Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Is Creative Writing For?

Some of the discussion in Joshua Corey's recent posts of creative writing's function as an affirmation of the self, and particularly his quote from a long and eloquent email message from the fine poet G.C. Waldrep, author of Goldbeater's Skin, regarding creative writing pedagogy, has prompted me to post this excerpt from a longer piece I have written on the teaching of creative writing. I hope that it will prove illuminating or at least interesting.

Many students attend college for no reason other than having been told that is what they should do after high school, and perhaps with the hope that they will make more money if they have a college degree. They tend to feel simultaneously resentful (“Here I am stuck in this stupid class”) and entitled (“I’m not in high school anymore, now I’m an adult”). Students often see creative writing classes as the antithesis to their other classes, in which they are forced to absorb and regurgitate all kinds of information in which they have no personal interest or investment. In a creative writing class, they can be themselves, because anything goes in a poem. (The idea that they might not yet have "selves" to "be" does not occur to them, nor does the idea that selfhood might be a process of becoming, not a fixed state of being.) Concomitantly, they also believe that poetry is too subjective to judge, because it’s all opinion and personal preference.

To acknowledge that personal preference and opinion are always factors while still maintaining that specificity, particularity of image and language, precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché are aspects of all good poetry (as sometimes needs to be pointed out, vagueness is not a style) sometimes seems beyond them, especially since they are convinced and have often been taught that if they think something then it must be true. (One great problem in American education isn’t what students don’t know, but what they know that isn’t true.) My partner has a bumper sticker on his office door that reads “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s a caution that many might profitably take to heart.

We live in a culture which robs people of social, political, and economic agency, making them feel as if their experience counts for nothing, while simultaneously insisting that everyone’s every passing notion and experience is of supreme importance because it happened to them. These two aspects are concomitant with one another, the second offering an imaginary (that is, an ideological) compensation for the first. Much of the boom both in creative writing programs and in slam poetry, performance poetry, stand-up poetry, and the like, has more to do with a cult of the public performance of personality (á la Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer), on the one hand, and with the scarcity of outlets for genuine feeling and expression in our society and an ever-increasing sense of the impotence and insignificance of the individual, on the other hand, than with an interest in poetry as an art form.

The turn to creative writing, and to versions of poetry in particular, is a way of saying “I matter” in a wholly ritualized and conventionalized format, and is wholly understandable (if somewhat misdirected) as such. But again, this has to do not with an interest in the art of poetry, but rather with a sense that poetry is a mode of personal expression unsullied by commerce or social constraints. (And of course poems are shorter and thus apparently easier to write than novels or even short stories, another aspect of their appeal in a society that seeks quick results but shuns effort.) So the recent rise in the popularity of poetry doesn’t contradict poetry’s marginality in our culture any more than does the use of the word “poetry” as an all-purpose honorific: Michael Jordan, as they say, was poetry in motion on the basketball court. I prefer to think that poetry is poetry and basketball is basketball. Indeed, it is one of the functions of art to help us see things as and for themselves.

Canonical poetry, or literary poetry, or Modernist poetry, or post-Modernist poetry, or any poetry grounded in a practice of language and of writing as such, rather than one of personal expressivity and/or identity confirmation, still isn’t much read. Rather, it is disdained as one or another variety of stiff academicism, insular, "elitist" and oppressive, as opposed to the authentic expression of slam poetry or some similar construction. In this model, “creativity” is just another commodity which anyone can procure, on credit if necessary.


George S said...

I too teach creative writing, Reginald, but in England. I think there may be a greater acceptance here that writing comes of reading, so canonical, Modernist etcetera poetry is part of the natural terrain. That, at least, is how I have always taught it at undergraduate level, and try to do so a postgraduate level too, though the structures there are different.

And one of the earliest exercises we do - via reading - concerns the use of the pronouns in poems, just to see how the 'I' shifts and can be shifted across the whole range; how it is made and voiced.

Mind you, I tend towards the optimistic in these matters. Creative writing is potentially a way of understanding poems from the inside, through practice.

I very much enjoy your blog. It was a reader of my own, Andrew Shields, who pointed me to it. I write now because I see one of your fine poems on the same site as one my mine here.

Unknown said...

Dear Professor:

Thank you for this post and for your comment on Josh Corey's blog. When I was at Brown I always wanted to study with you. Would you please tell me why you left. All of a sudden, it seemed you were gone. I assumed that you left to be with your partner (which is a very good thing because love is the last vestige of protection in so many ways in this world). If this is too personal of a question, please forgive me. I would have asked in an email but I don't see it advertised anywhere. I'm not a poet or a creative writer but I do write poems every summer for some reason. Going to buy your new book. I didn't even know you had a blog before reading Josh's blog. I'm now an MFA in creative nonfiction student.


Steve Fellner said...


I just want to say that I enjoy your blog: it's one of the rare places on the web I can see a generous and sustained discussion of issues.

I want to address your post about why studnts major in creative writing. I teach at SUNY Brockport, largely a teaching college, where students who major in English can choose between the literature and creative writing track. THe majority of students choose creative writing where they take anumber of creative writing classes in leiu of literature classes.

Why do these students mahor in creative writing? They don't want to read and be held accountable for difficult material, or atleast material more difficult than their peers' texts. They know that even in a workshop where a large amoung of reading is demanded (as mine are), the class wil ultimately settle in a workshop format that often will no tmake them be quiized or tested on literature.

I personally wish more students majored in creative wriitng because they wanted passionately to write about themselves and their lives. At least thye hve drive adn that's something you can work with as a teacher.

I think a lot of students major in creative wriitng at the undergraduate level because it's "easier" than literature, but it's in close enough proximity to books they don't feel that bad about it.

With much respect,
Steve Fellner

John Gallaher said...

Ah, great, I was just getting over being mad about the whole John Barr thing, and now I get this debate. Hmm.

I'm sure I can link it to John Barr, just give me some time with google.

Andrew Shields said...

Reginald, you say this is from a longer piece on the teaching of creative writing. Is it one that you have published somewhere?

(What a pleasant surprise to see George mention me in the comments! I'm delighted to have been a middleman in this case.)

Reginald Shepherd said...

I appreciate the comments on this post. George, I do think that creative writing is very different in England than here, perhaps because it's less pervasive. There is too often in America a divide between reading and writing; there is much lamenting over this chasm, but little is done to correct it. I do agree tht creative writing at its best can be a way of understanding literature from inside, as a living practice, but creative writing students tend to resist reading and thinking about what they've read. Your exercise in pronoun shifting sounds fascinating, just the sort of thing to take students out of themselves and get them to think about just what "expression" is, what utterances are.

Sucio, there is a link for my email address on my blog (I just put it up a few days ago). My address is I'd be happy to address your question in a personal communication. I will say now that I did indeed come to Pensacola, not a place I would ever have imagined living, with and because of my partner.

Steve, I'm quite familiar with the situation you write of. Unfortunately, students rarely take anything out of a real passion for it, even creative writing. I often get the feeling that for them passion is a bit gauche or tacky: it's uncool. But I do think that a lot of them want to express themselves in some authentic way they find unavailable in the rest of their lives. They're just not yet able to distinguish self-expression from writing, or to recognize that any effective or valid expression, self or otherwise, can only occur through writing as a practice, a craft and an art. That's the direction in which I try to lead them: the road to self-expression is a long and winding one, and they might find more interesting places along the way. I like your characterization of students as taking creative writing because they perceive it as easy but still in proximity to books, so they don't feel too bad about it. I try to sneak in as much book-learning as I can. They often absorb a lot of it despite themselves.

Andrew, the longer piece from which this is drawn has not yet been published, though I've been trying. I'd be happy to send you a copy of the whole thing if you'd like.

Steve Fellner said...


When your piece does appear in print on creative writing pedagogy, please post the magazine and issue number so I could purchase it.

Steve Fellner

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