Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reintroduction to Creative Writing

If you Google "creative writing" you come up with images like the one above, which serves if anything to remind me how resistant the act of writing is to visualization. A flip through the latest Poets & Writers reveals various attempts to overcome this difficulty in the selling of journals, books, and MFA programs. Images of young people in presumably intense discussion, famous or semi-famous faces, romantic landscapes and cityscapes, and abstract designs: you see all this, but the default image still seems to be the image implicit of some older mode of literary production: 1930s manual typewriters (I've never seen a Selectric in an ad, I don't think), fountain pens and inkbottles, or even just the graphic background of a yellow legal pad. You will never see a laptop so fetishized, at least not until we're all writing in the air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

The image of the writer is on my mind as I put the finishing touches on my third syllabus for the fall semester, which gets started this week, Introduction to Creative Writing. Last year I was preoccupied with the question of creative writing as self-expression, given that young college students are rather more concerned with self-construction. Estrangement therefore guided my thinking about how to teach the course and what texts they should read: I wanted to destabilize the "naturalness" of prose narrative and rhymed verse.

This time around, without losing sight of the need to keep my students just a little off-balance, I'm taking a more pragmatic approach which might appear to be a retreat from Thoreau's "Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?" Partly this is because I've discovered my students don't have, for better or worse, as many allegiances as I'd expected to normative modes. I've come to accept the necessity of teaching them how to make a chair you can actually sit in before you start experimenting with the number of legs. And I've adopted a textbook with an eminently pragmatic approach to literary carpentry, Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. What I like most about Sellers' book is the vocabulary and framework she provides for addressing creative writing—a vocabulary particularly valuable for being applicable to any mode of writing, or arguably any artistic practice at all. Rather than grouping into units on poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, etcetera, like most such textbooks, the Sellers book is organized around six principles or strategies that every beginning writer would be wise to become conscious of:
- Energy is what keeps readers turning the page. Subject matter is a big part of this: choosing a subject you know a great deal about, or are intensely curious about, will bring more energy to the writing. Leaps and gaps—what you leave out—are critical, as are word choice (concrete nouns, strong verbs) and pacing.
- Images refer not just to the visual element but to what you might call the "experientiality" of a text: its capacity for making the reader feel that he or she is there in the world of the story or poem. For Sellers the image is fundamentally opposed to "ideas" and intellection. I have some reservations about this, but really this section boils down to "show don't tell," and for beginning writers I'm on board with that.
- Tension is something many young writers neglect—I can't tell you how many stories I've read featuring a single protagonist alone with his or her thoughts and feelings, as opposed to being in actual conflict with other people. One thing I really like about the tension chapter is the strategy of "layering": images that contrast with the action, triangular relationships, and action that contrast and conflicts with dialogue (she calls this "facade," and it's another extremely useful tool for younger writers, who tend to write dialogues in which the characters say exactly what they mean, exactly unlike real human beings).
- Pattern has two divergent meanings for Sellers: pattern by ear (that is, the musical tools of verse: rhyme, meter, rhythm, consonance, etc.) and pattern by eye, which refers both to visual images created within a text (objects that form a significant pattern, characters' gestures) and visual arrangements on the page (this refers mostly to white space but is also an opening for talking about page-as-field).
- Insight—this is a category I'm really glad to devote some time to. This addresses the "So what?" question raised by any piece of writing on a deeper level than tension or energy; it refers to what we might call the truth content of any piece of writing. For Sellers, the means of achieving insight with writing are accuracy, particularly about human behavior; generosity toward one's characters and one's reader; asking questions with your writing rather than providing answers. She's careful to point out that these can be small questions as well as questions about death and the meaning of life (though one certainly shouldn't shun those).
- Structure: Elements. Sellers does another smart thing by dividing "structure" into two sections. The "Elements" section deals with the components of a piece, the moving parts of a narrative or a poem. She offers the categories of "bits," "beats," and "scenes" for thinking about prose, while for poems she focuses on words and lines. Commonsense stuff, maybe, but worth spending a chapter on.
- Structure: Forms. For poems she offers an expected handful of traditional forms: the pantoum, ghazal, sestina, and villanelle (why not the sonnet?). For narratives she breaks things into linear and non-linear structures: the former includes the classical dramatic structure we all learned in high school (rising action, climax, falling action), the journey, and the journey's inverse, the visitation (reminding of someone's axiom that there are only two plots: a young person leaves town, a stranger rides into town). I'm glad she offered some nonlinear structures to think about as well: the list, the alphabet (shades of Walter Abish!), and the braid (three or more interlocking strands of narrative).
In general I find the materials Sellers has to offer on prose are more interesting and useful than those to do with poetry, a feeling confirmed by the mini-anthology that the books effectively contains. The prose pieces include an excerpt from Amy Fusselman's terrific The Pharmacist's Mate (an example of braided narrative and an early McSweeney's production), stalwart stylists like Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Michael Cunningham, and some expected but nonetheless welcome contributions from the likes of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. The poems, on the other hand, are almost invariably either anecdotal or precious, reflecting Sellers' simplistic division of all poems into narrative or lyric categories (though she does make space for the prose poem). This would bother me more if I weren't confident in my ability to present the students with broader poetic options. It's prose I need a little more help with, and in any case the six strategies Sellers provides are perfectly viable for describing the workings of a poem by Lisa Jarnot or Ron Silliman, say.

Sellers stresses the difference between images and "thought" to a degree that makes me just a little uneasy. She's absolutely write to point out that student writers tend to put a layer of insulation between their readers and their texts; instead, "Your images shouldn't be about describing, they shouldn't be about anything at all; they should be the thing." Well, William Carlos Williams could hardly disagree with her. But on the same page she claims, "Creative writers don't want their readers to think. We want them to see and feel." This is a false dichotomy. I can understand why Sellers puts so much stress on sensory detail and experience, because students are likely to be uncomfortable with putting their own sensual experience on the line in their writing. But I, for one, want my readers to think—it's really just a question of priority, in that I want the thinking to happen after, or maybe just at right angles, to the sensual presence of the language. Maybe Sellers just trusts that this kind of thing will take care of itself: first the elements of craft, then cognition or Geist may follow.

Sellers has another idea or first principle for beginning writers that seems useful but questionable: a stress on audience, which takes us back to the self-expression problem. In the first chapter, she distinguishes between writing for yourself and writing for others, and puts "creative writing" firmly in the second category. This is an expedient means of transmitting what we might call a "professional" attitude to students: their first and last concern is the effect they want to have on readers. It's an effective message in contradiction of a younger writer's more solipsistic tendencies, accompanied as it is by the message that the writer should never be having more fun than her reader. But it is a push toward professionalization, and the way the book is composed leaves little room for the possibility of different notions of audience, or the audience one's writing is intended to create. Maybe this is an unnecessary layer of sophistication for an introductory class, but I worry that as a strategy this passes writing too quickly out of the question of, if not self, of different sorts of community for readers and writers other than those determined by the insatiable market for sensation (tension, imagery, and all the rest).

Quibbles, really, given the usefulness of Sellers' six strategies, which provide a simple theoretical armature that I wish had been available to me when I was a creative writing student, told that certain lines didn't "work" or that I hadn't "earned" a particular image. They also provide a useful simulacrum of objective standards by which writing can be judged, which goes some way toward addressing the always vexing question of how to grade a piece of creative writing. More on that perhaps another time.

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