On paper, I teach a writing class based on traditional composition and rhetoric pedagogy.
But can you really teach someone how to write?
I know that the question sounds counterintuitive coming from someone with a graduate degree in creative writing, but I’m not alone in this. There have been a rash of articles in recent years questioning the value of a creative writing MFA.
In the much-discussed collection MFA vs NYC, Pulitzer nominee David Foster Wallace, who himself graduated from the University of Arizona’s MFA program, writes: “In terms of rigor, demand, intellectual and emotional requirement, a lot of Creative Writing Programs are an unfunny joke. Few require of applicants any significant preparation in history, literature, criticism, composition, foreign languages, art or philosophy; fewer still make attempts to provide it in curricula or require it as a criterion for graduation.”
I do see where Wallace is coming from, though. Many creative writing programs do not include a foundational context for how to write creatively. The things is, I don’t believe that they should.
I cover general rhetorical techniques and syntactical rules with my students. I try to make sure they all know how to write an effective sentence. But when it comes to crafting a longer narrative, what I’m really trying to teach them is how to think. This is the core principle that guides my approach as an instructor. It is a philosophy based not necessarily on giving students the right answers, but on teaching them to ask the right questions. I stress the importance of identifying, assessing, and applying feedback in ways that help my students learn and grow as scholars and human beings. I want them to examine and reflect on how effective writing can teach us, socialize us, entertain us, and sustain us; to reflect, in other words, on how written expression helps us to live.
And isn’t that what writing instruction is supposed to do? It doesn’t necessary seek to teach creativity, but to nurture it. In that way, I learn as much as my students in the classroom, because I have to model the kind of heart and soul I want to inspire in them.
I don’t necessarily think that good narrative writing can be taught. In the words of the prophet, Lady Gaga, we’re “born this way.” I do believe, though, that I’ve learned how to express my creativity in new ways in large part by teaching helpful techniques to others.
But that’s just me, though. What do you think? Is creativity something that can be taught?