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These and other urgent questions lead to a far broader one: has creative writing done enough to carry itself forward into the twenty-first century—the digital age—or is it a twentieth century, pre-internet discipline profiting from under-coverage in the media of its longstanding disciplinary malaise?I wrote because today’s applicants deserve to know how good they have it and to be able to see the hard data undergirding the wealth of new opportunities they enjoy.
More than ever before, aspiring creative writers are wondering, not without good reason, whether conventional “workshop” pedagogy—which has remained largely unchanged for 130 years—is actually more conducive to enhancing one’s abilities as a creative writer than other, more innovative methods.
The conventional creative writing workshop proceeds deductively from a series of first presumptions about creative writing that you may or may not share: for instance, it does little to reward formal complexity, idiosyncratic ingenuity, or the attention to performance that can lift poetry and prose off the printed page for large audiences; it forces a cone of silence upon poets and prose-writers before, during, and after they are workshopped, preventing them from dialoging with their peers about their unique ambitions and perspectives; it does too little to focus students’ attention not just on what we write but why we write, and for whom, and from which deeply personal connections to genre, self-identity, culture, and language.
Only when our writing is a matrix of our complicated and unreplicable interrelationships with language, culture, self-identity, and genre can we be certain that what we are writing is a distinct achievement and contribution.
That’s what the history of widely admired literature tells us, and what we see in practice every day in those books of poetry and prose that most capture the nation’s imagination.
Or writers may begin to find that immersion in the theory, literature, and practice of other disciplines besides creative writing is—perhaps paradoxically—more conducive to becoming an idiosyncratic creative writer than any standardized writing pedagogy.
I know I often tell my students that the best way to become successful as a creative writer is to develop an idiosyncratic personal poetics, and that the best way to develop an idiosyncratic personal poetics is to bring into your writing as many facets of your experience, knowledge, training, hobbies, and personality that seem to have nothing to do with creative writing as you possibly can.
Why are students ostensibly encouraged to workshop writing that is unpolished and adventurous, but implicitly pushed—by the tone, tenor, and format of conventional workshopping—to impress their classmates with already publishable work?
Are we really comfortable with the often gendered master-trainee relationships that tend to dominate contemporary creative writing instruction?
Those who’ve already started looking into graduate creative writing programs will know that they’re non-professional degrees that cannot in themselves get anyone a full-time teaching position.
They will know, too, that even terminal degree-holders in the field who’ve also published a full-length poetry collection, novel, short story collection, or memoir may find it difficult to use their degree to secure full-time employment in the academy—as in fact only 1% or so of those holding terminal degrees in creative writing are able to do so.