Frittered away a good hour of writing time last week examing the Univeristy of Toronto’s continuing education course calendar, obviously intrigued by the extensive creative writing program, as well as the calibre of some of the faculty [Ibi Kasilik, Giles Blunt, Helen Humphreys, Alissa York], and I started considering that timeless question writers of all levels of sucess consider at some point: Can creative writing actually be taught?
For a long time my answer would have been, ‘no.’ Talent is talent; you can learn about metaphor, and character building and plot construction, but without that spark firing in your brain that tells you how to put it together in a compelling fashion, it’s as exciting as a technical manual. If you have it, you have it, and there’s nothing a class can teach you that can’t be picked up by a couple quality how-to’s and a prodigious amount of reading and writing.
I am not without some experience on the topic: in my undergrad I took one lone creative writing course, a first year workshop at the University of Windsor. To be fair, it was my only class on Tuesdays, from 1.00-3.00 p.m., and I had to commute in at 9.00 a.m. and hang out until 10.oo p.m. just to attend. Clearly, this did not leave me in the best frame of mind by the time the class started. My classmates didn’t help matters.
Most problems people have with creative writing courses stem form the workshop format, where one person’s work gets passed around for the rest of the class to question, criticize or praise. In the best of scenarios, your classmates can provide the sort of insight and direction you would have never have conisdered otherwise, because you’re too close to your own work. In the worst of scenarios, you end up at a conference table with a bunch of f*ckwits who know less than you. Most often you end up with a majority of classmates too intimidated to participate, and a pair of vocal f*ckwits who dominate the discussion. In the end, the only suggestions of value come from the prof, which is what most people in the class probably prefer in the first place.
[Fun f*ckwit aside: in a news writing seminar during my J-School years, a fellow student who appeared to be threatened by the praise I was getting questioned my use of the phrase, ‘many a student.’ The prof said told him it made grammatical sense, but was a little idiosyncratic. ‘Yeah, that’s what I was going to say’,’ said my classmate, who then looked at me with a smug grin. ‘Wait, what does that mean?’ he asked. ‘Not what you think it does,’ I replied. He dropped out next semester.]
And for a long time I’d closed the door on any sort of writing class. I read voraciously on the subject [Francine Prose’s ‘Reading Like A Writer‘, Alice LaPlante’s ‘Making of a Story‘ and Charles Baxter’s ‘Burning Down the House‘ are still my favourites], when I probably should have been reading novels instead. And I managed to actually reorder my brain into something that could recognize what worked in stories by my favourite authors and what didn’t work in my own. And for a long time I was happy.
But then there’s that itch. I wonder what it would be like to pursue an MFA. To get guidance from the select few people in my classes who would earn my respect, and to have a mentor guiding my efforts. What’s more: to have the time and security to devote to my writing. That’s the dream, right? What would our lives be like if we could wake up in the morning and do the thing we love to do more than anything all day?
So can it be taught? I still don’t think so. But the opportunities afforded by academic creative writing programs are certainly tempting, and something I would definitely consider if I wasn’t so riddled with debt and poverty, and the perceived benefits certainly outweigh the headaches inflicted by a small band of f*ckwits.