Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How Do You Teach Creative Writing?

How do you teach creative writing?

I've been an English teacher for sixteen years and have taught all manner of writing, much of it expository. However, I have always struggled with the idea of teaching creative writing, whether with a group of high schoolers or college students.

Sure, we can teach the basic concepts of plot, character, development and theme. We can help students dissect the works of other writers, looking at how those authors practiced their craft and how students might be able to cherry pick from that ideas to help in their own development. We can ask students what their creative intent was in their story and discuss reader reaction and ways to deliver that intent.

However, at the risk of buying into Jon Zech's theory of talent and craft, I sometimes think that writing classes should be a culling process and that those students who have been indentified as showing promise should be invited into a more advanced class where they can receive individualized attention. I also believe in the ideas of a mentor taking a less experienced person under his or her wing and helping to develop that person's talent. How Italian Renaissance of me.

That, however, can be exhaustive, too. I have often received numerous short stories and novels from people asking for feedback and other forms of assistance. Their position is that even if I'm not approaching their work as a writer, I am approaching their work as a teacher. I mention this because I don't necessarily think I have the credentials as a writer to mentor anyone. Still, mentor and peer support are critical elements in most writer development. It's one of the reasons that writers' groups are popular. Of course, some could argue a writers' group is a matter of the blind leading the blind.

One of my fellow writers, Joe Ponepinto, has always promoted the idea of a writers' community, a network creating bridges between writers of different skills and different disciplines. When I joined the Horror Writers Association, one of the things I liked is that they had a mentor's program. I have never taken advantage of it, but I was pleased that they offered a helping hand for new writers.

Ultimately, people can learn skills but to be able to apply those skills in a creative manner is key. Jon would argue that you could teach people writing skills, but you can't teach writing.


Steve Buchheit said...

How? With a can opener, scoop, rabid squirrels, and velcro.

I guess I don't understand why someone would take a "Creative Writing" course is they didn't already have the bug. And the more I look at other writing associations, the more I find SFWA lacking.

Sullivan McPig said...

The one way you shouldn't teach Creative Writing is the way the teacher who taught me did it.
He just wouldn't let go of his own small world views and absolutely trashed something I wrote not because it was badly written,(he actually didn't say anything about the writing) he trashed it because I had given a crippled (ugly) man a wife and a child.

'How could you give a pathetic creature like that a wife! That is absolutely impossible! Crippled (ugly) men do not have wives!'

Luckily I was already old and wise enough to see through his petty mindedness and just went on writing and giving crippled men wives when I think they need one.

stu said...

I'm told that the great jazz guitarist Martin Taylor has much the same problem with the concept of people going to university to learn to play jazz.

Anonymous said...

I think about this all the time, but as I was choosing which grad schools to apply to the question became all the more intense and personal. I had to think about how I learn, and what and how I want to learn. Ultimately, I chose a combination of mentorship, theoretical study, and teaching application. I then had to sift through program faculty, trying to decipher which mentors would best suit me personally and professionally. I think that a person's writing philosophy and perspective of the world is hugely important. I think I've applied to programs that will challenge me and nurture my growth. I don't believe "learning writing" is the issue as much as growing into your writing self.

Jon said...

Yup. You can teach the craft, but you can't teach the art. Frankly, ya either got it or ya don't got it.

The trick is to find those who actually do have creativity and the latent ability to express it.

Now, that's not to say that most students can't be taught to be better writers because clearly they can, and many of them are well published.
So maybe we should be talking about teaching "effective writing" rather than creative writing.

I like your idea, Gwen, about finding about one's writing self. That's where it starts and that's how it continues to grow.

But what do I know...I'm not even a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Joe Ponepinto said...

But Jon, you're a Fine human being.

And frankly, despite my promotion of writerly networks, I also believe real writers are born, not made. I do think even the semi-talented can learn and grow and even be published, but there's no substitute for the gift.

Charles Gramlich said...

At least some of the people you teach writing skills too, though, are actually writers who previously have not been able to express their talent. What percentage I have no idea.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lot's of people take creative writing because they need an English class and they think it will be an easy stint.

I am sorry you had that experience. Obviously the teacher was looking at himself as a cripple and projecting.

I find jazz artists fascinating...I am in awe of the ability to improvise and still do so within certain boundaries.

Gwen, while some people can grow into themselves, some people never grow up. Or perhaps some people grow into something that is quite unacceptable.

Jon..and to find someone who cares enough to develop that talent. I have seen and read stuff by people who obviously have the talent but who have no interest in developing it..much to my amazement.

Joe, I wonder if there will ever be a writer gene uncovered.

Charles, that is a fascinating concept and one which argues the importance of teaching mechanics at some level.

Anne Spollen said...

I don't think it can be taught. People either have power with language or they don't. You can teach people to write a clear sentence, but you can't teach them how to craft a poem.

I do think talented people who come to a creative writing class can shape their work with a good teacher. But the talent has to be present. It can't be endowed.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I don't have talent as a musician, something I bemoan regularly. I've tried to learn guitar, I can play some chords, but I don't have the ability. Perhaps you're correct. Of course, there is something interesting in the element of writing being such an interactive talent. Art and music is fairly passive for the audience. Reading is a skill that takes practice and is ultimately a form of labor to reap a reward.

Genie of the Shell said...

I agree. I think the Big Stuff is either there or not--though it can be entirely latent in a person who, say, has a learning disability or was not taught to read and write for whatever reason.

The fine-tuning stuff, for an already talented and creative writer, can and needs to be taught.

I wish Stephanie Meyer had had a better copy editor...