Friday, June 26, 2009

What the last 10 years have taught me

What I mainly did on that dock, as I said, was read *The New Yorker* fiction issue, which I had been waiting for with avid enthusiasm (because I can't read magazines out of order, natch). Obviously, I was rabid for the stories, but I had also been forwarned by Facebook friends that there was an article on teaching creative writing that I would want to see.

The piece turned out to be a review by one of my favourite critics, Louis Menand, of a book called The Program Era by Mark McGurl. I haven't heard more about McGurl than what Menand wrote, and I have little intention of reading the book (beyond the vague miasma of "oh, yeah, I should probably read that" that I feel about most books). So on the one hand, it's pretty presumptuous and glib for me to respond to the article. On the other hand, Menand's piece is one of *The New Yorker*'s rambling "Critic at Large" pieces, which encompasses a lot of general thoughts on the issue. So maybe I'm responding to those general comments. Or, on yet another hand, this is a blog, and maybe presumptuousness/glibness is the least of the worries of the blogosphere.


The book, and to some extent the article, deal with the rise of the university creative writing class and degree, and simply the increasing presence of the "certified" writer on the lit scene. It was indeed edifying and maybe mildly shocking to see how many names got listed here (nice to see Bharati Mukherjee's name in *The New Yorker*, whatever the reason). An interesting thesis of the book, and one that Menand deals scantly with, is how creative writing programs shaped the evolotion of later-20th-century prose--in fact, the subtitle of the book is "Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing."

Menand has concentrated much more on the ever-scandalous question, also inherent in McGurl's work, "Can creative writing be taught?" Both offer lots of fascinating "well, maybe" answers, well worth reading at least in the short review form. I've written about this here before, and so I'll add only my usual quotation of the immortal Judith Viorst--help helps--plus: Creative writing classes, and eventually an MA in the subject, helped me so much with my writing. The classes gave me the discipline, focus, friends, inspiration, connections, snack foods, mentors, party tricks, informal workshop groups, cold terror, and cheerful ambition to take the writing I was already doing to the next level. If that's not learning, I don't know what is.

But I also know there are other kinds of learning, and this is something Menand leaves to the very last paragraph. This is moving, but I think it elides something else:

"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."

The majority of people who take a creative-writing class in undergrad don't continue to write after graduation, he says. Well, I don't have the stats, but judging by the folks I know, that sounds about write (ahaha. I actually wrote that accidentally.)

So, maaaybe, if impermanent writers--elective takers, dabblers, interested experimenteers-- is who is in the classes, Menand and McGurl are missing the boat. Maybe what creative writing classes in universities do is not (only) shape the national fiction style or create silken prose out of sow's ears, but *teach 20-year-olds to think creatively and write coherently*. Transferable skills if ever there were.

I think this issue is actually larger than creative writing; it stems from a larger misunderstanding of liberal arts education, although I don't know that one is mine or society's. When I was wee, but after I figured out that being intelligent was not a profession, I asked my liberal-arts-professing father what he taught people to do--like, medical school taught people how to cut open bodies and fix them, and police school taught people to shoot guns. My father's response was that his sort of teaching wasn't about learning to *do* a thing; he taught people how to *think* about things in a certain way, and then they could apply that way of thinking how they liked.

Revalatory, when you're ten and trying very hard to learn to do a lay-up and spell "persimmon." (And the author will allow that she may recollect her childhood as slightly more Socratic than it actually was.)

I have a BA Hon. in English Literature and an MA in English and Creative Writing, and I swear to you, I use what they taught me every day of my life. No, no one has asked me about Grendel, Tess, or semiotics today. And yet, the skills of close and careful reading, of contextualizing what I read with as much related material as possible, of reasoned and elegant essay arguementation, and of clear and relentless questioning of whatever I think I know--well, thank you, liberal-arts education.

Of course, as you can see by my Facebook friends above, conversations about the nun's priest or Samson Agonistes are likelier to happen to me than perhaps to most. But I really do believe that folks in advertising and marketing, in law and government and even medicine are able to use reading and writing skills they picked up in liberal arts classes. Not to mention the endless insights into the human condition we are given in reading about humans, in fiction or in non-fiction. And the ability to not only answer questions but ask them intelligently. And to empathize with people so foreign to us they actually don't exist.

Most people know that learning to think in different ways is always to the good. But I worry they don't prioritize that good. Having TA'd a little, and generally being around academic life, I do worry about the vocationalization of university education. I worried that my Effective Writing students wanted only to work on resume cover letters and mission statements that would translate directly into career skills, rather than work on the whole craft of writing and then make the cognitive connections in the work world for themselves.

I did actually go to vocational school too, so please know I don't knock that course at all. It was interesting and stimulating and my publishing certificate leads more or less directly to me being able to eat food and sleep indoors in a relatively entertaining fashion. But those skills I learned there are rigid, specific, and date-able. Every time I switch software platforms, style guides or subject matter, I start over...not from square one perhaps, but certainly from a square nearby. Vocational skills are generally like this: welders certified to do stick welding have a fundamentally different skill than those who do pipe welding. The skills may have much in common, but you can't just extrapolate one to the other; you have to go back and learn again.

Which is, as I said, a fine way to learn, but fundamental different than the fluid (or, admittedly, amorhphous) skills of the liberal arts education.

What a very long way of saying I think that evaluating university creative-writing programs by the famous writers they've produced does many students a disservice. I spent this spring trying to teach 90 teenagers how to write a short story, and although I can see perhaps a dozen of them pursuing the craft, I truly truly believe many of those kids were a least a little smarter for having tried it. I think creating strong introductory creative writing classes, as well as Intro Psych, Philosophy and Film, can help a lot of people think a little bit different, and better.

But then, I would think that.

The eventual downfall / is just the bill from the restaurant


AMT said...

... i agree.

my other two cents: i think another valuable thing one can learn, one might learn, in a how-to-write class is the art of taking criticism on your own work. that is probably the hardest part of my job, anyway, but more generally i think a lot of the idiocy and bad decisions made in the world comes from people not being up to taking criticism, and not having practice at finding what good to take from criticism and put it to good use. a really good liberal arts education will have to teach you that, in a variety of ways, and it seems to me a rare and crucial gift.

writer_guy said...

Great post. What harm, after all, can be done by producing people that can write and think effectively? (But having just finished Lauren Kirshner's new novel and having read Once, it appears writing programs can indeed produce some excellent work!) It also points to an equally disturbing trend about the devaluing of liberal arts education. Look no further than our current government's funding model for SSHRC grants, where it's increasing funding for "business-related" degrees. A sad, but hopefully reversible, trend.

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

AMT--such a good point! To which I'd add, workshops teach you how to *offer* good criticism, too! I wonder if MBAs have some sort of "how to give feedback people can use/won't be devastated by" class...they should!!

WG, grr, business-related degees. Lotsa liberal arts folks succeed in business! And scientific ones, too, for that matter!

Ransermo said...

I guess it depends on how you define liberal arts. My mathematic friends often lament the general lack of math understanding (particularly in Statistics). Personally I have am sadden by the lack of quality and policy elements in most of the political discourse I am a part of. Both are components of the traditional liberal arts (art/literature/math/politics/languages).
I think its more a devaluing of the generalist over the specialist. A shift to more complex system.
As a husband of a businesswoman, I can attest that business degrees require a lot of effective writing and thought, with a strong ability to analyze and compose an argument. Modern Business really is its own language.