“Hey, can you really teach creative writing?” It’s a question that’s nearly bathetic in its longing for a simpler world, in which there was such a thing as talent and genius and wastebaskets full of crumpled pages. As silly and discredited as this question seems to be (considering there are over three hundred creative writing programs in the United States and more popping up each year), it persists, in one form or another, hidden in our conversations about literature like asbestos is hidden in the walls of our homes—too expensive to remove, so we deny its existence.
And yet, for those of us who actually teach writing, and therefore must regard ourselves as mythical creatures, like leprechauns or dragons, this question is a Superfund site waiting to be discovered every day of our working lives. The notion of writing as some inborn skill, like double-jointedness or the ability to guess the number of pennies in a cracker barrel, is at the heart of many difficult questions I face every day. Why don’t any of my students write second drafts? Why do I increasingly feel like my own skills are not only misunderstood but invisible? Why are my classes packed with students who wouldn’t know the proper use of a comma if one invited them upstairs and started playing Frank Sinatra albums to them? Students seem to think that there’s nothing for them to learn about creative writing. And yet, here I am, both leprechaun and dragon, teaching it.
The root of the problem—and I want to put this as glibly as possible because it’s a glib problem—is that the way we teach creative writing, in my experience, suggests that there is no way to teach creative writing. To put it another way: The problem is workshops.
It’s such a nice word, compounded of two words that couldn’t be lovelier, and yet in their unholy wedlock they mean, depending on whose frustration you’re addressing, “torture chamber” or “no one here really gives a shit” or “clueless coalition of cutups.”
These definitions are unfair, of course (especially that alliterative finale), but I must say with the determined certainty of a battle-scarred veteran that a workshop is anything but a shop where writers work.
As a product of creative writing workshops—and a guy who makes an almost middle-class living teaching them—my argument may seem akin to the rich heroin dealer yearning for God and a legal business. But, hey: Who can speak the truth about crime better than a criminal?
My truth, though, is not the one you’ve heard before. Creative writing workshops don’t, in my experience, churn out the same kind of writing. Nor do they encourage a personality cult centered on the instructor (on my weaker days, I wish). And they don’t destroy tender creative spirits. There’s no writer worth her salt who needs any help with self-destruction.
Rather, my primary objection to creative writing workshops is that they don’t work. Not, mind you, because they can’t work—it’s that they don’t work. There’s something rotten at the core of most of them, which makes them extremely unlikely to work.
The writing workshop is the ugly stepchild of the seminar. The seminar, in which students work independently under one professor and then exchange their results through discussion, is, in some ways, the glory of our civilization. The idea behind it is, anyway: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts—a version of democracy, you might call it. This is probably the only thing I learned in college, but it was worth every penny, every day, every hangover.
The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. This speaks to the spiritual dimension of the educational process, the way that human beings collectively can be better than human beings alone. A seminar is more than a collection of ideas volleyed around the room with the badminton racquets of intellect; a seminar is the replicating and transforming DNA of human thought. It’s an evolution. One day, you’re a tree monkey—the next day, you’re a Truffaut-quoting barista at a café (not a Starbucks).
But something goes awry when applying this model of learning to creative writing. Specifically, the workshop promotes the idea to young writers that their writing is required reading, that an audience is guaranteed. When really, postworkshop, no one will ever be forced to look at their work again.
It’s the first thing I tell my students: If you could understand, really understand, that no one needs to read your work, then your writing would improve vastly by the time we meet in this classroom again.
Also, that’s the difference between a seminar and a workshop. In my junior honors seminar at Berkeley, we read Paradise Lost because Paradise Lost demands to be read. We may not have known that when we walked in the door, but we sure as hell knew it by June. You could bury that poem for ten thousand years, let it be dug up by a culture that has forgotten our language, and within a decade people would be reading Milton again.
What happened, I think, on the road from seminar to workshop, was that we lost sight of the fact that we must write for an audience—an audience that is us (the people sitting around the table) but also not us (people who are sitting everywhere but at that table).