Teaching Creative Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • March 25th, 2009 @ 2:15 pm • Writing Tips

Just posting a couple of things from the old blog here, in edited form, to get them under writer tips on the new blog…

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach fiction writing in one-on-one and group situations, through email critiques, various literary festivals, writer workshops like Clarion, and teen summer camps like Shared Worlds.

I really enjoy teaching because I like to be of use and I genuinely enjoy the interaction with beginning writers. However, teaching also re-teaches me technique and approaches to fiction. When you have to try to see fiction writing through another’s approach or point of view, you re-examine your own approach. You also give yourself a refresher course in beginner and intermediate technique, which is always useful.

There are, of course, a number of ways in which teaching can go wrong. Having been a student at workshops both good and bad, I can attest to that. And my own technique in teaching has become more refined over the years.

A few simple guidelines help make the experience better for the students and the instructor.

The most fundamental rule to follow as an instructor is not to impose your approach on the student. (If Faulkner had ever been Hemingway’s writing instructor, it would have been unwise for him to suggest Hemingway write like him.) You should impart your knowledge of writing in the service of what the student wishes to accomplish with his or her writing. In some rare cases, you may see that the student’s ambition falls short of their full potential, and then you may push that student harder, or you may suggest a change in direction.

That said, understanding a student’s approach does not mean you should endorse a flawed execution of that approach. You should always be honest with your students. Honesty, however, does not mean exhibiting cruelty toward the student in question. Some instructors believe in a dog-eat-dog approach, a kind of Artistic Darwinism, within a workshop setting. For my own part, I’ve found that most students respond much better to questions than to blunt words. In many cases, if you use harsh words, the student is so hung up on the method by which the message has been delivered that the message itself gets lost. If, on the other hand, you ask questions like “Did you mean for this character to seem passive?” or “Did you mean for this character’s actions to be inconsistent?” Even as neutral a question as “How do you see this character?” can be the beginning of a positive conversation about a deficiency in the writing. Questions generally serve to get the student to come to a conclusion on his or her own, which is the first step to internalizing a solution.

In groups, certain kinds of honesty can foster an artificially competitive atmosphere. Public comparisons during a group workshop of one student’s writing to another’s in terms of broad strokes–“Jim’s story is much better than yours”–are counterproductive and generally set students in competition with each other. More specific comments, like “George–that flaw we talked about in your story: see how Sarah successfully handles the same technique in her story,” may or may not be useful, depending on the overall cohesion and comraderie in the group.

Some instructors believe that workshops should simulate the cutthroat world of publishing, in which rejection is constant even for very successful writers. However, workshops are not good environments in which to simulate the issues a writer must face in the “real world” outside of the workshop. A nasty rejection slip in the mail, for example, is not the same as having an instructor or fellow writers issue a nasty or snide critique in person in a workshop setting. What a workshop should strive for is clear, effective communication about the story being critiqued. A cogently-argued critique, delivered in a bloodless, clinical matter, or leavened by humor, has the greatest chance of making the subject of the critique really think about his or her story.

From time to time an instructor will make a mistake in a workshop–either in the initial evaluation of the story, or in understanding some individual element of the story. In such cases, no matter how much potential “authority” you may lose, you have to admit that you made a mistake, rather than stick to your guns. Ultimately, the students will respect your willingness to admit to a mistake, but disrespect obvious dishonesty.

When critiquing manuscripts, it is very important to provide at least two levels of critique: specific and general. Comments specific to a story are helpful, but unless put in the context of a general assessment, the student may miss the point, or not be able to apply the “fix” to other stories. With specific comments, it is most useful to start by critiquing the story at the level at which it fails–whether style, characterization, setting, etc. Generally, the major weakness of the story is the most useful element by which to eventually discuss the story as a whole. It is also relatively useless to discuss higher level elements of the story if something at a lower level is flawed–subtext, for example, if the surface of the story is hopelessly mangled. (If at all possible, you should separate out specific comments into subcategories to aid in helping the student find strategies to make corrections.)

The general comments about weaknesses should be accompanied by exercises intended to correct the deficiency, much as a fitness instructor would evaluate a client’s overall health and then propose exercise intended to bolster atrophied muscles.

A lot of students come to a workshop seeking validation. It is wise to correct this misconception about workshops from day one, in front of the group. It is my firm belief that an instructor is not there to validate anyone’s work. Your job is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each student’s fiction and make suggestions and provide guidance as appropriate. Guidance may include advice on submitting stories that seem ready for publication. It does not include making general pronouncements about who is or is not really a writer, or pronouncements about who is going to have greater or lesser success, especially in any group forum. For one thing, no one can really predict who will or won’t make it. I’m also not a big believer in the reverse psychology of using this labeling method to push a writer to do better. It’s very risky, and it puts the instructor in the role of playing god, to an extent. (You should, as a teacher, resist most all impulses that seem aimed more at bolstering your own ego rather than helping your students.)

It may, on the other hand, be useful in one-on-one sessions to prepare more idiosyncratic writers for the roadblocks they may face in getting their work published–in short, not gloss over potential hardships and difficulties. (Certainly, you can and should share your knowledge of publishing to help make that side of the writing profession easier.)

Finally, you may at times find yourself unable to help a student. The student may be too advanced or the student may be writing material in a style so foreign to you, using influences with which you are not familiar, that your advice could be more harmful than helpful. In such cases, you should refer the student to some other instructor.

It is perhaps important for me to re-state the obvious with regard to teaching because I’ve sometimes come across the attitude that workshops should be akin to dog fighting events. “You haven’t lived until X has ripped you a new one,” for example. This kind of false machismo is antithetical to the very idea of writing.

The publishing world itself–even just regularly submitting to magazines and anthologies–does quite well in hardening beginning writers to the life they have chosen. Workshops by their very nature are stressful enough without subjecting the student to unnecessary stress. If a writer does not have the endurance to navigate the outside world without further “hazing” at a workshop, then that writer never had the toughness to gut it out in the first place.

Besides, clear, crisp communication is devastating enough to most students.

8 Responses to “Teaching Creative Writing”

  1. Anarkey says:

    Your approach seems sensible and derived from a position of integrity. It makes me wish I’d had you for an instructor in a class or for a workshop. May your approach be adopted by more writing teachers and benefit many a beginning writer.

  2. Marty Stephenson says:

    Thanks. More please.

  3. undeadbydawn says:

    I only hope I can find the time and energy to get writing again. Life just got a whole lot of hectic

  4. Bill Ectric says:

    You’re a good man, VanderMeer.

  5. Greg Goode says:

    Thanks – I found this a very interesting article.

  6. tatty michaels says:

    Nice article. Teaching creative writing is a difficult art to really do well.

  7. Michell Devoid says:

    Is it just me or did this post strike a cord with other folks. Keep writing this and I’ll be back.

  8. dvd photo slideshow says:

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