Here We Go Again: Can Creative Writing Be Taught? (Especially at BYU??)
A few weeks ago my summer fiction issue of The New Yorker came in the mail, and among all the (ahem) “New Yorker Style Stories,” I found Louis Menard’s essay “Show or Tell,” an extended rumination on American creative writing programs and a review of Marc McGurl’s new book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.
My first response to the article was “Can Creative Writing Be Taught” exhaustion. As a person with an MFA who also teaches creative writing, not only does the whole argument make me a little weary—this again??—but I’ll admit to a bit of defensiveness, too. The legitimacy of my undergrad major in English Lit was never called into question, and my decision to try and teach a bunch of squirmy, distracted, hormonal fifteen-year-olds how to read, understand, and talk intelligently about the symbolism in The Lord of the Files was deemed an appropriate enough use of my time.
Little did I know that choosing an academic system that purports to teach folks about reading (or literary devices, or rhetoric, or expository writing) was an entirely laudable choice, if low-paying. But choosing an academic system that purports to teach others about creative writing? Waste of time! Ridiculous! A fool’s errand! Or (worst of all) downright dangerous! Didn’t I know that I was contributing to the very downfall of American letters, homogenizing the voice of the masses?
Okay, so I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole (and if you were listening in the 10th Grade English class I used to teach, you know what that word means). And I do understand why creative writing, with an emphasis on the “creative,” is a much trickier subject to teach than, say, English grammar. As a product of the creative writing system, I agree that much of what makes a writer great–insight, inspiration, and yes, creativity itself–can’t really be “taught.” But I also know that my own MFA experience DID teach me many, many valuable things: basic elements of craft; how to read like a writer; how to revise effectively; how to give (and take) editorial feedback. These are all academically sound outcomes, in my opinion—outcomes born of a heckofa lot of hard academic work.
Which is why the initially snarky feel of Menard’s essay bugged me. His first sentence establishes a kind of roll-your-eyes, get-a-load-of-these-guys tone:
Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem.
First off, I suppose he’s describing the traditional “workshop” setting here, but many (most?) creative writing courses and programs don’t rely on the workshop alone. I know mine didn’t. Mine involved reading—lots of reading, both good literature and dense texts on theory and craft—as well as instruction by qualified professors, writing critical papers, and a truckload of creative writing (obviously?). Workshopping was a part of the experience, yes, but to reduce a creative writing degree program to Menard’s dismissive initial sentence is pretty misleading.
But, yes, workshopping is one important aspect of an MFA, and it can be hit or miss. In some classes (both courses I’ve participated and in courses I’ve taught) the intellectual energy in a workshop is downright electric. It seems to me the point of getting an education in a room full of other people, rather than sitting alone in front of a computer, is to participate in that energy. There’s no better classroom experience than when your instructor and fellow classmates are engaged and smart and thoughtful, and you get the opportunity to learn as both a giver and receiver of critical feedback. Workshops offer students the chance to experience this in ways that lecture-based classrooms can’t approach.
Some workshops I’ve participated in have flopped, of course. Often, the teacher’s not very good, or you can be unlucky and land in a class where the participants are bored or disconnected or downright misanthropic, tearing apart your text with a scarcely-contained glee. But can’t all academic programs be described as hit or miss? The courses required to obtain my secondary education certification, for example, were probably 90% miss . . . ah, the torture that was “Theory and Methods of Secondary Education”!!
But enough of my defensiveness. Menard does make some good points in the article, especially when dealing directly with McGurl’s book, which sounds like an interesting read. For example:
[McGurl points out that ] university creative-writing programs don’t isolate writers from the world. On the contrary, university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit—the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace. Sticking writers in a garret would isolate them. Putting them in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.
A provocative statement and, in my experience, true. Which makes me wonder what the outcome will be when Brigham Young University starts putting a bunch of would-be writers in the quintessential Mormon Ivory Tower.
Yes, beginning this fall, BYU will be offering an MFA in creative writing. I think a BYU MFA bodes well for the future of Mormon letters, but then again we’ve established that I’m biased. Now I want to know what you think.
How do you feel about a creative writing programs in general? The new MFA in creative writing at BYU in particular? What kind of influence will it have on the next generation of Mormon writing? Positive, negative, or will its presence cause nary a ripple?