THINGS I’VE LEARNED FROM TEACHING CREATIVE WRITING
1. GOOD WRITING IS A LEARNED SKILL
Shakespeare, certainly the greatest writer in the English language and arguably the world’s greatest writer, had talent. People speak and write a lot about that talent, that genius, that brilliance—but not nearly as much is said of Shakespeare’s hard work at learning his craft. He learned quickly, granted, but he learned; as his career grew, he acquired skills through experiments in the use of description, characterization, poetry, plot.
Maybe this actually wasn’t hard work for Shakespeare. But it’s usually hard work for us.
But it means that skills can be learned. Good writing can come—in fact, usually comes—from hard work.
So can anybody be a writer?
Yeah, pretty much.
Can anybody just sit down and knock off a well-structured, well-written novel?
Well, probably not. At the exact moment that we all decide to write a novel (or a story), our skill sets vary widely.
So when I walk into my office carrying a fresh batch of student stories under my arm, I am acutely aware that each student begins at a different level.
I love that. It makes the first weeks of class, as we get to know each other and each other’s writing, intensely interesting. Sitting down to read those first stories is like fishing. One never knows what might be at the end of the line. I might be about to reel in Moby Dick (yes, I know a whale is a mammal not a fish). Perhaps I’ll have One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish on the line. Or Trout Fishing in America. Or A River Runs Through It. That’s what makes the moment before I look down at the first paragraph so delicious. Anything’s possible.
But when it comes right down to it, I confess that I have a different sort of fish to fry. I prefer, for an ideal class, slightly more humble and varied fare: the sort of fish that’s edible—just. Ugly fish. The poisonous Scorpion Fish. The occasional electric eel. A fish that’s so small it’s not legal to keep it. A fish that on closer examination is a drowned cat.
As a class, we can learn many skills from examining such stories. And, sure, it would be great to haul in Moby Dick, but what’s even better is to join with the class in examining, say, that drowned cat. Flawed writing is interesting. Flawed writing, at its, well, at its best, helps students learn to recognize what good writing is—to see the distance between what is and what could be. And that seeing is the beginning of the process of learning to write.
Because writing is a skill (see above).
If a student puts her heart into it, revises extensively and comes to office hours, she will, perhaps in a semester, develop a good workmanlike prose. She will also know the basics of plotting—although translating theory into practice may take longer.
She’ll develop a good workmanlike prose.
It doesn’t sound sexy. It’s not the kind of prose William Faulkner or Lee Harper or Philip Pullman used.
But it is the prose that may be used by some of your favorite published writers—and by some of the writers favored by local school boards as well. Serviceable clean sentences and paragraphs get the work done—and while they can’t substitute for a cracking good plot, they can sustain one. Plotting, of course, is also a learned skill. As is description. And characterization. And good dialogue.
No inborn genius is required to write a good book. One doesn’t need a magic lamp with an amiable genie inside in order to structure a sentence.
That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news:
To acquire this thing that everybody wants, to, essentially, become a writer, one has to work really hard in the face of considerable discouragement. I’m going to state something here quite baldly, and it’s not something I would lightly tell a beginning creative writing class (but now the cat’s out of the bag): most of my students are not going to acquire that workmanlike prose. It’s difficult, and it takes more work than is required to earn an “A.”
Sometimes it’s just easier to believe that some have talent and some do not and skill and hard work are not involved.
But that isn’t true.
As for the student whose work has sophistication and good plot structure on day one of class, well, it’s a real pleasure to read such work. And it’s a great pleasure to see such work improve. It’s not so much fun, though, when advanced writers, instead of moving to a different plane, are content with their “A.”
As for Moby Dick, well, Moby Dick is elusive. Ask Captain Ahab.
2. WRITING DOESN’T IMPROVE AT A CONSTANT RATE
Acquiring writing skills is an uneven process. This discouraging fact holds true no matter how much one practices one’s craft. One day the prose flows smoothly, another, one writes one awkward sentence after another until reduced to staring at the computer screen in despair.
This frustrates and discourages, and it isn’t fair. Bad writing shouldn’t follow good writing—surely if someone can write something well, bad writing has been left behind. And it’s true that there are often sound reasons for producing bad writing after good. Sometimes, for example, one ignores constructive criticism. Sometimes circumstances—like a deadline—keep one from having the time to produce good prose. But sometimes…sometimes bad writing just happens.
Let me tell the tale of a student named Suzy (the name and the details have been changed).
Suzy’s first story was a very brief horror story that had stilted dialogue, flat characterization and no imagery. It wasn’t scary. The class critiqued the story, and the student brought the story into my office hours.
The revision, when she turned it in a week later, was much better. Suzy had begun using contractions (“I’d” instead of “I would”), which made the dialogue more realistic. The setting was described so that the reader had a sense of place.
The piece still wasn’t scary.
But it had improved.
Suzy’s second story was about a group of friends who stay up all night playing Trivial Pursuit. The game begins to unravel as the characters reveal themselves to be extremely unpleasant people who, on a gut level, hate each other. As I read the piece, I found myself nodding. Yes, yes and YES. This story had potential. The class as a whole had some concerns (the dialogue was still problematic, and the story needed more description), but Suzy addressed those concerns in the revision.
Suzy was off and running!
And then at the end of the semester, Suzy turned in her third and final story.
Another horror story. No imagery. Stilted dialogue. Flat characterization.
I did not run through the streets yelling and tearing at my hair (I don’t think students always realize how invested their professors are in the work they produce)—but I was tempted. And then I realized that this bad story was very different, really, from the first bad story that Suzy wrote. This bad story was a relapse. But Suzy’s ability to write a decent story hadn’t disappeared, and good stories, if Suzy keeps writing, will become the rule rather than exceptions.
If I worry about Suzy’s writing, it’s not because she wrote this bad story, it’s because this story came at the end of the semester. It would have been nice to end on a high note; it would have been encouraging for Suzy, because no matter how many times I speak about the inconstant rate at which writing improves, students find the occasional stinker demoralizing.
I’m not surprised by these kinds of setbacks—it’s all part of the uneven process of finding a voice and a style and a prose one is comfortable with. And that’s all they are—temporary setbacks.
3. REVISION: HAVING A SECOND CHANCE
The act of revision is a second chance—an opportunity to fix what’s wrong, to mend what’s broken, to bring alive what’s dead.
If we had a chance to revise life, we’d do it all the time (although, if we’re really talking about revising real life, the consequences would probably be terrible). With fiction, we can revise with impunity, because, if we don’t like the result, we can always revise again. There’s no need to fear revision, even if it initially makes a story or novel worse.
What I’ve learned from teaching creative writing, perhaps above all other things, is the power of revision to transform weak writing into strong writing. Revision can turn dreck into gold. A large part of what we do in creative writing class is, when a story has been read aloud and is up for critique, to provide feedback that will allow the student to make the most effective revisions possible. WHAT to change is a challenge for the class to articulate. Suggestions may be made
—to change the narration from the first person to the third person limited
—to add more description of the setting
—to use more dialogue.
But HOW these changes are to be made are the purview of the student. I am happy to help during office hours, but the magic really comes when the student works on revision by trying out different techniques and seeing what works best. By experimenting.
That said, having just finished major revisions on my own manuscript, I do have a current favorite mode of revision that I recommend generally. Take pen or pencil (or computer) in hand and
4. WEED THE STORY.
Anecdote follows: when my agent read my complete manuscript some months ago, he was enthusiastic.
He also said to cut 100 pages.
Of course, I couldn’t possibly cut 100 pages. My manuscript was chock-full of witty, scintillating dialogue, dynamite description and interesting side plots (as you read this, I suspect you already see some of the major problems I needed to cope with).
So I had Reader #1, my sister, read the manuscript in just the same way we read work in my creative writing class. We went over the manuscript word by word by line by line by line—we weeded each page.
In the course of doing this, I was greatly humbled.
We found pages of dialogue that did nothing to move the plot along. We found descriptions that went on at such length that it was clear I had fallen in love with my own prose. And I had extraneous plot lines that only detracted from the story arc.
I began to weed.
The thing about weeding is this: once one has steeled oneself to the necessity of the process, weeding has a certain pleasure to it. Every line cut adds to the power of the whole, and soon one can see the clean bones of the novel shining through the prose.
So . . . weed.
I did not, in the end, cut 100 pages.
But I did cut 80.
That’s 20,000 words. Which is a lot of words.
I had new-found space, giving my manuscript room to breathe and a less jumbled feel. And I now had places where, if absolutely necessary, I could work to fast-track the plot and pick up the pace.
I learn a great deal whenever I teach creative writing. The students and I are always searching, searching, searching for ways to make prose better and to make readers invest in fictions. I hope you’ll write too, and join us in our endeavor.
Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with many students who are on the quest to improve their writing, and, to each of these motivated hard-working students, I would like to say thank you.
Thank you for trusting me to help you with your writing.
Thank you for all the opportunities you have given me to improve my own writing.
For all of us, the journey continues.
Gillian Murray Kendall
Gillian Murray Kendall is an English Professor at Smith College where she teaches Shakespeare and 17th Century Poetry. She is married to biologist Robert Dorit and has two children, Sasha and Gabriel. She’s also an editor of a collection of essays, Shakespearean Power and Punishment.