Creative writing can’t be taught?

Myth: Creative writing can’t be taught.  I have to admit, when I first saw the article in last week’s New Yorker about the effectiveness of M.F.A. writing programs, my first reaction was: not this again. Writing  classes, writing teachers, and writing degrees are a colossal waste of time–because you either have talent or you don’t–and money, which you stand no chance of making more of ever again.

Everybody knocks academic writing programs,  and yet people still flock to them. Me included: last month I graduated from Columbia’s nonfiction M.F.A. program. (Hey fellow MFA’s: take this poll at the New Yorker blog) So what was the point of arguing over whether they should or shouldn’t exist?

I should have known the formidable Louis Menand would take a more nuanced view, and in the process, help me articulate mine. I knew the downsides–low financial aid, dubious job prospects–three years ago before I left my job to go back to school, and I did so anyway. Why? Because of course creative writing can be taught.  Not in exactly the same way as chemistry can be taught, or even history, but it can be taught. And these days, getting a Master’s degree in chemistry or history is about as much of an income guarantee as a writing M.F.A.  There are a lot of more sympathetic characterizations of the M.F.A. idea, but recently I’m enamored of  the humble, patient view of the current chair of my program, novelist Binnie Kirshenbaum, as expressed in her recent interview with Kristen O’Toole.  Teaching writing is different than teaching other art forms, she said, because unlike, say, film editing or ballet dancing, everyone can already write, and it’s hard to see the learning curve in something that you’ve had to do since you were a kid.

It’s as if someone told you you could get a Master’s degree in walking, or breathing.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve, can’t in fact discover entirely new ways of walking.  It does, however, require practice.  And on the simplest level, that’s what writing programs provide–a small head start on that much-ballyhooed 10,00 hours of practice that scientists, and Malcolm Gladwell, say you need to be really good at anything.

I’m one of those people that always studied in the library in college, so that I could be around other people doing the same thing.  I could have spent those same hours in my dorm room by myself and accomplished nothing. And that’s kind of what it was like for me trying to write while working my regular job: isolation, procrastination, discouragement.

That’s not to say that writing doesn’t happen in a room by yourself: it does. But for me, I needed to be in that room with an awareness that I was not alone in attempting this crazy endeavor. My teachers and my classmates were behind me, people whose opinions I trusted telling me I could do it.  Training wheels. Three years and hundreds of pages later, I can sit in that same room alone and be perfectly focused and content. (Sometimes, it’s true, I do still go to the reading room in the New York Public Library, which is always reassuringly packed in the middle of the work week.)

If you’re reading this thinking “that’s not me,” well, maybe it isn’t, and more power to you.  But do the Mythographer a favor and don’t go around perpetuating the myth that creative writing–or creative anything–can’t be learned, that creativity “just happens”; you either “have it” or you don’t.  That’s actually the cynical perspective.  You’d be surprised at what can “just happen” after months of work.

Observing the graduation ceremony for Columbia’s School of the Arts, one could get the impression that the degree itself is somewhat of an afterthought. There were 72 writers who graduated with me this year, but only about a third of them showed up at the ceremony, fewer even than the graduates in film, visual arts, and theater.  Binnie Kirshenbaum, in lieu of a speech, simply read aloud this beautiful poem by Richard Wilbur, She was then obliged to read all 72 names, applause or no, usually no. At some point she looked up from her list. “Writers! They better be all holed up in their rooms hard at work.”  Hopefully, they are.

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