Writing on Writing

27 Mar

For the inaugural post, I would like to solicit writers thoughts about the following New Yorker article by Louis Menand from June 8, 2009, on advanced degree programs in creative writing: Show or Tell.   To put the question in Socratic fashion: Can creative writing be taught?  If so, how?

Speaking of Socrates, to my thinking, he is the first to ask this question and to answer in the negative in the context of teaching a youth how to write.  See Plato’s Phaedrus – one of my favorite dialogues.



6 Responses to “Writing on Writing”

  1. Andrea March 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    an off the cuff reply, i sure hope it can be taught bc i teach it. i teach it as expository writing, but, as i tell my students, if you aren’t being creative as you expound, then you and your readers will be bored to tears.

    now, can one teach creativity? no. but strategies to open up the mind to creative impulses can be taught. harnessing creativity can be taught. joining the literary discourse can be taught. useful skills and trends can be taught. and learned.

  2. SarahAlice May 16, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Hm, I read the article and it’s certainly an interesting idea. That creative writing has become a pursuit of the higher education institute is both a stimulating and terrifying idea. Higher education as a phrase suggests that something is superior; it suggests something special. However in the modern world, people are acquiring degrees from every possible field because there isn’t such a thing as an active job market anymore. It’s stagnant, and possibilities for vocational pursuits, including pursuits of literature and writing, are just not available.

    I personally agree with Andrea, above. Creativity cannot be taught. Some people are not creative, and they prefer to see the world as a linear construction of mathematics and calculated chances. Some people see rainbows all the time, and the manage to produce things from the most obscurely beautiful, to the most refined of the fine arts. But people I think have a natural persuasion towards something, and if you want to take a creative writing class, one would assume that you have a propensity to want to write.

    I personally have had a plan for a novel, including character details, plot, etc, as well as a few chapters, for a couple of years now. I would be writing it if I had the time, but at this point in my life, time is something of a limited luxury, because I have work, university, and university work, and by the time I’ve done that and managed to see the people I love, I’m exhausted. But I think that I’ll keep writing a chapter here and there, and when I have some more free time, maybe over the summer, or on holiday, I’ll put in some more hours for it. I once read somewhere that writers instinctively write, everyday. So this prompts me to think, in a small way, that if you’re having to take a class to learn how to write, you’re just not writing enough to really be a writer.

    Creative writing programs however, as McGurl points out in the article, situate people in the most up and coming areas of literature. Interestingly however, literature classes also do that. It’s not necessarily about taking a specific writing class as become aware through a book club, or a literature course, of the people’s current literary needs, and by taking a diachronic approach, they begin to see how we arrived at our current understanding of literature. I think the history of literature is important; but I suppose I’m rather biased.

    Half of developing a craft though is practice. Raw talent doesn’t matter if you can’t find the time to practice it. So working hard to be creative has to be important, but you can’t need a class to do that. Sometimes sitting in the park doodling, or chatting with friends, or breaking up with a partner is enough to inspire you to write, and the very best writing (at least in my own short experience) comes from passion. Formulaic teaching cannot inspire passion. Sometimes I guess it has to be found within oneself!

    I hope my response wasn’t too lengthy!

    Thank you for inviting me to weigh in!

    • prosperoproductions May 16, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

      Hi SarahAlice,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I like your remark that “literature classes also situate people in the most up and coming areas of literature.” What lit classes have you taken/are you taking? What do you like to read (literary or not so much)? I gathered some from your blog, but I guess I’m asking, what NEW writing do you like to read or find yourself attracted to in order to improve as a writer or keep abreast of the field?



  3. SarahAlice May 16, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

    I subscribe to The Paris Review, and Granta, both magazine that are worth the financial investment I feel. Granta is based in the UK, whilst The Paris Review is based in the US, and so I feel that following these magazines helps me to keep abreast of current literary trends. I also subscribe to Vogue on a fairly religious basis, which is less about exploring literary boundaries as it is about being in love with shoes and fashion. There is some interesting journalism in there though.

    I’m currently finishing my first undergrad year which has essentially provided me with a span of English literature dating back to Homer to the present day, and an understanding of key critical theory. Next years modules have yet to be announced, but I understand there is a great deal of focus on decadence and aesthetics, both fields that I’m very interested in.

    Personally I enjoy reading postmodern utopian texts; in the current climate we live in, we are feeling as a society somewhat disconnected; I read a fascinating article the other day about the Queen’s jubilee being something of a distraction from the real economic and internation problems of the country (I live in the UK). The problems people are facing today, especially young adults, are problems that are simply unresolvable in the near future; the tuition fees scandal has caused a huge amount of resentment among those wishing to study further, or those thinking of pursuing their fields further in the future. Postmodern utopias are disjointed, disconnected, and sometimes completely infuriating, however I love looking at ideas of how things could be. This extends backwards also; I love looking at how things were, to reach an understanding of how things came to be today.

    I’d be interested to know how you keep abreast of new literature also?

    Thank you
    Sarah Alice

    • prosperoproductions May 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

      Hi SarahAlice (space? no space?),

      So, I teach philosophy, but I’m very interested in literature (was an English Major), poetry, myth, religion, and theater (among other things). I have to admit, I’m not as caught up on “current” writing as I’d like to be. My time is limited and so when I have time to read I usually stick to what I love. There is so much to wade through that if I had a hundred lives to live I couldn’t get through it all.

      But when I do have time to do less thorough reading, I read “The New Yorker,” which I consider a real rag, but it is a not-so-secret indulgence of mine. I don’t read the fiction in it though, mostly the articles on literature. I also read “Vanity Fair,” which I love as much for the glossy photos as for the lengthy articles (if I’m being really honest).

      As for your interest in utopias, I would highly recommend Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. But I do so hesitantly because you really have to read all his other works (at least from Demian forward) in order to truly appreciate it.

      I hope that helps.


      • SarahAlice May 17, 2012 at 6:33 am #

        Philosophy is something I’m very interested in and I am taking an extra class on it next year, so hopefully that proves fruitful.

        Your suggestion is something I’ll keep in mind!

        SarahAlice (Ought to be a space, but I like it more together.)


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