Essay

Creative writing strikes back

I'M DRIVING BACK from a literary soiree somewhere in Sydney where yet again I've been hauled over the coals for teaching creative writing. I was standing in a circle of new acquaintances and a man of a certain age asked what I did. I do various things, writing not the least of them, but, having spent the afternoon in the classroom, I automatically answered: "I teach creative writing." "You teach creative writing?" he said, glaring at me over his glass of chardonnay. "Creative writing can't be taught." This was a self-evident truth and clearly I was somewhat backward for never having thought of it. Every head in the circle nodded in agreement. Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes again: a bit of sport, a spot of rough-and-tumble with a creative-writing teacher.

I wasn't terribly fazed; I've often argued my case to the various tribes of the literati both in and outside the university. I proceeded to explain: "Most universities around the country ... " At the word "university" the flutes of chardonnay froze mid-sip and the heads nodded even more insistently. I instantly recognised my mistake. I had used the word "university". Oh, we all know what's happened to the "universities". They've become a joke! And it's precisely because they teach things like body piercing, cultural studies and creative writing. Good grief, the fellow is clearly a hopeless case.

Okay. Now it's time to set the record straight. It's time to address the myths, topple the misconceptions and fight for the cause. Here and now I want to admit to the world: I, Anthony Macris, teach creative writing. In a university. And, yes – brace yourselves – I have actually done a creative-writing degree (or two). And yes, I believe, unequivocally and wholeheartedly, that creative writing can, and should, be taught.

In Australian universities, creative-writing programs are some of the new kids on the block. While they have existed in various forms in the United States for about 100 years, in this country they only really took hold from the 1980s onwards. Nowadays, you can enter a wide range of Australian universities at the age of seventeen and, theoretically at any rate, come out seven years later with a PhD in creative writing. Year in, year out, student demand is strong, despite an education environment characterised by rising fees and a shift in focus to more vocational degrees. Due to this enthusiasm on the part of students, teaching creative writing has become a viable career option for many writers. However, while students seem to love our programs, some of our peers clearly do not.

Attacks on the teaching of creative writing come from different perspectives. A common one has its origins in the cult of the writer-as-genius. The expectations of the writer-as-genius are very clear-cut. Geniuses are not to be terribly aware of the "how" of what they achieve. Identifying the "how" and even the "what" of genius is the job of the old-school literary critic. According to this code, it's an appalling breach of modesty for a writer to be able to speak too coherently, or think too analytically, about their work. No, no, leave that all to us, says the literary critic. Sit in your garret, consult the muse, have your epiphanies or whatever else it is you do in there. But for God's sake, shut up afterwards and let us do the interpreting: after all, we're the professionals.

Such an attitude is not very useful to a writer when it comes to actually sitting down and producing the material. To do that, you need a range of techniques and an idea of what theme you're dealing with, as well as the capacity to develop it in a nuanced and original way. If, in the back of your mind, a little voice is telling you: true genius does not reflect on its creations, summon the voice, channel the divine, write, write, write, well, odds on, you're not going to get very far. In fact, in most cases you'll come do a dead standstill, confronted by that most common of all writers' ailments, writer's block, in this instance entirely self-created.

 

THERE ARE A lot of causes for writer's block. But when the cause isn't some kind of life crisis, then I think it is often simply explained: inadequate preparation. The act of writing is a kind of regulation of mental energy, a conversion of thoughts, ideas and sensations into words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. In the case of fiction writing, it's with these basic materials that we draw our characters, events and settings. If a budding writer is given the map of technique to this vast terrain early on, then navigation is all that much easier. To urge beginning writers on to great creative acts without giving them some equipment is at best a fool's enterprise, at worst an act of cruelty. Cruel, because high ideals that are unsupported by adequate capability often end in bitterness and disillusionment. The very least a committed writing teacher can do for their students is to make that frustrating early stage a little easier by suggesting some concrete strategies and achievable goals.

Let me give a concrete example of what problems can occur when a writer embarks upon a major project without the appropriate degree of expertise. I'll use the all-important technique of point of view (POV) to illustrate my case. POV is a notoriously difficult technique to master, especially when it comes to representing a large cast of characters. Time after time, I've had to sit down with students who have run ahead and pumped out thousands of words without giving a moment's thought to how they were going to organise the perspective of their carefully thought-out characters. The different POVs often get so tangled that the work is nearly unintelligible. A rewrite is often impossible. Such basic structural incoherence can't be fixed up with all the editing in the world. Often the work is full of beautiful images, wonderful characters, fascinating story elements. But if the reader is totally confused about who is seeing or speaking at any given moment, then all the effort has been wasted. You have to throw it out and start all over again. I've seen people break down and weep into their manuscripts once the full realisation has hit them.

A good creative-writing program can prevent such things from happening. It saves writers time, unblocks their creative energy and helps them get on with the task. It's widely believed that, before the rise of the creative-writing programs in the universities, beginning writers had to think these things through by themselves, and that this was the only way, in fact the way. Huddled alone, feverish with ambition, they were to pore over the books of their heroes and unlock the mysteries of how they functioned. This was the great Darwinian moment: the natural selection of genius would soon sort out who would thrive and who would perish in the wastelands of such harsh solitude. Those who emerged from this trial, slim volume of early genius in hand, were the real writers.

Now, I don't actually have a problem with relying on your own resources and nutting things out alone. Far from it. But for me it's only a part of the apprenticeship. And even the most cursory look at literary history shows that it has only ever been a part. There have always been social frameworks writers have taken part in, from the Bloomsbury Set of the 1920s to the more recent American "dirty realists" of the 1970s and '80s. These informal networks did many of the kinds of things universities now do: they provided the forums where writers exchanged ideas, criticised each other's work before it was published, found mentors or mentored, and got exposure to the publishing and critical machinery of their time.

If, by including creative writing in the universities, we have lost a certain grassroots aspect to this kind of activity, I think that, ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons. The networks mentioned above were often only for the elite or for those who could negotiate the type of gatekeeping that often accompanies artistic circles. We now have more transparent processes and institutions that open up writing to not only more people, but to people from a greater variety of backgrounds. This can only be a good thing for our literary culture. If one of the roles of literature is to tell us who we are, to shape our past and present experiences for the contemplation of a contemporary audience, then it stands to reason that we need those stories related by the widest possible range of people.

This notion of the "democratising" of writing leads us to another common objection to creative-writing programs: the "dangerous" assumption that anyone can write, regardless of talent. Now, talent is a thorny issue, one that any discipline has to deal with. In creative writing, it has its own particular difficulties. To generalise shamelessly, I believe that writing talent flowers later rather than earlier. No doubt my own early experience as a writer shapes this view. You'd plump for the former, too, if your juvenilia included the following line: "Intorted gorgon, look to the supernal ardour!" (This is a line of poetry I composed, and recomposed, and recomposed again – that exclamation mark gave me no end of trouble, should it go after gorgon, or ardour? – at an age that would either seem unconvincingly precocious, or embarrassingly advanced, given your expectations in these matters.)

Consequently, whenever I make judgments about "talent," I bear in mind my mercifully brief career as a poet and generally give my younger students the benefit of the doubt. The vast majority of undergraduate students in a creative-writing program are undergoing a broad-based humanities education of which creative writing forms only a part. What I expect of any curious, intelligent person starting out on their engagement with writing is to test their limits, find out their strengths and weaknesses, extend their range of creative expression. I also expect them to be able to spell, construct a clear paragraph, know what POV is and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. At this level, talent is important, but not yet decisive.

 

THE ISSUE BECOMES more complex when considering applications for higher-level degrees, such as doctorates. Just as in any other discipline, there are varying degrees of ability and talent within any given group. What surprises me about the critics of creative writing is that they should think such basic facts don't apply here as anywhere else. Why the expectation that every creative-writing program should contain nothing but budding Nobel laureates? No one expects the art schools to be stuffed with Picassos, the conservatoriums with Beethovens. What they do expect is a certain number to go on to differing levels of achievement within the different branches of their chosen fields, be they painters, composers, soloists, curators, etc. It's no different with creative writing. A certain number will go on to successful writing careers. A certain number will go into publishing or the arts-policy industries, and be all the better positioned to make a contribution, as they will have first-hand experience of the creative acts they are managing or facilitating. A number will go on to completely different fields, but will have been incommensurably enriched for their time as practising writers; they will know what it is like to create a world from scratch, to fill it with people and their moral dilemmas.

Another common criticism levelled at creative-writing programs is that they produce only a certain kind of writing, usually of an overly intellectual or experimental nature that will not find an audience. This tends to be an "industry" criticism, voiced by the frustrated agent, publisher's reader or fiction editor, and is usually aimed at the novels that come out of the masters and doctoral-level programs.

From the outset, one thing should be made very clear. Any creative-writing program worth its salt is dedicated to fostering the development of publishable writing as its long-term goal. This is entirely consistent with the nature of fiction: the novel has always been a creature of the market (albeit in varying degrees) and it is this tension between the norms of the market, the given state of a readership and the artistic desires of the writer, that makes the publishing of fiction such a fascinating game. Such a tension needs to be respected in order for us to continue fostering a wide range of work, and any good creative-writing program takes all of these factors into account.

But we also need to address the criticism of "intellectualism" and "experimentation" at a more practical level. As the supervisors of longer, novel-length projects, creative-writing teachers certainly don't tell their students they need to gratuitously "intellectualise" their work, or make it any more experimental than it needs to be (at least not the teachers I know). If some work of a more "intellectual" nature is coming from the academy (and it is usually the exception rather than the rule), the reason strikes me as fairly obvious. The universities, as institutions committed to ideas, will always attract a certain proportion of students who want to innovate, experiment and push the boundaries of what has gone before.

Where such projects have genuine potential, we, of course, fully support them. Structurally, such novels may not strictly conform to the norms of the middle market. But does this mean we refuse to supervise them? Could we seriously claim to be upholding the values of a university if we did so? As an institution, the university's role is not only to impart existing knowledge, but also to be sensitive to new ideas emerging from the society it forms part of, and to create the framework for their expression to take place. Such a dynamic is essential to our creative life, and markets are not always the most willing participants in such transformations. To put it more simply: in an increasingly conservative fiction market, who's going to support such projects if we don't?

To some industry ears, such arguments will no doubt sound like the high-blown phraseology they've come to expect of an institution that is one part ivory tower, one part sheltered workshop. But that's okay. Even when they're serving the same master, in this case the novel, different organisations have different interests. Publishers want to publish, on their terms. Writers want to write, on their terms. It's always been that way. The day the tension between them entirely vanishes is the day I'll get really worried.

Curiously enough, in the US, home of both free enterprise and the creative-writing program, there is less of an expectation for there to be such narrowly conceived industry connections with the university. When, in the mid-1990s, I did a creative writing master's degree at Johns Hopkins (one of the most established programs in the US), the emphasis was purely on good writing. The teaching staff, all successful writers who published with major houses, were keen for us to publish and gave us all the practical advice they could. Yet there was never the feeling that you had to narrowly conform to industry norms, or try to cash in on whatever fad was in at the time. Such sentiments were never directly stated. There was just an unspoken code that you had the right to determine your own creative path, that you could be trusted to do so, and that this was the best way of producing quality work that would one day find an audience. It's an attitude that has never left me, and one that I hope contributes to the teaching culture I am very proud to be a part of. 

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