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Outlook - Voices in my Head
by Brian Bartlett

Once again he's back in the classroom, trying to teach what's called "creative writing". A babble of internal voices-nagging and skeptical, positive and explanatory-buzz around inside his ears. He chooses two:

A: "Creative writing"-doesn't the phrase make you squirm? It's too bloodless and clinical, too feebly descriptive, for what happens in exciting poems, stories, and plays.

Z: I couldn't agree more. But while I squirm, should I let the banner of that phrase overshadow everything valuable happening under it?

A (with a chortle): Can you imagine Rimbaud or Byron teaching "creative writing"?

Z: No, and I also can't imagine Emily Dickinson as an Olympic figure-skater. (But as soon as I say that, I have imagined it, somehow.) Last spring when I read an article in Downbeat about teaching jazz, I found all sorts of parallels to arguments over teaching creative writing. Gary Burton's been asked, "You can't teach jazz, can you?" No doubt someone else has asked, "Can you imagine Charlie Parker teaching at U.C.L.A.?" Your sort of question's a cliché.

A: But it points to something you ignore: art depends on freedom from the crabbed hand of institutions.

Z: Tell that to Michelangelo or Bach, if you can get out from under your romantic feather-pile. As long as we're into name-dropping, should I mention that Flannery O'Connor did an M.A. in creative writing? That Roethke, Stegner, Lowell, Levertov, Oates, Carver, Muldoon, Birney, Coles, McKay, Thomas, Harvor, Steffler, and too many others to name, have taught it?

A: Getting defensive, are we?

Z: Don't forget, you're my other half.

A: And you, mine. Still, if I taught creative writing, I'd feel like a fraud-as if I could explain the mysteries of creativity to anyone!

Z: The "mysteries" remain, whatever we do, however much we chatter around them. No good teacher of any sort thinks they've figured out their subject. Insecurity about your own understanding is necessary and healthy, like a conscience.

A: You've muttered many times about how little students have read, how absurd it is to teach poetry-writing to those who can hardly name a living poet beyond "I'm Your Man" Cohen.

Z: Right, that must be the most frustrating, paradoxical thing about this field of teaching. So I bring lots of wonderful poems to class, and get students to read essays written by writers, to show them how deeply some writers have thought about what they do. That helps explode any ideas that writing's nothing but let-it-all-hang-out self-expression. In fact, I find few students are that naive.

A: Why not just teach literature, and let the truly creative find their own way?

Z: A healthy writing class does teach literature, but more from the writer's point of view than other classes do. It inevitably teaches reading as much as writing-gives students a much wider sense of the countless technical choices a writer makes, consciously and unconsciously.

A: Ah, that sacred word "technique"! Nuts and bolts-competence, mere competence! You would turn writing into car-repair.

Z: You want to become a sailor, you have to learn something about compasses and sextants (to steal an analogy from Stegner). Is competence such a bad place to start? As long as it's only a start. Though for some, for many, it is the end of the road. But isn't it better than incompetence? In undergraduate courses anyway, you're lucky if even one or two students in a class go on to write, publish, prove themselves passionate (and talented) enough to walk through all the fires of an evolving individual style.

A: Then what about the others? Why are they even there?

Z: Why begrudge them the experience? And how do you know beforehand who will persevere? Richard Hugo wrote about the kind of student who won't continue to write but who might experience a "single microscopic moment of personal triumph" in writing something fine and true. I think that's a beautiful, modest, generous idea.

A: Modesty isn't the first thing I think of when I hear about the competitive, ego-driven atmospheres in some graduate programs in creative writing, especially down in the States.

Z: Up here in Canada, maybe we're less likely to turn out a creative-writing "industry". Or is that self-flattery? In any case, even in undergraduate classes, big egos pop up now and then. You can find that anywhere; that's life. Who says the doors are only open to people tough enough to take criticism, and pure of heart?

A: I've heard about goofy exercises some teachers foist upon classes: write a poem with a blindfold on, or with exactly one hundred words, or from a flea's point of view. That trivializes writing, turns it into hopscotch or crossword puzzles.

Z: Some of us like games, and don't think games cancel out vision or substance or whatever you think gets trivialized. How many experiments are too goofy to try at least once? We're an animal that plays. Would you give students the idea that all artists are Moses on Mount Sinai, bearded and divinely singled out?

A: So you're saying writing can't be a calling of the highest order, a matter of life and death? Doesn't that insult artists who gave everything they had to it?

Z: For some of us writing is a calling of the highest order. In the best classes, some of that feeling circulates around the room. One way to achieve it is to plunge into the craft with an obsessiveness that might seem playful at some times, fanatical at others. In that Downbeat article, one musician-teacher talks about how "the music must keep on with that tradition of hard study, hard working on your instrument." That's one crucial thing classes can encourage: hard working on the instruments of language.

A: Won't all the squeaking and the squawking hurt your ears?

The argument carried on, but he had to pack up and get to class, so he kindly asked A and Z to take their argument elsewhere. Riddled with doubts, buoyed by plans and hopes, he had a job to do. l

Brian Bartlett is a poet who teaches creative writing at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.


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