By Sophfronia Scott
I allowed the little black arrow to hover over the big blue SEND button a moment or two longer before I finally clicked on it. I’d read my critique of the essay multiple times to ensure my points were clear and the overall tone was convivial and encouraging. I’d met the writer, a college student studying creative nonfiction, last summer and she recently reconnected with me to ask if I would read an essay for her. Still, I hesitated to press down on the mouse. I knew my words would instigate one of two responses and I’m not casual about either of them. She would either “get it” and get to work, or she would run away aggrieved, crying indignant tears, and I would never hear from her again. It sounds melodramatic but trust me. The specific actions vary but one or the other does happen.
Some would say this is inevitable. Writers are sensitive souls and are more prone to take criticism personally and with great difficulty. True, many writers are emotionally engaged on a level beyond the normal populace, but I’m inclined to wonder—does a critique really have to hurt so much?
This is on my mind now especially in my position as director of Alma College’s MFA in Creative Writing, a new low-residency writing program based in Alma, Michigan. Specifically, I’m pondering the question explored in the literary journal Boulevard in its Symposium, published in 2011, on “Can ‘Creative Writing’ Really Be Taught?” Obviously I think it can otherwise I wouldn’t be a teacher of writing, but I admit I also agree writing can’t be taught in the way we usually think about teaching—as a transfer of knowledge and skills. Here I’ll quote Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post albeit reluctantly—this is from a 2005 book review in which he trashes beyond belief Before We Get Started, an essay collection on writing by one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with, Bret Lott. But this part, which has nothing really to do with Bret’s book, rang true for me:
“Yes, people who aspire to be writers are like people who aspire to anything else: They need help. Over the years some exceptionally good books have been written about the art and craft of fiction — I think in particular of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings — but they deal with large issues rather than niggling details. They don’t say, implicitly or explicitly: Do as I advise and you can be just like me. They understand that serious writing done in the hopes of making literature is a mysterious process the precise nature of which is hidden within the individual writer’s heart and mind, and that this process cannot be transferred — least of all in a classroom or a writers’ colony — from one person to another.”
The key here is that process “hidden within the individual writer’s heart and mind.” This does exist, but I believe the problem is too many aspiring writers (and I mean beyond the undergraduate level) show up in the classroom with mounds of sensitivity and little or no awareness of his or her own process. Instead they look for someone to give it to them, which, really, can’t be done and sets them up for a bewildering experience. Which leads me to wonder: Are we asking the right question? Instead of having the MFA programs, workshops and writing conferences of the world work so hard to put forward a plausible response to “Can creative writing be taught?” perhaps more of the onus should be on the student to ask his or herself, “Can creative writing be taught to me?”
And this doesn’t mean you can sit through a critique without shedding a tear. This is about understanding your own creative process, and why you felt you needed to be in a room getting critiqued in the first place. Do you know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer? Are you in that place where you know you’ve taken the work as far as you can and now you need guidance to move beyond, to help you dare more on the page?
When you come to the classroom with all this in mind, you are ready to explore and what’s more, you’ll know when you’ve heard the critique that feels right because you know it will help. If you haven’t done any serious thinking about where you are with your writing, it will be like coming to the room with an empty heart and expecting your teacher to fill it. Of course such expectation would only lead to disappointment.
So what happened with the writer I mentioned above? She responded with excellent questions. For example, I’d pointed out how her essay had two narrative arcs, both disjointed and neither fulfilled for the reader. I also said if she wanted to, she could choose one and have the essay be only about that. She said she really wanted to keep both and asked me questions about structure and length that could help her accomplish it. I wrote back in full support of her choices and provided ideas to help her follow through. I also applauded her openness for allowing me into her process.
Everyone’s process is different. For many years I thought I wouldn’t get an MFA but there came a time when my writing and my life as an artist demanded this level of engagement. Perhaps I needed to come to this place where I was ready to learn. What about you? Where are you on this journey? Can creative writing be taught to you? If you ask the question and discover the answer is “Yes” then connect with me about the Alma MFA. I would be honored to join you in your process, and eager to learn where you want to go with your writing.