I’m a “commenter” not a “poster” this week, but being in an MFA program and having spent the last couple of years off and on thinking about the ethics of “creative writing,” I’d like to address Renee Delong’s section in the “Risky Business” piece. I agree that creative writing as a discipline is fraught with unremarked-upon assumptions about race, class, gender, etc. The idea of the “writer” as this essentialized, embodied figure is of course charged with a civilization’s worth of problems. When I imagine “the writer,” I think of John Updike smiling self-satisfied in press photos, or the portraits of poets of centuries ago puffed up and absurdly stylized. This likely speaks to my position, as a white male “writer,” who has become uncomfortable with the historical weight of his chosen pursuit. Even the term “creativity” is troubling, sentimental as it is, drawing to mind the entitled subjectivity of the privileged few. My sense is that Delong takes issue with the creative-writing degree at her college because funds might be better used elsewhere, and because she sees the discipline, if the word applies, as ideologically charged and acritical. As I said: fair complaints. However, I also think there is value to providing students a space to write in a different, non-academic way, to approach literature as a free-floating pursuit, where texts from here and there might talk to each other, a la comparative literature, and the discourse in the classroom is devoted to the complex subjectivities of students’ “authentic” voices. (I use that term ironically, if only to comment on the pedagogical problems of identity, the way it’s malleable and imprecise, and yet, on a day-to-day level, manifests fairly consistently.)
I wonder if “creative writing” is a straw man (straw person?), an offshoot of English education that most clearly (i.e. most reprehensibly) typifies the structural failures of academia. Ideas of argumentation and criticality are themselves governed by a barrier to entry. Even if the methods are sound, even if there are useful theories that can help offset the inborn bias, there is still a rhetorical gap in academia that promotes exclusion. I don’t think that conversations about “point of view,” “characterization,” and so forth serve as a stand-in for rigorous training in composition. But I do think they bring certain important rhetorical issues to light, and invite exploration in a way that is both low-stakes and generative. The danger of university education as vocational training is always looming. I see the high stakes of preserving, and furthering, a broadly accessible and demanding writing curriculum. I just think a hybrid approach could help illustrate notions of audience and intent—and perhaps engender a sense of personal connection—that might strengthen college writing as a whole.
As a disclaimer, I am not a banner-waving “creative writer,” but rather someone with a set of tasks this semester who is trying to reconcile their responsibilities and incongruities. I write fiction and poetry because I enjoy it, and it feels like a useful means of investigating my assumptions and blind spots. Maybe it gives rise to even more assumptions, but it’s not as if these discussions ever resolve, nor should they. My goal this year is to figure out how I can accommodate and challenge at once, include and complicate. Whether that’s possible in a creative-writing class, I don’t know. But I’ve enjoyed working with the students so far, and I’m optimistic about where things are going.