Thursday, June 11, 2009

Can a fondness for cranes be taught?

Finally got around to reading the Louis Menand article in the New Yorker everyone is talking about (and by everyone I mean "creative writers," so, no one important). It seems to me that "Can creative writing be taught?" is fundamentally the wrong/dumb question. (Full disclosure: From here on out I barely address the article. Good news for those who didn't bother to read it. It's mostly about fiction. Also mostly pro-MFA.)

The pertinent question is, "Can creative writing be learned?" or to put it another way, "Can writers get better?" Creative writing isn't an instinct so the answer to the first question is obviously yes. The second seems obviously true as well. I'm a better writer than I was five years ago and I was better then than five years before that and back into my infancy. (Note I didn't say "Do writers get better" since writers can also of course get worse.)

Creative writing programs are just a structured way of getting better, no? Sometimes the instructors facilitate that, sometimes they harm or are beside the point. But the reason you get an MFA is to buy some time (figuratively or literally, depending on funding) to get better, by writing a lot and reading a lot and thinking about writing and talking about writing. Finding out what people like and don't like and whether or not you care. And drinking a lot, probably. (If there were no creative writing programs, people would learn to write by reading.) The results aren't guaranteed, but neither are medical schools guaranteed to turn out good doctors or law schools good lawyers, etc. And yes lots of workshops suck and there are too many programs producing boring poemy "workshop" poetry etc., but that doesn't mean the concept of the workshop is fundamentally flawed or moot.

Do people ask these dumb questions about other arts? "Can film making be taught?" "Can music be taught?" Duh. No one thinks you go to school to learn to be talented. (I hope.) You go to nurture any talent you hope you have and learn the mechanics of the field. And, lest we forget, you go for the NETWORKING!


  1. Good point -- it is the wrong question! There's also a weird little poll on the New Yorker site where people with MFAs can say whether or not the experience was valuable to them -- and, unsurprisingly, most people are saying it was. I mean, duh -- two or three years that help you avoid the cog-in-a-wheel real world, put you in the company of like-minded people, and most of all, force you to integrate writing into your daily life = totally worth it, even if you have to literally pay for it.

    I wonder what Europeans think of MFA programs ... do they have many over there? (asks the ignorant American.) I guess it's just striking me as very American that people are like, "Well, what can you DO with an MFA?" Again, wrong question.

    "What can you do DURING an MFA program?"
    Write. Talk about literature a lot. Enjoy life for a coupla years.

    Also on the Europe tip: if we had delightful corner cafes -- you know, ones that don't give you a Muzak tracklit headache -- where we could escape our freezing apartments and warm ourselves and drink tea and smoke and debate literary theory, I might have done that instead of going to get my MFA. Alas, this is America -- we sprawl, we franchise, we take writing communities where we can get them.

  2. "(If there were no creative writing programs, people would learn to write by reading.)"

    Or, you know, if you just don't go to a creative writing program, that's what you can do. I was trying to think of a metaphor to explain what I feel about the whole thing, and all I could come up with is if you want to be a mechanic, you could go to a technical school, or you could just hang out in your garage and take a ton of shit apart until you figure out how it works, and if you're good enough, someone will pay you to fix their car. Maybe my analogy works more for editors than writers though.

    *puts thinking hat back on*

    I like what you say about applying the question to the other arts. I wonder how visual art MFA programs compare (in numbers).

  3. I think the metaphor works for writers. "The self-taught writer" is a thing, right? But self-taught, not untaught. (Floppy.)

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  6. Hmmmm ... might his initials be FW?

  7. I thought about trying the MFA thing, but in undergrad workshops I always had such little interest in other people's writing, after the first couple weeks anyway, that I don't think I would be of much use. And I hate getting criticized, even when I know I deserve it. (Which is why I don't even submit poems to be published.) I'd like to be able to do it, to postpone adulthood and to meet people and all that, but I just don't have the stomach for it.

  8. Elisa, I had the same thought.




  9. OK. drunken commenting corrected (ie, those two "This post has been removed by the author"s up there).

    A tale of a dinner party, a writer and writing teacher inveighing against writing classes. identifying bits excised, here was the money quote, which i still love, though i disagree.


    [ ... drunken, juicy stuff deleted ... ]

    "well, i've been taking short story classes at harvard extension," i said, in a false show of modesty (really thinking: "i must be a better writer than this guy").

    the skies darkened.

    the poet cried, "creative writing education is a FUCKING JOKE! writing classes are for fucking IDIOTS and DILETTANTES!"

    "you want to be a writer?" the poet shouted. "go in a fucking room for twenty years!

    "and don't come out!

    "and just fucking write!"

  10. When I was a journalist, I learned that certain stories come around every few years because they've been proven to spark interest. I think this is one of the reasons "Can CW be taught?" comes up in an article somewhere every so often. It's probably a proven attention getter. Even if not though, once a song is in the rotation, it tends to stay in the rotation. How many of those classic rock tunes that nobody much likes at all continue to be played regularly?

    Please keep on the lookout for a "Growing Danger of China" article in a major newspaper some time soon.

    Still, I think the issue also highlights the incredible conservatism of the creative writing industry, at least in many of its facets. If it can't be taught or learned, then only certain people can have it. As Chris' story above suggests, some people are very sure that they know who those people are. And note, if it can't be taught, how much less likely people who don't grow up in so-called "cultured" contexts are to be able to write it.

    I mean, it's not that different from asking whether people have to be taught to read and write. Answer: yes.