Teaching Creative Writing

by Andrew Crumey

Review of Contemporary Fiction, 32 (3) p.114. (2012)


The basic lesson on how to become a writer has been put well enough by Stephen King: you've got to read a lot and write a lot. This is how writers have done it throughout history, though there is also abundant evidence of writers having made use of informal networks and support groups to help them along. Flaubert read the whole of his Temptation of Saint Antony to two friends who listened patiently then advised him to put it on the fire and write something else (he came up with Madame Bovary). Frankenstein emerged from what might nowadays be called a workshop, when Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys set themselves the task of writing a horror story.

Some writers may prefer to work in isolation, but for many the most important early step is finding others willing to give an opinion, and it is this basic function that is served by the creative writing group, whether it is an informal meeting of friends or a professionally run activity. My own start as a novelist was through attending creative writing classes in England run by the Workers' Education Association, which followed the standard workshop format where participants took turns to read their work aloud for subsequent group comment.

Authors have also taken a one-to-one approach; James Joyce advised Italo Svevo (who initially came to him for English lessons), and Joyce later became mentor to Samuel Beckett. As well as mentoring of emerging writers by more mature ones, there is what we could co-mentoring, where two writers at a comparable stage of development exchange work: like many novelists, I've done this informally with friends I trust to give an honest and useful opinion. Various formal mentoring schemes exist, I participate in one funded by Scottish Book Trust, working with first-time novelists. The relationship bears some resemblance to that of author and editor; in either case the desired outcomes are artistic progress and publishable product, though we could distinguish between writer-centred or output-centred mentoring, depending on which goal is seen as having greater weight.

While all of these activities involve a learning process, none of them necessarily involves teaching. Writing groups and mentoring partnerships can be a wholly spontaneous, intuitive sharing of ideas, without any element of instruction or imbalance of authority between participants. But there are courses and books that aim to teach creative writing; I am involved in university degree programmes up to PhD. This can be seen as a departure from the purely informal, non-instructional tradition that had lasted for centuries.

Walk into any bookshop, ask for "creative writing", and you are unlikely to be led to shelves housing Madame Bovary or Ulysses. Creative writing, in many minds, suggests activity rather than product, and to the extent that it does apply to product, it can even implicitly diminish it. The idea that Flaubert or Joyce were "creative writers" seems mildly ridiculous: surely they were just "writers"?

Creativity is a concept born of Romanticism (the Oxford English Dictionary dates its earliest printed use to 1875), implying a qualitative and heavily value-laden distinction. As the musician Klesmer puts it in Daniel Deronda, "A creative artist is no more a mere musician than a great statesman is a mere politician." The nineteenth-century cult of the virtuoso was a step towards the commodification of creativity; a different manifestation emerged in America, where the 1920s saw the first creative writing courses, the term making its earliest recorded appearance in a 1922 book significantly titled The Business Of Writing.

Such entanglement with issues of self-realisation and career advancement has contributed to a problematic academic status. At one extreme is the idea that writing cannot be taught or assessed, all value being subjective and relative; at the other is the claim that there exist explainable techniques or principles of good writing.

For the subjectivist, the denial of meaningful assessment risks serving as excuse for labour-saving indulgence: if everyone gets 71% then everyone is happy. Or else it may manifest itself in inexpressible gut feeling: the teacher cannot explain why one piece is better than another, it just is. The teacher is then like a guru, or celebrity judge on a talent contest, made authoritative by reputation garnered elsewhere, while for the student there is only a thumbs-up or down.

The instrumentalist, by contrast, has no need of reputation or even experience: rules are all that need be learned. In "A Guide To Fiction Writing", published in 1936, Kobold Knight urged aspiring authors to produce stories that "tell themselves", offering prose examples such as:

"The great car took the hairpin bend on two wheels, and the fugitive cast an agonized glance down the winding mountain road. Far below him but drawing ever closer, was the pillar of yellow dust that was the avenger."

Knight's comment on this passage, hackneyed even by the standards of its own time, was, "It is dramatic telling - and it is the only kind of story-telling, speaking broadly, that editors want and will pay for..." Similar advice is offered today, in print or online, couched within the language of advertising and offering answers to questions such as, "How long should a chapter be?"

Making art is difficult, teaching it should be difficult to. What I teach, and how, are questions to which I never expect to reach a final answer, any more than I expect an ultimate solution to the problem of novel writing. Academic enquiry is the pursuit of knowledge, but knowledge in creative writing is not of the factual, propositional kind that Kobold Knight and his successors would have us believe: the seven or a hundred rules of good writing, as memorable and inviolable as the laws of thermodynamics. Nor is it the historically cumulative knowledge of traditional scholarship in the humanities. Knowledge is a response to questions; artistic knowledge responds to artistic questions.

For the student, specific questions are "How do I become a writer?" and "Is my writing any good?" These are questions of process, composition and evaluation. Inevitably this leads to questions of technique and craft, areas that the "how to" manuals are apt to approach with familiar rules such as "write what you know" or "show don't tell". Artistic experience teaches us that rules are there to be questioned: who made them up and why? What authority do they have? What examples can be produced in favour or in opposition? This falls recognisably within traditional poetics or stylistics; Wayne Booth's Rhetoric Of Fiction, for example, dealt very ably with "show don't tell" half a century ago, offering a nuanced counterbalance to what by then had already filtered down from Jamesian criticism into writing school dogma.

More widely, though, we can question the concept of technique. Adorno found it suspect, partly influenced by Lukacs's critique of "expertise", but specifically in relation to musical composition, which he studied with Alban Berg (whom we can assume to have been an insightful and inspiring teacher). The writing school bears some comparison with the musical conservatory, and the latter serves as something of a warning with its ontology of forms (sonata, fugue etc). Technique, Adorno argued, becomes external to artistic production, a portable toolbox. This certainly accords with institutional notions of transferable skills, but the artwork that can be seen as exemplar of a pre-existing standard is one that asserts the validity of that standard and the necessity of its preconditions.

A student once showed me a handout she had been given on a creative writing course. It mapped out the "three act structure" for novels, indicating where plot points should occur, graphically represented by the familiar Freytag arc with its cardinal areas of exposition, climax, denouement. As a way of producing wholly generic storylines for movies (Star Wars, The Lion King etc), the morphologies of Aristotle, Freytag, Campbell et al have proved their worth, even if one guesses that such simplicity could be generated well enough by moderately talented minds without need of the astrologically complex theoretical framework used to dignify the end product. With regard to the novel, however, I have yet to find a single interesting example, even among commercial genre writing, that demonstrates the successful application of such schemes. Certainly, the handout offered none, which from a methodological point of view would appear to be the most elementary flaw imaginable.

Apart from intellectual vacuity, the danger of such instrumentalism is that students find it so appealing. After all, some have entered the academy in hope of being taught how to become rich and famous; others have a less explicit engagement with consumerism but are nevertheless subject to its message that all things are measurable and marketable. Campbell's monomyth is interesting enough as an episode in the history of ideas, but I always tell students that its value lies in seeing patterns in existing works, not in telling us how to produce new ones. If I were studying painting in a nineteenth-century art school then it would be good for me to learn comparative anatomy and discover how the musculature of a horse corresponds to that of a dog or man. But as a painter, I don't want to know that they're all in some sense the same thing, I want to know how to paint dogs that look like dogs rather than horses; in fact, to paint one dog that looks like a unique creature. Knowing there are only seven basic plots in the world (or however many there are meant to be) is of equally limited use. The novelist is not interested in narrative as general category (akin to "mammal"), but in the novel as specific object of construction. Yet despite hearing such caveats, there are always students who will devour any kind of formalism as if it were a magic spell, just as there are those who will reject it as being inherently opposed to creativity. If it works for them, fine.

I'm a professional writer, and my students want to become professional writers. My job is to try and help them on their way to doing what I do, even if they want to do it completely differently. Simply by putting it in those terms, I've already taken on a range of assumptions: I actually think of writing as an activity rather than a job description, but conceiving it in economic or institutional terms is at least a start. There is much in any creative writing course that could be said to reflect professional practice. Writers have their work evaluated by editors, booksellers, judging panels and readers, and most importantly they have to try and evaluate it for themselves. But on a university course there is also assessment: tutors have to use their professional expertise to arrive at a mark. The mark has obvious practical importance for students hoping to receive a formal qualification, but how are we to understand the meaning of the mark?

I have already alluded to the subjectivist view that any kind of mark is in some sense fraudulent. Certainly we could say that art is fundamentally concerned with the unquantifiable. Institutionalisation, like professionalization, is not a necessity of art but a product of commodification, and a reality of life. If we are going to have degrees in creative writing then there need to be marks, and practitioners have a duty to make them meaningful.

There is an exercise I like to conduct with my writing students, in which I give them some stories, with no indication of who the authors are, or whether they are published or unpublished, and I ask the students individually to rank the pieces (best to worst, top to bottom, favourite to least favourite: terminology is less important here than process). They discuss their rankings and then possibly revise them; what they are doing is a slightly more formalised version of what judging panels do all the time. What the students learn - in case they didn't already know it - is how difficult, instructive and rewarding such a process can be.

The exercise has some similarity to I. A. Richards' Practical Criticism, though Richards used only published texts and asked only for qualitative judgments. My motivation was that I had found that, for myself, the most satisfactory way I could assess a sample of creative pieces was by first rank-ordering them, then assigning marks, where experience over time (and moderation of marks in discussion with co-markers) gradually gave me some sense of appropriate attribution of percentages. Assessment is thus made in comparative rather than absolute terms.

At around the same time that Richards was doing his exercise, in the 1920s, Louis Thurstone made statistical studies of rank ordering in a variety of contexts and came up with his "law of comparative judgment". Yet while Thurstone was mathematically rigorous in his studies of judgment, he lacked critical reflection on the nature of what was being judged (considered non-measureable and hence, in his instrumentalised approach, meaningless). And although Richards explicitly concerned himself with critical reflection, it was pursued in a way that produced empirical data of limited value. A similar division can be discerned in Adorno's experience with the Radio Research Project in New York, where he was horrified by a programme reliant on questionnaires and psychometrics, rather than (as he would have wished) analysis of the historical conditions that might have given rise to the categories being measured. In respect of creative writing, we may say there is a potential field of study that has so far been inadequately explored, looking at empirical questions such as the correlation between a student's judgment of others' work and the quality of the student's own, done in tandem with a critical examination of the underlying axiological issues.

That sort of research question is not what makes any student enrol on a creative writing course. People want to write, and teachers hope to encourage, advise, perhaps inspire. Writers are of all kinds, and they teach in all sorts of ways, a variety that is reassuring and essential. Most of us who teach are primarily writers ourselves, and what we mostly want to do is get on with our own writing. Teaching, under those circumstances, can be simply a way of earning some cash, in which case it is likely to become a chore as demoralising to the student as it is to the unwilling instructor. But it can also bring new ways of thinking about one's own writing, and I would certainly say that it has enabled me to reflect more widely on the philosophy of fiction, as well as on the sort of practical issues that arise in any kind of teaching. In that respect, teaching the novel has the same attraction as writing one: I never know in advance how things will turn out.