Teach Me to Write Funny
August 2, 2005

Flipping through comments here and playing around on BlogExplosion led me to The Dawn of Man where Redphi5h discussed creative writing classes and how creative writing can be taught.

He contends that "when considering the creative arts" we can no longer assume that teachers can really teach us much of anything at all. I both agree and disagree with that contention. You see, he's right when he says that most creative writing instructors

can be divided into two main types: writers who have achieved modest critical success amongst their peers; and the nest of crawling sycophants who aspire to this feat. Further, these people will attempt to behave objectively in a realm of personal sentimental judgements, and esoteric intellectual interpretations. Moreover, because abilities inherent to producing original works of art can�t be understood, let alone taught, the notion of being instructed at any art is somewhat paradoxical. Generally speaking, the most that can be hoped for is that students with potential find a stimulating, nurturing environment in which to work towards a sense of fulfilment. The real crime is that the host of poseurs can't (or won't) even provide this.

I've taken a slew of creative writing classes, joined a few creative writing critique groups and written my fair share of bad stories and decent critiques and on the whole, I think Redphi5h is not far off the mark here. In graduate school, I had one of those embittered profs who'd written one critically acclaimed (translation: no one read it except some American English professors) novel and not too much else. He stared at the ceiling while delivery a rambling critique of a story - which as often as not - completely missed the point and was about as helpful as a hole in the head.

In undergrad, I had a graduate student who taught a creative writing class. He regularly used the class as a platform to try to puff up his own ego and deflate those of his students. When I wouldn't play his sycophantic games, he got more and more paternalistic and tried to cajole me into a rousing discussion of his self-worth. The deal was this: I had a brief, walk-on native-american character who told a story to some kids at a camp. I used the B-movie diction that the anthropologists used to record these stories. Made sense to me - a group of barely teenage boys would expect something like that and some of the native americans I know like to use that method of speech to give an air of "mystery" or just to be a goof. No biggee. Well, this instructor insisted that no native-american ever speaks like that. Duh, my cousins are Cherokee and when they talk, all the "accent" you can hear is that they lived in the midwest their whole lives. But when my friend John wants to tell a story, about half the time he slips into this stilted speech because to him, it's part of the ambience of the piece. Now, the deal is, this story is less than a tenth of the entire short story that's being critiqued and this instructor has now taken it on as a cause. It would have been enough to say, you gotta be careful doing this, you might piss someone off.

But I've also had some wonderful instructors who helped me to hone my craft. Did they teach me to write? Did I teach myself?

Well, this is the question that I really want to discuss. You see, I think that creative arts can be taught -- but not by the traditional methods. (And, I think this is a part of Redphi5h's argument as well.)

First, you can't go into any creative writing classroom and assume that this teacher is the fount of all creative writing knowledge and he's going to pour some of those little driplets of wisdom into your wading pool. Let's face it, if your creative writing instructor thinks/acts that way, he's a drip and not worth much of your time. Instead, you have to go into these classes willing to figure things out on your own.

But then, I think it should be that way with any class, not just creative writing classes. The whole point of learning something is NOT to get a grade or a diploma -- even though when you're forced to take chemistry that you're positive you'll never use again, it certainly seems like that's the only point.

Every teacher who is interested in helping others learn is more interested in being a guide to help you through your learning process than in "imparting grand wisdom."

So if you go into a creative writing class, expecting to explore how you write, expecting to try to examine how others string together words until you believe in the character, and some practice in front of readers, you can learn a LOT from a creative writing class.

If you go into a creative writing class expecting the teacher to "larn ya" you're in a lot of trouble. You might learn how to mimic the teacher or another writer - and that can be valuable - but you're not really going to learn to find your own voice.

Posted by Red Monkey at August 2, 2005 11:17 AM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

 

Big D said:

I like the design of your blog. The whole old tattered paper fits really nicely.

August 3, 2005 1:06 PM
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