Musings on Literacy – 4 – Creative Writing Classes

Comics Kingdom - Cartoons on Creative Writing Classes - 2014-07-02

Creative writing classes are filled with bromides about how to do fictional writing well.

In college I took three of them because I found them to be a rare treat, wholly separated from the typical loop of college humanities courses.

These were courses where you either listened and took notes or you tried to sound impressive discussing a book you either did not have time to read, or did not have time to read very well.

And, ironically, for those who did read it well, they lacked some social cues to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that did not annoy everyone.

But creative writing felt like a situation where everyone got to win. The teachers of said classes could sit back and let the students discuss a work. They leveled their authority to that of the other students by sitting with them in a circle. And when we finished three stories that other students wrote, we took three more home and worked on them. Sometimes, this consisted of laughing spittle and wine onto the page, and with others it was embarrassment and jealousy that what you wrote was nowhere close to the sophistication of the story in front of you. But everyone got to learn and everyone got to teach.

Every now and again, we would get moments of “teaching” that no one specifically “taught.” That was the rare magic of creative writing classes.

But many professors feel as though the magic of education is very top-heavy, so they are called upon to “earn their paycheck” by offering bromides.

Which brings us back to where we started.

Rules and Exceptions

Many of these reek of K-12 strategies: “show, don’t tell” being the obvious one. Open many fiction books, recent or otherwise, and you are bound to find both.

BBC Radio 4 - Classic Serial, Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice, Pride and  Prejudice at 200 - The first lines of Pride and Prejudice published in a  first edition of the novel in 1813

Would Austen’s Pride and Prejudice have been improved if the line had been, “Mr. Darcy felt the glass as he window-shopped for dresses with loose change in his pocket?”

And the desire for active voice over the passive voice is also a strange occurrence in modern writing, as if the passive voice does not have a place for people, places, or things in submissive categories.

But some of the strangest directions accepted as gospel are ones like “kill your darlings,” which have characters performing the strangest little curiosities in a way that leads to trouble, but not in the way that makes the story any more compelling. Instead it makes it awkward and stilted and, for lack of a better word, false.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

As an example, my wife and I will be finishing The Hunting Party today, a book I found disappointing in several regards. In a spiritual homage to Agatha Christie, friends gather to a lodge that is separated from society by a blizzard. Someone dies, and you have to figure out who did it.

Personally, I have grown to love these contained murder mysteries. If done well, it can combine evidence without plodding too far into technical science, and it can unravel character traits that connect in odd and exciting ways.

But Foley breaks her own constraints, as the television show LOST did, by emphasizing a non-linear series of flashbacks and asides, and by inhabiting so many points of view that the contained setting is all but pointless.

These characters are supposed to be firm friends, but the “kill your darlings” trope strains that idea so fully that you begin to wonder why they stayed in touch after college. A game of Twister ends with groping, and fully grown adults play “Truth or Dare,” ending with a character pounding back an entire bottle of expensive champagne.

The book meanders in a cycle of scandal, gossip, drama, and internal monologue, and never quite escapes the first act until it is over. By the time all the characters are given their backstories, the novel ends.

Is this the hallmark of the bestseller list today?

The Benefit of Creative Writing Courses

In thinking about the usefulness of creative writing courses, and of reading and writing as a creative pursuit, I’m going to quote a section from Rachel Cusk’s book Kudos (again!). It’s a longer paragraph that discusses literature in general and reading the difficult classics in particular:

Sometimes, he said, he amused himself by trawling some of the lower depths of the internet, where readers gave their opinions of their literary purchases, much as they might rate the performance of a detergent. What he had learned, by studying these opinions, was that respect for literature was very much skin deep, and that people were never far from the capacity to abuse it. It was entertaining, in a way, to see Dante awarded a single star out of a possible five and his Divine Comedy described as ‘complete shit’, but a sensitive person might equally find it distressing, until you remembered that Dante – along with most great writers – carved his vision out of the deepest understanding of human nature and could look after himself. It was a position of weakness, he believed, to see literature as something fragile that needed defending, as so many of his colleagues and contemporaries did. Likewise he didn’t set much store by its morally beneficial qualities, other than to raise the game – as he had said – of someone correspondingly slightly inferior.

This to me is the long and the short of the use of creative writing classes. Literature in my opinion does point to profound moral truths, but it does so without explicitly saying so, lest it fall into bible school lessons or cheap term papers. Creative writing is success by consensus, where your writing is curated by other minds for whether it “works” or “doesn’t work,” and that can turn out to be a difficult thing to parse out into words.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds: Dennett, Daniel C.:  9780241003565: Books

This intuition reminds me of Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back, one of the most impressive books on the mind I’ve read in years. One of his core theses is “competence before comprehension,” and it is a useful idea for creative writing classes. Oftentimes our most powerful insights are instinctual, and do not occur until after years and years of practice. Creative writing starts or continues that process.

When we retroactively think about the reading and writing we’ve come to love, it seems as though we are very bad at picking up consistent rules or ideas. Because for each idea of “kill your darlings” there is Marilynne Robinson, who is very much opposed to the idea when she sees it in her students. For those who feel like outlines and research are important for characterization, there is Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, or Joyce Carol Oates, who seem very capable of writing meaningful characters either without the internet, or without a second opinion. Instinct drives their style as much as anything else. And as far as sentence length and style are concerned, comparing David Foster Wallace with anyone is a fool’s errand. We seem desperate to create a hierarchy out of styles explicitly, to create awards and lists that point to one end. But the truth is that the New York Times Bestseller list has little to no bearing on what becomes influential to modern writers who plunge the depths of fiction.

Creative writing courses are designed for the implicit truths that an author learns outside of language. Each author feels as though they must construct a style crudely, and professors have painstakingly tried to convince students that style is borne out of pressure and time. Style is more like geology than geography. It is the territory, rather than the map, and as such it is glacially slow, and does not arrive until millions of words have left the author’s hands.

The danger of creative writing courses is in its desire to sell. Profitability, stifling creativity for the sake of a smooth plot, following trends, and adapting to publisher desires are all the death of the course. For a class to be dead on arrival, one must make these rules gospel, in order to sell more books.

In a decade where reading and writing are more democratized than ever before, it is astounding to see that some of the richest countries in the world cannot bear full time writers. Similar to Ivy League schools, publishing companies want everyone to send in their manuscripts so that they can be rejected, heightening an idea of “prestige” that feels more like a high school cheerleader saying “no” to as many boys as she can to make her seem more valuable.

The flood of writing and literature has created tunnel vision out of fiction, and now we have bottlenecked.

While the publishing world outside has sterilized itself, the creative writing department’s goal is to be more intimate, encouraging students to take risks, get into trouble, and to get back to the heart of what reading is, which is a conversation between a reader and a writer. All the rules, and all the regulations, have no bearing on this relationship.

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