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Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes


What I find the most offensive about the current construction of the discipline of creative writing is that it says nothing about the world we send our writers into. If your writing is good, will it get published? Maybe, maybe not. If you work your ass off for a decade to perfect your craft, what will you get in return? Something, but we’re not sure what. Can anyone ever really say what good writing is? Yeah, but not until way after it has been published. No, wait…not then, either.

And what about the supremely important quality of desire? Instead, we talk more about talent, as Lynn Freed does with such determination in her Harper’s Magazine essay on the subject of creative writing. She says that “talent is the naked emperor of writing programs.” She’s wrong about that, though. Talent is, rather, the emperor’s invisible clothes. You know this is true because Freed herself, who despairs more mightily than anyone over the possibilities of creative writing, never defines talent. Instead, she brings in Proust to define it, and even he doesn’t do a good job: “Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable [gifted men] to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down.”

Everyone—particularly Freed—thinks it’s talent that makes a writer, but that’s just more of that imaginary natural taxonomy of writers that makes redundant the teaching of creative writing itself. At what point, I like to ask my students, does Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player that ever lived? The tenth time he shoots a free throw? The ten thousandth? The hundred thousandth? If you’re so good at spotting talent, Ms. Freed, let’s visit some high schools and you tell me who the next Yeats will be. Me, I know nothing about talent, but a lot about desire. Desire is what gets you from ten to a hundred thousand; desire is what makes a poet like Yeats. When asked a question about his own talent, I heard Michael Cunningham quote Marilyn Monroe, who said that she wasn’t the prettiest and she wasn’t the most skilled, but she wanted it more than anyone else.

What’s important, ultimately, is the struggle—the struggle that desire creates in both writers and writing. My first graduate instructor, Mona Simpson, told us that graduate school was where you went to find out that you don’t want to be a writer, and this would make it worth every penny. And yet if it’s in this mess of battle that we find ourselves, well, then it’s in this mess of battle that we find ourselves. Most workshop stories that I’ve read are missing that crucial element of conflict. It’s little wonder. We’re terrified of the pain and suffering it takes to become a good writer, let alone the pain and suffering that’s inherent in good writing itself. Desire is important to creative writing because it’s the only thing that causes conflict. Conflict is important to writers because it’s the only evidence of desire. So few of us have faced up to the fact that we are at war with ourselves, with others, with the very conditions of our lives.

Donald Hall, who’s probably forgotten more about teaching writing than most of us will ever know, says that “terror” is the thing that’s missing from most workshops. I have to agree with him. And maybe it’s my virtue as an instructor to bring my students these great gifts—terror and failure. They were certainly the greatest gifts that my instructors gave to me.

Dan Barden, a novelist and professor at Butler University in Indianapolis, is currently helping to start a new MFA program.

Reader Comments

  • haikuowl says...

    I never thought of it that way. I had always believed the importance of writing classes is the encouragement of students and networking. However, I get where you're coming from when you propose that writing, like anything, is more perspiration than anything else. I just recently got my BFA from Brooklyn College and even though my writing was praised there, I am still very insecure about my work. However, I know writing is something I definitely want to do and I am realistic about the whole thing. I don't go out there expecting to be the next Rimbaud. Your article has made me think a little more.


  • heavy hedonist says...

    Once I took an advanced fiction workshop with Professor Feldman at UB. Not easy to warm up to, this teacher or his approach. Not given to false kindness. He held the class tight, reining it in whenever it got too gentle, too complacent. He knew who was serious, who wasn't, who was writing to grind some personal axe and who might have a chance at writing for publication.He was fairly brutal, in many ways.There were no corners to hide in, with him at the end of the table, either in your writing or your critique. It was one of the best courses I ever took, an excellent example of what workshops can be but usually aren't.
    As I shift from writing group to writing group now, looking for guts and gashing, people who know how to give useful feedback or even at what point it should be given,I dream of workshops that are more than just "supportive." And after spending 10 years studying CW in two universities, I've seen damn few of them.

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