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THE MYTH OF CREATIVE WRITING: CAN IT BE "TAUGHT"?

Elizabeth Kostova

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Ladies and gentlemen, fellow writers and readers, esteemed colleagues, dear friends:

Good evening and thank you for coming to the first annual Kostova Foundation lecture at the Red House. I’m very honored to have the opportunity to speak with you tonight. This marks the beginning of an annual lecture series about the related crafts of literary writing and the teaching of writing. It is a special pleasure to me to open the series. We hope that future lectures will be delivered by a wide range of Bulgarian and English-speaking writers. I would like to thank the Red House for their very kind hospitality and for their service to the literary community. I would also like to thank Julian Popov, journalist, novelist and chair of the foundation board, Svetlozar Zhelev of CIELA, director of the foundation; and Milena Deleva, administrator, for helping to organize this event.

What is creative writing, why does it matter, and - the real topic of this lecture - what can we do to foster its creation?

There are, of course, many types of creative writing, including innovative journalism. For the purposes of this talk, I have in mind the creation of literature: of fiction, poetry, and essays that spring from a serious, non-formulaic need on the part of the writer to express this experience we call life, and this place we call our world.

In all the arts, we have come to associate the artist with the artwork, and to think of all forms of art, including literary writing, as springing from a source some call human consciousness and others consider divine. Whatever its inspiration, however, literary writing reflects a heightened awareness of experience.

Our modern view of this process was heavily shaped by the Romantic movement in art, music, and literature, a movement that began in about 1780 and emphasized the individual artist and the sudden, unexplainable workings of the subconscious, especially as inspired by nature. The movement had its roots in England and Germany and extended into American literature in one direction and into the Slavic world in the other. Think of the English poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of Goethe, of Yavorov and Debelyanov. They shaped our modern picture of the artist as a being apart from society, touched by the fire of creativity and perhaps a little madness, a rebel but also a receiver of inexplicable insight.

This is the mainstream image of the artist, and of course there is some truth in it for anyone who has experienced inspiration in writing. But it is not the whole truth about how literature comes into being. I’m always amused by the way writers are portrayed in popular film - if you saw the Hollywood movie Shakespeare in Love, you’ll remember those images of William Shakespeare running to his desk to put down his overflowing ideas for a new play about two young lovers from warring clans, or sitting with plume in hand writing as fast as possible to keep up with his own brilliance. He seems to be in the grip of a force that comes from deep within him, or possibly from a greater source above (accompanied, of course, by a lot of emotional music). What about such a process could possibly be taught?

The great American novelist Wallace Stegner, who lived from 1909 to 1993 and who founded one of the first American graduate programs in creative writing, at Stanford University in California, was once asked in an interview whether he thought a teacher could really evoke talent in writing. He answered: “A teacher probably can’t, but a class sometimes can... Talent can’t be taught, but it can be awakened - by reading, by contact with other talents, by exposure to an environment where the expression of talent is valued and encouraged... All a teacher can do is set high goals for students - or get them to set them for themselves - and, then, try to help them reach those goals.” (Stegner 2002).

In the U.S., as in some institutions in Bulgaria, creative writing is offered as a college course. In the United States, there are about 300 university graduate-level programs in writing, about 400 undergraduate programs, and about 300 conferences, festivals, centers, and summer seminars. What on earth is going on in all these programs, and who attends them?

I always find writing most persuasive when it uses specifics to make a general point, and in this spirit I’d like to tell you about my own experience as a writer in the U.S. I graduated from college in 1988 determined to become a fiction writer. I knew that I had a struggle ahead of me. The many writers in this room understand what I mean. Being a serious writer in any country means devoting one’s spare time for a lifetime to a grueling as well as a rewarding craft, usually time that is wrested from working one, or two, or even three jobs to make a living. It means coming to love solitude as well as words, learning to measure success by the sentence that finally works and not by the small chance that one will win an award or ever be published. It means training oneself in endless discipline, often without reward or even understanding from other people. It means learning to look at life in a way that will always be a source of isolation as well as pleasure - becoming, in the words of the immortal novelist Henry James, “one upon whom nothing is lost.” It means noticing everything, working endlessly, expecting little.

As a very young writer I was unable to imagine being helped by anyone else in this process, except indirectly by the great authors whose works I loved and read, and perhaps this is what a young writer most needs to do - to read deeply and guard his or her budding voice fiercely. I’d heard about graduate programs and summer seminars in writing, and I knew a few writers who had attended them, but I couldn’t imagine how writing could be “taught,” and I didn’t want anyone to try teaching me anything. So I worked on my writing alone. I did this for about fifteen years. In the meantime, to make a living, I worked in restaurants, cleaned other people’s houses, did editing jobs for magazines, and eventually became a college teacher of English and of composition and rhetoric. Occasionally I asked the best readers I knew - often fellow writers - to critique my work, and I began to notice how helpful this was to me. I was also hired to teach a college class in creative writing and I realized that as long as I entered into the spirit of what my students were trying to do, and did not impose my own style or taste on their work, I could be encourage them.

One day, after all those years, I decided that I would apply to graduate programs, and I was eventually accepted at a two-year writing program at the University of Michigan, from which I graduated in 2004 with the standard graduate writing degree, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, in my case in the fiction division, although the program also offers degrees in the writing of poetry. (Some American universities offer degrees in creative non-fiction, play-writing, screen-writing, writing for children, and literary translation, as well.) I applied because I wanted more time to write, and some of these programs pay living expenses, thereby making this possible, and above all because I had begun to crave a writing community. I was also drawn by the idea of being in the classroom with gifted, experienced, widely published writers whose work I admired. I still hoped that nobody would try to teach me very much.

I entered the University of Michigan program at the age of 36 and found that my eleven classmates in fiction-writing ranged in age from 22 to 42. The competition to get into this two-year program is stringent, as it is one of the best in the U.S.; that year there were 360 applications for 24 places in fiction and poetry. We took a few classes in literature, taught by established American writers rather than by professors of English literature. In these classes we examined works of fiction not as landmarks of culture but as pieces of craft, in the way a group of apprentice carpenters might be helped by a master carpenter to see how the joints of a fine table had been put together. We had excellent guest speakers from time to time, including some outstanding American writers, and visits from editors and agents from the publishing world in faraway New York. We also taught undergraduate classes in the university each term, first as assistants to professors of literature and then in our own writing courses, which we designed ourselves - valuable professional experience for the future - and we gave public readings of our own work.

Mainly, however, we were grouped in writing workshops, the primary system in the U.S. for the teaching of creative writing. These were classes of twelve students literally seated around a table with a teacher, in a setting that was either structured or informal, depending on the individual style of the instructor. Again, our instructors were not professors in the usual academic sense, but rather established, practicing writers. At the beginning of the term, the instructor made up a schedule for the submission by students of short stories or excerpts from novels, depending on what the students were writing, so that twice a term, each student distributed copies of a piece of work to all of his or her classmates, who read the work and wrote comments on it for the next class meeting. The instructor also read the work and commented on it. At the meeting devoted to your story, you sat listening quietly, attentive and perhaps a little nervous, while the story was discussed. In a good workshop, this occurs in a spirit of honest but constructive criticism and focuses first on what is successful in that story and second on what is not successful. The student participants think deeply about what it is that that particular writer is trying to accomplish in that particular story.

In this context, we discussed problems of character development, of plot and structure, of the themes of each story or novel and of its language, of what makes a story soar and what makes it sink. At the end of this student discussion, often guided but not controlled by the instructor, the instructor said a few words as well. Our instructors were generous, insightful, articulate, and honest. There was no empty praise to make us stop trying and no damning discouragement that might do the same. We were practitioners together, discussing our craft and our vocation. In those workshops I learned how to read my own work in progress - and other people’s - with greater discernment, and I learned from other writers’ successes and failures on the page. I learned from hearing about their work habits and struggles and from the professional experiences of our instructors. All of us here have known the difference a great teacher in any field can make in our lives. A good creative-writing instructor never writes a story or a poem for a student. Rather, he or she is able to help aspiring writers learn to rewrite or revise effectively once a first draft is finished, to think consciously about the goals of the work, to use such tools as outlining, to write effective beginnings and endings. A good writing instructor increases a student’s desire to dedicate himself to the art, provides an example of diligence and humility, recommends useful and inspiring reading, models kind but direct critique, and helps to create community among writers at various stages of their powers.

I want to give you a brief example of the way in which one of my instructors helped me with my own work. When I finished the first draft of my novel The Historian, I gave it to my teacher Eileen Pollack, who had kindly offered to read and critique the whole book, although the manuscript was more than nine hundred pages. When she’d finished, I went to her office for the usual conference. She praised the writing in the book, the descriptions of place - including Bulgaria - and the development of the characters. However, she said she had a serious criticism of the work: she felt that the climax was missing. I should explain that that first draft of the book did not include the scene that describes the meeting of the scholar-character Professor Rossi with Dracula in Dracula’s library in Bulgaria; I had been afraid to try to show Dracula in person and had left that scene entirely to the reader’s imagination. Eileen said to me, “The book is wonderful, but it’s as if you’ve spent hundreds of pages building a nuclear reactor and then used it to open a can.” I was shocked, of course, but I knew immediately that she was right. “You know,” she added shrewdly, “I can’t help thinking what Umberto Eco would have done with this problem.” You see, she knew her students well enough to remember that I am a fan of Eco’s work. I went home in a fever of anxiety, but also of creativity, and the next morning I wrote the entire forty-page diary that describes Professor Rossi’s imprisonment in Dracula’s archives. When readers tell me which scenes in the book they love, that is the one that is mentioned most often.

Of course, I was fortunate in my choice of program and in my instructors and classmates, and as I met more and more people in the world of writing programs I came to realize that just as a good workshop can be very, very good, a bad workshop can be very bad indeed. As with everything else, it is the quality of the people involved that is the determining factor. A writing workshop, in the hands of an ungenerous or uninvolved instructor, or dominated by competitive or unkind students, can cause actual damage to a writer’s work and self-confidence, especially if the writer is young. Low quality of student work can pull down the level of the whole discussion. As in all classrooms, the character and behavior of the teacher set the tone. In the worst cases, a program can try to force conformism of style, turning out the same kind of story over and over and creating competition rather than collegial feeling among the students.

Fortunately, damaging programs are the exception. I had the good luck to find myself in excellent workshops and to watch skillful, compassionate teachers in action. I came out of my graduate program with greatly improved work habits and strengthened resolution, a finished novel, a long list of books I wanted to read or reread, and contacts to help me publish. Just as important, I came out of it with friendships and camaraderie with classmates and faculty that will last a lifetime. My classmates and I still critique each other’s work, in person, by e-mail, and over the phone, applaud each other’s successes, comfort each other in times of discouragement, and help each other get published. In other words, in the lonely business of writing, I no longer feel alone. Out of the teaching and learning experience I had once dreaded, I found a community. Of course, writers form these communities spontaneously and always have - think of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s, or Virginia Woolf, Thomas Eliot, E.M. Forster, and others in London during the same period. But sometimes community can be created, just as a work of art is, with love and discipline and internal challenge. After my novel was published, I was invited to teach at a shorter writing workshop, a four-day summer seminar hosted by the University of Michigan every year in the wilderness of northern Michigan, where about a hundred adult writers study different aspects of craft with eight or ten instructors, taking a break from their jobs and families to focus on the art that is their passion and their avocation. My students there range in age from eighteen to eighty-five, and you can imagine what lively and varied perspectives they bring to our workshops.

Can creative writing be taught? Yes - and no. Creativity cannot be taught. It exists as an inherent force in people, an urge stronger in some than in others. But writing itself, or aspects of it, can be nurtured by teaching, also a great art. I believe that every accomplished, successful, or experienced writer owes a debt to the craft and to those who have encouraged him or her, and has an obligation to foster the talents of beginning or aspiring writers. There are many supporters of creative writing in Bulgaria, among writers and lovers of literature. It is my privilege, and the privilege of the Kostova Foundation, to join forces with all of you in order to provide further opportunities for Bulgarian writers to foster their own work and also to build connections with other writers, including their English-speaking colleagues around the world. After all, we are all aspiring writers, each time we lift the pen or touch the keyboard.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Стегнър 2002: Stegner, Wallace. On Teaching and Writing Fiction. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

 

 

© Elizabeth Kostova
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 24.05.2006, № 5 (90)

The lecture is presented in The Red House (Sofia), 21.05.2007.