Sunday, June 21, 2009

Back from Syacmore Hill

I returned home from Sycamore Hill late Friday night (sans checked luggage)-- only to wake at four the morning after with a full-blown, brutal cold and a cough that makes my chest burn. I'm drowning in not only mucus, but also in email. If you're one of the many people waiting for a reply from me, I beg you to be patient. I'll be getting to you soon. (I hope.)

Sycamore Hill was, as ever, wonderful. This year it rained most of the time, and the food was subpar. (Thank god for the salad bar.) But the stories the attendees brought were excellent and the company witty (Karen Joy Fowler was with us), stimulating, and often fun. Most of us, regardless of gender, painted our toenails garish colors at our end-of-the-workshop party on the last night. And as if that weren't enough fun, there was much singing, and several attendees burst into delightful song just before their stories were critiqued. (photos in this post by Jim Kelly.)

I wrote the following (hoping to finish and post it the next day, before the critiques began) on Friday, June 12 on a plane en route to Asheville:

By coincidence, the issue of the American Book Review that arrived in my mail box this week(May/June 2009) features a focus "Why Teach Creative Writing," while the issue of the New Yorker that arrived a couple of days earlier (June 8 & 15, 2009) has an essay by Louis Menand, "Show or Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught," that apparently takes its impetus from Mark McGurl's The Program Era, a book about creative writing programs recently published by Harvard University Press.

Menand's essay begins by revisiting the old argument about whether creative writing can be taught, then moves away from the specificity of that question to consider what creative writing programs are able to do (or not do) for their students, providing a bit of history of such programs along the way. The most striking statement Menand makes is this: "As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature." Menand's essay does not set out to discuss this, so I can't fault him for expanding on this; but this point certainly merits thorough consideration. And I think it'd be particularly interesting to consider the bearing this has on genre fiction in the US today (as opposed, say, to the status of genre fiction before the years in which creative writing programs proliferated).

Menand offers up a lot of entertaining anecdotes about famous writers teaching creative writing classes. My favorite is his story of of what Angela Carter said once on the first day of class when she was teaching at Brown and a student asked her what her own writing was like: "My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis." According to Menand, "the course turned out not to be oversubscribed." He also quotes McGurl's book on how certain styles have been adopted by "lower middle-class" writers like Carver and Oates as a means for "dealing with the highbrow world of the academy," to "shield oneself with words." And he rightly observes that "no one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is, anyway." Interestingly, Menand concludes his essay by noting that he stopped writing poetry after he graduated and never published a poem which, he says, "places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing course." He comments, "I don't think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things."

The ABR focus section on "Why Teach Creative Writing" offers a spread of takes on the subject of creative writing by creative writing teachers, eliciting markedly different attitudes toward the question and understanding of its semantics. I found Lance Olsen's answer the most congenial. He believes that creative writing classes teach a method of reading. (Which may or may not be useful for student writers). My experience of writing workshops (which granted has always been as a teacher or a peer) confirms this. Interestingly, another teacher, Leslee Becker, takes the question personally, as in why she herself teaches creative writing (rather than why anyone should teach creative writing). Teacher Kelly Cherry recalls being a student of creative writing herself, saying that creative writing classes gives would-be writers "permission" to write, which for her, as a student, was "liberating and life-saving."

Some of the pieces in the ABR focus section assumed a defensive posture, most curiously Steve Tomasula's, which took the question as an attack on not only the very notion of making creative writing classes and programs available but even on the notion of creative writing itself. Given that the people asking the question were inspired to do it after attending the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) meeting, this interpretation suggests an uncomfortable degree of sensitivity. (Easy to imagine how such a sensitivity could develop in the early 21st-century US.) Tomasula zooms in on the atmosphere in post 9/11 "Middle America": "everyone wants to live in a world where great stories make it easy to draw a line between good and evil." Although he doesn't say so directly, he implies that learning to understand "how language can be manipulated to create effects-- get us to vote, buy, feel sympathy or anger-- that to learn by doing in a creative writing classroom where manipulators and their audience meet face-to-face and feedback is immediate" will make students immune to the manipulative effects of narrative. The contrarian in me wonders whether it won't also produce more effective manipulators. Do most creative writing courses spend a significant amount of their time exploring ethical issues? I wonder. The people who use narrative to achieve certain effects are, after all, accomplished craftspeople and can be assumed to have learned their craft in the same classes that attempt to wise-up students about the manipulative effects of certain narratives. Certainly I know many people (among them numerous writers) who define successful narratives as those that entertain the majority of people reading or viewing them while making them feel optimistic, smug, and safe.


pretty much forgot about having started the above post while I was at Sycamore Hill, until one of the goldsmiths approached a group of us to anxiously urge us to read Louis Menand's essay. He seemed to think we needed to read it to help us understand something about our peer workshop. I'm utterly clueless about what he might have had in mind (except that maybe he felt we needed to submit ourselves to the middlebrow authority it represented to him by virtue of having been published in the New Yorker, we being mere science fiction writers). In fact, we spent the week taking apart and examining one another's fictions, continually worrying at narrative and its workings-- and above all, as critical readers, excavating and even constructing stories out of the narrative when they weren't at all obvious (as was often the case)-- and seeking to persuade everyone else of the validity of our readings. For me, peer workshops like Sycamore Hill chiefly offer insight into how readers engage with texts and how a group of readers negotiate collectively to produce meanings as they interrogate texts. Obviously, such insight is invaluable to fiction writers. But it occurs to me to wonder why literary critics don't workshop in a similar way. I suspect they could learn a lot about their craft as well as the works they write about if they did so. But I suppose most scholars of literature feel that their classroom work already teaches them as much as they need to know about how readers collectively engage with texts.

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