At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes stop to wonder what is the point to this education thing, especially for undergraduate creative writers. Often at AWP conferences, panels bemoan the number of writing programs out there (usually MFA programs but it applies to undergrad as well) and lament the prospects for their students. Some go so far as to wonder whether they should even allow their students to take their classes (though they do). In this day and age, when college tuitions continue to rise and when students are increasingly practical in their choices of major (or believe they are), how do we justify what we do?
On the one hand, it is tempting to simply justify it because it exists. Poetry has been around for thousands of years, and fiction as we know it for nearly as long. Creative writing has been part of human culture since humans learned to write, before that there was storytelling and oral poetry, so there should be no need to justify teaching it. Oh, that life were so simple.
Students (or their parents) want careers. Actually, many students don’t want careers, or if they do, they want exciting careers, and ‘famous writer’ is right up there with ‘film star’ for some of them. Yet if that were the promise we held out to students, then I might agree that teaching creative writing is unethical. Rare is the student who will go on to a career as a writer, though they do exist and I know several of our alums who are well on their way. Even rarer is the student writer who will someday be ‘famous,’ though that may depend on how one defines fame. So I am looking for something a little more practical in what we teach.
Ultimately, it boils down to two things: self-awareness and expression. Really, aren’t these the hallmarks of a liberal arts education? They may be developed in many fields, but no fields are more appropriate to this than the creative fields of writing, art, music, and theater.
Most students seem to take creative writing classes because they have a desire to express themselves. In order to do this, they must by definition, know themselves, and the process of creative writing involves considerable exploration of the self. Though it is not psychoanalysis — there is no analyst in the room — the creative writing class provides this opportunity, as any art class might. This clearer understanding of the self may be more beneficial to the student in the long run than any professional education, even if it is never directly applicable to a career. It may help the student choose a career or decide when to change careers, who to marry (or not), what to do in her/his ‘spare time,’ etc.
Certainly, creative writing classes can not take credit for every decision students make in the rest of their lives, but there is value in fostering a thoughtful self-awareness. Of course, many students may still make a mess of their lives (who doesn’t at some point) and cope with their messes for better or worse, and this is an aspect of learning that is impossible to grade or assess. Some of those ‘messes’ may lead to brilliant works of art, for which we also can not take full credit, anymore than we can be blamed for a lack of brilliance.
So I usually come round to fostering expression as the main value of what we do as teachers of creative writing. If anything, I hope we teach (and can grade and assess) care with language. Creative writers should pay more attention to how they write what they write. The language of a poem should be beautiful (or intentionally and beautifully ugly), even if the subject is not. A paragraph of prose fiction should be musical as well as informative. Writers should choose the word that is right in a given context, not just the most expedient word, but the word that means, sounds, and feels right. Syntax matters for the patterns it creates (not just grammatical correctness), and paragraphs, poems, stories, even essays are developed with a structure in mind, though that structure often arises out of the material rather than being imposed from outside.
This attention to detail and care for language carries over from writers’ creative works to all their writing. Emails from a writer ought to be better written than most others. In an age of information, when we are flooded with ‘communication’ vying for our attention, the messages that are well crafted will stand out from those that aren’t. There may be more need for poets and writers than ever before, and more need to develop the skills of a writer for those who do want to stand out and make their mark, whether that is with a book of poems or novel or with a memo or blog or tweet or whatever the next technological innovation will bring.
Let’s face it, most creative writing students aren’t hell bent on a career. They may end up in a closely related field, or they may end up doing something completely different from what they studied in college in order to make a living (which is true for students in any major), yet the skills students develop in a creative writing class will stand them in good stead no matter where they go or what they do.