Saturday, July 11, 2009

Teaching Writing

My summer is going well. I’ve had two visitors. First, James Byrne came up for a couple of days and then a week later, Mimi Khalvati. Because neither had ever been to Newcastle, I played one of my favorite roles, as tour guide. Things seen and done included a look at the temporary exhibition at the Baltic Museum for Contemporary Art showing works by artists who could be construed as having been influenced by Darwin—a timely topic. Also, a visit to the permanent collection of the Laing Art Gallery in the city center, which includes canvases by Gauguin and John Martin, the Blakean painter of sublime subjects that might be said to involve Wordsworth’s “beauty and terror.” We also ferreted out medieval remnants of the old city, for example, the Castle Keep, with its four crenellated towers and the Black Gate, which sounds suitably Gothic, though the name probably comes from a Mr. Black who once lived there. James Byrne particularly wanted to see the Morden Tower (built into the city wall in the western part of town) because of its association with contemporary poetry. Bunting first read Briggflatts there and later readers included Creeley and Ginsberg. Newcastle’s Chinatown is close by, perhaps because the 13th-century ramparts reminded Chinese immigrants of their own Great Wall. Another echo of that would also be Hadrian’s Wall, which begins not far west of Newcastle, a remnant from the Roman occupation of Britain that embodies some of the mystique of ancient parapets. During my first visit to Newcastle in 2005, I went out to Hadrian’s Wall and began shortly after working on a poem titled “Hadrian,” which appeared here in PN Review and can be found in their online archive, if you’re a subscriber. It’s an impressive structure along some stretches and goes west all the way to Carlisle.

New subject: Because of a recently published and widely reviewed book by Mark McGurl titled The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of the Creative Writing School, the topic of creative writing schools is being discussed again, though I’m not sure the attack and defense positions have made any points not familiar to us already. McGurl restricts his discussion to fiction, leaving aside poetry and non-fiction; and he comes down in favor of the phenomenon by citing a number of successful graduates of MFA programs, including Flannery O’Connor. I think we can safely say that O’Connor is a permanent figure in American literature, but it’s too soon to guarantee that some of the more recent successes McGurl mentions prove his point. They may or may not have lasting value. Nor do we have any testimony from these successes (to my knowledge), confirming that they regarded their courses as a help.

I only took one creative writing course, and that was in short story when I was an undergraduate at Emory. The teacher was H.E. Francis, who published several collections of stories and edited a little magazine called Poem, which I believe is still going, though I haven’t checked. I never had a poetry-writing class, and I’m not sure that I had even heard of the Iowa School back in the 1960s, or, a bit later, the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia, founded by Stanley Kunitz. And since I hadn’t heard of them, it never occurred to me to apply to them. So I will never know if such a program would have helped me or not. My substitute was the freely offered comment that friends made, beginning with Edmund White, whom I met in 1966 before he had published fiction. And then Richard Howard and David Kalstone. And then James Merrill and John Hollander. I don’t think I properly appreciated at the time what an enormous service was being done, given that no payment was involved. But now I do. I’ve taught poetry writing classes off and on since 1977 (but only one fiction-writing class). This was only occasionally full-time employment, I was never tenured faculty; which may explain why I didn’t suffer from burnout.

Flannery O’Connor, when asked whether she thought creative writing courses discouraged young writers answered, “Not enough of them!” So one argument against such programs is that they annually unleash hundreds of merely competent writers onto the marketplace, flooding it, and making the task of sorting out the topnotch from the middling much harder. It also gives magazine editors a lot more work, since all these new writers constantly submit (and submit the same work to multiple publications simultaneously). I really don’t think it is humanly possible for editors to read huge stacks of unsolicited mss. with anything like close attention. That is a problem. I would estimate that the beginning writer who has no literary contacts and hopes to be discovered by sending in unsolicited work to a magazine has practically zero chance of success. So, apart from the course content, one value writing programs can have is to serve as a first screening: the instructors who find good students can then recommend them to editors or other professional associates. Of course job descriptions don’t list this task as a professional duty, yet I think most teachers undertake it voluntarily.

But what about the actual course instruction? Is it really helpful? Harmful? There’s no way to avoid the banal answer: some students are helped and others are harmed, depending on individual temperament of the student and the quality of the teaching. (I’ve already written here a little about teaching creative writing and the students I’ve had. See the blog for February 23, 2008.) Certainly there are harmful teaching styles, for example, the teacher who wipes the floor with student work, the critical assessment amounting to nothing more than a sneering dismissal. Nearly as bad is the teacher who smilingly accepts all entries with “That’s just wonderful, keep writing.” It wins popularity for the teacher, but is valueless as instruction.

In my opinion the teacher who tries to coerce students into writing exactly the way she or he does is harmful, particularly if she or he plays favorites, rewarding the close imitators with lots of praise, high marks, and out-of-class social interaction from which the non-imitator is excluded. (And of course if social interaction turns into a sexual relationship or even the offer of one, that is harmful, indeed, unethical.) I’m aware that it isn’t possible for a writer actively engaged in developing an oeuvre and winning an audience for it to regard all approaches to literary composition with equal favor. But the teacher should not insist on overriding an approach that she or he regards as substandard, beyond pointing out its disadvantages and acquainting the student with alternatives. Once that has been done, to demand conformity with the teacher’s personal style is coercion, not fine arts instruction. The arts are not like math and science; no proofs are available. We have a few guidelines, but the rest is an interpretation of experience, it is taste and educated guesswork. On the other hand, students ought to familiarize themselves with the teacher’s writing before enrolling. If it is clear there are no shared aesthetic perspectives at all, then working together will not be easy and possibly not very helpful.

I question the value of writing programs that consist entirely of workshops. Some of the courses should involve reading from contemporary poetry, in more than one language tradition, and of course poetry from earlier periods. At Columbia, I taught many literature courses, the MFA equivalent of “Physics for Poets.” That is, students were not required to write MLA-style essays, but instead to see what plunder they could make off with when reading the assigned texts. Usually no more than one or two informal papers were required per term, just as a way to see what class members were getting from their reading, and what sort of critical skills they were developing. Needless to say the professor in question also learned a lot in the process. I won’t say workshops never taught me anything, they did; but certainly I learned more from the literature courses I taught. Continuing my own education wasn't of course the basis for my salary, only a fringe benefit. Primarily, these courses were the means of bringing to students’ attention artistic resources and authors they were unaware of.

In the workshop format, the teacher can convey to students what sort of audience expectations greet new work published in our era, and, clearly, these expectations differ from what they were a century ago or even fifty years ago. This might sound too obvious to mention; but, occasionally, I got students who hadn’t read anything written after, say, 1925, and wrote accordingly. The sense of audience expectations is conveyed by the instructor, but also by fellow students when the workshop format is used. And there are normally some differences in the instructor’s sense of what is valuable and the other class members’. Fairly often a student will rise up in indignation and say, “I don’t care what audience expectations are, I already know how I want to write!” Which is fine but leaves unanswered the question of why a genius would ever enroll in a course of instruction to begin with. Though not in every case, usually the instructor’s preferences are more conservative than the students’. He or she has probably read quite a lot more than the class members, and long ago worked through the excesses associated with juvenilia. Just as there are some students who haven’t read anything published after 1925, there are others who have read nothing (slight exaggeration) published earlier than two years ago, a disadvantage that cries out to be repaired.

Given that universities have for a long time now offered courses in visual art and in music composition, without anyone’s objecting, it’s hard to understand why some writers and critics anathematize writing courses. Is there really any intrinsic difference in the nature of the creative process in art, music, and literature? Obviously, you can’t teach—what to call it?—inspiration, but you can equip aspiring writers with basic compositional skills (including prosody), expand or refine their sense of what a subject is, and perhaps develop critical faculties, so that students can rush to the circular file when necessary.

Of course employing notable writers as teachers is a left-handed way for universities to serve as patrons for contemporary literature. Yet I doubt that motive is foremost in the decision to set up writing programs, which, to university administrators, are generally regarded as nothing more (or less) than cash cows. The idea that poets might gain a living by teaching poetry was first proposed, I believe, by Leopardi, in his Zibaldone (or notebook). He imagined an Academy where aspiring poets came to consult acknowledged masters concerning their mss. and paid for the opinions offered. But the project wasn’t realized till more than a century later. Well, then, does teaching help the writer-teachers? It helps them not to starve, which, given the current national indisposition to support literary artists with a regular stipend (as is done, for example, in the Netherlands), is a real value. But teaching, especially full-time teaching, may harm writers, gobbling up their time. Still worse, it may actually overwhelm them with boredom and disgust for the whole process of literary composition, whose results can come to seem like an industrial product, not the pure elixir drawn from the fountain of life that first drew them to writing.

As said before, I only rarely taught full-time and didn’t suffer burnout. My sense is that teaching, apart from paying the rent, improved me as a writer. I learned from the literature courses I taught, but also from my students as well, who sometimes opened new avenues for me I might not otherwise have bothered to explore. On the other hand, as tuition costs began to skyrocket, I began to worry that it was a serious imposition on students to crush them under the heavy debt of student loans incurred for the MFA degree, which is null as a credit toward employment unless also accompanied by solid publications. Obviously, only a few of the students were going to become full-fledged writers, with a long list of publications and steady income. I did notice that some got places in arts administration or arts funding, or found posts as editors of magazines. (Among former students who are now editors, I can name Ben Downing, Gabriel Fried, Timothy Donnelly, Susan Schultz, Ravi Shankar, and David Yezzi.) On the most general level, I don’t question that writing courses help class members be better readers, and I wish that more people realized the value thereof. Being the chief isn't the only worthwhile goal in life: being a member of the tribe is a noble and honorable estate. It also seems likely that most MFA candidates will acquire the habit of reading new works of imaginative literature as these appear, a solid cultural value. (It would be interesting to know what percentage of the readership for contemporary literature is made up of former writing students.) But the tuition costs and resulting debts began to climb to terrifying levels, at least in some universities. So conscience was eased when I gave up regular teaching. I do occasional workshops, where the tuition isn’t stratospherically high, and that satisfies my wish to work at the classroom context. Sometimes people seem shocked when I say that all I do is write. But writing is (and in truth, always was) a full-time occupation.