The Fiction Writers Review has published my essay on the teaching of creative writing: “To Those Poor Souls Who Dwell in Night.” This essay has two aspects: it first reviews Brian Kiteley’s how-to-write book, “The 3 A.M. Epiphany,” and then critiques the entire workshop method of teaching fiction writing.
Boiled to its essentials, my essay says: The 3 A.M. Epiphany attempts to improve the workshop model. But because it carries over some assumptions from that model, it makes those assumptions visible. Once visible, they can be described and critiqued, and a method of teaching that does not rely on those assumptions can be described.
I thought that readers might have some questions about the essay—it packs quite a lot into a relatively short space—so I am going to imagine those questions and answer them here. If you have more questions / objections, please leave a comment.
1. Who the hell are you to criticise a many-times published author and University professor?
Yeah, I worry about that, too. But teaching creative writing is a huge industry that thousands of students pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds to be part of. If we cannot handle a serious debate about how we are teaching, something is very dubious about our industry.
2. If you are saying that everyone should write a “story,” what if a student doesn’t want to write what you call a “story?”
The issue is not what students should write. The issue is what we teachers should teach. We have limited time with our students. It is better to teach something well than to teach many somethings poorly. Better to explain and demonstrate and practice the core skills of the medium than refer to many of its elements in a more or less random fashion.
3. But Don Delillo / Amy Hempel don’t write what you call “stories.” I want to write like them.
No teacher can teach you how to write like Amy Hempel. If that’s the criterion for judging a teaching method, no method will pass. And your question reveals a commonly held assumption about studying writing: you imply that you are going to go from “writing student” to “world-famous author.” Were you taking composing lessons, and told your piano teacher, “I want to compose like Beethoven!” then your teacher would probably reply something like, “First you need to learn the basics, the scales, the history of composition—just like Beethoven did.” Our failure to teach the middle stage of “competence” ruins our effectiveness as teachers.
4. I don’t get this talk of “assumptions.” What do you mean?
Read my short piece: The Eras of Creative Writing Teaching.
5. Why are creative writing teachers always harping on about “craft?” Mozart was just a genius!
Studies repeatedly find that great artists take ten years of hard practice and study before they become world-class. Mozart started when he was four—so by the time he was old enough to be worth listening to, he had already finished that process. James Joyce was writing poetry before he was nine—he taught himself to translate Ibsen while still in school. Most students in fiction writing classes haven’t done this, and therefore they have to do the “child’s work” of craft learning as adults. It may look ugly, but it is essential.
6. My teacher was really great. She reviewed our workshop pieces AND taught us craft skills in the same workshop. So your argument doesn’t make sense.
Read this piece I wrote for Roxane Gay’s season on teaching creative writing: Teaching Creative Writing One Skill at a Time. It’s about the method, not the individual. My teachers were exceptional–I was lucky to study with them. I still don’t think the method is a particularly effective one.
7. Isn’t the novel / realism / conventional narrative outdated?
This is obviously a huge and complex topic, but I would simply note here that conventional fiction’s outdatedness is something that only very educated people believe in. There remains a huge reading market for stories like Harry Potter, Master and Commander, The Hunger Games. I travelled by train through North Philadelphia all last year, and a large number of people are reading the genre that my students called “ghetto novellas”—most of these stories are, I assume, quite “conventional” in structure.
If we don’t want to write for people who read Master and Commander, maybe that’s fine, but we need to be honest about that, both to ourselves and to the students that take our classes. Personally, I find it very troubling that teaching students to unpack the appeal of a book like Master and Commander is not a key goal of graduate writing programmes.
8. What about poetry? What about creative non-fiction?
I have only really studied and thought hard about teaching fiction. There are clear differences between teaching fiction and poetry, and poetry occupies a different place in our culture, too. I believe that my approach would be useful in poetry/memoir classes, but I want to stick to what I know.
9. I get your criticism of how things are now, but your own system for teaching seems a bit vague.
Space limited me to some extent, but I’m also still working it out in full. Part of my work during my PhD will be to write a theoretical and practical guide to teaching fiction writing.