Revising the Question: Thoughts on MFA vs NYC and the Larger Problems of Institutionalized Creative Writing
Darin Ciccotelli | May 2016
When the larger cultural elite takes on this thing called the MFA—when it interrogates the rise of creative writing, as it seems to do every couple of years—it usually starts by asking The Question. You know the one. You’ve already heard it a hundred times. Saying it at this point feels more like lip-synching.
Can creative writing be taught?
The Question has become a journalistic cliché, but that hasn’t stopped The New York Times,1 The Huffington Post2 and the New Yorker from evoking it in recent years.3 Literary authors like Francine Prose4 and John Barth have traded on it.5 The Iowa Writers’ Workshop still incorporates it into their brochures. We’ve heard this sham argument so many times that we’re almost numb to its essentialism. Graduates from each and every part of the university—law, business, engineering, both natural and social sciences, medicine, art, the humanities—experience varying levels of professional success. Yet if their undergraduates fail to become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson or Elena Kagan, we don’t question the fundamental worth of those disciplines.
In fact, if you still question the teachability of creative writing, it probably says more about your need for cultural capital than the reality we’re all living in. According to The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, as of 1975, only 75 institutions offered creative writing degrees. By 2013, that number had skyrocketed to more than 1,200.6 Writing is being taught.
Not surprisingly, those who deny the enterprise do so out of a fear of systems, as they privilege the myth of individual genius over potential bureaucracies.
Not surprisingly, those who deny the enterprise do so out of a fear of systems, as they privilege the myth of individual genius over potential bureaucracies. Elif Batuman denigrates the MFA system because it democratizes literature, which she believes to be an inherently elitist thing: “As long as it views writing as shameful, the programme will not generate good books, except by accident. Pretending that literary production is a non-elite activity is both pointless and disingenuous.”7 Anis Shivani believes that MFAs therapize literature, suggesting that “[c]reative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. It is a subset of therapy… we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop.”8 Arguments like these vilify our grads because of some perceived lack of literary accomplishment. (A list of MFA and PhD recipients who have won Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Awards, MacArthur Grants, NEA Grants, and every other literary distinction awarded on Earth would suggest otherwise.) But arguing these ineffable literary values misses the point. The work of institutionalized creative writing must also be evaluated in terms of its depth and breadth—its impact on a whole population. Universities now graduate tens of thousands of writers every year. These people, whether they publish books or not, invigorate the readership for the literary arts. Moreover, they do so at a time when—that is, if you believe the fatalists—literature is supposedly dying. Let’s not forget that creative writing belongs to the constructivist tradition of John Dewey, who believed that education was more than skills acquisition. For him, it was an enlivening of the will.
Why, then, does The Question endure? Is it possible that we’re to blame? After spending nearly twenty years in this community, receiving a BA, MFA, and PhD, and finally teaching undergraduates of my own, I’ve come to a hard realization: as an academic field, creative writing doesn’t always showcase what it does well. In fact, most MFA participants would second those Iowa Writers’ Workshop’s brochures, which agree with “the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught,” preferring to “exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed.”9 Such caveats offer up little in the way of pedagogy. They promise next to no interference. They sheepishly suggest that something will happen if you attend a graduate institution. But for fear of perpetuating dogma, they won’t speak to what that is.
Institutionalized creative writing knows that writing can be taught, yet it apologizes for its whole raison d’être.
We can do better. Institutionalized creative writing knows that writing can be taught, yet it apologizes for its whole raison d’être. More precisely, it fails to make claims as to what we do well, preferring to offer writers a few basic platitudes—“time,” “community,” and “money”—so as not to impede one’s individual genius. While I value the financial and social benefits of a graduate writing program, they are not the only reasons to study creative writing in a university setting. For once, I’d like to explore those particular questions that actually seem relevant at this moment in time—three questions that go beyond “Can it be taught?,” reflecting real issues in both creative writing and creative writing studies.
Before we tease out the benefits of institutionalized creative writing, however, let’s look at the recent publication of MFA vs NYC, an anthology that clearly illustrates how little we think of what we do. In the original N+1 essay that inspired the collection, Chad Harbach separates the production of American literature into two camps, “one condensed in New York, the other spread across the diffuse network of provincial college towns that spans from Irvine, California, to Austin, Texas, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Tallahassee, Florida (with a kind of wormhole at the center, in Iowa City, into which one can step and reappear at the New Yorker offices on 42nd Street).”10 He goes on to exacerbate the binary with several examples, explaining the differences between “MFA” and “NYC” by way of pithy juxtapositions like “Amy Hempel vs Jonathan Franzen” and “Wonder Boys vs The Devil Wears Prada.”11
Essentially, Harbach lays out the two predominant options for writing apprenticeship in 21st-century America. While he does so under the aegis of competition, Harbach actually spends most of his time undermining any contest: “Of course the two cultures overlap in any number of obvious ways, some of them significant. The NYC writer most probably earned an MFA; the MFA writer, meanwhile, may well publish her books at a New York house. There are even MFA programs in New York, lots of them, those these generally partake of the NYC culture. And many writers move back and forth between the MFA and NYC worlds.”12 If you’ve spent any time at an MFA program or within New York publishing circles, you know how heterogeneous these populations are. If we pass through both worlds, why does Harbach discriminate between them?
I don’t mean to invalidate the entire project. I liked MFA vs NYC quite a bit, particularly because it is less an analysis and more an experiential glimpse into how young adults take on these respective apprenticeships. In his introduction, Harbach tells us that “[t]he best way to approach this book… is as a kind of jointly written novel—one whose composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.”13 In her later review of the anthology, Leslie Jamison pushes up against this approach, noting that “the frame shifts from observations to argument to something more like narrative: We are invited to think of the collection’s pieces as stories rather than claims—though every story is always making a set of claims, whether it confesses them or not.”14
The claim embedded in MFA vs NYC is a financial one: “Money,” according to Jamison, “is the crucial insight of Harbach’s original essay,” which “matters less for its claim that these two cultures exist and more for pointing out that they represent the two major means by which contemporary American writing is funded.”15 Money shows up again and again in MFA vs NYC—in Maria Adelmann’s “Basket Weaving 101,” a thorough financial accounting of life in New York City as opposed to Charlottesville, VA; in Alexander Chee’s “My Parade,” during which the author accidentally negotiates for more fellowship dollars; in Emily Gould’s “Into the Woods,” a chronicle of, among other things, her disappearing book advance; and in Keith Gessen’s two essays, “Money (2006)” and “Money (2014).” Clearly, when Harbach’s peers characterize today’s writing life, they see a lot of money trouble.
Comparatively, MFA vs NYC says much less about educational growth. This might make sense for the twenty-two-year-old editorial assistant who has to negotiate an exploitative publishing world in the hope that she might find time to work on her novel. But is it equally valid for the twenty-two-year-old working on an advanced degree? Isn’t it dismissive to see her choice only in terms of financial benefit? Yes, she also deals with vaguely exploitative practices, grading too many papers, etc. But she also goes to class. Harbach thinks of the MFA as “a system of circulating patronage,” one which “may have some pedagogical value but exists chiefly to supplement the income of the writer-teacher and, perhaps more important, to impress on the students the more glamorous side of becoming—of aspiring to become—a writer-teacher.”16 To my mind, this is the problem with MFA vs NYC. It woefully underestimates the pedagogical value in our degree.
Of course, we can’t take Harbach to task too harshly. After all, those of us who live in MFA-land underestimate that value ourselves. Take George Saunders, for example. To understand his views on the MFA landscape, we must first place him in the context of the larger anthology. Harbach juxtaposes “MFA” and “NYC” in the first two sections of the study. The “MFA” selection begins with George Saunders’s “A Mini-Manifesto,” followed by the previously mentioned Maria Adelmann’s essay on finances. From there, in “The Pyramid Scheme,” Eric Bennett argues against the anti-intellectualism of MFA programs—particularly Iowa—by way of his own personal experiences, and David Foster Wallace seconds him with the next offering, “The Fictional Future,” his twenty-five-year-old dismissal of institutionalized creative writing. Finally, in “My Parade,” Alexander Chee tells the story of how he migrated from San Francisco to New York and then eventually to Iowa City. In the end, when it comes to the educational value of the degree, the “MFA” section of MFA vs NYC has mostly dissenters and abstainers. It’s up to Saunders to defend the whole academic enterprise.
Unfortunately, Saunders spends most of his time dispelling myths. He swears that his students do actually read, that they do not pile up student loans in vain and that are not some homogenized mass of literary style. His educational philosophy seems laissez-faire at heart: “And I think we’re pretty honest about our limitations, and our role, and the need for students to take charge of their own artistic development.”17 Here, I just can’t help but read Saunders’s tone as apologetic, as if he’s been asked to speak from an already compromised position.
Sure, he does some things in the classroom that sound like contemporary pedagogy, using self-reflective practices (“I try pretty often to say: How are we doing here? Is there something in the way we’re looking at these stories that might be forbidding certain possibilities?”)18 and thinking critically about gate-keepers in creative writing classrooms (“It’s important to remember that the ability of a teacher to know ‘who’s got it’ is pretty wobbly. Especially when you are working with young writers, who can grow exponentially in just a few months”).19 For the most part, however, Saunders gives us a less-than-enthusiastic advocacy. His manifesto relies on comic matter-of-fact-ness: “If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes to a CW program and it sucks, she probably won’t die from it”20 or “If [CW programs] suck when we do it wrong, let’s try not to do it wrong.”21 Instead, in lieu of a defense, Saunders shrugs at the question.
To my mind, MFA vs NYC shows just how little people think of the pedagogical aspect of creative writing. If writers and practitioners, inside and out, neglect these pedagogical concerns, they will have to continue to answer The Question in perpetuity. Consequently, I suggest that we as a discipline ask better questions, each one recognizing what creative writing does well while trying to figure out how it can evolve further.
1. Can it be taught like rhetoric/composition?
If nothing else, creative writing and rhetoric/composition should be proud of the most fundamental part of their educational project, which is that they teach writing by letting students write. This may sound like an obvious proposition, but it wasn’t always. In Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900–1985, James A. Berlin tells us how thoroughly the English department focused on writing in the late 19th century, particularly at Harvard, where writing was required “for all students during the sophomore, junior, and senior years.”22 Yet by 1897, English preoccupied itself less with writing than with the study of literature, primarily responding to “the attempt to improve the status of English department members.”23
In many ways, by foregrounding composition with literary study, the English department moved away from writing pedagogy and toward humanism. As Sharon Crowley writes in Composition in the University, “[t]he humanist claim upon composition is typically enacted through the practice of requiring students to read literary texts in the first-year composition course… modern humanists privilege reading over writing.”24 Such humanism may have redeeming value to people as citizens, as it acculturates them and promotes liberal education. But as Crowley argues, “the humanist approach to the first-year course is not the best approach to teaching composition.”25 It wasn’t until the simultaneous emergence of rhetoric/composition and then creative writing that people took writing pedagogy seriously.
…both composition and creative writing belong to one of our most noble educational traditions: constructivism. These fields allow us to construct our subjectivity without fusing it to some socioeconomic or scientific good…
In fact, both composition and creative writing belong to one of our most noble educational traditions: constructivism. These fields allow us to construct our subjectivity without fusing it to some socioeconomic or scientific good, letting it exist as self-knowledge and empathy in their most dynamic manifestations. McGurl recognizes as much in The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, where he writes, “literary scholarship is at least partly in sync with the scientism of its wider institutional environment, the research university. Creative writing, by contrast, might seem to have no ties at all to the pursuit of positive knowledge. It is, rather, an experiment—but more accurately, an exercise—in subjectivity.”26 In fact, these fields represent the most widespread use of constructivism in the modern university today.
John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky—these scholars and more have based their educational theories on the idea that we generate knowledge by way of active experience. Dewey speaks to this when he discusses “interaction,” the interplay between external and internal conditions that leads to “experience.” According to Dewey, “The trouble with traditional education was not that it emphasized the external conditions that enter into the control of the experiences but that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had.”27 Creative writing participates in both aspects of “interaction,” as it speaks to both externalities (texts and audiences) and internalities (the self). Most Americans endorse such learning as part of early child development. But as professional anxieties grow for both secondary and postsecondary learners, constructivism usually gives way to skills-based education.
More recently, it was Janet Emig who applied these constructivist ideas to the first-year composition classroom. Experts characterize her most famous essay, “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” as an argument for “writing [as] a unique and productive way of learning—and, thus, of making meaning, of world-making.”28 In her later essay “Literacy and Freedom,” Emig writes that “literacy furnishes the interior of our sensibilities.”29 Not surprisingly, she consistently evaluates writing as a process by way of her cognitive research. Over time, process theory has become less prominent in rhetoric/composition, having been rivaled by cultural studies and more socially constructed theories of language. Yet as Tim Mayers observes, “there can be little doubt that without the process movement, there would have been no composition studies in the first place.”30 And the process movement has recently influenced creative writing as well:
Creative writing courses, especially at the undergraduate level, may not necessarily produce the world’s next generation of literary geniuses. As I see it, that is not the purpose of such courses anyway. A deeper more important purpose is to afford students at least a glimpse of what it is like to be a creative writer. And that purpose cannot be accomplished without significant and sustained attention to process.31
By way of process theory, Mayers evokes the core objective for all experiential education. This should be a point of pride for both creative writing and rhetoric/composition. After all, our constructivist methods connect us to the most progressive and empowering tradition in American education.
But to move forward as a discipline, we must interrogate the differences—assuming, of course, that there are differences—between creative writing students and rhet/comp students. Theorists like Patrick Bizzaro, Tom Hunley, Tim Mayers, and Alexandria Peary maintain that “the adaptation of pedagogy from composition studies must be a careful one for it to be productive.”32 As we theorize creative writing, will we simply apply extant theories of rhetoric/composition to our own coursework? Can we import such theories without modification? Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley interrogate these questions in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, a new anthology that models itself after Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick’s A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Each one teases out the precepts of process pedagogy, rhetorical pedagogy, collaborative practice, writing center theory, service learning, writing across the curriculum, and more; the former tailors these composition theories to creative writing. Will creative writing studies come up with theoretical models on its own? Will it ever influence rhetoric/composition instead of the other way around?
Perhaps the test case for the respective disciplines will be how each theorizes the self. After all, creative writing flaunts its constructivist tradition. As Mark McGurl notes in The Program Era, it counts the construction of the self as perhaps its most important work:
Foremost among the original entities created by creative writing, it was assumed, would be the personality of the student herself, who in a circular process of literary-existential autopoiesis would find and fashion a self—call it a realist fiction of self—in the very act of creative self-expression. While this imaginative writing practice was understood to be based on personal experience, it might be more accurate to say that it completed the process of ‘experience’ as theorized by John Dewey, for whom “mere activity” in the world does not count as authentic experience until it is “connected with the return wave of consequences” that load “mere flux… with significance.” Intensifying the feedback loop that transforms actions into meaningful experiences, creative writing contributes to the “continuous formation” of the individual who is the sum of these experiences.33
An emphasis on the self leads to “find your voice” imperatives, which McGurl identifies as a central part of creative writing instruction. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo maintains that “A creative-writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters,” privileging the self as central to the writing practice.34
Recent theories in composition deemphasize this self. If you’ve taught rhetoric and composition in the last twenty years, your focus has probably been how ideology and social constructions affect language—how notions of audience, purpose and genre affect each text. According to postmodern theory, a writer’s personal biases are similarly manufactured. Sure, on some level, we know “voice” to be a contextual fiction. But can creative types still discover this “voice” if they are aware of its constructedness? Do they have to predicate their work on some literary ambition—some imperative toward the “new” or the “truthful”—no matter how falsely expressivistic those terms may be?
…can creative types still discover this “voice” if they are aware of its constructedness? Do they have to predicate their work on some literary ambition…
Let’s ask the question another way. Obviously, even the introductory creative writing student has some attachment to the idea of herself as a writer. This writer-identity frequently precedes any experience of writing. Elif Batuman gives an example of this phenomenon in “The Invisible Vocation,” her essay on McGurl’s The Program Era that has since been reprinted in MFA vs NYC. According to her, Proust “was surely speaking for many of his colleagues when he wrote that the desire to become a writer often comes long in advance of an ‘authentic’ subject.”35 She quotes Proust himself, who confesses as much: “‘Since I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was time I knew what I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, trying to find some subject… my mind would cease to function, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps a malady of the brain was hindering its development.’”36 Here, to use a word from psychoanalytic thinking, we can see Proust’s attachment to the writer-identity. He identifies himself as “writer” before he actually writes. The identity alone charms him. Something about the writerly disposition—that is, what he imagines the writerly disposition to be—synthesizes well with his inner life.
The introductory rhet/comp student may not identify as such. If she does, that identity has as much to do with her out-of-classroom creative work as it might with any academic work. Consequently, rhet/comp pedagogy has more freedom to teach social constructedness, for it is less likely to disrupt the student’s attachment to the “writer” self. Postmodern theories can thrive here. At the same time, rhet/comp instructors have to foster attachments much more than their creative writing counterparts. According to Crowley, “[a]nyone who has taught the first-year composition course, or who has even cursorily read its professional literature, knows that its central challenge is to provide students with occasions and contexts for writing that are sufficiently specific and interesting to engage them with the process.”37
Perhaps this overlooks university requirements and how they skew our perception of writers. By and large, universities force their students to enroll in rhetoric/composition classes, yet they do not require creative writing. Consequently, what we call “writer-identity” might simply be the product of a self-selecting population. If, as Sharon Crowley has suggested, universities abolished the first-year writing requirement, we might get a better sense of how students in both fields attach to the idea of themselves as writers.
Nevertheless, this is the first big question for creative writing pedagogy. While we can be proud of our shared tradition with rhetoric and composition, one that sustains constructivist thinking at the university level, we must figure out how many of its lessons we should apply to our discipline. Should we lecture on craft knowledge? Should we use small discussion groups to reinforce this knowledge? Should we use a more rhetorical approach to creative work? Furthermore, how might theories of social construction, with their concomitant focus on audience, purpose, and genre, affect our teaching? How might our peer review model—the workshop—differ from those in rhetoric/composition? Finally, how might collaborative writing disrupt notions of authorship and self in creative work? A scholar like Patrick Bizzaro believes that “creative writing and composition are separate disciplines, discrete fields of inquiry.”38 But we still don’t know where to draw the line between the two.
2. Can it be taught without New Critical assumptions?
For all the supposed friction between authors and literary critics, some would say that our academic discipline exists because of critics—or, one critic in particular. In 1930, Norman Foerster took over the School of Letters at the University of Iowa, and his first goal was to refocus the English department on literary criticism. For several decades preceding him, philology dominated the English department at Iowa (as well as pretty much every other university in the US). But Foerster believed that recent scholarship had “fallen out of touch with literary creation.”39 Consequently, he designed a graduate curriculum that might understand literary texts in and of themselves. As D.G. Myers reveals in The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880, “creative writing on the university level was merely one track of a more extensive graduate program in English organized around the study and practice of criticism.”40 In Foerster’s mind, the program at Iowa was not “a vocational school for authors,” but was there “to give all types of literary students a rigorous and appropriate discipline.”41
Not surprisingly, this revolution at the University of Iowa coincided with the more famous revolution of New Criticism. In the 1930s, New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Yvor Winters, and Robert Penn Warren were hired by their universities in a move away from philological thinking. By 1935, production was underway at Partisan Review and Southern Review. By 1938, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren had released Understanding Poetry, giving us perhaps the most canonical study in this New Critical movement.42 Instead of interpreting literary texts by way of history or linguistics, New Critics would study the texts themselves. They would rely on structural knowledge. By focusing only on the text, they would enact a more “pure” criticism that was supposedly immune to ideological influence.
Is today’s creative writing program simply a rehashing of New Criticism? As Dianne Donnelly writes in Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, our teaching perceives of the text as a verbal icon, isolating it from external reference.43 Not only do we place ultimate authority on these texts, but we use structural knowledge—“craft”—to interpret them. By the 1960s, literary critics had eschewed New Criticism in favor of other theoretical models. But in creative writing, New Critical theory found its second home. Mark McGurl argues that it “harmonized conspicuously well with the obsessive concern for ‘craft’ that began to define writing programs at roughly the same time.”44 Whether you believe that New Criticism started creative writing or that it simply gave shape to the young discipline, New Criticism has always been its predominant theoretical model.
Is this a good thing? Donnelly herself does not dispute “the importance of close reading or craft-based pedagogy… as these rudiments work well for beginning students.”45 If students have a thorough vocabulary for the various literary devices—image and metaphor, poetic lineation and syntax in poetry; narrative structure, character, subtext, and point of view in fiction and nonfiction—they can interpret texts more fully. Recent scholarship in creative writing studies continues to emphasize this area. In particular, Anna Leahy46 and Tom C. Hunley47 cite the development of craft knowledge as an essential part of creative writing education. To my mind, creative writing should not hide this New Critical heritage.
Yet Patrick Bizzaro and Dianne Donnelly rightly caution us against the wholesale implementation of New Criticism. In Responding to Student Poems: Applications of Critical Theory, Bizzaro worries about how much power we have as teachers. According to him, “at the epistemological center of [New Criticism] is the belief that meaning arises not from ideology or logic, but from analyzing the structure or norms that direct—in fact, are—the reader’s experience of the text.”48 An emphasis on “norms” gives workshop leaders an extraordinary amount of power. We become the interpreters, the “exemplary readers,” to use both Bizzaro’s and Donnelly’s term. Furthermore, Bizzaro believes that “[u]sing New Critical values in evaluating student writing thus requires students to believe that the teacher’s reading of the text, as the meaning rendered by an exemplary reader, is the text as it really exists.”49 Such authority undermines what writing instruction does well, which is to help students explore their subjectivity.
Donnelly also objects to such authority. For her, “a New Critical approach becomes complicated because whenever a text is objectified or is perceived as final authority, the reading of student work and the workshop dialogue that follows traditionally silence the author.”50 New Criticism deems such silence necessary, yet Donnelly rightly notes that it is a problematic silence. If professors take on this authority, as exemplary readers, their comments can hamper a student’s development. In extreme cases, their editorializing can lead to an appropriation of the text.
I can’t help but think of Junot Díaz’s “MFA vs POC” here. By silencing authors and making claims of objectivity, the New Critical workshop excluded writers like Díaz during his time at Cornell University. As he observes, “my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc.).”51 Some instructors might attest to the value of these New Critical silences, as they are supposed to privilege craft analysis over intentionality, allowing the work to speak for itself. Yet hegemony always presents itself as transparent, as common sense. Díaz maintains, “I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.”52
Consequently, we see how New Criticism can exaggerate authority as well as oversimplify pedagogy. But this isn’t the only reason to question its centrality in our field. To my mind, we should interrogate New Criticism because we’ve never really tried anything else. In Responding to Student Poems, Bizzaro offers us a comprehensive look at how reader-response, deconstructionist, and feminist theories might change how we teach a workshop. Peary and Hunley’s Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century expands on such work. In these cases, new theoretical models tell us not only how texts create meaning but how they might hide or resist meanings. Moreover, such models allow the writer to have a voice.
Only then, if we incorporate these models into our teaching, will we know how to balance isolation—the New Critical approach—with collaboration. Some fear the theoretical in a creative writing workshop, for they think that displacing New Criticism will displace the self—the individual voice that is necessary to composition. Can the self be discussed as a theoretical fiction? Do writers need to inhabit that fiction in the act of writing? If we put down our own anxieties and our preciousness about the self, we might enhance our workshops by way of other theoretical approaches.
3. Can it be taught without workshops?
In 1926, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference introduced the workshop model to American universities—in particular, to the field of creative writing. According to Tom C. Hunley, these workshops were not “part of the core curriculum, but [were intended] as a summer program for non-matriculated writers.”53 Taught by the likes of Robert Frost and Louis Untermeyer, workshops served as an antidote to traditional lectures, developing not an abstract knowledge of literature itself but a specific knowledge of participants’ manuscripts. By the time Paul Engle established the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa in 1930, creative writing and the traditional workshop had become inexorably linked. For many people, “workshop” exists as a synonym for any creative writing course.
The workshop has always been an instrumental part of creative writing instruction. No matter what form it takes, workshops emphasize a communal approach to the reading of texts. In quoting D.G. Myers’s The Elephants Teach, Patrick Bizzaro defines the workshop as “‘[t]he method of communal making and communal criticism… Such an undertaking must invite participation from students, to be communal. Typically a workshop requires that the community that one of three actions, typifying pedagogical approaches: interpretation, evaluation or a combination of the two.”54 As we all know, the practice continues to thrive in today’s creative writing classroom. According to Dianne Donnelly, the writing workshop model is “still the heart of the creative writing program and the favorite part of the course.”55 Based on her research, it serves as either the primary focus of or a major component within 80% of creative writing classes.56 In “Teaching as a Creative Act: Why the Workshop Works in Creative Writing,” Anna Leahy calls it “our profession’s signature pedagogy.”57 Without it, creative writing might never have gained credence as a legitimate academic enterprise.
In recent years, however, theorists have questioned the workshop’s primacy in the creative writing classroom.
In recent years, however, theorists have questioned the workshop’s primacy in the creative writing classroom. In Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach, Tom C. Hunley offers the most stinging criticism yet of the enterprise, writing that “The traditional workshop model of teaching undergraduate poetry writing has gone virtually unquestioned for the past seventy years and has been ratified by hundreds of universities, treated as the way to teach creative writing, despite a paucity of studies or empirical evidence or proof.”58 He goes on to characterize this pedagogy as misused: “Established in 1931 as a method for teaching elite graduate students, the traditional workshop model does not adequately address or even consider the needs of apprentice writers.”59 According to him, today’s undergraduates have neither the skill nor the vocabulary necessary to comment on peers’ work. Hunley blames the workshop for a number of creative writing’s ills: lazy teachers, defensive students, an overall lack of risk-taking, and a culture of unhealthy competition. Like many other scholars, he finds creative writers indifferent to both training and theory.
Hunley is not alone in this criticism. In fact, Wendy Bishop has similar concerns about creative writing instructors in Released into Language. She believes that “the traditional creative writing workshop has… become unimodal. That is, students are encouraged to rely too heavily on the mediation of the teacher.”60 She characterizes workshop leaders as directive and proscriptive, a charge derived, as we saw earlier, from New Critical influence.
Moreover, theorists like Michelene Wandor question not the instructors but the fundamental design of the workshop. Wandor finds a number of irresolvable contradictions today. In The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else, she responds to their conflicting models of authority, as workshops frame themselves as a place for non-hierarchical peer review (student-to-student) while still containing a hierarchical dynamic (teacher-to-student).61 Not only that, but Wandor also speaks to the discrepancy between Romanic and expressionistic pedagogies in the workshop: “If [creative writing] is training professional writers (those who already have ‘talent’), then the great-writers approach privileges the text over the writer; if students are taught that [creative writing] expresses the self (writing as therapy), then the person is privileged over the writing…. They cannot be simultaneously contained within the same pedagogic model.”62
In these claims we see what happens when creative writing, as a discipline, fails to theorize its own pedagogy. As Tim Mayers observes, “[i]f composition’s ‘old way’ was current-traditionalism, then creative writing’s old way was—and in many instances still is—the workshop.”63 But while the teaching of undergraduate creative writing has gone mostly unquestioned, I’m not willing to dismiss the pedagogy wholesale. To my mind, these criticisms show us how workshop pedagogy can fail in specific cases, but the failures are not inherent to the pedagogy itself.
Workshops should remain a source of pride for creative writers. They require a level of thoughtfulness and preparation not always achieved, and for many practitioners, it takes time to learn the best parameters for teaching a workshop. Anna Leahy admits as much: “While it can be all too easy to think of the workshop as the natural academic mode for creative writing, only with investigation and awareness have I become truly effective in this pedagogical approach.”64 But as Leahy goes on to tell us, the workshop excels in building community, in encouraging risk-taking and as a problem-solving pedagogy.65
First and foremost, however, creative writing instructors should seek to retain workshops because they create experiential and active learning. In his work on signature pedagogies, Lee Shulman tells us that the “emphasis on students’ active participation reduces the most significant impediments to learning in higher education: passivity, invisibility, anonymity, and lack of accountability.”66 Workshops activate students by placing them in several independent roles—what Patrick Bizzaro calls “a range of subject positions”—including various types of author, active reader, discussion participant and community member.67 They intensify relationships between peers. They encourage collaboration. Most importantly of all, they create stakeholders in the learning experience.
Hunley characterizes his undergraduates as novices. According to him, their inexperience undermines the whole workshop project, as they lack enough field-specific knowledge to respond to texts. To my mind, this misunderstands the educational work of an introductory creative writing class. Undergraduate workshops matter less as a place to give feedback and more as a place for students to apply knowledge, to question and to participate in the act of making meaning. Students more fully understand craft knowledge—simile and metaphor, the poetic line, syntax, so on—when they use the concepts in discussions. Moreover, they grow as interpreters and writers of texts. Here is where we must be thoughtful practitioners, for we must adequately prepare students for such craft conversations. In her introductory courses, Leahy delays “the sharing of student work until students have begun to learn together to read as writers and to use common vocabulary to talk about writing concepts.”68 We would be wise to follow her lead.
Students more fully understand craft knowledge—simile and metaphor, the poetic line, syntax, so on—when they use the concepts in discussions.
We might also remember that workshop pedagogy actually counteracts what it supposedly perpetuates in institutionalized creative writing: homogeneity. In “Poetry and Ambition,” Donald Hall rails against the homogenized literary product that supposedly trickles out of today’s universities, calling it the McPoem and equating today’s Pulitzer winners with Ronald McDonald. “To produce the McPoem,” according to him, “institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions, all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism.”69 By thinking of craft education as the enforcement of patterns, Hall blames us, the workshop leaders, for a culture of aesthetic sameness.
If anything, I’ve found the opposite to be true. Contemporary poetry reads to me as heterogeneous and diverse, and if anything, I think workshops are responsible. Workshop pedagogy gives voice to all fifteen or twenty students in the class. Given the public nature of the endeavor, these students almost immediately move toward differentiation. They are driven to be unlike their peers so as to establish their own voice in a public setting. This leads to greater aesthetic fluidity as well as risk-taking. In self-reflective writing and portfolio prefaces, even the most introductory students try to characterize themselves in relation to their peers. They take up usual descriptors for their work: “narrative,” “confessional,” “elliptical” “avant-garde,” etc. But as they go on, they complicate these labels. Leahy believes that “the workshop environment teaches students to think of themselves as writers in relation to the literary tradition, readers, and other writers and to develop skills that allow them to create distinctive work in those contexts.”70 The result is a lively, heterogeneous writing culture.
If workshop is the signature pedagogy in our field, perhaps instead of invalidating it, we should ask how modifying or contextualizing it can change what we do. For example, in response to Bishop’s fear of the unimodel, perhaps our workshops should focus more on interpretation, less on prescriptive evaluation. Instead of taking up the role of exemplary reader and risking appropriation of the text, workshop leaders might better serve their students if they act as facilitators of various—and sometimes conflicting—subject positions. Patrick Bizzarro does as much in using theories of deconstruction in Responding to Student Poems: “deconstruction enables teachers to see how the meaning of a student’s text arises in the writing process from the ongoing relationship between what is said and what is not…. [d]econstruction offers a reading, not an evaluation, and does not depend on a set of standards for excellence to measure improvement.”71 Instead of relying on taste or standards of excellence, the deconstructionist workshop identifies what the writer privileges in a text and then shows how her preferences create meaning. The workshop leader does not offer prescriptions. By identifying how the text creates meaning, the instructor simply reveals opportunities for the writer to revise if she wants to alter it.
This sort of workshop interrogates how a text makes meaning, questioning the various aspects of a text without seeking substitutions, without editorializing. This workshop suggests few if any possible revisions. In “‘A Space of Radical Openness’: Re-Visioning the Creative Writing Workshop,” Mary Ann Cain imagines her workshops as a space for such radical questioning, with the key reading strategies being observation, interpretation and evaluation.72 In her model, evaluation rarely changes or appropriates the text. Not only does this interpretive work deemphasize a teacher’s influence on the student’s poem (or story or essay), it also deemphasizes an undergraduate’s need for craft knowledge. After all, in this model, workshop leaders and students co-create the interpretation, so they can make use of a shared craft vocabulary.
Of course, this sort of workshop might not help experienced authors as much. It is precisely why we must always contextualize workshops, rethinking them in all their various forms and implementations instead of believing them to be some monolithic pedagogy. If we differentiate, as Bishop does, between stages of writing process, how might we teach an invention workshop differently from a revision one? Can we teach imitation workshops? Can we follow Katherine Haake’s lead in offering hybridized workshops?73 Can we follow Sue Roe’s in offering masterclasses?74
How large or small of a workshop component must we include in our classes? Can we use small group workshops as effectively as larger ones? (Due to increasing class sizes, many of us have had to answer this last question.) In the end, it is counterproductive to throw out workshop practices on the whole, but it is equally problematic to simply accept the untheorized workshop as the status quo. By interrogating our signature pedagogy, we can continue to understand not only how we educate students but also how we influence their work.
* * *
By no means are these three questions comprehensive. What they share is a fundamental assumption that writing can be taught and will continue to be taught. They predicate themselves on the validity and worth of the discipline. Most importantly, each one of them asks creative writing instructors to engage the work of theory and pedagogy, placing the field in dialogue with rhetoric/composition in an attempt to understand what it can and can’t do. If we embrace these assumptions, we just might free ourselves from The Question once and for all.
Darin Ciccotelli has published work in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Subtropics, and ZYZZYVA. His first poetry manuscript, A Number of Dead Birds in Our Neighborhood, and for No Apparent Reason was most recently a finalist for the New Issues Prize in Poetry. He received his MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and his PhD from the University of Houston. He currently teaches at Soka University of America and helps to edit the Journal of Creative Writing Studies.
- Dwight Garner, “Creative Writing, via a Workshop or the Big City: ‘MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,’” in New York Times (25 Feb 2014), para. 4.
- Anis Shivani, “Can Creative Writing Be Taught?: Therapy for the Disaffected Masses,” in The Huffington Post (12 January 2012).
- Louis Menand, “Show or Tell,” in The New Yorker (8 June 2009).
- Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 1.
- John Barth, “Writing: Can It Be Taught?,” in New York Times (16 June 1985).
- The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, Ed. D.W. Fenza, Supriya Bhatnagar, et al, 11th ed., (Fairfax, VA: Association of Writers & Writing Programs, 2004).
- Elif Batuman, “The Invisible Vocation” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 255.
- Anis Shivani, “Can Creative Writing Be Taught?: Therapy for the Disaffected Masses,” in The Huffington Post (12 January 2012), para. 2.
- “Philosophy,” Iowa Writers’ Workshop, accessed July 31, 2014, http://writersworkshop.uiowa.edu/about/about-workshop/philosophy, para. 2.
- Chad Harbach, “MFA vs NYC” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 13.
- Chad Harbach, “Introduction” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach, (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), pp. 4–5.
- Leslie Jamison, “Which Creates Better Writers, An MFA Program or New York City?:‘MFA vs NYC’ investigates the relationships between creativity and collectivity” in The New Republic (Feb 27, 2014), para. 19.
- Ibid., p. 9.
- Chad Harbach, “MFA vs NYC” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 15.
- Saunders, George, “A Mini-Manifesto” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach, (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 33.
- Ibid., 36.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 38.
- James Berlin, Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900–1985 (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois UP, 1987), p. 20.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays (Pittsburgh, Pa.: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), p. 13.
- Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2009), 405.
- John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 42.
- Gerald Nelms, “Emig, Janet” in Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Age of Information, Ed. Theresa Enos (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 220.
- Janet Emig, “Literacy and Freedom” in The Web of Meaning: Essays on Writing, Teaching, Learning, and Thinking, Ed. Dixie Goswami and Maureen Butler (Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook, 1983), p. 177.
- Tim Mayers, “Creative Writing and Process Pedagogy” in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, Ed. Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (Carbondale, Ill.: SIU Press, 2015), pp. 37–38.
- Ibid., pp. 48–49.
- Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley, “Prologue” in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, Ed. Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (Carbondale, Ill.: SIU Press, 2015), p. 3.
- Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2009), p. 86.
- Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 65.
- Elif Batuman, “The Invisible Vocation” in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Ed. Chad Harbach (New York: N+1/Faber and Faber, 2014), p. 259.
- Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays (Pittsburgh, Pa.: U of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), p. 8.
- Patrick Bizzaro, “Workshop: An Ontological Study” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), p. 37.
- D. G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (Chicago, Ill.: U of Chicago), p. 127.
- Ibid., p. 124.
- Ibid., p. 126.
- Ibid., p. 129.
- Dianne Donnelly, Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2013), p. 26.
- Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2009), p. 29.
- Dianne Donnelly, Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2013), p. 29.
- Anna Leahy, “Teaching as a Creative Act: Why the Workshop Works in Creative Writing” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010).
- Tom C. Hunley, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2007).
- Patrick Bizzaro, Responding to Student Poems: Applications of Critical Theory (Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1993), p. 41.
- Ibid., p. 1.
- Junot Díaz, “MFA vs POC” in The New Yorker (April 30, 2014), para. 11.
- Ibid., para. 15.
- Tom C. Hunley, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2007), p. 3.
- Patrick Bizzaro, “Workshop: An Ontological Study” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), p. 38.
- Dianne Donnelly, Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline. (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2013), p. 74.
- Ibid., p. 75.
- Anna Leahy, “Teaching as a Creative Act: Why the Workshop Works in Creative Writing” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), p. 65.
- Tom C. Hunley, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach (Clevedon,UK: Multilingual Matters, 2007), p. 2.
- Wendy Bishop, Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing, 2nd Ed. (Portland, ME: Calendar Island Publishers, 1998), p. 142.
- Michelene Wandor, The Author Is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave, 2008), p. 126.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Tim Mayers, “Creative Writing and Process Pedagogy” in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, Ed. Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (Carbondale, Ill.: SIU Press, 2015), p. 38.
- Anna Leahy, “Teaching as a Creative Act: Why the Workshop Works in Creative Writing” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), p. 63.
- Ibid., pp. 65–69.
- Ibid., p. 65.
- Patrick Bizzaro, “Mutuality and Introductory Creative Writing” in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century, Ed. Alexandria Peary and Tom C. Hunley (Carbondale, Ill.: SIU Press, 2015), p. 63.
- Ibid., p. 72.
- Donald Hall, “Poetry and Ambition” on the Academy of American Poets website, accessed July 31, 2014, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetry-and-ambition, para. p. 31.
- Anna Leahy, “Teaching as a Creative Act: Why the Workshop Works in Creative Writing” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), p. 66.
- Patrick Bizzaro, Responding to Student Poems: Applications of Critical Theory (Urbana, Ill.: NCTE, 1993), pp. 97–98.
- Mary Ann Cain, “‘A Space of Radical Openness’: Re-Visioning the Creative Writing Workshop” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010), 229.
- Katharine Haake, “Re-envisioning the Workshop: Hybrid Classrooms, Hybrid Texts” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010).
- Sue Roe, “Introducing Masterclasses” in Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Ed. Dianne Donnelly (Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters, 2010).