Friday, September 23, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "At one time we didn't have creative writing programs to support. Are these programs responsible for developing better writers?"

I taught in a creative writing program for over 33 years. Obviously, I feel such programs have value. And the CW program at the University of Washington is especially distinguished (ranked once among the 10 best out of nearly 300 such programs in America), having on its faculty of about 10 writers four who are MacArthur fellows. (Richard Kenney, Linda Bierds, Heather McHugh, and myself before I retired.) Those writers, and their predecessors, are master teachers and have assisted countless students since creative writing classes were started at UW shortly after World War II (I think the year was 1947) by poet Theodore Roethke, a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer prize.

But I was never a product of writing programs. In terms of education, I was a product of Journalism and Philosophy. Historically, as I mentioned, creative writing programs in America did not exist until after World War II. And you only find such programs in America. Europeans I've spoken with find such classes to be baffling, like an oxymoron, insofar as the general notion across the EU is that literary creativity---such things as imagination, vision, etc.---cannot be taught. And I agree with that judgment. We can't teach imagination and vision. What creative writing programs do teach when they are at their best is technique and aspects of craft. Also they place apprentice writers in direct contact with established ones, who can serve as their mentors. In those programs, many often have the chance to serve as editors on a literary journal, and to teach beginning poetry and fiction workshops. For their thesis, they must, ideally, produce a publishable work---a novel, collection of short stories or volume of poetry. Again, in terms of the ideal, these theses would be sufficiently professional to secure the young writer an agent and/or his or her first book contract. Unfortunately, in too many cases that I've seen what many MFA students mostly want after graduation is to get a tenured job teaching creative writing themselves, like their professors, rather than devoting their energies to writing and publishing prolifically.

So we have an important question before us: What would aspiring writers do if there were no creative writing programs? I think they would learn the rudiments of their craft, the essentials, in the same place that writers in the 20th century did before 1945. Namely, on newspapers. (Or perhaps now at our 21th century equivalent to dead-tree journalism.) What writerly virtues does newspaper journalism teach that are of value to a fiction writer? In my professional experience, there are four:

        (1) First, a writer for newspapers is conditioned from his or her first week on the job to write a lot and on many subjects. Typically, a journalist files 3 or 4 (and perhaps more) stories a week. You learn to write fast, and to not even think about that fact because it is a job requirement. In other words, you learn to make your first drafts clear and well-structured. (Inverted Pyramid-style paragraphs for straight news stories, but more literary approaches are possible for features and longer form journalism.) You learn that you can't afford to flinch before a writing assignment---a feature, a news story, a weekly column, a book or movie review, an editorial, a lengthier op-ed opinion piece, an in-depth investigative series---and you certainly can't afford the luxury of that strange psychic condition called a "writer's block." (Try telling that to your editor, "Gee, boss, I've had a writer's block for the last two weeks." Anyone who says that will be soon sending out his resume and seeking employment elsewhere.)

        (2) You learn to write for the broadest audience possible. An old rule of thumb was that news stories in The New York Times should be understandable by someone with a 12th grade education (for lesser papers the target was an eighth-grade education, but that rule was made back in the 1960s when our public school system was in much better shape than it is now, and when we did not have at least 1 out of 5 Americans---and almost 50% in Detroit---being functionally illiterate). Once, we called newspapers the Fourth Estate, an essential feature of any democracy because citizens who have the franchise, the right to vote, need reliable information to guide them in the decisions they make on election day. So being able to write for everyone---to communicate with everyone who can read---is something a journalist learns from day one on the job.

       (3) On newspapers, a writer learns to do research. He or she learns to ask the six most important storytelling questions: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why? You have the library of news stories previously published by your paper---the morgue---to draw upon. But, more importantly, you learn how to interview people, to shut up and listen, and how to ask good questions. Remember: the quality of the answers we get in this life is based on the quality of the questions we ask.

       (4) And, lastly, you learn not to see your prose (or copy) as sacred. Or carved in stone. What you write is just copy. It can always be improved by revision. When you're done writing, it goes directly across the room to your editor, who will delete, add, and change what you wrote, sometimes in ways that might make you want to scream and pull out your hair, because your by-line will still appear on that piece. In other words, being a staff writer for a newspaper teaches a writer humility. There is no place for prima donnas in the newsroom. Only for professionals who know how to get the job done and by or before its deadline.

       These are not always the virtues emphasized (by the threat of being fired) that MFA students encounter in their more gentle, nurturing two-year programs. But the experience of writing for newspapers obviously served well generations of fiction writers from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th. I recommend this experience for apprentice literary writers today. Such an experience of writing every week from the trenches, so to speak, will only serve to make them better professionals when they turn to producing literature and working as writers who can take on any assignment that comes their way.

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