Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Creative Writing or Literature Classes?

I was chatting last night with someone about classes in creative writing. I've taken a few, but didn't gain as much from them as I gained from taking literature classes. Listening to other bad writers as an interested but distracted teacher tried driving home elements of plot, character development, and POV, using neat catch phrases like "show-don't-tell" and "Stewart, what the hell?" made it difficult for me to appreciate the venue. If you get my drift?

Literature, on the other hand, was mellow. Studying proven authors, seeing how they utilized theme and motif, and how they developed character arc along with plot helped me understand how elements of writing fit together. It was far easier to understand the concept of voice in a literature class than it was to find my voice in a creative writing class. Perhaps it helped that literature classes didn't pressure the student to submit his own  work, a potentially ego threatening proposition.

So, am I suggesting literature classes are the path for the would-be writer? No.

Approaching one's development as a writer isn't an all or nothing proposition. It is a process. And perhaps what I came to understand about a structured approach to learning writing is that one needs a balance. The literature classes are valuable, as are the creative writing classes, and when they are combined intelligently they are the best hope a student has of developing skills through an appreciation of what he saw in the works of others.

When reading advice from famous authors, one will always hear two strong themes. First, write---only by practicing one's art can one improve it (of course, by practicing, we mean with a self-critical eye). And second, read. Read and study other authors, not with an eye for imitation, but for understanding how that person executed his craft.


Steve Buchheit said...

I'm not sure this is so much of a pot stirring as it's a "Yes, that."

Stewart Sternberg said...

Would it stir the pot if I told you I attended classes naked?????

Anonymous said...

So you attended class naked and you "executed your craft," eh?

Charles Gramlich said...

definitely for me the best teacher was all the reading I've done. Maybe that doesn't say much for the writers I've read but it's true anyway.

Gwendolyn said...

My advisor says, "the books are our teachers." But she also says that students who've studied literature academically have to undo all they've learned in order to write honestly and organically. Without constructing. Studying literature as a writer is very, very different than studying as a reader. And yes, over and over and over, it is a process. everyone's process is different.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Lois, not only was I naked, but by the time class was over, the room was empty.

Charles, I believe reading is key. We are a community and reading is the thing which holds that community together.

Gwen, I mean no disrespect, but I would never want to take a literature class from that advisor. And I suspect that someone who gets their money from an MFA program has a vested interest in making such an absurd statement. Either that, or that individual is a wee bit full of himself or herself.

I do agree with the idea of writing being an organic process, but often people mean very different things when they say that. Me? I think the process includes understanding how theme, plot, character development, and setting all come together to form a whole. And if you're a writer, how word use, outlining, editing, and revision are some of the tools for making that possible.

Some people think organic means you write, and whatever you produce, if it has integrity and is the result of soul searching, is an expression of literature. Those people would be flawed in their thinking. People holding onto that concept ignore writing's deliberative process (one that is integral to the emotional and expressive one). They ignore the value of structure and often fail to appreciate the importance of standing on the shoulders of giants.

Joe Ponepinto said...

I am inspired when I read good writing, but I'm just as inspired when I read the very academic articles in something like The Writer's Chronicle," in which PhDs and other university types examine the work of the best writers (complete with 30-40 footnotes and a bibliography). For me, the academic study of great writing gives name to the themes and techniques the great ones employ, and makes them part of my lexicon and, hopefully, writer's toolbox.

I understand, I think, where Gwen's adviser is coming from-- to focus only on the facts and terms ignores the soul of a writer--that is true. But to unlearn those things, to me, is to sentence the writer to an intellectual vacuum, where writing is valid if it "feels" good to the writer, even if it has no connection to civilization's legacy of thought and art.

Gwendolyn said...

Oh, no. I certainly do not mean to imply that writing is but a touchy feely soul searching process! And my advisor, I think would be horrified to be interpreted in that way! What I mean is that reading as a writer we say, this is what this writer has done, this is how they've done it, how can I do that. Whereas, in formal literature courses we examine meanings and contexts, theme, etc... So we learn from the books- language, form, structure, etc... we learn from the masters. We steal from them. But we make our own work, we let the readers and critics draw meaning and context. Organic has nothing to do with letting whatever happens happen. That is completely erroneous. For me, it simply means not forcing it to be what it is not. Letting themes bubble up naturally through the characters and the conflicts. Letting them live their lives instead of pretending they are puppets.

Joe Ponepinto said...

As with most literary disputes, we don't disagree as much as have a discussion of terms. It was the phrase "undo all they've learned" that triggered my response to Gwen's post. I don't think that's possible. All that thar book larnin' is still inside, forming the core of our adult, creative writing brains. The organic bonds to the concrete, maybe envelops it completely so it can't be discerned in the current writing. But that little nugget is still in there, pulsing away, affecting every sentence.

Gwendolyn said...

Ah... point taken. I felt very misheard or misunderstood or misconstrued. But you are right; I did use the phrase"undo all they've learned." Now I see where the misunderstanding arose. That was an ineffectual phrase for the idea I was trying to convey. In other words, I didn't intend to use the word undo. Perhaps, "momentarily set aside certain aspects of craft until revision" would have been a clearer phrase. I apologize for beginning a dispute. As we can see, each and every word matters intensely. ;)