Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reading and Writing Fiction

At the NY Times, Charles McGrath reviews a couple new books from the era of the writing workshop.

Here's an interesting and, I would imagine, true statement:

Creative writing programs are themselves vocational training of a sort, [Mark McGurl] points out, and most of the people teaching in them are themselves holders of advanced degrees in creative writing. Probably a majority of American writers make a considerable part of their living not by writing, in fact, but by teaching others how to write and how to teach writing.

But McGrath's attempts to draw out worrisome trends from the rise of creative writing programs seem suspect to me: 

... few of even the most ardent teachers of creative writing believe it can really be taught. Probably the best that can be expected is that the programs identify and nurture talent that is already there. The downside, though no one seems terribly worried about it, is that with new programs springing up every year, a lot of costly nurturing of nontalent takes place as well.


What this means is that we are conceivably approaching a state in which there are more writers in America than there are readers and, even more alarming perhaps, in which writing detaches itself from the marketplace and becomes, as it was back in the 17th century, a profession practiced only by teachers and by those who can afford to do it for nothing.

McGrath seems a little too caught up in the ideas of talent and the marketplace. I teach creative writing in two different (though similar) contexts: a summer program for seventh graders, and an elective course for high school seniors. Besides the obvious fact that these jobs keep me employed, I teach these courses and these students not in order to train producers of writing for the marketplace, but instead for two reasons:

1) It's fun—the courses give students a chance (and an excuse) to savor language, to play with words, and to create something beautiful, exciting, or funny with them.

2) For the reason that Mark Salzman arrived at while teaching creative writing to a group of juvenile delinquents, an experience he describes in an essay in The American Scholar, later part of a book called True Notebooks

Giving narrative coherence to experience is inherently meaningful work. It doesn’t make life possible the way food or shelter does, but it makes life worth living.

1 comment:

Rebecca Talley said...

While I believe there's some talent involved, I also believe that writing can be taught. We can learn the structure, techniques, and technical (spelling, grammar, etc.) aspects of writing.

I've found that many people have a desire to write and that writing can help cleanse the soul.

Insightful post. It must be a lot of fun to teach kids how to write.