Ruminations of a Red Dirt Hussy

December 22, 2011

Don’t give them what they want . . .

Filed under: Blogroll,General,Writing and Teaching — Vadasmaker @ 6:32 pm
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Teaching creative writing is usually a joy, but not always. The difficulty arises when I try to articulate the reality of writing versus the myths of writing.

That struggle can be encapsulated in one Continuing Education class I taught several years ago. It was called “So You Want to Be a Writer?” It wasn’t a creative writing class, per se, but the students who enrolled in it were either already producing creative work or hoped to do so.

The course was a little lecture and a great deal of Q and A. Participants wanted to know how long it would take them to see publication, how big an advance they could expect on a first book, how much money had I made writing, why must they revise, why worry about an audience, how would they find an agent, what if I send my book out and two publishers want it, and many others.

In every case I disappointed them.

  • I don’t know when you’ll be published.
  • Advance? What advance?
  • My last royalty check on my first book was two years ago, and it was for $2.31; if my second book had stayed in print four or five years longer, I might have made back the money I spent on promotion.
  • The only good writing is re-writing—there are no “good” first drafts, just drafts with potential.
  • An audience is a necessary part of your creative writing experience. That’s who would give you the money if there was any money to be had.
  • Finding an agent is about as hard as finding a publisher.
  • That will happen at roughly the same time as the phrase “honest politician” ceases to be an oxymoron—in other words, don’t hold your breath.

You probably won’t be surprised to know that by the sixth week I had four students remaining of the original 15. And that class never “made” again, at least not with me as the instructor.

Teaching a creative writing class often entails answering those same questions, sometimes explicitly, sometimes obliquely, over the span of 16 weeks. It’s harder, much harder, to break their little hearts because I become closer to them over that period of time. And frankly, some of them don’t see any reason to write without the possibility of seeing their work in print.

You can imagine my relief at learning that my job as a creative writing instructor doesn’t necessarily include answering many of those questions.

As part of my MFA program, I will take several classes in pedagogy. In preparation for that, I’m reading one of the assigned texts, Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates, by Stephanie Vanderslice and Kelly Ritter. In the first few pages, the authors state the following:

[When teaching creative writing], you don’t have to be a gatekeeper. All you have to be is a teacher, a guide, the first . . . in a long line of guides, showing your students the way. You are not here to supervise a career or to create the next Pulitzer Prize winner. You are also not here, in the parlance of television culture, to vote any of your students off the writing island. You are here to do a defined job—introduce the craft and criticism of writing poetry and fiction—and demonstrate how this is done in a college course. That’s all. (8)

Oh! What beautiful words those are!

I have always felt inadequate in the “gatekeeping” role, but because that’s what students seemed to want—the nuts and bolts of publication—that’s what I gave them. As much as I loathe Dr. Phil (don’t look at me like that—if he knew me he wouldn’t like me either), I feel compelled to say, “What was I thinking?”

As I reflect on it now, I realize that if I gave the majority of my students what they “want,” my composition classes would write no papers but spend class time playing “Angry Birds” on their ITouches or posting their status (boorrred) on Facebook (or worse, posting messages to me WHILE THEY’RE IN CLASS); nevertheless, I would issue A’s to all and sundry. My literature students would never have to read, or at least they would never have to read anything outside of the Twilight series or the Bible. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) These students, too, would receive A’s.

But I don’t have to give them what they want. I just have to give them what they need to become competent writers in a world where we often have to do what we don’t want to do, and we don’t even get A’s for it.


1 Comment »

  1. No A’s? I will not live in this world of which you speak.


    Comment by Michelle — December 22, 2011 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

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