Creative writing courses can’t be easy to teach. First of all, let’s face the sad truth: Most people who take such classes aren’t great writers. They may love reading, they may have the desire to cultivate their own literary skills, but they haven’t put in enough outside practice to truly excel. A professor may be able to help them develop their talents to a reasonable degree, but a mere semester isn’t long enough to make a truly significant leap forward.
Let’s admit something else, while we’re at it: There’s no right way to teach creative writing, though there are plenty of wrong ways. As with any form of art, there are many, many avenues by which we can arrive at this skill-set. No single professor could ever cover all of them in one class, or even one lifetime.
That’s why creative writing instructors tend to end up doling out prescriptive advice that, while probably effective, often overlooks certain lessons we should keep in mind when learning how to be a writer.
If you take one of these courses at college, beware of any instructor who won’t admit. . .
We Read For Many Reasons
Novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, they’re all art, but they don’t always serve the same purpose. Sometimes, we read a book because we want to appreciate the complex beauty of the language. Sometimes, we want to grapple with a challenging theme. Sometimes, we simply want to be entertained.
Professors, however, seem to focus on one single element of the literary experience, applying that criteria to all student work. Most creative writing instructors aren’t too keen on entertainment; they think you should write something with a little more depth. Some others may place more emphasis on the importance of thematic weight, but most seem to be enamored with language.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. A thrilling story can still leave a reader disappointed if it’s told in unimpressive prose. However, the vocabulary of a student should not be the sole metric by which their work is judged.
And while we’re on the topic of language. . .
There Are Different Types Of Voices
The Old Man and the Sea. Catcher in the Rye. Blood Meridian. Any Harry Potter novel.
You may not love all of these, but you know that each one has fans, and each one is generally regarded as an impressive work.
Yet, if you judge them by their language, they share no commonalities. Hemingway’s spare, unadorned writing bears no resemblance to Cormac McCarthy’s luxurious word-craft. The reader-friendly familiarity of Rowling’s work doesn’t exactly call to mind the plodding angst of Holden Caulfield.
These novels succeed not because they all conform to one standard of “strong language,” but because the language used within them is appropriate for the topic. Catcher in the Rye is told from the point-of-view of a self-absorbed, hypocritical, perpetually bitter misanthrope.
In other words, a typical teenager. The novel is beloved because teenagers hear their own voices in the Holden Caulfield. It wouldn’t work if Hemingway wrote it.
Creative writing professors must keep this in mind when guiding students. The goal for students shouldn’t be to share the same voice – impressive and captivating as that voice may be – but to develop their own.
More sad facts: Unless you’re fortunate enough to take a creative writing course staffed by a famous author – and that does sometimes happen – your professor will probably be, to some degree, a failed artist. Their true goal was to make a living as a writer; that didn’t pan out, though. Teaching pays the bills.
As such, many instructors focus on the artistic qualities a writer must have – sensitivity, insight, a taste for alcohol – and not enough on the practical qualities, such as discipline, organization, and motivation.
Because, at the end of the day, writing is work. If you want to be a writer, you have to treat it like any other job, committing to write either for a certain amount of time each day, or to reach a certain word count each day.
(Stephen King’s 2,000 words a day rule is a pretty solid goal.)
Writing isn’t special. It’s not exempt from any of the other restrictions that apply to a skill. You can’t call yourself a writer if you spend more time waiting around for inspiration than you do actually writing. Professors should make this as clear as possible to students.
You Probably Can’t Teach Writing
While it’s possible to help students improve certain elements of their writing, when all is said and done, the ability to write well comes primarily from constant reading, coupled purely with a strong desire to write.
As such, professors should focus more on helping students to develop their own inner creativity, and less on topics such as sentence structure, characterization, and vocabulary. The bulk of class activities should involve tasks that stimulate the mind, that force students to begin thinking in new, unique ways.
That’s why, despite the fact that many creative writing students dislike such tasks, it’s important to practice writing in fixed forms, such as sonnets or villanelles. When a writer is free to explore their own creative path without limits, they tend to follow the same patterns. When restrictions are imposed, however, the mind must shift its perspective.
That’s how creativity grows. And that’s pretty much the greatest benefit you stand to gain from a creative writing course.