Writer’s Notebook: a few thoughts on writing

This week, I have one of my classes writing about a personal belief. It’s going to lead them to a personal essay, so what I’m about to do is a pretty poor example of what they’re up to, but when I began thinking of topics I might tackle in order to write along with them, the beliefs I’ve been most wrestling with are related to creative writing. This is partly because I’m so engrossed in the practice right now, partly because I’ve been swapping emails with and otherwise keeping tabs on a lot of newly met writing friends, and partly because this afternoon I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Franzen on OPB. Whatever: writing is on the brain, so here are some things I’ve written:

I believe that creative writing, as a habit or a craft, as well as its theories, practices and pedagogies are as organized by circumstance as everything else is. Which is to say that each writer will have different experiences, different habits or theories or practices or pedagogies, depending on his or her childhood, demography, education, and influences. Which is just a fancy way of saying to each her own. As a school of teaching — be it in the humanities, the fine arts, or whatever — I think creative writing is a product of the `60s. I think the concept has been there a lot longer — say, since the dawn of literature — because there are countless stories of writer/mentor relationships and hundreds of essays about the craft as we know and practice it stretching back for centuries. As long as people have been writing, there have been people who think they know how to write (or who think their practice is the “right” way to write) and who love to share their experiences with others. But as a codified school of study, with an increasingly standardized curriculum? That’s definitely a more recent invention, for better or worse, and yes, I do think it stems from all the complex socio-political elements of the `60s. But I think that still leaves unanswered the quiet question lurking behind all this. It’s the question we all ask ourselves and loathe to be asked: “Can (or should) writing be taught?” It’s an old question and one on which many, many writers have rambled on in one way or another (and not always in the affirmative), but it seems to bear asking over and over again, the way a child in a moving car might keep asking “Are we there yet?” even when they know the answer. I, for one, remain convinced that the answer is yes, but mostly (perhaps only) if such teaching is approached as individually as possible, so that “teaching writing” becomes more like “guiding writers” or, less intrusively, “nurturing writers,” which is actually more akin to those earlier writer/mentor relationships anyway.

In case anyone’s looking for the exercise that led me to all this, it’s sort of two-fold: Right now, some of my students are writing versions of the “This I Believe” prompt that stems from NPR’s essay series of the same name. So I’ve been thinking about belief statements, credos, manifestos. Which made me recall an online conversation I had with a couple of writer friends of mine a few years back. That conversation began when one of my friends sent me a series of questions apparently required of students entering a PhD program at some university or other. (If he told me which university, I’ve forgotten.) Anyway, one of those questions read as follows:

In what ways is creative writing organized by circumstance, and do how these circumstances impact our theories, practices, and pedagogies for creative writing?

Which is what I was responding to.

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