Teaching Creative WritingPrint
By Paula Marantz Cohen
“Creative writing” is the annoying term used to describe courses in which students learn to produce fiction, poetry, and essays that aren’t of the academic or “what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation” sort. Unlike literature courses, where the material is snugly protected within an established canon, creative writing requires teachers to pass judgment—a difficult task when delicate young psyches are involved (a point that I have written about with respect to my own early experience.)
The creative writing classes I teach generally start out as love fests, with everyone praising everyone else’s creativity and unique voice. Then begins the sensitive process of talking about what’s wrong with their work. It helps soften the blow if I recount some of the gory details of rejections of my own fiction, not to mention the fact that my husband, who edits all of my work, likes to write “crap” in the margins of paragraphs he doesn’t like.
Ultimately, my task is to teach the difference between taste and judgment. I can find a student’s humor not to my taste, I’ll explain, but still see its appeal to others and its potential marketability. Likewise, I can find that another student shares my sensibility but has not yet been able to discipline her prose to pass muster on even the most indulgent website. These are the sorts of judgments I want them to learn and be able to apply to each other’s work, as well as to their own.
Another advantage to teaching these courses is that it gives me license to critique professional writing—not just stories and essays in The New Yorker, but classic texts that students wouldn’t normally think to criticize stylistically. We can read a story by D. H. Lawrence, for example, and see how many conventional rules of writing are broken while also acknowledging that the story succeeds—even if one doesn’t like it. We can also read a story by Henry James and decide whether or not it is a good “Jamesian” story. If one cannot really teach students to be gifted writers, one can teach them to be gifted readers—to learn how great stories were produced, and to respect the craftsmanship that went into making them. They can also learn to see when authors were lazy or simply off their game. This helps to put a face behind the literary work—not a conventional biographical face but a human one.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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