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.