Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:36 pm

Why everyone ought to take a creative-writing course

True story: I’ve written for money for more than 30 years.

Equally true story: In more than 40 years of trying, I’ve never crafted so much as a single page of what I believe to be credible prose fiction. To the extent that I have any gifts, and to the extent that I have been able to hone my craft without breaking either the stone or the blade, my gifts and my craft lie elsewhere.

Nonetheless: If it were practical and affordable, I would drive down to Columbia, shove some ingrate undergrads out of my way and sign up right now for Elise Blackwell’s fiction-writing workshop (depending on your IP address, this may be behind a paywall). I have no idea how good a teacher of fiction writing, per se, she is, but I know for a fact she knows what she’s doing and why it matters:

As a form of world-building, fiction stimulates imagination, makes students ask “why? and “what if?” I’m not naïve enough to argue that writing fiction makes someone a better person—I know far too many misanthropic, narcissistic, besotted, and otherwise atrociously behaved writers to make that case—but the attempt to create original fiction encourages students to imagine in detail what it might be like to live another life. This form of role-taking can foster their capacity to engage other people with imagination, openness, and empathy.

Writing workshops also give lessons in group dynamics, self-control, delivering and receiving well-intended criticism, and building an atmosphere in which good work happens painlessly. Due to the relatively small class size and fact that the students themselves produce the texts under discussion, the students have one of their most intimate and interactive college experiences. It’s not just that the professor knows their names but that they know each other’s names—and much more. When students with divergent backgrounds and sensibilities respond to each other with generosity and intelligence, much is learned not just about fiction but about living well in a world populated by other people. (Potential employers take note: Students in workshops report a sense of responsibility to the group to show up prepared and meet their deadlines.)

Perhaps most valuable, if hardest to pin down, is this: Writing and discussing literary fiction can shake loose the conviction that life operates by clichés and that human behavior follows simple psychological formulas. Milan Kundera has argued that the novel is the art form best able to depict ambiguity and that its spirit of inquiry is its great value. The scholarly study of literature teaches ambiguity, too, and well, but writing students tend to engage with their own work and the unpublished work of their peers more personally and with a great sense of contingency. When I hear a student in workshop say, “But that’s not what I would do in that character’s situation,” it always means the student’s critical vocabulary needs sharpening and it often means the story up in workshop has an implausible plot or unconvincing characterization. But sometimes it also signals a nascent understanding of human difference and complexity.

When I hear a student point out where another’s overextended metaphor stumbles, I hear someone discovering that language can mislead. When another says, “So she got the guy, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story what comes next?,” I hear a student realize that  marriage is about more than wedding planning. And when I hear a student who is asked whether his narrator is “bad” or “good” answer “both,” I recognize an increased tolerance for answers that aren’t easy and a real effort to understand the human condition.

I’ve recently blogged, and engaged in some online discussion elsewhere, about the value of a liberal-arts education. That value? This stuff right here.

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