View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Teach Creative Writing?

As an eager undergraduate turned on by Russian novels, by Joyce’s Portrait, by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, and what I imagined was the artist’s life in Paris, I visualized a take of myself sitting at a sidewalk café on the Boule Miche scribbling away at the Great American Novel on a blue-lined yellow legal pad while sipping cognac--or whatever it was that characters in Hemingway were always drinking.  

When I got around to learning something about the writers we kids were reading in the 1950s, I was appalled to discover what disorderly, miserable lives many of them had led. To get rip-roaring drunk on occasion was commendable, I thought, but to make a profession of it was something else again. Perhaps I should have realized that the great poet, despite his celebrity, was a very unhappy man. Far too many writers of that generation were hopeless alcoholics, unreliable lovers, lonely, envious, and self-destructive. Perhaps writing was an escape, I thought, demanding isolation buttressed by drugs or booze. 

Then, to my surprise, there suddenly appeared on campuses a new generation of writers, who had studied creative writing at a university, attended writing seminars, and published thin volumes of verse or short fiction. I couldn’t imagine any of the writers I talked about in my classes taking a course in writing poetry or fiction, but I gathered times had changed. Writers had begun to look and talk like casually-dressed, English department academics.

Although I doubted writing could be taught in a course, I recalled that my first academic job had been to “improve the writing skills” of hapless freshmen measured by a  guess-the-right-answer, machine-corrected test. When their scores  jumped dramatically, I knew that what actually had improved was not their writing, but their test-taking savvy. Freshman comp, the bread and butter of English departments, basically inculcates a preferred decorum; it is like teaching kids comfortable in T shirts to tie a Windsor knot. Creative writing is something else.

Before the establishment of a writing track in the English department at my university, manned (and womaned) by our new hires, I’d been prevailed upon to teach a course in writing short fiction, based probably on what I thought was a well-kept secret, that I’d managed--God know’s how--to have a novelette published in Galaxy, one of those garishly illustrated pulps that flourished in the heyday of hardcore science fiction. So I have some sympathy for those in the creative writing racket.

In my sole venture into this field, students were pleased when I told them the class would meet only twice a month and they would submit their manuscripts to me as to an editor through the campus mail. But they were not very happy to hear that they were to write a traditional story--with at least three characters in a contemporary, realistic setting, taking place in no more than a week, with effective dialogue and--above all--a plot. No monologues, stream-of-consciousness or otherwise, no life histories, no prose-poems, no intergalactic sagas. I said they could begin with just one or two visualized scenes and see what developed. I strongly advised against handsome, athletic young men and beautiful, desirable  young women as main characters.

Did the students learn anything about writing fiction in my course?

Possibly. The first thing might have been that writers write every day whether they’re in the mood or not. Next they learned that characters take on a life of their own and may do things that will surprise their author. They also learned that when they took the reader someplace, a park or a pub, for instance, something had to happen there. (One student objected that nothing at all interesting had happened in the park he had been following his characters to for three pages! I said that in reality nothing might have happened, but in fiction something damn well better happen!) Finally, if they followed my suggestions, they’d discover they probably had a chapter of a novel, since short stories are usually all worked out before the author begins to write! 

Years later, a student who took the course met me at Alumni Day and casually remarked, “I finally finished my novel, and it’s being rejected by first-rate publishers! I’d like to thank you for your encouragement!” When I asked her to remind me what I said, she replied, “You wrote in blue pencil, ‘Good job! You seem to know what you’re doing!’” And that was all the encouragement she needed.

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