On Teaching Writing

A strange thing happens for me as a teacher of writing and literature as I practice the actual craft and art of creative writing. The teaching becomes more difficult, more troubled, and I suspect, less effective. The enabling myths (show don’t tell, avoid passive sentences, cut out modifiers, etc.) seem to be wrong more often than not. The many exceptions to the rule almost take on the quality of rules themselves. This seems especially troubling in so-called “literary” writing, a mode that is by design resistant to any constrictive ideology.

And yet, how good is it for writing students to hear that the great truth of writing is that it can’t be taught? This is hardly a novel concept, but it remains a pressing one. Is giving doubt primacy the best way to introduce the beginning writer to the need for depth? Certainly, it’s Socratic. But how prepared are writing students today to undergo the necessary self-interrogation to arrive at a more developed piece of writing? The very nature of our culture is emphatically anti-Socratic, stressing the superior bottom line value of easily digestible information. Answers, in short, not good questions.

This mentality of finding utilitarian solutions to the inherently vague problems posed by aesthetics, I believe, is at the heart of the much bemoaned MFA system in North America. The crushing similarity of “literary” writing published by the large publishers supports the interpretation that “literary” is merely another convenient cultural tag susceptible to marketing algorithims. Essentially, the mainstream notion of literature has been reduced to formula. And formula fits our technocratic fetish so very, horribly well.

I intend to follow up on this train of thought in the next few weeks, exploring the ethics of contemporary writing and teaching. Please feel free to pitch in with your own comments.

2 thoughts on “On Teaching Writing

  1. The thing is, my friend, that most people will never write well, no matter what. As I understand my own writing, it has an almost musical feel when it is being done properly. It has rhythm that happens from somewhere I cant even explain. It has appropriate stops and pauses that result from purely natural circumstance of the writing that surrounds them. It FEELS and doesn’t tell, at least not to me. That is stuff you cant teach. Its either there or it aint, though I believe it can be developed with enough practice. I think a good writing teacher is first and foremost a good reader; you need to feel why prose doesnt work as well as it could and be able to explain why. If you are that and can do that, then you are doing all you (or anyone else) can do. What the old blues singers say, “You cant sing ’em til you lived ’em,” applies to writing in a sense. You cant write it if you dont feel it.

    • Good things to note, Jake. And I definitely agree as far as the reading. I actually think it requires a very particular kind of reading, too, one that is immersive, not necessarily analytic, which is why so often talented critics make mediocre fiction writers. This isn’t universal by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m hard pressed to think of a first rate critic who also excelled in creative work, with the possible exceptions of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I actually think I’m going to elaborate on this in one of the follow-up posts.

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