Can “Creative Writing” Be Taught?

     An immediate caveat:  I have become gradually aware that writing in “cursive” script,  using pencil, pen, or crayon, is now taught rather spasmodically and perhaps quite poorly in some, maybe most,  of our public schools.  If it is not taught,  it will likely never be learned.  And that may be a loss . . . . But maybe not such a great one.

On the other hand (sometimes I need more than two of these extremities),  it has often been thought and also said by poets, novelists, and so on,  that what is known as “creative writing”  can be learned, but it cannot really be taught.  Really.  Really?

I am responding here primarily to an opinion piece by Louis Menand in the June 8/15 issue of “The New Yorker” (I am still way, way behind in my reading here).  Menand,  a professor of English at Harvard and a widely published writer, is a regular and valued contributor to the magazine.  I look forward to reading each of his contributions.

In this essay Professor Menand reflects upon his own experiences attending creative writing workshops in several locales.  Among the workshop leaders and teachers he mentions are Robert Frost,  Allen Tate, John Barth, R.V. Cassill, Donald Dike, John Gardner, Richard Cortez Day, Dennis Schmitz, John Cheever, George Pierce Baker (very early: he taught Thomas Wolfe), Wilbur Schramm,  E. L. Doctorow, Kurt Vonnegut, and Paul Engle (the last usually regarded as the most important contributor to the famed program at the University of Iowa).  Menand also gives his readers a grocery list of colleges and universities with writing programs, the main contributor identified in parentheses: Brown (John Hawkes), Kentucky (Guy Davenport), Brown again (Robert Coover),  Duke (Reynolds Price),  Stanford (Wallace Stegner),  Boston U. (Leslie Epstein),  Houston (Donald Barthelme),  Syracuse (Tobias Wolff),  New York University (E. L. Doctorow),  SUNY-Albany (William Kennedy) and Florida State (Robert Olen Butler).

In part Menand’s essay is a review of Mark McGurl’s study of creative-writing programs and their effect upon American Fiction in The Program Era,  published by Harvard University.

The creative-writing program typically has followed the basic pattern of a published, perhaps even renowned, writer, offering the students in his workshop a few tidbits about what has worked in his writing (and what hasn’t) and then setting the students to writing (sometimes freely, sometimes to a particular plot or theme) and then having them read their work to each other and openly critiquing it.

Professor Menand doesn’t think much is learned by the work the students do, but quite a bit may be gained by their interaction with each other and with their professor:                 “I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the making of things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make,  and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.

. . . .  I stopped writing poetry after I graduated,  and I never published a poem–which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative writing class.  But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and            fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry,  among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Interestingly perhaps:  a World War II veteran, now living in Saratoga Springs, New York,  wrote to The New Yorker in the July 20 issue telling of his riding the G.I. Bill “to exhaustion.”  James Rosenberg’s ride included studies in a brand-new creative writing program at the University of Denver, founded by Alan Swallow,  a significant critic and publisher.

Rosenberg writes that he did became a “published poet,” and he “wound up teaching playwriting [?”playwrighting” advises my Spellchecker] (also impossible) at Carnegie-Mellon’s theatre school,  where my classes were petri dishes of emotions and produced no Arthur Miller.  But I hope that my students lived as intensely for a year or two as I did at Denver.  Like Menand,  I would not trade it for anything.”

I have tried my hand at “creative writing” on occasion and did impose some tasks upon students I taught late in my career in a class in “Lyric Poetry of the Renaissance.”  I have created a pair of very successful sonnet recitals,  sponsored by the UNCP “Friends of the Library” and the North Carolina Humanities Council.  In my college-teaching career I advised students in creating and printing a literary magazine.

But I have also learned that my talents are narrow and my creative impulses ambitious but impulsive and often quite disjointed.  This no longer depresses me, for I know I can try other schemes, other projects.  Furthermore,  like Professors Menand and Rosenberg,  as to what I have tried and done, whether well or ill,  I wouldn’t trade that for anything.



12 Responses to “Can “Creative Writing” Be Taught?”

  1. Forest Crump Says:

    She is my new favorite poet

    Oh How I Should Like To Be A Cat – poem by joolish

    Oh how I should like
    To be a cat
    To curl up in a lap
    Or catch a fat mouse
    Instead of a woman
    Of forty and one
    In a sweat and a chill
    In a too empty house.
    Oh how I should like
    To be a frog
    To jump from the grass
    To the water with grace
    Instead of a woman
    Of forty and one
    With pimples and hair
    On the sides of her face.
    Oh how I should like
    To be a fish
    To swim through the waves
    To bright places unknown
    Instead of a woman
    Of forty and one
    Whose travels are done
    And whose burdens
    Are home.
    Oh how I should like
    To be an owl
    Strong, winged and certain
    Of all that is free
    Instead of a woman
    Of forty and one
    With a head full of fears
    And a chest full of woes
    And a bed that’s as cold
    As can be.

  2. Macky Myers Says:

    In my opinion, those who attend creative writing classes and workshops are already enthusiastic enough to invest time and money to be there in the first place. In addition, why would most invest time and money in something you’re not particularly talented enough to do? The playing field has already been narrowed tremendously by the first day of a workshop.

    On the other had, I can’t imagine a library without the self taught writers’ works [Emily Dickenson, Laura Ingles Wilder, Ann Frank, Anne Tyler (Raleigh Prodigy), S. E. Hinton, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill, etc.]

    Did William Shakespeare complete a creative writing class at Oxford?

  3. Jeff Thompson Says:

    What’d you do, delete my comment?

  4. connie Says:

    I think some things aren’t taught-they’re caught. I’m a songwriter, and I have learned so much by hanging around other songwriters, particularly those who have had some success, and by, well, WRITING and COMPOSING. I have been doing it for years now and have reached a wee bit of success myself.

    My daughter is a writer, and she learns, by writing. And hanging out online with other writers.

    (Let me also say as well that I picked up my grammar skills the same way. Reading and being around good grammar, so that bad grammar looks wrong.)

  5. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Happy New Year!

  6. Dea Says:

    Though I did not want to take a creative writing course in my freshman year of college I did it to fullfil a requirement and I actually enjoyed it. I think it helped my report writing quite a bit since all my professors have commented on how much they have enjoyed reading my papers and how entertaining and informative they have been.

    When you can make a fifteen page report on nuclear energy fun for the professor to read it shows that a skill can be taught in those “useless” creative writing courses. I have urged my kids to take the same types of courses just for the experience and to develop a different outlook on writing that what they have learned in high school. I still really suck at poetry, but my short stories aren’t horrible, from what I have been told.

  7. Raymond Rundus Says:

    I regret forgetting the beginning quotation marks as I presented Louis Menand’s closing comments: should be ” . . . . [to end].” I still struggle at times with the particular protocol that WordPress imposes.

    Jeff Thompson: I read your comment and did not excise it, I hope. You were playing once again your violin solo about the need to teach “proper English” in our public schools. What “Connie” seems to suggest is that writing can be taught by reading good writing and by socializing with those others who want to create good writing.
    I’m reminded again (I’ve ridden this horse a time or two before in my blog postings) of what Poet Laureate of North Carolina Sam Ragan said in a visit to a writing workshop at UNCP: “I have met good readers who were not good writers. But I’ve never met a good writer who was not a good reader.”
    Food (or at least a bread crumb) for thought.
    Also many good comments from “Macky Myers” about iconic writers who were in essence self-taught. Perhaps others of you can add to Macky’s list.
    And, BTW, and IMHO, Happy New Year to all!
    I’ve sent to you a little present in which Mr. Davies on the ABE books Web site lists and makes comments about the “Collectible Books of the Decade.” How many, if any, have you read? I can’t say I’ve read many, if any, but I’ve often seen other reviews about some of these, and that is a hallway pass, perhaps.


  8. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Oh, I also wanted to thank “Forest Crump” for the poem by “joolish.” Enjoyable to read and worth remembering. . . .


  9. CICvet Says:

    Years ago, I enrolled in Writer’s Digest School of Novel Writing. I was impressed with the first dose of material. Ironically, the in the letter from my course guide, William Tappley (in response to my “info letter” to him), he agreed to my belief that reading was at least as valuable as classwork and, he would probably opt for the former. He added that my choice of favorite authors (Pynchon, Deaver, Evanovich, and Joan Hess) was “unusual”.

  10. Ann Marie Demers Says:

    Happy New Year, everybody !

    “I’ve sent to you a little present in which Mr. Davies on the ABE books Web site lists and makes comments about the “Collectible Books of the Decade.” How many, if any, have you read? I can’t say I’ve read many, if any, but I’ve often seen other reviews about some of these, and that is a hallway pass, perhaps.”

    Like you, I didn’t count many — I’ve read three or four of the Harry Potter series, and while I’ve been a Dean Koontz fan for many years (I love horror and thrillers, both books and movies !), I have not gotten to the “Odd Thomas” series, I’ve read “The Da Vinci Code”, “The Lovely Bones”, “Black House” (though I somehow missed the other King entry on the list “From a Buick 8”, probably because I considered it too similar to the earlier “Christine”.) and “Middlesex”.
    A couple of titles on the list are on my personal “to be read” list, though, “The Life of Pi” and “The Kite Runner” in particular.

  11. Jeff Thompson Says:

    R.R., since you don’t share my concerns on language basics and even apparently find them trite, I’ll refrain from further comments on your blog. Best wishes to you in the new year.

  12. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Best wishes to you also, Jeff Thompson. (The posting you referred to as perhaps being deleted appeared in “Comments” on another of my postings than this one. And it ought still be there.)


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