Is Happiness Possible in a Creative Writing Program?

The following is an online-exclusive extended version of the interview that appears in the November/December issue of WD. [Coming soon: Click here to order the issue—or click here to download a digital version instantly to your desktop.]

Let’s face it: Writing ain’t easy.

I’ve taught creative writing at Columbia College Chicago for more than three decades and have been privileged to head the Fiction Writing Department for the past 14. Often, late in the semester, when I sense that the workload pressures are peaking among my students as they push to finish rewrites for their final stories, I take a timeout in class and ask a question meant to get them back to essentials: “Why did you decide to take fiction writing classes?”

The answers may vary, but eventually someone will admit, “I thought it would be a easy ‘A’.”

“And?”

“Not easy. Definitely not easy.”

Our program requires a four-course, six-semester core sequence for undergrads, a five-course sequence plus thesis development for grads; and, as chair, I confess to secretly being pleased when I hear that our classes aren’t easy, that standards are high and students feel a strong demand.

“So why,” I go on, “when you could be doing anything else that might be easier—building houses, opening a dog-walking business, working on a Chicago street crew, studying quantum physics—do you go on writing? Why keep putting yourself through all that agony?”

Invariably, someone mentions the pleasure in meeting a challenge: “Because I’ve learned that I can solve the problems if I just keep at it; and when I feel something’s gone right, see the audience pulled in, feel them getting it, I’m happy.”

Happiness and ease, as we’ve known since the ancient Greeks, are two entirely different things. Although I fear that in our present Age of Distraction, we have lost sight of the distinction and too often confuse ease or comfort with happiness. Even in the midst of an economic debacle where many people have lost their jobs and their investments, I’d wager what’s left of my IRA that we still have more comfortable people in this country than in those Dust Bowl days of decades ago, and more who think that seeking ease is the path to happiness.

What’s all of this have to do with creative writing programs, you ask?

Plenty. Everything, in fact.

The purpose of writing programs, and their potential for evoking happiness, if not ease, goes to the purpose—or purposes—of story. From our earliest years, we’ve told stories to express our wishes, our dreams, our experiences of the world. But beyond these expressive ends, stories also help us gain a sense of history, achieve self and community identity, and discover a shape to what would otherwise be a vast, inchoate sea of events, impressions and barely acknowledged feelings. Following the ancient Longinian dictum, they delight, instruct and move us; and as they encounter the stories of others, they carry the potential for prompting understanding and crossing borders. Of course, stories may merely confirm our worldview or settle us more deeply into our mental easy chairs—as our habitual fascination with television, the Internet and other screen distractions amply demonstrates—but they can also help us see and feel something new, travel through hitherto uncharted territory, bring us a step or two closer to real understanding, maybe even meaning, by promoting a healthy “dis-ease” that shakes us out of our comfortable patterns.

Writing programs—if they are worth their salt—can help us explore these stories, and the story of our own life, by teaching us to tell and listen more effectively, find our own authentic voice, engage our strongest material, place ourselves in a storytelling tradition and join others involved in the same pursuits. Undertaking study in such a program is an investment whose cost, as we are all aware, is not inconsiderable. In my view, it is not enough to say, as some do, that the main return on that investment rests with having two or three years away from the world to write, finding a ready-made audience for your work, making connections with agents and publishers, or subjecting oneself to harsh critiques that develop a thick skin (a necessary preparation, they assert, for the harsh realities of rejection by the publishing world). A person might be better off renting a garret, joining a writers group, buying lunches for someone with connections to publishing or hiring a flogger—any of which would be a good deal cheaper than a writing program. Those considering such a program need to be assured of at least two things: (1) that the dollars they spend will result in real learning, and (2) that the outcome will potentially leave them somewhere other than starving in a garret—a notion that sounds romantic until it’s you that’s starving—or curled in the corner like a beaten dog.

In the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago, we’ve tried to address these needs by taking as our mission a twin imperative: (1) to give people the tools to become independent writers of publishable fiction, nonfiction, plays and other creative work, and (2) to help them acquire skills that can be applied flexibly in a wide array of professions. We seek students who, above all, are curious, open to learning and unafraid of hard work.

Students in our program take courses in three areas. First, and most central, is our Story Workshop core of fiction and creative nonfiction classes. This approach, originated by former chair and now emeritus professor John Schultz, stands in marked contrast to most other creative writing programs by being focused on process rather than simply on the already written product. In the traditional approach, students are typically given an assignment to write a story outside of class, then distribute it to classmates who, in the following workshop, offer their critique as the writer sits silently taking it all in. A great deal, as you may imagine (or indeed may have experienced!), depends upon the teacher’s willingness and ability to manage negative criticism; and, afterward, writers may be left to sort through conflicting advice as they attempt to rewrite without losing the heart of their story or an ear for their own voice.

By contrast, the Story Workshop approach works with the whole imaginative process, even before pen gets to page. With students sitting in a semicircle in order to heighten the storyteller’s use of the dynamic audience of the classroom as a stand-in for the wider audience beyond the door, teachers coach students through a series of exercises that both reflect and stimulate writers’ imaginative processes: Recall; Oral Reading of literary models; Recall and Comment upon techniques noticed in the models; One-Word and other abstract word games that stir story possibilities and help access deeper linguistic, perceptual and imaginative potentials; Take-a-Place, in which students begin to see a place and let characters begin to interact; Oral Tellings to the immediate audience, side-coached by the teacher for sharper seeing, movement and fresh discoveries; Readback of In-Class Writing, where students are coached to listen for what’s coming through effectively in their own voices; and Final Recall, in which students re-see and re-tell strong moments from each other’s pieces—a form of positive rather than negative critiquing. Students take the in-class scenes home and finish them, over time fashioning full chapters, stories or essays.

Throughout, this process approach is directed toward helping writers discover, hear and use their own powerful, authentic voice and toward exploring the dynamic potential for story found in image, or what Schultz has termed “seeing in the theater of the mind.” Teachers trained in this approach must at all times be aware of establishing the widest possible permission for the voices, backgrounds and potential subject matter of the undoubtedly diverse group of students in the classroom, creating an environment conducive to experimentation and to moving past self-censoring impulses that blunt voice and deplete story content.

Used with varying degrees of sophistication and demand—from elementary students in our outreach programs to the most advanced writers in our graduate program—the Story Workshop method develops the so-called “basic” skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking but also other crucial capacities for abstracting, conceptualizing, critical thinking, imaginative problem-solving and expanding linguistic and stylistic options. Students are challenged to write at their highest level, to be sure, but are also given tools to manage that challenge and locate a path through what might otherwise remain a mysterious, impenetrable wilderness. Just as no one expects the journey down that path to be at all times easy (nothing worthwhile is, after all), not even the most persistent Piers Plowmans of the soul wants to spend long in a wilderness. They may expect an occasional slough of despond, but somehow they must be motivated, encouraged, enabled to press on with the search for story.

Creative writing students need a comprehensive curriculum that provides both depth and breadth of training. To this end, we offer two other strands of courses. The first is comprised of a wide array of Critical Reading and Writing courses, some broader (such as Short Story, Novel, Novel-in-Stories, and so on), some constructed around particular groups of writers (Women Writers, Contemporary European Writers, multicultural American Voices, and many others). These text-based courses focus on learning to read as writers rather than as literary critics; and while cultural, historical, literary and other contexts may come into play, discussion always returns to the techniques and processes used by established writers to tell strong content effectively. Students reflect upon their own processes in journals as they undertake research on writers, do creative nonfiction essays presenting their research, and experiment with techniques in their own writing.

A third strand, Specialty Writing, challenges students to apply skills learned in the other two strands by asking them to choose from a range of classes in six areas: genre fiction, playwriting, creative nonfiction, publishing, electronic applications and Story Workshop Tutor/Teacher Training. Yes, creative writing can be taught—and taught well.

Finally, what about outcomes? Friends, parents, relatives, lovers and others may tell you that creative writing is a frivolous pursuit, a waste of time and money. Yet a creative writing degree—especially one that has involved actual training, a progressively more demanding challenge, a comprehensive curriculum and a coherent approach leading to acquisition of flexible skills—can be a solid preparation for doing publishable creative work and for entering a very diverse array of jobs. In addition to people in those fields most commonly thought of as professions for creative writing MFAs—teaching and publishing (editors, copywriters, proofreaders and the like)—our graduates include the Senior Vice President for Creative Development at a leading ad agency, the head of public relations for a large financial institution, the president of an innovative information management company, lawyers, doctors, journalists, financial planners, online content providers, grant writers and many, many others.

I often tell prospective students that our program has no interest in preparing people to starve. A starving writer can’t write very well and is of very little use to any of us—and a starved-to-death writer is of no use at all. We want people to learn to be able to eat so they can do their creative work well. And it stands to reason that in a world in dire need of people who can read and digest complex information, engage in imaginative problem solving and craft a coherent sentence, creative writing graduates should have a leg up in the years to come.

No, writing isn’t easy, and good creative writing programs won’t be easy either. Dorothy Parker once famously advised: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” But for every Parker, there is someone for whom writing is a journey that carries a great many rewards. One of my favorite writers, Wright Morris, was asked in an interview years ago why, if writing involved such pain, he persisted in the activity. He thought for a moment and said (I am paraphrasing): “You know, I write every day from eight to one, and some days, I sit and stare at the wall for four of those five hours. But I know that if I stay there, if I keep at it, at some point I will have access to a kind of pleasure that anyone who doesn’t write will never know.”

Writing programs that teach you to hear and use your own distinctive voice, to engage in purposeful play and to write engaging, lively work that gets ever closer to the heart of human experience can offer lessons you will carry for the rest of your life and help you locate a path to that pleasure unfelt by those who don’t write. They should offer you a progressively more demanding challenge but also give you ways to meet it. They should be rigorous but need not be destructive to your voice or your spirit. They should prompt a healthy dis-ease but not leave you feeling diseased.

In the end, if you choose well, then commit yourself fully and remain open to learning, you never know—you might just find yourself happy.

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