Teaching Creative Writing
by William E. Baer

 

 

The last thirty years have seen an extraordinary proliferation of creative writing classes and programs in the United States, most of them associated with universities and many directed to dubious ends. For unfortunately, in the twentieth century much of the writer’s craft has been intentionally demeaned or destroyed by excessive experimentation and literary faddism. This is especially clear in the case of poetry where a fundamental, underlying aspect of the art—its metrical base—has been attacked and abandoned by most of the century’s poets. William Butler Yeats, who retained the metric in his verse, once said of Ezra Pound (the leader of the revolt against meter) that he “spoils himself by too many experiments.” Sadly enough, those experiments eventually became the modus operandi of most twentieth century poets. As a result, the underlying, accentual-syllabic metrical rhythm of poetry, which dominated all English-language poetry from Chaucer to Frost, was cavalierly abandoned, and a crucial aspect of the writer’s craft was missing in subsequent poetry. The great poets of the twentieth century like Yeats, Hardy, Frost, Robinson, and Auden all resisted the temptation to write free (non-metrical) verse, but the majority of poets chose to follow in Pound’s footsteps. But if all these poets, who are also the teachers of creative writing, have no interest in meter, how can they possibly teach the fundamentals of the craft to their apprentices in the classroom? Obviously they don’t—and in many cases they can’t.

Similar problems have occurred in twentieth century fiction and dramatic writing but not at such a fundamental level; nevertheless, both modes of writing have been damaged by the century’s immature need to be, at all costs, somehow radically innovative. As a result, all of these modes of writing are now far less popular than they used to be. Of course, there are many other reasons for the decline of serious reading: especially the attractions of film, radio, and television, as well as the “dumbing-down” of American youth by the schools. Yet why do even people who do love the literature of the past find so little to enjoy and appreciate in contemporary writing? Much has been written about this subject, but I would suggest two reasons that relate specifically to a comment once made by W. H. Auden:

Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work? The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One?

Auden was one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century, but here he taps into the fundamental responses of even the most unsophisticated reader. Every “ordinary” poetry reader might not care to know exactly how a poem is constructed (although every reader who aspires to be a writer should), but he definitely wants the satisfaction that comes from encountering something that is well-made—well-crafted. He also wants (though writers continually ignore this fact) to have a sense of moral commiseration with the writer, and he certainly doesn’t like to be addressed from a moral vacuum. If contemporary teachers of creative writing do not raise the latter issue and teach the former, then they are clearly failing in their task.

Pound was wrong about most things, but he was right when he declared that “A poem must sound.” Verse is unique in that its readers demand a pleasing or appropriate sonic quality to the work. For hundreds of years this has come primarily from the accentual metric base of our unique language and poetry. Thus English-language poets have generally written in a rising iambic meter (that is, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable—short, then long). Most of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are written in an unrhymed, five-beat (pentameter) iambic line: “But sóft! what líght through yónder wíndow bréaks? It ís the eást, and Júliet ís the sún!” There are of course countless variations which poets use within this metrical system (as in Shakespeare’s extra light syllable in the word “Juliet”), and any serious, aspiring poet needs to be made aware of these things. There are also many other sound devices (rhyme, repetition, alliteration) which the student needs to learn and work with, and the student should likewise be encouraged to attempt poems in all the various stanzaic formats (couplets, trimeters, ballads, terza rima, sonnets, ottava rima, the French forms), and to understand and use the traditional figures of speech. If an aspiring poet reads Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” and doesn’t know it’s written in terza rima, then he knows very little about poetry—hopefully the apprentice mechanic at the local garage will be able to tell a four-cylinder engine from a six-cylinder engine and know the different construction and capability of each.

Although the experimental fiction of the twentieth century violated the traditional usages of grammar, structure, syntax, perspective (and more), there was no lasting, fundamental damage done to that genre as there was with poetry. The problems arising in today’s contemporary fiction writing classes are rather the detrimental emphases that have resulted from the widespread impact of certain faddish literary movements, especially Meta-fiction and Minimalism, both of which denigrated the role of plot in fiction. Everyone knows that character is extremely important in fiction (though far less so in the short story), and it is, in truth, very easy to talk about in the classroom. Just as poetry teachers tend to spend all their time talking about what the poem “means” (which is a lot easier than discussing how it’s constructed), most fiction teachers spend their time discussing character and consciously ignore the much more difficult subject of plot. Yet in all great fiction, plot is just as important as character: Hester Prynne, Ahab, Raskolnikov, and Thomas Sulpen are only as interesting as the plots that envelop them.

The other primary problem in contemporary fiction writing classes is also a result of the Minimalism fad: the lack of imagination. Dull stories are nothing more than dull stories, and the best of the world’s fiction has always been about things that were truly amazing, often startling: a scarlet letter, a murderous white whale, a theory-murder, or Southern miscegenation and parricide. Admittedly, teaching students to exercise their imaginations is often very difficult, but they must be encouraged to do so, or an endless glut of dull, uninteresting, and unread stories will result.

Four years ago at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Arthur Miller, America’s foremost dramatist, was asked what advice he had for aspiring playwrights. He responded, “Structure, structure, and structure.”

Unfortunately, even though the twentieth century revolt against the well-made play has resulted in an endless stream of poorly made plays, Mr. Miller’s advice is not generally followed in most contemporary playwriting classes. The recent disappearance of the Broadway drama due to financial considerations and the related limitations on sets and actors—even in the regional theaters—has already greatly inhibited the contemporary dramatist. But the well-structured play with vibrant characters and an interesting, striking story is still in demand.

As an aside, an aspiring writer should examine his own motives. Anyone who has taught creative writing courses over the past few years knows that far too many people pursue a writing “career” for all the wrong reasons. Writing can’t compensate for spiritual vacuity. It isn’t therapy, and it isn’t just a means of “having your say.” Auden once pointed out that if a student came to him and said, “I have to write poetry because I have something important to say,” he had little hope for that person. But if another person told him that he wanted to be a poet because he “loved words,” then Auden was optimistic. The same could be said of fiction and drama: if someone has a powerful impulse to tell interesting and meaningful stories, then he’s clearly on the right track. It was the same impulse that motivated Shakespeare and Poe and Melville and Faulkner and Miller.

Finally, it’s important to state the obvious fact that nothing meaningful can come from a vacuum. All significant literary writers were voracious readers who fully understood the seminal texts in their culture. It’s just as important to know the Bible, the Greeks, Augustine and Aquinas, as it is to know the great literary masters, and every teacher of creative writing should continually encourage students to undertake a wide reading of the key documents in their culture. As John Updike once said, “Writers have to know something! They ought to study languages, and history, and philosophy and geology. They ought to know what the earth they are standing on is made of.” And when they do, then they can begin to employ the various tools of their craft—like meter, rhyme, plot, and structure—and attempt to follow in the time-proven tradition of the masters.

There can be no substitute for reading and studying the literary masters, but regarding poetry, there are two excellent books that can help the aspiring poet comprehend the complexities of poetic construction: A Prosody Handbook by Karl Shapiro and Robert Beum, 1965, and Poetic Meter and Poetic Form by Paul Fussell, Jr., 1965. I know of no comparable works relating to fiction, but John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 1983, is very helpful. As for dramatic writing, many students still find Lajos Egri’s classic text, The Art of Dramatic Writing, 1946, very useful, and, in screenwriting, Syd Field’s simple, straightforward Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, 1979, can also offer some helpful guidance.

William Baer is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Evansville University. His poems, “The Playwright of the People,” and “The Philosopher of Action,” appeared in Volume 4, Number 3 of ART Ideas.

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