Sunday, June 14, 2009

Creative Writing Programs: Good, Bad?

Seth Harwood reading.

There is a long piece in The New Yorker this week about the efficacy of writing workshops. I did the Breadloaf thing a few years ago and because of my years didn't get to sleep with anyone who might advance my career. I was tempted to chase down Charlie Baxter, but my husband was with me and wouldn't give me the go sign.

My personal instructor, I won't mention her name, had one piece of advice that she ran by us like a mantra. "Go deeper into your character."

Not good advice for someone who didn't know how to plot.

I also did four university workshops. I don't think any of them really helped me as much as the 25 years of reading short stories and fiction that came before it, although my instructor was entirely supportive and the dearest man in the world.

It did help me to learn what a story was. Okay, "what's this story about"?" was the most common criticism. Duh, it's about Fred who hates his father. And then what?

Yes, I found it hard to plot. I still do. Did you take any writing workshops? What was the most valuable thing for you in learning how to write? What writer spelled it out best? I'm still looking for the magic formula.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've never taken a creative writing class or program. I've gone to hear writers give a talk about writing, and I took an English class in college that talked quite a bit about nonficiton essay writing.

whatever I've learned about writing, I've learned from reading or from studying books about writing.

Ddusty said...

Interesting post. Thanks for the brain-nudge.

Trying to think. Honestly, I've done a few of those week-end workshops and found them about as useful as a multi-level marketing rally. Plenty of fellowship and feel-good--that fades away as soon as you shut your suitcase into the trunk and drive off campus.

Long-term programs are better. College if possible. I love Holly Lisle's online program, but there are others, too. But yeah, years of reading, and here's something: years of LIVING. Makes all the difference.

Todd Mason said...

As a freshman at the University of Hawaii, I took Robert Onopa's 300s writing seminar (it was actually a split between Onopa's fiction and a British fellow's dramatic segment, but my world was caving in at about the time the second half of the course was happening), and then as a sophomore I took A. A. Attanasio's graduate seminar on Robert Onopa's recommendation. Mostly I felt the encouragement, and the slight spur, rather as with a flash-fiction challenge, to get something down on paper. Since one is in the room with other aspiring writers, most of whom are not yet any more articulate one's self is about how to fix a story (and since this is not except in rare cases, and most of those hopeless, anything like an objective matter), there is a certain unfortunate groupthink that can arise (see STORYTELLING the film) or other distractions (see STORYTELLER, the Kate Wilhelm book about leading writing seminars...and her husband, Damon Knight's CREATING SHORT FICTION). It's always nice to commiserate, even at the beginning level...but all the skills usually come with practice, or one finds ways to compensate for their lack, doesn't. (Somehow, the situation is akin to my current one, where I'm in the process of scratching my ex-housemate's cat Nikki/Anna Nicole Chang, and while she likes it, she clearly wants something more...the audience is insatiable. Alice has now returned and Nikki, after jumping down to go greet her, has now installed herself on her favorite side table in expectation of getting the full body scritching she often gets there). (Now she's looking sad that Alice is paying attention to the male cate, Domino.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Funny that "living" thing. In a work I read to my book group the other night, a very young member asked me if I was sure pedophiles existed in the seventies. Or at least that people would notice that a little girl should not be sitting in her pajamas on a strange man's lap. That's what age gets you. You remember the ped that fondled your knee in a subway in 1960.

Todd Mason said...

As I keep suggesting, the editors who will see your work published, and even maybe pay, seem like they are the more important commenters...and they (particularly non-paying) shouldn't be heeded when they have a particularly stupid suggestion...but, then, they rarely have the last word, except in their own venue.

Anonymous said...

This was an interesting analysis, Patti, and one that I'm sure you could write volumes on.

In a strange twist of fate, I learned how to plot from screenwriting courses and judging panels. Screenplays limit description to the fewest words possible--it's all plot, plot, plot. I really learned a lot from stripping all the normal details of a novel away from a story and just looking at plot and action.

Learning the strict, formulaic screenplay format was terrific discipline that I was then able to apply to the novel. I learned how to pace and interweave plot so longform novels moved along and didn't divert unduly. Pace is a subject I've never heard talked about in any kind of detail outside a screenplay class.

Iren said...

I tend to think of classes and workshops as time away from writing, where teachers and other students push you towards their view of your story instead of your own. Sure, feedback is good, and assignments can be useful in pushing you towards writing something you wouldn't have explored. Overall, I find that most of the people in these classes and workshops are more interested in the image of being a writer, than creating.

Ed Gorman said...

Having lived long years in the shadow of the Iowa Writers Workshop I'm pre-disposed to thinking that with a few notable exceptions most attendees go on to become functionaries in what John Leonard always called the cultural bureacracy---teaching writing, writing about writing, writing reviews but not writing much fiction that gets published. I've also heard plenty of stories--and not just about the Iowa workshop--about how competitiveness is encouraged. And that critiques can get personal if not downright savage. I don't know any of this first hand as I say but if it's at all true it seems to be a negative environment for writing. On the other hand I think there are teachers who become mentors. Three names from other generations come to mind: Anthony Boucher, Dwight V. Swain and Jack Bickham. Literally dozens of writers have praised these men and thanked them for helping to turn them into professional writers. Philip K. Dick was just one of Boucher's many students and he raved about Boucher all his life.

Dave Zeltserman said...

My opinion, the two best authors in the crime fiction space for plotting were Hammett and Donald Westlake, and you couldn't go wrong studying their books for learning plotting (plus you'd be reading some damn great books in the process!)

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I have both a BFA and an MFA in creative writing. I've attended a gozillion workshops and taught a few writing classes myself. Here's the thing: no amount of workshops can ever replace reading prodigiously and with an eye to what makes stories work (or not work). The best thing any would-be writer can do is read. Then read some more. And keep reading.

Sandra Scoppettone said...

I don't believe you can be taught to write. I never went to any classes or workshops or anything like that. In my twenties I did have a writing group like you do, Patti.

Reading is the best teacher, as others have said.

George said...

I took a couple creative writing classes at Marquette University taught by Roger Mitchell. They were insightful. A few decades later, I took three delightful writing classes at SUNY at Buffalo with poet and MacArthur Award winner, Irving Feldman. With great teachers like these you'd think I would have won at least a Pulitzer by now...but no dice. The creative process is mysterious and the publishing process is iffy.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Boy, there is a volume of truisms here. Went out for sushi and came back to find all of this sage advice.
Pacing-something I am probably very ill-adept at in esp. in the longer story.
So true about students seeing themselves as writers purely for sitting in a class.
Being in Iowa obviously served Ed well if strictly through osmosis. A mighty wind drifted his way.
Studying Hammett and Westlake is all you need-if you can see what makes their novels work. That takes the extra something.
Too many workshops don't look at good writing-assuming students read. Most don't. I took five workshops. We never read anything except student work.
Reading is the key-but I know people who read prodigiously but all the wrong stuff.
Most of you learned how to do it on your own. You are gifted, have something to say, know how to plot, recognize a good character. I am lucky to get to read your work.

Dana King said...

I took a semester-long workshop with John McNally several years ago, and it helped me greatly. Much of that has to do with McNally's personality; he isn't interested in making you write like he does, but showed me several things that didn't pay off until I was adept enough to recognize what worked for me.

That being said, I think too much is made of these. Many of the writers seem to grow into people who only write for other writers, possibly in the hop of being accepted at more prestigious workshops. Their resumes consists of little but workshop attendances. I've met a lot of writers who meet Iren's description, that "are more interested in the image of being a writer, than creating."

Gerald So said...

I'd known I wanted to be a writer since eighth grade, so I majored in creative writing and earned a Master's in creative writing. The most valuable thing I learned was a sense of objectivity reading my work. With that objectivity, I ask myself many of the same questions that might come up in a workshop.

After earning my Master's, I decided not to go for a Ph.D. I didn't want to become dependent on workshops, knowing ultimately I'd have to develop ideas and motivation on my own.

I recommend workshops in principle, but it's important to keep an internal sense of your progress while taking them.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think the idea of being a writer particularly appeals in the twenties. I still have never described myself that way. I think saying that begs the question, "Would I be familiar with your work?" uh, no.

Todd Mason said...

If we depend on the random person to know our work to be a writer, no one this page is likely to be a writer, not even Ed. It's akin to being a painter.

It isn't Just reading, and I'm not sure what you mean by reading the wrong things, Patti...only reading any single kind of writing doesn't help that much, but what are you referring to? (Only reading the rest of the workshop's work is certainly not helpful, no.) It's also in the writing itself, where the beginning writer gets a sense of what works and what doesn't, how to achieve certain effects, etc.

John McFetridge said...

I took some creative writing classes and they were very helpful in learning to write what I would call writerly prose.

I've also heard the advice about reading as much as you can and I believed it for a long time, but now I'm not so sure.

I'm starting to think that a lot of the writers I really admire spent more time listening to people talk and trying to get that down on the page rather than reading what other writers put down on the page.

Lately I've been very disappointed with books that feel to me like they were written by people who read a lot of books but talk to very few people.

I may be out of step with these ideas.

pattinase (abbott) said...

John-How people talk. That's a very good point and I bet working on a TV show has pointed that out.
You're right, Todd. Reading anything teaches you things.
Gerald-knowing when you've learned what you need to know is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

..."What was the most valuable thing for you in learning how to write?"

Knowing the difference between whose and who's and theirs and there's.

The difference between plug and play quirks and a believable character.

My family luvs me but that don't make me Tolstoy.

[Not that any of this means I can actually write, just that I didn't waste any time being delusional.]

John McAuley

John McFetridge said...

No, it wasn't working on the TV show, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald talking about writing down conversation he heard in coffee shops. It was hearing people I knew in the characters in Elmore Leonard novels.

And then it was trying to get characters in my own work to sound like people I knew. When I first started trying to write I would never do that, never base a character on a real person I knew but after a while I realized if you want to be a writer you have to be mercenary like that.

I wish the TV show was more interested in getting the characters to sound like real people ;)

Scott D. Parker said...

When I wrote my first novel, I had joined one creative writing class (short stories) that wasn't worth anything. I had attended one 1-day class that pretty much didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. I had one reader, later two, and we just wrote a chapter a week. The work just flowed and, based on the years of reading and watching TV/movies, I paced the story accordingly. I've been to a few all-day Saturday conferences and got a few good things out of them, but they're obvious things that I pretty much had figured out intrinsically. Now, I'm at a crossroads with my critique group. I'm beginning to think it may not be worth it as I don't get much out of it at all. I'm thinking that Stephen King's basic lesson is sound: writers should read a lot and write a lot.

John McFetridge said...

By coincidence I came across this quote from O. Henry today:

"There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands."

Is it blasphemy for me to say I think one of the problems with many writers today is that they read too much?

pattinase (abbott) said...

Isn't it funny how that works, John?

Thomas Miller said...

Patti - You might be interested in an old essay that Jerry Pournelle has on his website called "How to Get My Job: the secret of becoming a professional writer."

It also has links to thoughts on writing by George Orwell and Robert Heinlein.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, Thomas. Always interested in the process.

Anonymous said...

Creative writing programs are in high demand, as Jim Harrison once put it, like cocaine and Pampers. I don't really like them. I took one. The one good thing was I met my wife in the class. Also, I think it's better to read more narrowly and more carefully than the other way around. I will re-read for the tenth time a Sherwood Anderson book for example before I read something undiscoverd. You keep mining and mining the same good writings, and eventually something clicks, it pays off.

Barbara Martin said...

I've never attended a workshop, just read books and went from there. I did read an interesting series online where Bob Mayer and Jenny Crusie were explaining the mechanics of writing, going at great length to provide diagrams and how it fit with their own collaboration. They called it "He Wrote: She Wrote". It was the best I had read on putting a novel together to make it work. I have a copy of the printouts from those lessons to refer back to.