Defending Creative Writing Classes

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On a cloudy day last fall, I handed out my syllabus to my introductory creative writing class. It came with the usual suspects — character, point of view, and plot. We would learn to write stories, I said, by interrogating each of these building blocks of craft.

Then we dove right in, filling class time with rich discussions about each of these craft elements. The semester flew by. Students wrote stories, discussed, and workshopped.

On the last week, as reflection essays stacked up outside my office, it dawned on me that all semester I had danced around one vital question that students were beginning to ask on their own.

It is, perhaps, the most valuable question a creative writing teacher can ask a student: why write fiction?

On a liberal arts campus, where students are often shepherded into general education courses against their will, it’s not uncommon for professors to spend part of the semester defending their field. Some of my college professors took great pains to explain the need for their disciplines — psychology philosophy, or history — to a room filled with non-majors assembled at the behest of the registrar.

Sometimes passionate, often practical, these exhortations served to justify subjects that promised to expand our horizons, as well as invest us in the coursework, including the papers that would eat into our weekends.

This was not the approach in the creative writing classes I took in college. Creative writing teachers rarely, if ever, defended their field. Not one mentioned the burgeoning science that supports reading, particularly fiction. We trudged along, as did my students last fall, without deliberating the necessity, value, or function of what we were doing writing fiction.

Nowhere in the world is creative writing a general education requirement, so teachers are not to blame for simply assuming that students show up because they enjoy reading and writing, because they have somehow discovered, on their own, the need for fiction in human life.

This complete absence of justification for our work as writers, the blithe assumption of student appreciation for fiction, can be a pedagogical failure.

Students can often sign up for creative writing classes, as I once did, on a whim. Can we really expect modern students, besieged by social media, to arrive in our classroom understanding why they should spend the hours (and often weeks) we ask of them to craft a short story or poem for class, besides scoring an A?

Like desperate hypnotists, creative writing teachers tell students stories need conflict, that characters must face some vital predicament from which to extricate themselves, that fiction asks moral questions, even if it doesn’t necessarily answer them. Plenty of craft books approach these topics with evidence and research that somehow creative writing teachers avoid.

Then we read in despair when stories appear in our inbox without most of these things.

Shouldn’t we lead by telling our students what advertisers figured out a long time ago? That stories affect human thought and behavior? That by creating fiction beginning writers are participating in a vital and ancient human function?

If we don’t defend more lucidly the necessary role of fiction and, by extension, our place within academia and society, our particular demands for craft can come across, to an undergraduate ear, as the arbitrary demands of a stingy teacher.

There are numerous ways of facilitating this conversation in class, whether through a simple, open discussion based on life experience or by assigning readings that present theories of fiction and art — Jonathan Gottschall and Brian Boyd are excellent choices, among many.

In the end, the quality of student work can only improve if there is a larger mission in mind, one that extends beyond the semester grade.

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