, many people believe that, because they possess basic literacy, they know how to write poetry or fiction.

Take good care, and thanks for reading and commenting.

all best,


Kevin Doran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Fellner said...


Thank you for posting more of your article. Because my undergraduate creative writing class was just about to begin to settle into a workshop format, I decided to use a class period to "teach" your blog/essay.

I thought you may be interested in what my students (and I) had to say. After identifying the generalizations and helping them understand you were writing a polemic, they had some arguments of their own against your article.

I do teach at SUNY Brockport which consists largely of students who transfered from a community college and is rural. A lot of students are first generation college students, so that may/may not explain some of their responses.

A lot of my students don't want to take poetry writing. They prefer fiction. Unlike a research one institution which has more middleclass uppermiddle class students who want "access" to certain types of knowledge for class reasons, my students are not pretentious. (And at the same time I don't want to romanticize them for not being rich or as well off. And at the same time pretentiousness can be a wonderful thing. It causes to have students to want, to understand, to aspire if for the wrong reasons.)

One of my students gernerously said that she believes whatever the teacher says, that she didn't know there were other reasons to write a poem than to write about yourself. Most of my students haven't read ANY contemporary poems, and when I say this: I do not mean to exclaim any thing. Surprise or shock or disappointment. That's the way it is. And as teachers, we have to respond to that. I am becoming a bit annoying by posts (I'm not implying yours are like that, but I do notice a general trend), that can't really seem to believe how limited are students skills are. It seems mean and unkind and also not much of a contribution to a productive discussion.

What are we going to do about it. Go slow. I stopped teaching books of poetry in my poetry classes, because I found out that if you deal with ONE poem for an HOUR CLASS, and force them to identtify their confusions and then collectively as a class try to figure them out: it takes a long time.

What is interesting is as a teacher who spend a workshop dealing with the reading of a poem, otther issues come to play. Students (undergrad and grad) who have such a hard time dealing with vagueness see any poem that doesn't rely on concrete autobiographical absorptive narrative often see that as an excuse or a justification for vagueness.

As someone who writes a lot of absorptive poetry, but feels ethically committed as teacher to show aesthetic diversity, I find myself often trapped: when student writing skills are so weak, how do I remain 1.) committed to showing them in published poems where abstraction works while 2.) at the same time discourafging vaguessness in their own poems. In an undergraduate (and even sometimes graduate class) students have a very very difficult time to distinguish bettwen vaguesss and abstraction and concrete. You could spend (and I often do) spend 4 or 5 weeks doing that, and the students will still be insecure and tentative in their ability to identity those things in other peoples' poems let alone be able to write their own effective/ineffective examples of each with considerable self-awareness.

My students felt that your article located a lot of the blame with/inside them. That's why they come into school: to make them realize their possibilities. Towards the end of the post, you took teachers more to task, they felt than you did in the gist of the article.

I guess that's my overall reaction in some ways as well. I can't wait to read the whole thing when it surely will be published soon. And I hope your article spawns a discussion as to some specific things teachers can do, and some of the problems inherent in teaching aesthetic diversity when our undergradstudents laregely have remedial or barely average writing skills.

Thanks for your generosity,
Steve Fellner

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Steve,

Thanks very much for your comment on this most recent post on creative writing. I’ve been looking forward to your response, as I’ve greatly appreciated your thoughtful and insightful comments.

I realize that there is an element of blame in my description of student limitations. Complaining about student failings is an academic genre in itself. Students’ shortcoming are not all their fault. Most of them have been failed by an educational system that passes them on from grade to grade without teaching them much. In Florida, where I live, they are taught almost nothing but how to take the FCAT, the state mandated standardized tests that determine whether students will advance to the next grade and what sorts of funding schools will receive (a strong incentive for cheating by both parties). But I do believe that students need to take greater responsibility for their own educations than they frequently do. Too many students don’t come to college to realize their own possibilities (in your eloquent phrase), though they can often be detoured in that direction when it’s pointed out to them.

While I have taught at one elite institution, most of my students have been like yours, first generation college students with no background in literature, and often no solid educational foundation at all. Part of what I try to do in my courses is to make up in some small way for those deficits, to at least open the door to literature as an engaging experience and to writing as an artistic practice. My students tend to feel a) afraid of being shown up as unintelligent or ignorant (which can interfere with higher education’s mission to develop intelligence and fill gaps in knowledge); b) resentful of the demands being made of them (especially since few demands were made of them in high school); and c) entitled, because they’re paying customers and teachers work for them. One of my department chairs explained to me some years ago that “we have a customer service model of education.” It’s never been clear to what, in this model, the product being sold is.

I’ve tried to be balanced in my discussion. My second post, “More on Creative Writing Pedagogy,” emphasized the limitations of academics and teachers of creative writing. My third, “A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom,” centered on student limitations.

Like yours, my ambitions for the creative writing classroom are more focused and less wide-ranging than K. Silem Mohammad’s. I don’t try to transform my students’ consciousness in the course of a semester or even a year (what I call the salvational model of teaching, in which students are led from their benighted false consciousness into the light of the true intellectual faith). Nor do I think I could do so. But I do try to instill and/or help them to recognize some principles that they will be able to apply to whatever writing and reading they will do in the future, “creative” or otherwise. (It’s important to remember that most creative writing students, even at the graduate level, will not become “writers” and don’t aim to.)

Your discussion of the difference between vagueness and well deployed abstraction (there is, of course, all too much badly deployed abstraction), and of how to get students to recognize the difference in their own work and in the work of others, how to get them to see that there are many modes of specificity and concreteness besides autobiographical narrative, was particularly interesting and enlightening.

In my literature classes we will often spend an entire class period on a single poem, actually exploring it, paying it the kind of attention that really opens it up, that helps students discover the possibilities even in a single, short text. In my creative writing courses I do assign books, and discuss poems from in class, though not at such great length. I also have students write prose responses in which they discuss at least two poems from the book. I think that it’s important to provide students with concrete models of the things we’re talking about, and I choose books that exemplify particular aspects or techniques that I wish to emphasize.

Thanks again for reading and for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

all best,


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zornhau said...

From my experience of being in a crit circle, and of trying to produce publishable prose myself, I think what you describe is part of a wider problem: it's very very hard to get distance from your own work and see it as others see it.

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