Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"Most creative-writing teachers have had the experience of occasionally helping to produce, by accident, a pornographer." John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. 

During my 30-plus years of teaching creative writing students, graduate and undergraduate, I never told anyone that he or she lacked talent, imagination, or that they were wasting their time. Obviously, some did lack talent and imagination. Some were wasting their time. But in principle, I always considered it wrong to discourage anyone. Who can predict if the student performing poorly in a workshop today might in five or ten years blossom into a first-rate practitioner of literary fiction? Or a best-selling writer of industrial fiction? And there is also this to say: even if such a young writer (and we all know that twentysomething young writers notoriously are lacking in the kind of worldly experience that is the basis for good storytelling) didn't one day write well, English professors console themselves, rightly or wrongly, with the hope that the young writer will emerge from a creative writing workshop as a more critical reader, someone who better understands the creative process behind the works of writers they admire or love.

But having said that, I have to say in all honesty that over three decades I sometimes had in my classroom students whose sanity was questionable. Every creative writing teacher I've known has had such students. For example, my former colleague at the University of Washington, poet David Wagoner, tells of once having serial killer Ted Bundy in one of his workshops. To paraphrase something once said by John Gardner (a quote I unsuccessfully spent an hour trying to track down), we sometimes run into a student who doesn't so much need to work on his or her craft but rather should first work on the condition of his or her soul.
 On the first day of my classes, I told students that I cared less about what they wrote (that was up to them) than how they wrote it; but I also urged them to immediately begin reading Gardner's The Art of Fiction, where he states that, "On reflection we see that the great writer's authority consists of two elements. The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond, as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, 'Yes, you're right, that's how it is!" (The second element for JG is the writer's trust in his or her own aesthetic judgments and instincts.) I also made them reflect on these words from JG's literary manifesto, On Moral Fiction:

        ""Clearly no absolute standard for sanity and stability exists, but rough estimates are possible. If a writer regularly scorns all life bitterly, scorning love, scorning loyalty, scorning decency (according to some standard)---or, to put it another way, if some writer's every remark strikes most or many readers as unfair, cruel, stupid, self-regarding, ignorant, or mad; if he has no good to say of anything or anyone except the character who seems to represent himself; if he can find no pleasure in what happy human beings have found good for centuries (children and dogs, God, peace, wealth, comfort, love, hope, and faith)---then it is safe to hazard that he has not made a serious effort to sympathize and understand..."

Despite all that emphasis on "moral fiction" in my workshops, I found it strange to discover how many of my bright male students were eager to write novels that were rather perverse variations on either Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (grown men lusting in their stories after 15-year-old girls) or John Fowles's The Collector (grown men imprisoning young women for the purpose of sexual exploitation). Some wrote a combination of those storylines---Lolitas imprisoned for sexual exploitation. And there were always the young female students who wrote unpublishable stories about saintly women who were driven to murder their abusive, despicable husbands, or arranged to have them beaten to a bloody pulp. 
I remember one student in my last class before I retired writing a first-person story where the narrator/protagonist was a serial killer. Decades ago, when on a visit to the writing program at another university, I was forewarned about a white student I would have in my class who was convinced he was black. (Hip hop "ghetto" black, mind you, not black like W.E.B. Du Bois or Gordon Parks.) In one of my own evening novel-writing classes at UW, a black male student in his 40s, one who was trying to self-publish his fiction, decided he was dissatisfied with the descriptive passages in the work of his peers that particular night and, without warning, jumped up from his seat and began to demonstrate the ways different people, male and female, happy or sad, might walk across a room. (Another student chastised him for that impromptu, class-disrupting, theatrical outburst before I could get over my state of shock and speechlessness.) And it will probably take me several reincarnations to forget the young woman, a fundamentalist Christian, who wrote about gay gang-rape in Sodom before the Almighty destroyed that Old Testament city.

 In the mildest bad case scenarios, a writing teacher must deal with students who rather than striving to simply tell a good, entertaining story instead use the occasion of their fiction to subject their teacher and fellow students to their personal problems and neuroses. (One of my former chairmen once told me he suspected creative writing classes were so popular on campus because it is only in those classes that a student gets the personal attention they crave. This isn't physics. These aren't lit courses where one is studying Shakespeare. Instead, they are the only classes on campus where the students's feelings and personalities are the subject matter.) But in a handful of cases the things I saw in student stories ranged from the eccentric to the bizarre to the borderline schizophrenic. When I was at UW it was briefly possible on the undergraduate level to weed out students who might potentially become a problem if a creative writing professor was willing to request and read during, say winter term, samples of writing by students who wanted to enter his workshop scheduled for the spring. However, that practice soon ended because students were afraid to submit a sample of their work and sought instead to get into sections of the class where the professor didn't ask to see their work before admitting them into class. 

 Is there a solution for any of this? If there is, I suspect it lies in the direction of the creative writing teacher practicing patience and compassion toward his or her most troublesome students, taking them aside and in private explaining why some readers will find what they have put on the page to be offensive, and maybe even alarming. As much as some of us with a background in philosophy would like to believe that everyone is endowed with reason, the truth---at least in terms of my experience---is that everyone we meet is on a different level of emotional, intellectual, and moral maturity and development. Why should it be different in the classroom? And I'm always reminded of a telling statement once made by spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran: Each individual we meet during the course of our day is at any given moment most likely emerging from a state of depression, is already in a state of depression, or is just about to enter a state of depression. A sensitive teacher always keeps that in mind.

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