Creative writing courses: learning to play practical jokes 8 Comments

Creative writing courses: learning to play practical jokes

There’s a shedload of debate about the legitimacy of creative writing courses. The oft-repeated question: ‘Can creative writing really be taught?’ quickly becomes an annoying one. Therefore I will sidestep the issue myself, and point you to some of the (many many many) others who have tackled it. The following is a tiny selection of discussions about creative writing courses.

The New Yorker‘s Louis Menand believes that workshopping works. MJ Hyland told The Wheeler Centre that it can be taught, but that we have “to recognise and accept that it’s really tricky shit“. Meanjin‘s Jess Au compares creative writing courses with writers’ groups. And The Guardian dips into this topic regularly: like in 2003, in 2007, in 2009, and earlier this year.

Not many of these articles make any groundbreaking arguments; it seems the dialogue itself is worthy enough. And they all walk a tightrope, straining to be impartial.

A few observations:

  • people want a black and white answer on this topic: a yes, or a no. To me this is odd, as I think creative writing is about negotiating the grey areas.
  • for all the chatter from great writers about this topic, most of them have either studied or taught creative writing. Can any of them really argue (if they do so) that there is no benefit of writing courses when they themselves have come through the other side and are ‘successful’ writers?
  • if you want to be published in a well-respected journal, write an essay discussing the legitimacy of creative writing courses. Pick some quotes from university professors and mix equally with quotes from published authors. Bake and serve.


As always in these times of need, I turn to Kurt Vonnegut. It’s why I love his books – there’s no bullshit, no mincing of words, no tricksy games. Below is an excerpt from a combined interview he gave to The Paris Review. It’s a tad long, but every word belongs.



Do you really think creative writing can be taught?


About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing. I did that well, I think, at the University of Iowa for two years. Gail Godwin and John Irving and Jonathan Penner and Bruce Dobler and John Casey and Jane Casey were all students of mine out there.

They’ve all published wonderful stuff since then. I taught creative writing badly at Harvard—because my marriage was breaking up, and because I was commuting every week to Cambridge from New York. I taught even worse at City College a couple of years ago. I had too many other projects going on at the same time. I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory.


Could you put the theory into a few words?


It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers’ Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: Don’t take it all so seriously.


And how would that be helpful?


It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.


Practical jokes?


If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.


Can you give an example?


The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.


Some more examples?


The others aren’t that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.


If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.


I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—


And what they want.


Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

  • Liam Wood

    Great advice from Kurt Vonnegut.

    Having been in two University writing courses and various other writing groups I’d have to say it comes down to the people in the group and the tutor/supervisor more than the course itself.

  • phill

    As someone who calls himself a ‘hobby writer’ with no formal training, I find these discussions really interesting. I can’t for the life of me imagine what it might be like being taught creativity, there’s just no way. Can a teacher guide a student to look at the world in such a way as to inspire stories? It’d have to be one heck of a special teacher to do so.

    On the other hand, teaching students to be readers is probably a lot more achievable, and I think that every bit of advice that Vonnegut gives above can be gained by being a good reader. Recognising tropes, being able to pace a story’s dramatic curve, writing believable characters–all these things can be taught by knowing how to read fiction critically.

    As for writing groups, I’ve only just joined a small one, and I think they are the bee’s freakin’ knees. The guys I ‘shop with are enthusiastic in their advice and editing, supportive, and great motivation to have writing done every fortnight. So a big thumbs-up to workshops from me. :)

    • Saba

      In high schools, we’re taught that creative writing is like adding ingredients to a soup – you have your base, your plot/narrative structure, to which you add flavour in the form of language features, form experimentation, your metaphors/alliteration/satire/irony/etc. But there is an ‘x factor’, I think, that can’t be taught – a turn of phrase, the engaging language… But I absolutely agree that the ability to read critically is a writer’s best tool – to really grasp what makes a story “tick”.

      As for actual workshops, I’ve only ever been to two, but in both they set Virgule-style writing exercises as tasks. A trigger for creative energy, perhaps, but while that’s brilliant and important all in itself, that’s all they can claim to have acted as.

  • Jenna

    I just completed a BA in Writing and Cultural Studies and I don’t think it taught me how to be creative as much as it taught me editing, discipline, and theory that informs writing. I agree, the most important thing these courses can teach is how to be a good reader of texts. People who apply for these courses already have an interest in creativity, which I would think would be pretty influenced by cultural factors/upbringing rather than present since birth or wholly influenced by a writing course.

  • Michael LaRocca

    You simply cannot go wrong when you quote Kurt Vonnegut. And now I’m gonna read the whole article from The Paris Review.

  • Malcolm R. Campbell

    Phill’s go a point, I think, when he suggests these courses teach us to be better readers. Then, adding Saba’s comment about ingredients gets us to the place where we see that most of these courses don’t harm their students as much as we think.


  • RBS

    Interestingly, a few weeks ago at the UTS Writers’ Anthology launch, Clinton Caward delivered a speech that addressed this issue of ‘learning how to write’. His comments were to-the-point, and he threw in an awesome metaphor about UTS being a ship, and the institutions role in teaching us astronavigation. Essentially, he said that universities cannot teach us the art/craft (whatever tacky term you deem appropriate) of writing. Instead, these institutions provide for their students the contacts, opportunities, and networks that an emerging writer needs in order to foster their skills. I am a student of Writing and Cultural Studies, and my university has provided me with tutors who have pushed my abilities to write by providing opportunities to exercise my skills though homework, workshopping, and in-class exercises. If I approach a tutor, they provide guidance and dialogue. Last week Jean Bedford provided my class with entry sheets for the John Marsden competition, and praised us so unabashedly I’m surprised no student whipped out their lappy in-the-moment, and started tapping out a short story. I feel as though my degree has taught me how to be resourceful, social, and has encouraged me to embrace (and potentially help enrich) the realms of the cultural and literary. (Warning: generalisation here!) I do feel as though there is an apathy that pervades the body of writing students; a resistance, resentment perhaps, toward the fact that they are not being spoon fed ‘how to write a good story’. From this apathy emerges a student with an undergraduate and little practical experience. A number of friends of mine who are writing students have completed little practical experience in lieu of completing their degrees, and having to engage with the dilemma an emerging writer faces when searching for career-specific employment. Do they feel lost? Are they looking for the blinkered guidance of a teacher preparing their class for a year 12 examination?

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