The short answer is yes, creative writing can be taught, but like most claims, it’s more complicated than that. The truth lies somewhere between the proliferation of MFA programs and the fact that since everyone uses language, they think they can easily publish a book.
I’ve taught creative writing for 25 years: from kindergarteners to graduate students, at inner-city schools, universities and community groups like Gemini Ink. I’ve coaxed poems from high school seniors labeled impossible to teach, supervised the completion of theses by writers on the cusp of publication, given feedback on manuscripts by award-winning authors. I’ve witnessed a person’s facility with language, character development and incorporation of details and pacing improve over the course of a few months.
But here’s the caveat: talent can’t be taught.
What can be taught are craft fundamentals. The same can be said of any art form. Teaching scales and basic composition won’t turn a student into a Mozart. Learning how to sketch the human form doesn’t make you the new Picasso. But studying work by the masters and imitating what you see while learning craft techniques not only allows you to focus on developing your skill; it also enables you to learn more about yourself.
Any study of writing begins with an investigation of language. Students are amazed to discover the effects of sounds, rhythms and nuanced meanings of words. They marvel at the impact of an original detail or fresh metaphor. They learn to use diction, syntax, sentence structure and punctuation to imitate action or evoke an intended mood. Creative writers use language like visual artists use paint or other media. Acquiring a facility with language means the student is on her way to developing a personal style and voice.
Handling Personal Material
Students also learn how to handle personal material with objectivity. They stay focused on craft in order to turn that material into art. Oscar Wilde once said, “I took out a comma and this afternoon, I put it back in again.” Giving that kind of close attention is like floating your fingers across a Ouija board. As you concentrate on moving from one letter to the next, your story or poem is mystically transformed into a finished piece, one tinted with personal experience yet totally imagined.
The celebrated author Antonya Nelson recently shared a different analogy with my students at Our Lady of the Lake University. She said that her stories are like her dreams. People she knows are in them, but they morph into combinations with others, or they interact with strangers in places neither she nor they have ever been, during times they weren’t present, in scenes that are totally invented. She says that she might begin with some aspect of her life, but then she takes it to an extremity, imagining what might happen in that intensified situation. In other words, as she focuses on language, voice, character, her original fragment of personal experience is mystically transformed.
During the final class of every course, I initiate a conversation about ethics. I ask each student to imagine that an editor is interested in publishing her writing but first wants her to describe her work. In other words, I ask each student to explain her aesthetic.
This is necessary because students have learned a skill and need to be conscious of how they’re using it. Others will likely read what they have written, so students need to anticipate the effects. If their primary goal is to entertain, they need to consider the effects of violence made funny, sexy, or beautiful, or the implications of one-dimensional characters presented as a reality. If they incorporate dialect, could their poem or story be implying a judgment about the speaker? What are the messages their work might be sending?
Franz Kafka was especially sensitive to this thinking. That’s why he asked that his manuscripts be burned after his death. Zadie Smith said, “Kafka avoided every telos, all termini, purposes, meaningful endings, resting spots the way most of us avoid the dentist.” He worried that readers would mistakenly find answers to their problems in his stories, and he didn’t want responsibility for that. Kafka may be an extreme example of a writer concerned with the ways his fiction might affect his readers, but all artists should consider the possible impact of their work.
I also ask each of my students to share her goal as a writer. Is it to write with no plans for publication, instead focusing on a professional career? Or is it to keep writing in order to know how to teach craft techniques in a public classroom? Or is it to become a voice for her race or culture?
Most of my students won’t become professional writers. But all of them will be more informed readers, becoming selective in the books they buy, the movies and plays they watch, the conversations they join about creative work. In that way, they help shape contemporary culture. A talented few will persevere, withstanding rejection, enjoying the lifetime process of honing a skill, earning their positions as critically praised authors. I wish them well.
Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread and coeditor of Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Columbia, and Antioch Review. As an investigative journalist, she reported on causes of extraordinary violence in LIFE and D Magazine. She is founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink and an associate professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University. gary will be back next week.