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Rapping on the Teaching of Creative Writing Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

The backbone of writer failure may well be the inability to learn and/or the lack of opportunities for beneficial study.  This may not be the fault of the writer.  There are few resources to learn fictional prose story telling that is memorable and significant.  Consider these learning sources:

1) Learning in writing groups is the blind leading the blind through a maze of bear traps and landmines.  No one would believe a group of briefly educated humans who wanted to be neurosurgeons would get together weekly to discuss the experimental surgery they have been practicing in their garages and basements.  Yet, both surgery and writing require study with experts as well as knowledge learned from many intellectual and skilled disciplines over many years.  Writing groups, plump with inexperience and discordant ideas, are almost never of any useful value to the serious writer.

2) Learning in organized workshops is the carpenter teaching musicians with hammers and saws to play Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio.  Even in high profile traditional workshops, teachers are rarely capable of developing the special talents of an individual writer to achieve creation of an art form (a fictional literary story).  Fundamentally, there is no right way that is applicable to all.  As a result, many teachers use the wrong tools for the wrong job, and their teaching is little more than useless for the dedicated fiction writer.  At worst, the incompetent teacher can, and does, inappropriately humiliate and discourage a talented writer in the workshop setting.  And these incompetents often descend into dogmatic pronouncements that stifle understanding and creativity.

(3) Learning from popular textbooks on fiction writing, which–with a few significant exceptions–are often writing efforts of poor writers with teaching appointments or responsibilities who write the learning of fiction as Lego instruction, with rigid rules and inflexible actions, like assembling a bicycle from parts while reading a fold-over slip of paper with fine-print instructions–and a diagram–on Christmas morning.  Some of these authors write texts composed of famous authors' stories with personal, short, subjective-value comments, but with little to no insight into a writer's process.

(4) Learning in MFA programs is not of guaranteed quality, and may not just be mediocre, but detrimental to a writer's improvement.  MFA programs, many hastily formed by universities, colleges and organizations to maintain relevance and solvency, often hire teachers untrained as educators, and untalented as writers, to teach creative writing. This practice  results in suppressing understanding of the complexities of the art of fiction and the vibrant essence of great story telling.  More than a few traditional programs are so inbred by tired, untalented teachers choosing and supporting unimaginative writers like themselves that the writing from these programs takes on a clone-like mediocrity that brands its origin.  By default, these educators promote teaching of scholarly nonfiction and pop-culture memoir as fiction, without the quality of story writing equal to that of imaginative fiction.

Creative writing programs labeled as "academic" emphasize lyricism over drama, often prefer obscure to clear prose, and mistakenly believe that a lack of understanding by a reader is the desired result of their own "writer-intellectual" superiority.  They teach revision as grammar and syntax, metaphor and oxymoron-excessive prose, rather than the dynamic and suspenseful expression of the desires and conflicts of characters about whom the reader has come to care, like, or at least respect through the story. Some academic workshops digress in education by students sitting around a table with eyes closed and holding hands for long silent periods in the hope that images and words will float up from the unconscious to write about, like images sought in a Victorian séance to communicate with the dead.  Some highly acclaimed academic workshops spend a week policing manuscripts for point of view inconsistencies, while the needs that should be addressed are imagining effective story structure and learning how to build memorable characters through meticulously crafted, interrelated, character actions in dramatic scenes.  In some workshops, a teacher presents a personal memoir story, and then details how to turn it into fiction by shifting the time line and changing the prose emphasis of certain events, teaching that might well derail a student's progress in learning to write their own great fiction.

Academic workshops and courses also fail to demand a writer have a thoroughly understood purpose for writing a story as well as, on a construction level, all the prose elements of that story.  This results in picking at prose when the writer hasn’t decided what  he or she is really writing about, and how  he/she will achieve a story purpose.  It is almost unarguable: Failure to find and build purpose in storytelling makes coherency of a prose fictional story with effective characters, plots or emotional arcs, unlikely.  And it is not uncommon that the poorly educated, poorly trained teachers who are allowed the privilege to teach creative writing are guilty of:

(1) Ignoring emotional character development for the ease of plotting from life experience.

(2) Accentuating the cute, the bizarre, and the shocking (which have only temporary effects on value in story telling).

(3) Failing to develop author understanding of the human soul, its flaws, and what really is responsible for its strengths.

(4) Ignoring the value of sophisticated narration.

(5) Thinking that lyricism alone can sustain great story effectiveness.

Quality fiction as an art form has especially suffered from the high-profile, traditional MFA programs where graduation almost guarantees publication of the work generated in the program.  The published work is rarely quality writing or storytelling.  Once published, eager, unaware readers perceive literary fiction as obtuse in meaning, boring, and with pseudo-intellectual ideation.  Many dedicated readers have turned away from reading literary fiction for enjoyment (and agents refuse to try to sell it),  while the authors from these programs read to fellow graduates or a small group of readers who admire writing credentials and rationalize that the quality is better than it is.  The detriment to fiction as an art form has been significant, and for the writer seeking to achieve their personal best, MFA programs can permanently derail that possibility.

With so few valuable or easily-accessed resources for learning available to the fiction writer, only one reliable way to learn emerges.  Each writer must discover from those authors who have gone before, what it is about the writing of a successful literary art form that will be useful for their own careers as contemporary writers.  It's not just copying a favorite author's style, either.  It's mastering understanding of knowledge, intellect, the environment and opinions (and attitudes) of the author's times; the emotional complexities of the author that affected the writing; the associations with other writers (Examples: Bloomsbury group, Shelley’s Swiss mountain writing buddies), and the effects of societies' mores (Examples: Austen, James, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Forester, Chekhov, Flaubert).

Authors need to be curious.  How did they do it?  Then, what can I learn from them so I can do it?  How can I, based on what I've learned from others, create fiction that engages, entertains and stimulates thoughtful responses about human existence?  One key question has to be addressed repeatedly with each work studied: What were these authors' purposes in writing?  One dominant purpose persistently stands out for all:  to tell a story where something happens that is meaningful and entertaining to the reader.  And without exception, successful fiction writers write to please a reader, not all readers, but specific readers seeking enjoyment through reading.  Now, the beginning writer must learn, not only how to construct sentences and paragraphs, but how stories and the creation of stories in the prose medium can be best crafted to please a reader.  It's the way they imaginatively form and narrate a story.  The craft of prose, although vitally important, is secondary.

This is an excerpt from the essay, "Anatomy of a Wannabe Literary Fiction Writer," by William H. Coles

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3 Responses to “Rapping on the Teaching of Creative Writing”

  1. Marie Says:

    I read this and am concerned about the MFA program. Do you suggest that a writer, such as myself who is interested in writing Literary fiction not waste time at an MFA? or rather, should I be selective? How can I find the goon MFA program?
    I don't wish to waste time, but am a little curious how I will improve my writing.

  2. William Coles Says:

    I must answer your question with care; I don't want you to fail to seize opportunities that might help you. But a few facts. 1. Many English majors take MFA programs to earn qualifications for teaching positions. There are now so many MFA programs that many English majors are not successful in obtaining spots, and they tend to clog the enlightenment of serious fiction writers who want to write great prose stories. 2. MFA programs take a lot of time and many programs have neither the resources or the quality of education that makes the time spent by a student valuable. However, the majority of MFA graduates express pride and worthiness of their degree; still, there is no way to know if their fiction writing improved or is even adequate. 4. Most MFA programs teach creative writing, including memoir, creative nonfiction, and poetry. How valuable this is for a fiction writer is very individual and difficult to assess. 5. Teachers of fiction in MFA programs vary widely in talent and ability to nurture students. There are many famous teachers who are very poor at what they do, and to be stuck with such a teacher can be a detriment.

    Almost all teachers in MFA programs teach classes and workshops outside the program. These courses can be a few days to a few weeks. It is a reasonable way to develop as a writer, that is, to take courses with as many good writers, good teachers, and good writer/teachers (which are rare) as possible. (If done well, this can be cost effective, since MFA tuitions seem to be going up.) This allows you to determine how they think about writing and avoids a burdensome MFA curriculum that may have questionable value with extraneous assignments. Simultaneously, isolating the great writers you enjoy, then meticulously discovering what about their writing and their story construction moves you may be the single most worthwhile undertaking of your career. And it is free, and enjoyable.

    It is a mystery why there are so many ways to learn to write fiction. Everyone differs in their attitudes (and competency). To find good teachers, word of mouth helps. I can recommend a few names of teachers I believe have skills, intelligence, and knowledge to help the student who wants to write great literary fiction. Lynn Freed, Tom Jenks, Jim Shepard, John Biguenet, Peter Ho Davies, Margo Livesy are among the best active teachers today. But ask friends. Read websites. Read samples of works.

    You are astute in seeking ways to maximize the quality of the time educating yourself and It seems to reflect a desire to write the best fiction you can. Truthfully, resources for fiction writers of value are scarce. Most MFA programs may not be worth your time, unless you want to make contacts with writers and publishers and enjoy nonfiction activities. And if you use longevity and fame as criteria for workshop choice, you may make mistakes. Some of the most prominent MFA programs can be the worst choices for dedicated fiction writers eager to learn imaginative story structure and prose with movement and meaning.

    All the best in your endeavors. Investigate, as you are, but in the long run you'll have to go with your gut feeling as to what is best for you. WHC

  3. writing with friends Says:

    Writing is never easy most especially when you're talking on unique and eye-catching content. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, this will surely help.

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