On not being born to write

by Maria Takolander

Despite a lifetime of being exposed to American culture, the US remains resiliently strange to me. There are its female child beauty pageants and self-heroising gun culture, its confessional TV and fenceless houses, its rhetoric of moral superiority and the unambiguous immorality of many of its actions. Perhaps my response is related to my Finnish background. The US is, in some ways, the antithesis of introspective, socially responsible Finland—although Finland certainly possesses its own quantum of strangeness. However, being descended from Finns is hardly necessary to an appreciation of the bizarre spectacle of itself that the US shamelessly projects out into the world, as Peter Carey’s early writing and Jean Baudrillard’s work suggests.

This is a tangential introduction to the topic of this post: the US model of creative writing, as represented by the world-famous and pioneering program at the University of Iowa. The website for this writing program subscribes to ‘the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught’, though it concedes that the ‘craft if not the art of creative writing’ (my emphasis) can be developed. Of course, this is where the university’s program of technical workshops can assist. While I do not possess any first-hand knowledge of the Iowa curriculum, I do know that the so-called Iowa model informed Australian creative writing programs as they were established here. And as a creative writer and as a teacher of creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, I would like to say that the Iowa line on creative writing is yet another US ‘policy’ that remains foreign to me.

There has always been a great deal of mystificatory nonsense surrounding writers—and creativity more generally. Let me start by addressing the idea that writers are ‘born’. The Iowa claim is more nuanced, but the idea of creative writing as some kind of a birthright is probably lurking somewhere there. While we are born with a language potential, which is realised in our language-rich environments as we develop, there is nothing biologically inevitable about becoming a creative writer: a person who has learned to use language in certain ways that are culturally recognised as ‘creative’. Indeed, as the phenomenon of the ‘wild child’ shows, there is nothing even biologically inevitable about language development. (For those readers interested in nature and nurture debates, Susan Oyama’s Evolution’s Eye: A System’s View of the Biology-Culture Divide shows how our genes can’t even ‘create’ bones of the necessary density without our Earthly environment of gravity.) One might surely only conceivably become inclined towards creative writing because of a lifelong immersion in literary texts such that their patterns of meaning and resonances come to infiltrate one’s thinking. What is at work in the creation of a writer is the felt work of a literary heritage more than a genetic one.

The second idea I’d like to address is the separation of the ‘art’ of writing from the ‘craft’ of writing. The Iowa website fails to define these loaded terms. We might understand them as synonymous with ‘content’ and ‘form’, but even a quick look at Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Annie Proulx’s short stories would dispel such distinctions. In Hoban’s post-apocalyptic work of ventriloquism and in Proulx’s uniquely voiced stories, ‘form’ is surely inseparable from ‘content’. There are also, of course, countless examples of verse that defy attempts to distinguish ‘art’ from ‘craft’. Indeed, in my experience it is only attention to the ‘craft’ of writing, perceived as an exercise of thinking deeply and continuously about the material writing on the screen, that might transform what I am doing into something validated by publishers and reviewers as ‘art’.

There is also the value-laden nature of the terms to consider. ‘Art’ is something special—elite, institutionally legitimised and professional—while ‘craft’ is an amateur, hands-on, hobby activity. If the Iowa creative writing program contends that ‘art’ cannot be taught, I suspect it is in part because the success associated with that term cannot be guaranteed. The Iowa creative writing program would rather not, so to speak, have blood on its hands. The technical skills of ‘craft’, by contrast, are attainable by everyone—a good slogan for marketing departments.

Let me now turn to the deleterious effects that the Iowa rhetoric has on creative writing programs in my humble and anecdotal experience. To begin with, the idea that the writer might already be in possession of some special quality presents a considerable obstacle. Writers like to think of themselves as special, and they are supported in this belief to a degree; it’s probably one of the few consolations for a reality of being mostly or completely ignored. However, it can be difficult to teach students who think of themselves as ‘writers’ (and I use the quotation marks deliberately.) Such individuals may feel themselves blessed with the capacity to create ‘art’, but they are not always particularly amenable to learning—or even reading.

A second issue lies with the technically oriented nature of the teaching in creative writing courses. Because the writer is already bestowed with the special qualities for producing ‘art’, all that is left is to hone ‘craft’. This can make of creative writing programs a virtual ideas-free zone. Indeed, creative writing programs can sometimes resemble literature-free zones.

A writer once said to me that he didn’t think he could teach creative writing because the whole process remained a mystery to him. I don’t subscribe to any great mysteries. I don’t believe in the muse or in any gods, although I am a fan of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  I don’t have a spirit or a soul. I have a brain in a body—capable of both rational thought and irrational feeling—and that brain in a body does the work of my creative writing. My embodied mind, compelled to regard the computer screen for long enough, writes from a lifetime of being immersed in the patterned ideas and disconcerting affects of literary texts (including films.) All of this is to say that I write from a tradition of cultural ways of knowing the world: through its diverse narratives and resonant motifs. If there is something that can be called the muse, it is probably only literature itself: it reaches through my brain and body, takes hold of my experience, and is transformed into something new.

Regardless of my particular concerns about the Iowa model of creative writing pedagogy, the problem with creative writing programs that I hear more frequently voiced is that they exist at all. Such criticism presents us with a dystopian vision of universities churning out creative writers who use identical techniques (being trained as they are in craft.) I have a number of responses to such charges. Firstly, who cares if creative writing programs are churning out writers? Law programs are busily producing lawyers, but there’s little anxiety about that. Surely the more writers there are the more chances there are of creating something fortuitously unique and strong, which might capture ‘the spirit of the age’ or simply move people. Perhaps we’re worried that creative writing programs will produce more writers than our society can support, but surely people with advanced literacy, and the wisdom of cultural literacy to boot, aren’t doomed to be welfare cases.

My suspicion is that such criticism of creative writing programs is related to a concern about creative writing moving into the hands of academics. The English writer Ian McEwan, on a recent special episode of The Book Club—a show that avoids academics as if they were lepers (though can you imagine such a scenario in France?)—suggested that writers shouldn’t be in universities but, rather, in pubs and out on the streets. This is consistent with the popular idea that academics don’t live in the ‘real’ world, which I find peculiar given that I don’t access my workplace through a portal. I drive there on regular byways and, for perhaps too many years of my life, frequented establishments for imbibing liquor (a peculiarly authenticating experience judging by the rhetoric of McEwan and of the various people all over the world who have pressured me to consume alcohol in order to become ‘one of them’). In any case, fears about universities taking over creative writing and being to blame for the ills of literary culture are overrated; what gets published remains in the hands of publishers.

Fundamentally, my issue with tertiary creative writing programs is that they could afford to be more ambitious. They might focus less on ‘art’ and ‘craft’—on appeals to elitist fantasies and technical instruction—and concentrate instead on the extraordinary experience of being immersed in our cultural world. Billions of people have lived before us, and some of them have written down a vision of what it is to be human in ways that are unusually affecting, challenging the way we see things or providing our lives with new meaning. Good writing comes from good writing, which makes of literature a kind of continuing conversation. The topic of that conversation is our existence: miraculous, absurd, pathetic, tragic. I don’t know, though, if any of this makes for good marketing.

5 thoughts on “On not being born to write

  1. I’m sure I would find your country equally strange. With such negative opinions of your adopted land, one wonders why you are still here.

  2. It’s amusing to imagine a one-hour creative-writing tutorial that focused on the ‘extraordinary experience of being immersed in our cultural world’. Takolander is right when she says that this is ambitious – the concept is so nebulous, and who is to say that the tutors themselves are immersed or experienced enough in the world to teach it?

    I believe that the problem with Australian creative-writing programs is they don’t focus on ‘craft’ *enough* – ‘craft’ being the bare basics such as editing your own writing (recognising clichés and mixed metaphors, noticing when your prose contains redundancies or oxymorons, some basic grammar) and good critique. I spent three wasted years in a creative writing program, taught by tutors under pressure in overcrowded classrooms concerned with getting coverage for their own writing in the reading material, trying to get undergraduate women drunk and sleep with them, and ignoring any pretence to actually teaching anything that could be useful to anyone. (I’m looking at you, Melbourne University).

  3. I’m with Ian McEwan. The best writing comes from being able to distill insight from life experience, not theory. As for uni courses, Iowa produced Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Phillip Roth and a host of prize winners. Can Deakin say the same?

  4. Solid. As both a historian of eugenics and a writer of fiction, I can dig some of your conclusions about craft v. art, nature v. nurture, etc. If writers have a special predilection towards anything, it’s wanting or being able to sit still for a long time and be alone. And is that necessarily a privilege, or a good thing? Storytelling is in our DNA; wanting to bother to sit down and write stuff takes and requires a lot of practice. Period. I am plenty bored by Iowa style writers and writing and the like. Doesn’t mean good stuff doesn’t come from such places. Good stuff is always in the minority, isn’t it?

  5. An interesting take on ‘the struggle.’ I’m reminded of the chicken and the egg. Which came first, my talent or desire? I write because there is this thing inside that tells me if I’m not, I’m wasting my time. I work on the writing that I do because there is this thing inside that tells me if I’m not, I’m wasting my efforts. Where it all ends up is out of my hands and in the readers.

    Now if I could just find them…….

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