An Essay on Creative Writing, Composition, and Literary Theory
Synergy of Effort: Why Creative Writing, Composition, and Literary Theory Can Be a Recipe for Success
The debate about how to teach Creative Writing is ongoing and consists of many views. The Traditional Workshop of Text, The Circle, The Bubble, Constructive Criticism, and The Community and the Solitude are generally what all Creative Writing Workshops have used as a model. The central debate surrounds what roles instructors and students play in this process. The goal of this paper is to offer a synergy of effort of resources in English Departments by showing how Creative Writing, Composition, and Literary Theory complement the toolbox for Creative Writing instructors and students. Creative Writing and Theory/Criticism need not be mutually exclusive and combining both gives students more tools in the writer’s toolbox. A student’s knowledge of literature and theory enhances the workshop process.
According to The University of Iowa’s webpage entitled “About the Workshop”, the school had the first program in that led to a degree in Creative Writing. The first workshop began in 1936 and became the mold for other programs. The philosophy behind the workshop is explained in the section entitled: “Philosophy”: As a "workshop" we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers. Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed, and we see our possibilities and limitations as a school in that light. If one can "learn" to play the violin or to paint, one can "learn" to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.
As seen from The University of Iowa’s webpage, there is partial agreement that “writing cannot be taught” but “can be developed”. Based on this assertion, the role of the instructor is to facilitate the development of student’s talent.
2. Creative vs. Criticism
One of the tools available to both instructors and students are found within any English Department. Underclassman must complete basic Composition classes regardless of major which functions as a foundation for writing. The lessons that students learn, especially student writers, are crucial in building a writer’s toolbox. Literary Criticism, another valuable tool but highly suspect to most Creative Writers, provides more tools for the writer’s toolbox. Francois Camion argues in From Colors of a Different Horse: The Workshop and Its Discontents that reading theory and reading fiction is vastly different:
Nevertheless the workshop is not the literature class, and the Todorov or Barthes I read is not the same on my critical colleagues read. For one thing, I read theory the way I read fiction, unencumbered by the irritable desire to understand, to make sense of everything, to see clearly. It’s partly a matter of metaphysics – critics see the world of writing as a rational continent dotted with little enclaves of the uncanny which they have not yet reduced to a civilized condition. Writers, I think, live in a different country; a country more like William Bradford’s Massachusetts, “a hideous and desolate wilderness, populated by savage beasts and savage men.” (Camion, 29)
Reading theory and reading fiction does not have to be different. For me, the “irritable desire to
understand” both theory and fiction is prevalent when I read. While I agree that the workshop is not the literature class, a student’s knowledge of literature and theory enhances the workshop process. This is why most programs require that students take literature and criticism classes as well as Creative Writing workshops to get a degree. The applications of theory to fiction are limitless and don’t have to be “little enclaves of the uncanny”. For instance, Barthes Mythologies , he questioned, just like poets and fiction writers, the world around him. For Barthes, it was the French Bourgeoisie. Creative Writers often set out to answer a burning question in their mind and soul and the journey to get to that answer comes in the form of a poem or a story. The question may never be answered but the dialogue is started.
The most evident linkage between theory and fiction is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I can’t tell you how many stories I have analyzed and seen analyzed based on this theory. Archetypal Criticism and Myth can be useful tools for the Creative Writer. Understanding theory can quench the “irritable desire to understand” because the student already has a basis of understanding. I do believe that both sides can be reconciled because I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. Creativity works differently for different people. For me, creativity is a long struggle that finally ends in an a-ha moment. At other times, my muse cranks out line after line, paragraph after paragraph, and page after page non-stop with no problem. Creativity can be brought out through different exercises, reading the work of others, and lots of practice. For me, writing is practice just like the back stroke for a swimmer. The more I write, the better I get and the more creative I find my work. Allowing students to write and write can only be helpful in bringing out creativity. Can creativity be taught? I find this question difficult because being creative is different from being good. Instructors are developing students; students are developing themselves and their writing. The instructor cannot make geniuses or great writers of all their students. A text may be creative in its approach and still be a boring heap of words. As a writer, I think of my work as creative genius because it is mine. In Immanuel Kant’s The Critique of Judgement, he says:
Genius is the talent (or natural gift) which gives the rule to Art. Since talent, as the innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to Nature, we may express the matter thus: Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which Nature gives the rule to Art. We thus see (1) that genius is a talent for producing that for which no definite rule can be given; it is not a mere aptitude for what can be learnt by a rule. Hence originality must be its first property. (2) But since it also can produce original nonsense, its products must be models, i.e. exemplary; and they consequently ought not to spring from imitation, but must serve as a standard or rule of judgement for others. (3) It cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings about its products, but it gives the rule just as nature does. § 46.
I agree with Kant that genius is innate. Creativity or talent cannot be taught but it can be nurtured and set free. There has to be something already there to work with. From point three above, instructors would be smart in adapting the perspective that there is not set plan or rule for creativity and to encourage students to take risks and just write. What comes out may be crap but it may be genius.
3. The Student Writer
As a Creative Writing minor and major in English, I took a plethora of workshops for both Poetry and Fiction. What I like about them is that they forced one to write consistently. Every week, a poem or a story (or part of a story) was due to the English Department for compilation and distribution to students to critique. Some students are really good at writing critiques. Some wait until the last minute and just make something up. I find that all critiques are useful because they make one think. Even if you don't incorporate any of the ideas or suggestions, you think about them. After a few classes of reading other student's writing, you get a feel for who is a serious writer and you tend to hold their critiques in higher regard. I was once in an Advanced Poetry workshop and wrote a poem about the branding of a slave. My professor chastised me (a well renowned professor and published author) because he said that NO slaves were branded during slavery. I wrote the poem about my great great great grandmother who indeed had been branded during slavery. Needless to say, I listened to his critique but paid no attention to it and of course he lost credibility with me. Whether the branding was a part of history or not, it was part of my poem and it didn't matter if it was real or not. I do like the workshop setting because every now and then, your readers get exactly what you intended. I once wrote a poem about losing my virginity but wrote it from the perspective of a young man instead of a woman. My workshop peers did not get that it was my experience which was exactly what I was shooting for.
4. The Role of the Instructor
The instructor of a workshop doesn't have to be a tyrant who wants to develop “mini me” students. I’m sure there are a rare few but most want to give the student some examples of what has worked as a basis to build from and help them find their own voice. I equate this to a mimic poem of sorts where you take a published poem and try to copy its essence, form, etc. In doing so, students dissect the poem and find ways to make it their own. As a poet, I often find myself going to Shakespeare’s Sonnets to get a feeling or idea to work from. Or taking an idea or felling I already have and seeing how Shakespeare handled it. One of my favorite poems is Paradise Lost and I would love to one day write an epic poem like that. I think that looking at the masters, whether it be classical figures like Shakespeare or a writing instructor, is a valuable tool for a student.
5. The Master Craftsman
According to Haake, “we are friendly with students whose writing interests us and shows promise. Maybe we are worried that others are beginning to critique the way we do things, but this, we know, is mostly sour grapes” (14). The problem I have with the interpretation of the traditional model of the workshop is that the instructor is the master craftsmen. It may be that my interpretation is wrong and that his is exactly what was meant but the fallacy in that idea is that functioning as the master craftsmen is a totally negative thing. If instructors are teaching students to be robotic versions of them, the workshop is useless. If instructors are teaching students to read as much as possible, write as much as possible, and find their voice, the workshop is invaluable. The master craftsmen can tell a student that if his or her intent was to reveal something specific in a story in a specific way, it either worked or didn’t. The key is having a mutual understanding of what the student wants to accomplish and what the master craftsmen can provide to help.
6. Unleashing Creativity
How can instructors unleash creativity? I believe that since I started writing at an early age and was surrounded by encouragement from family, grade school teachers and beyond, I have never allowed myself to be silenced in a class. There have no doubt been attempts to silence me in classes. In writing workshops, student critiques as well as instructor critiques have been less than helpful and sometimes malicious. I suppose that for a student struggling to find their voice; it would have easily silenced them. My approach as a student has always been to write as best I can, take risks in my writing, and incorporate criticism that I find helpful. Keeping in mind that even negative criticism can be helpful in that it makes you think, I look at all the critiques, determine whether what I was trying to do in a text was understood by the reader (if not, I may have to adjust), and determine the credibility of the person making the critique. After taking many workshops as undergraduate, most of the classes I took had the same faces in them because we were all English majors. I knew whose work I liked and respected, whose opinions mattered to me, and who was just full of it in critique because they really didn’t read my work and just wrote some generic fluff to get something in on time.
7. Writer’s Intent
One way to connect with student writers is to find out and understand the intent of their pieces. As instructors, we assign a certain exercise and want student writers to meet those requirements but additionally, once we understand what their intent was in the creative process, we can help guide them to meeting that attempt. For instance, we may assign the following exercise: Write the poem: Ways of Making Love. List them. The instructor has asked for a poem with the title Ways of Making Love and wants the student to include ways of making love. A student may interpret this criterion as a List Poem and create as many ways as he or she can think of. Another student may interpret this criterion as a poem that incorporates many ways of making love and produce a villanelle. The point is, each student has met the basic criterion but creatively chose different ways of expression. If the instructor understands why each student chose what they did, it is easy to help them develop their piece.
8. The Critiquing Process
Students will feel free to speak if they know that their words will not be penalized. Setting class rules at the beginning is helpful. No personal attacks. Everyone will get the chance to speak and so on. Once students know that there are rules and the rules are enforced, speech flows and interesting dialogues begin. The critiquing process will be eased because students know what the criterion for each assignment is and that their intent for their texts will be taken into consideration and aided.
9. Grading and Evaluation
Grades are like taxes. They never go away. High School grades along with pre-college tests determine whether one gets into college or at least the college of one’s choice. College grades determine whether one graduates with a degree or goes to graduate school. Grades are important because our society has made them important. Grades are a form of feedback just like a critique. Instructors hand out Syllabi and let students know what they have to do to make a certain grade. Students attempt to meet this criterion in order to get the grade. In between, hopefully, the student learns and grows and the grade is reflective of that.
In a workshop, I have always been graded heavily on the final portfolio, participation in class, weekly assignments (did I do what was asked), and quality of critiques I gave. With this mix of elements graded, I have been successful in being creative and making a good grade. I believe that this approach balances both creativity and institutional grading requirements.
10. Technological Advances
Another way to incorporate writing, creativity, critique and grading is to have electronic portfolios and/or student built websites. Advance technologies allow students be as creative as possible with their portfolios and websites and provides instructors with additional means of assessment for grades. Additionally, as part of critiquing student writers, focusing on theory can enhance the student’s perspective of their work. Using Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Queer theory, for example, can show a writer what elements are present in their work and help them in the revision stage.
One rubric for a Fiction Workshop from the Teacher Vision website shows how an instructor may assess a student writer’s work. It demonstrates that criteria can be set for creative writing assignments and that a student’s level of development is central to the grade they receive.
Fiction-Writing Content Rubric
PLOT: "What" and "Why"
Both plot parts are fully developed.
One of the plot parts is fully developed and the less developed part is at least addressed.
Both plot parts are addressed but not fully developed.
Neither plot parts are fully developed.
SETTING: "When" and "Where"
Both setting parts are fully developed.
One of the setting parts is fully developed and the less developed part is at least addressed.
Both setting parts of the story are addressed but not fully developed.
Neither setting parts are developed.
CHARACTERS: "Who" described by behavior, appearance, personality, and character traits
The main characters are fully developed with much descriptive detail. The reader has a vivid image of the characters.
The main characters are developed with some descriptive detail. The reader has a vague idea of the characters.
The main characters are identified by name only.
None of the characters are developed or named.
This particular rubric shows how assignments are created and graded. The added challenge for the instructor is to understand the why or intent of the student in the creative process.
Thanks to the University of Iowa, the workshop, in evolved forms has produced great writers, good writers and better writers. Instructors or Master Craftsmen are challenged in developing the talent of student writers. Students are challenged to create and meet a criterion that produces grades and interesting text. How the challenges are met has been discussed but there is no perfect model that effectively adapts to every instructor and every student. The debate on how the workshop works and its effectiveness will continue. A synergy of effort would add tools to both instructors and student writers’ toolboxes and allow a significant evolution of the traditional workshop model. A synergy of effort of resources in English Departments by showing how Creative Writing, Composition, and Literary Theory complement the toolbox for Creative Writing instructors and students. Creative Writing and Theory/Criticism need not be mutually exclusive and combining both gives students more tools in the writer’s toolbox. A student’s knowledge of literature and theory enhances the workshop process.
Bishop, Wendy, and Hans Ostrom, eds. Colors of a Different Horse: Rethinking Creative Writing Theory and Pedagogy. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1994. Print.
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Garza, David. A Portrait of the Artist as a Grad Student: How Can Creative Writing Be Taught? The Austin Chronicle. October 22, 1999. Web.
Haake, Katharine. What Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Studies. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. Print.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. translated with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Bernard (2nd ed. revised) (London: Macmillan, 1914). Print.
Pearson Education, "Teacher Vision". Family Education Network. 2009. Web.
Purdue Owl. “MLA Formatting and Style Guide.” The Purdue Owl. Purdue U Writing Lab, 3 Aug 2009. Web.