"Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier," a recent very articulate and thought-provoking post on on K. Silem Mohammad's blog, at least partially a response to my recent post "What Is Creative Writing For?" on creative writing pedagogy, has in turn prompted me to post another part of my essay on the teaching of creative writing, one that addresses some of the issues he so saliently brings up, though from a different angle of vision.
Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the invariably destructive encroachments of theory on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death. This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others. Other literary works, both those with which I have felt affinities and those toward which I’ve felt great antipathy, have always been both inspirations for and challenges to my own work and the work I aspired to do. Indeed, I never would have considered writing poetry without the impetus of reading deeply in it, wanting to comprehend, apprehend, and wield the power I found in it. Complementarily, criticism and what is sweepingly and too vaguely called “theory” have been crucial in thinking through and thinking anew my writing. Such critical thinking has been central to my development as a writer, and has helped me work through many an impasse in my work.
Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem, having imbibed the conviction that close reading or textual explication is reactionary or simply passé without ever having informed themselves just what such reading might entail. While poetry writing programs have burgeoned, poetry has fallen by the wayside as an object of literary study in favor of the examination of novels as social documents.
Many literary scholars and theorists believe that writing cannot or should not be taught, that talent is some immeasurable intangible. Such academics share many students’ sense that there is nothing to teach or be taught in a creative writing class, that writing literature, unlike, presumably, analyzing or theorizing it, requires no knowledge or training. Reified notions of innate genius which have been thoroughly deconstructed with regard to the literatures of the past are still too often unselfconsciously applied by writers and by critics to dismiss the possibility of training the writers of future literatures. Some people have a greater aptitude than others for musical composition or performance, for dance, for science or mathematics, yet no one asserts on that basis that these practices cannot be taught. Nor would many argue against the assertion that both those with more of an inclination and those with less of an inclination toward such pursuits can benefit from such education and training. But among both writers and critics, canards like “Keats never took a writing workshop” are freely tossed about, although the most cursory scan of literary history shows that developing writers and artists have always engaged in formal and informal processes of apprenticeship and training, of learning from and being guided by more experienced artists and writers. Perhaps it is the wider availability these days of such apprenticeships to hoi polloi to which critics of creative writing programs object. Historically, Keats is one of the few poets born in the working classes to have been able to take advantage of such apprenticeship and patronage.
The idea that writing cannot be taught is a more sophisticated version of the emptied-out pseudo-romanticism pervasive in our society: the assumption that everything one needs is inside one, that thought is the enemy of creativity and of feeling in general, that self-awareness is antithetical to art. As Ann Lauterbach has put it, “There’s a familiar split in the notion of what a creative act is. That split, in our culture, involves an idea of creativity as being natural and expressive: a poet has no need to have thought about anything in order to make a poem; the enemy is the analytical. This is a long-standing divisive space, certainly within the academy but also in the culture at large.” But self-awareness, the capacity to step back and analyze not just the world but oneself, is what defines us as human, and art is the material embodiment of that self-awareness, of the capacity to separate oneself from one’s immediate existence and see it as if from the outside. In that regard, art and science, often conceived of as opposites, have a great deal in common: both are about not taking for granted things as they appear, neither the world nor oneself, about investigating and exploring the universe rather than simply existing in it, about delving through the surfaces of things to understand their true workings. Things are not always what or how they seem, and we are among those things.
In English departments there is little or no attention paid to contemporary literature, except for that literature which can be scrutinized (as distinct from being actually read) as a social symptom, minority and women’s literature for the most part. (I must add, though, that as a black gay man who has taught at three different universities and been a student at several more, I have never encountered the caricatured straw institution so prevalent in right-wing anti-academic screeds where minorities are pandered to and Hopi chants are taught instead of Shakespeare.) In most creative writing programs, only contemporary literature is read, and there is a pervasive neglect of the literature of the past (especially of anything written before the twentieth century) among both students and faculty, who tend to consider it irrelevant or even (if they are a bit more intellectually hip) oppressive. This is not to say that individual students may not make efforts to educate themselves, but they are rarely given any context or structure in which to do so, or any incentive for their efforts.
In creative writing courses and programs, student writing is too often expected to emerge from the vacuum of inspiration (a vacuum too easily filled with prepackaged formulations and received ideas, from popular music, television, and movies, among other sources). The intention of the writer is conflated with the intention of the poem, because no other context is provided or produced for the work: thus the role of the creative writing teacher is simply to facilitate the student in finding and perhaps refining his or her own voice. This voice, like the self it stands in and expresses, is assumed to be pre-existent, needing at most to be shaped and developed. (This is a recent and socially constructed notion of selfhood and subjectivity, one that would have been alien, for example, to Shakespeare.) Each student brings an idiosyncratic and haphazard canon and set of assumptions to the class, basing his or her ideas of poetry on what he or she happens to have read or to have heard on the radio (for many students, popular music lyrics are their main model of poetry). Rarely have they read enough to have made informed choices among the possibilities of writing practice or to have questioned choices made solely on the basis of “what I like.” I have heard creative writing instructors say that they specifically exclude outside reading from their classes in order to focus on student work, as if that work came forth with no connection to anything else that had ever been written.
The unacknowledged assumptions underpinning both student reading and student writing (the reification of taste, the valorization of sincerity, the enshrinement of self-expression) block the development of each individual’s writing, leaving students in cul-de-sacs inescapable precisely because they are invisible. Even students engaged in experimental modes tend not to have read anything outside those modes, any of the work that led up to or even negatively instigated that work. Moreover, they are frequently unwilling or unable to recognize what is still radical (in both senses of the word) or experimental about writers like Sir Thomas Wyatt or Christopher Marlowe, should they take the occasion to read them. Many young writers’ conception of “the experimental” seems a concoction of received ideas about “language” poetry (as if other kinds of poetry were made of something other than language) and an attenuated romantic notion of idiosyncratic individualism. Thus such writers are often also ignorant of and uninterested in the historical and intellectual underpinnings of those modes, seeing them only as matters of style. Anti-intellectualism and an indifference to literary history are rife among both mainstream and avant-garde writers.