On my creative writing syllabus this term, I’ve included the following …well… essay explaining my philosophy on writing. I thought it would be useful to my students to see what I think about the writing process going in.
Of course, everyone knows, the longer your syllabus is, the less students read it. So I’m sharing this with you, my beloved five readers, because maybe you will appreciate it. 🙂
(P.S… I will make a Wednesday Post tomorrow… I just wanted to share this since I think it’s pretty good.)
This class is as much about process as product—more so, actually. What we end up with is important—but how we get there is more important. It is extremely rare that the first draft we write is the final polished version—the person who can do that either is a literary genius or has made a deal with a devil. If you’re a literary genius: go home, you have no need for this class. If you’ve made a deal with the devil: congratulations on your masterpiece and future literary career, but too bad about your soul.
For the rest of us, we have to see a piece mature from a little clot of words and ideas to something that has possibilities to something that vaguely resembles a story or a play to something that becomes like a story or play to a revision and another revision to a detour to a revision of the detour to a rumination to a final polished version of a story or play. Because experimentation is a key (and expected) part of the writing process, it’s not a linear process… it’s all ways at once, not a single path from start to finish. (This may be scary to some students, for whom linearity is a way of life.) Creative writing is about approaching an idea from a lot of different ways, and sometimes that means we scrap what we started with. Or we only save a line or two. Or we change characters. Or we change who’s telling the story. Or we smash things together (or break them apart). But the point is, you can’t be married to the first (or even second or third) version, because for most people, the first few versions are not fleshed out in terms of their vision and their form.
Drafting/ experimenting is NOT editing. If you look at your first draft and “fix” a few comma errors or spelling mistakes, but generally keep the majority of the draft the same in terms of language and structure, that’s a cosmetic change (in other words, editing). Drafting/ experimenting is an act of resistance… resisting the easy route, resisting the belief that the first try will be golden, resisting the status quo. It’s about risk and about transformation. It’s about making something new every time until the most perfect form reveals itself. It’s about negative space. About what’s not there—and about what could be there when we stumble on it. But you won’t find out what could be there until you resist the urge to stick with your first attempt. So, resist! Resist mediocrity! Resist the humdrum! Because if you’re the kind of person who’s (even mildly) ambitious and curious and ready to aspire to something unique in writing, you’ll do just fine in this class.
Know this: I’d rather see a flawed final draft that’s undergone some pretty substantial drafting/ experimenting as it emerged into its final polished form than a piece that hasn’t changed much at all because it was too satisfied with its original version or too fearful/ protective to let it become something more (in other words, a chrysalis that never becomes a butterfly).
I will help you realize the polished form and vision of your work through extensive comments on drafts and suggestions for revision. I might not have the answer on how to “fix” your story or play, but I have a lot of experience in creative writing—it’s my field—so you can be sure that we’ll work together to make dynamic writing happen. Your classmates will also have ideas about your work. This is a collaborative class—we learn from each other, and that’s as it’s meant to be.
A final word about this: just because we experiment with our writing doesn’t mean that there aren’t “rules” that won’t need to be observed—we’ll talk about them in class, we’ll read about them in our text. This is not an Outback restaurant. It’s not “no rules, just right” (or “no rules, just write” as the case may be). I do not believe in the idea of “anything goes because it’s creative!” No. There are real, aesthetic rules and conventions (practices or principles, if you prefer) that have emerged over the course of literary history that continue to be observed by contemporary writers for a reason—because they generally work.
When emerging writers understand these rules in writing and follow them, they acknowledge their forebears’ contributions to craft, and demonstrate that they, too, can be adept at using the conventions that have helped define (Western) literary and cultural tradition. And then, through maturity, and only then, with deep, considered appreciation of aesthetics, may they consciously and judiciously break the rules and explore new territory. Think of this in terms of an analogy: Picasso, before he was a Cubist and could create something like Guernica, drew and painted realistic figures and scenes such as Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. As he gained in experience and artistic power, Picasso threw over realism-as-convention and became a pioneer.
In works the same in writing: demonstrate first that you can follow convention, that you can do it the “right” way (at least in terms of form and style), before you earn the right to defy it. It’s absolutely important to create something new… but not at the expense of alienating your audience or making something that is incomprehensible and labeling it “art” just because you can.
A note about form, while we’re at it: think of form as a lens. The beauty of form is that it should be invisible; if we wear contacts or glasses, we don’t see the lens, because the lens itself is clear, and therefore we can see everything in front of us clearly, without blur. The form of a piece of writing works the same way: it should make the words and their meaning clear—it should not obscure words and meaning. If you hand in a play that’s not in correct play script format, can you even call it a play? No, and you’ll alienate your audience because they will be expecting to read a play, and instead will struggle to see your characters and understand their actions through the wrong lens. Form and convention are important, and you should be mindful of them.
Of course, let me also include a quote from the famous fiction writer Flannery O’ Connor about just this subject: “It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in [creative writing]. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”
I hope your students appreciate the training in creativity they’re going to receive. I’m sure they’ll enjoy your sense of humor as you guide them away from linear thinking. Great Picasso analogy, too.
I meant to comment last week when I first read this post, and seeing as I just commented earlier (on your later, most recent post) I would be remiss to skip over commenting here now.
What I most admire about this syllabus statement is the paragraph where you illustrate what you will do for the student. In my own (now dusty) CW syllabus, I have a commandments-cum-contract passage that tells the students what they will and what they won’t do in their writing, in the class, and outside of class. In fact, the syllabus is so student focused that the only attention given to me at all as instructor is the presence of my name and contact information at the very top. Now, there are plenty of pedagogues that can list the merits of such a syllabus statement as mine, but I want to come back to why this paragraph about what you will do for the student stood out to me (in the most positive and inspiring way possible). I forget, as a teacher, what a lonely endeavor writing is. As a teacher I’m surrounded by colleagues and students with whom I discuss writing, process, literature, articles, culture, etc. But for the student, the novice writer, the kid of perhaps 19 or 20 who actually reads books and has gotten the crazy notion she might actually like to write one herself (even if it’s “some day”), I forget how new and strange and isolating this is. For students, students who actually identify as such, who know they have a lot to learn and want desperately to learn it, they want a teacher. A guide, a coach, someone to instruct them in the right and wrong ways of doing something they want to do but don’t yet know how to do (or at least don’t know how to do well). Having a teacher step up and say “Here’s what I’m going to do for you,” must be very reassuring and encouraging. She knows what she’s talking about, and she’s going to share it with me, impart it upon me! There’s a difference between telling someone what she will do in a class, and telling that same someone that she, the professor, will be a guide, a colleague, a teacher to her (not to mention how she’s going to do it). I think that’s really great. And so I’m going to steal it (on the off chance I ever teach CW again).