Why “you can’t teach writing”

“We never hear that music cannot be taught, painting cannot be taught, filmmaking cannot be taught. Writing is fraught with more industrial insecurities, I fear, than some of the other disciplines.”

Paul Vermeersch writes these two sentences in a passing response to “The Persistence of the Resistance to Theory”. The distinction that troubles him between “writing [and] some of the other disciplines” may be accounted for by some arts being more mediate than writing. Music, painting, filmmaking, photography, and sculpture, for that matter, all demand acquaintance with an instrument:  obviously in the case of music; brush, pigments, palette and other implements in the case of painting; and so on. Writing, however, appears to the layperson to require only literacy or in the case of oral language arts even only the voice. It might be objected singing and dancing are as immediate as the voice and body, but both seem special occasions of each, speaking and writing more basic, as thinking, the dialogue of the soul with itself or what one attempts to merely attend in meditation, appears to intimate. Of course the writer and writing teacher beg to differ:  the poem or story are not just thinking or talking; creative writing is an art or craft where language is the medium worked. No matter how spontaneous or plain spoken a poem, say, may appear—and even if it is in fact spontaneous or improvised—its language is organized in an artificial manner.

The very words “creative writing workshop” imply—and its practice is premised upon the assumption—that creative writing is a teachable, learnable craft. If the master is to teach the apprentice, they must share a metalanguage, a discourse that articulates the materials and practices of that art and that expresses value judgments. This discourse may be called a “poetics”, not of the theoretical kind typified by Aristotle’s Poetics—a description, analysis, and evaluation of the art by a non-practitioner—but more akin to Horace’s Ars Poetica, practical guidance of an acknowledged master offered to an aspiring neophyte. Ironically, while creative writing teachers will vehemently defend the artificiality of literary language, too often (in my experience, at least) they assume the language of their poetics is somehow natural and its value system intuitive. Worse, too often, precisely because the terms of their poetics is assumed to be natural, they assume it is as unproblematically shared with the apprentice.

Despite the distinction between theoretical and practical poetics, the practical language of the workshop is heavily indebted to the theoretical language of the English class, i.e., literary criticism. Of course, the corollary is also true:  the language of the master informs that of the teacher:  the poetics of Horace, Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Henry James are fed back in to the merely scholarly study of literature. But creators learn their terms in the classroom. Neither scholarly nor creative discourse can claim priority; they are mixed at the source, because the art of writing assumes what the ancients called grammar, literacy, and one’s taught reading and writing in school. Not only are the languages of criticism and creation impossible to disentwine, they are also diverse and relative. The notion of poetry as craft was energetically applied by the Russian Futurists before the Great War, for example, with their doctrine of “the self-sufficient word” and their emulation of the factory worker or craftsman, an approach summed up neatly by the painter Dmitriev:  “the artist is now simply a constructor and technician.” Their poetic, as articulated by their scholarly co-workers the Russian Formalist critics, spoke of “materials” and “devices” with a dispassionate, scientific technicality and precision that makes the terminology of most criticism or poetics seem quaint. This approach to the craft of poetry finds analogues in anglophone poetics, in the “bald statement” William Carlos Williams makes in his introduction to The Wedge (1944),  “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” and in creative writing pedagogy where the Russian Formalist concepts of “defamiliarization” and “device” are used alongside exercises in proceduralist composition in the manner of the OULIPO or present-day Conceptualism. That such poetics also find inspiration and conceptual resources in literary theory should not go unremarked.

Regardless of the impossibility of a purely practical poetics, the knotiness of poetics, criticism, and theory being snarled together, or debates about the merits of competing creative writing pedagogies, doubts remain whether writing can be taught. Such skepticism cannot be dismissed as easily as pointing out it depends upon an outmoded, questionable notion of genius. Who can deny that the increasing plethora of creative writing programs results in an increasing homogenization of literary practice? My own experience is telling:  every year I teach the latest Journey Prize Stories and invariably I find the creative-writing-school-trained jury members award first prize to the story worthy an A+ in a creative writing class while the edgy, lively work, worthy an A for Art, is overlooked, precisely because of the prejudices inculcated in the course of the jurors’ educations. What can be taught is technique, but technique without the natural gift of talent is merely mechanical or at best competent. The art of writing (or music, or painting, etc.) can be taught, but not what might make it Art.

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