“What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.”
What’s the difference between a creative writing instructor and a whore?
Over the course of my career I’ve taught a number of workshops to aspiring writers and can say, with the utmost assurance, that my efforts served little or no purpose. That isn’t quite true—I suppose I benefited to some extent since I pocketed a nice chunk of change (including mileage and preparation time) for playing the role of grand old man of letters. I suspect if the folks out there teaching writing were subjected to Guantanamo-style interrogations, they could be compelled to admit their efforts were similarly futile and that most took on the job to augment their meager earnings. Only a tiny proportion of authors can support ourselves solely on the sales of our books so I guess we can be forgiven if we seek income from other sources. We may not feel good about hoodwinking “developing” writers with this rather moth-eaten ruse but, then again, we have bills to pay and mouths to feed.
A lucky few are fortunate enough (usually thanks to a little nepotism) to land positions as creative writing instructors at universities and colleges. There might even be the possibility of (I swoon to think of it) tenure. A steady income, a measure of stature…benefits.
But, at the end of the day, what do these writing coaches actually accomplish? How much do they contribute to creating and shaping great literature?
The truth is, not a helluva lot.
Oh, sure, a teacher can act as a referee when a student becomes flustered after his/her classmates pick apart a treasured poem about the death of a beloved pet. We can offer suggestions when one of our charges comes to us in tears because they can’t find a word that rhymes with “solitary” or “lonesome” or “misunderstood”. We can provide advice on proofreading, suggest a good dictionary for chronically bad spellers.
But can we, as teachers, produce genius? Can we make a poor writer into a good one? Can we give a good writer the drive and perseverance necessary to confront the years of indifference and hostility they will have to endure at the hands of semi-literate editors and publishers?
And that’s the trouble. Real writers will write, forge ahead with little or no encouragement from others. Real writers will chafe at the homogenizing atmosphere of writing classes, the admonitions of dingbats in flowery kaftans who say things like “you should change your lead character to a woman” or “I didn’t think there were enough likeable people in your stories”.
You can’t teach courage, originality, persistence, vision.
But, listen, if you’re still determined to try a creative writing course, you’ve already ponied up the dough, signed your name on the dotted line, here are some survival skills and suggestions that might come in handy:
1) Find out who your instructor is and read everything you can get your hands on, every poem or short story they’ve written. This might be difficult because most have only appeared in obscure litmags (and that was twenty years ago). Try to commit certain phrases to heart and pop them in to casual conversation. Instructors love to be stroked.
2) There is only one reason to attend a creative writing class: networking. If your instructor likes you (see: above), they might be willing, regardless of the quality of your work, to put in a good word for you with their agent or publisher. This may sound like a dream but such largesse may come with strings attached. Which leads us to…
3) Some writing instructors, not all, not most, but some use their position and influence to sexually exploit immature, desperate or just plain dumb students. Sexual predators, there’s no other name for them. If one of these assholes wants to meet you outside of class hours, he (or she) doesn’t want to get into your head, it’s something quite different they’re after. Your proper response should be to ball up your fist and drive said teacher’s front teeth back into their trachea. This won’t get you the name of a good agent but it will preserve your dignity. Your choice.
4) You might not have much talent but one of your classmates could be a budding superstar (i.e. they write formulaically, their prose effortlessly emulating 99% of the pap out there). Identify and befriend this person, buy them drinks and appear to hang on their every word. Look for any dragging coat tails and, when you see the opportunity, hop aboard. Remember: workmanlike writers need a lot of reassurance and hand-holding and they’re infinitely grateful to anyone who provides that service.
5) Don’t draw attention to yourself by being difficult. Avoid comments like: “But Samuel Beckett said…” or “Haven’t any of you people read Ulysses?”. No one appreciates a showoff, especially the vast majority of your fellow students who are likely to be aspiring romance writers, high fantasy fans, bad poets, etc.
6) This rule isn’t completely ironclad but close enough: if your instructor is a genre writer or their last book was published by a small regional press or they’re a poet or someone who describes him/herself as a “feminist and proud of it”, disregard everything they have to say. As William S. Burroughs would say, they haven’t got the key to anything except the shithouse door.
7) And, finally, at all costs avoid sleeping with your fellow classmates. They, like you, are probably wounded, feeble, insecure people with a tendency to cling. They will come to believe in their own mind that your drunken one-nighter has great historical significance, that you are bound together like the Bronte sisters or Tristan and Isolde. Never give them your home address or telephone number and discourage further contact. These people are like ugly luggage: you just can’t get rid of them.
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I sincerely hope these remarks will be helpful to you and assure you that my advice is given with the best intentions in the world. For my own part, I hereby vow never to teach another creative writing course. Nossir. I’ve learned my lesson. I may be many things but I’m not a hypocrite or a whore.
Er…unless the money’s really, really good.
Postscript: The funniest book about creative writing courses I ever read was John Metcalf’s General Ludd. It is absolutely savage. I know a guy (no names!) who has, to his eternal shame, taught innumerable writing classes for the most mercenary reasons—he was quick to assure me “Cliff, that book is painfully close to the truth”. Mr. X told me tales of students who crisscross the country, clutching the same tattered manuscript to their hopeful breasts, trying to find the one mentor who will recognize their genius. Sad, sad, sad…