When I thought of teaching, I thought of teaching young people who wanted to be writers, fiction writers especially. I enjoyed teaching Freshmen English though. I did not despise it as many English professors do, regarding those endless stacks of inept essays as an unjust encroachment on their real vocation, which is to teach literature. Somebody has to teach Freshman English, they concede, but many professors react to it as an architect would if he had to put in several days a week pouring concrete; or as a doctor would if he were expected to take his shift at emptying bed-pans. I didn't exactly enjoy reading a pile of new papers every week, plus revisions of earlier papers, but I believed in the goal. College students must be taught to write clear vigorous prose, and the only way they can learn is by constant writing and rewriting. The teacher must go over every paper line by line. Believing in the goal and the means to the goal, I was willing to do the heavy reading and close marking.
But I wanted a fiction writing course too. Most of my agency work at Harold Ober Associates had been on behalf of fiction writers. I felt that my real teaching talent, if I had any, would be in story-telling. I was a fiction writer myself, even though I had done a meager amount in that line. I hoped that teaching it would stimulate me to tell more stories.
So I was delighted when I was assigned to teach the senior seminar in composition during my second fall at DePauw. A student can major in English Composition at DePauw -- not many colleges offer such a major -- and the University prides itself on the writers and journalists it has graduated. During their senior year these majors take a seminar in writing, where they read and discuss one another's creative work under the direction of a professor, who does not so much teach as criticize and advise. My seminar met in a charming, spacious, gabled room called the Pence Seminar Room. It had been decorated and furnished as a tribute to a legendary composition teacher at DePauw, Raymond Pence. There was a polished maple conference table, Windsor chairs, a few armchairs, and murals of English literary scenes. Through a high window in the gable, the afternoon sun would pour as we gathered for the three-hour seminar.
Professor Pence had been famous for the discipline he required of his students. Deadlines had to be rigidly met, stories had to be impeccably typed, errors of spelling and syntax were not tolerated. On shelves around the room were bound notebooks full of the beautifully typed stories of Professor Pence's students, decades of them. Once Barbara Blakemore, an editor of McCall's Magazine, visited her old campus and I showed her the Pence Seminar Room. She found the bound notebook for her year, and saw her youthful stories preserved there.
I had ideas similar to Professor Pence's about the discipline and quality to be expected from senior majors in composition, and his symbolic presence in the room encouraged me to announce them. On the first day we met I outlined my severe requirements. As I talked I saw hostility growing in the faces of the twelve participants. Their questions were resentful, even contemptuous. One stout bearded fellow, Joe Gruber, seemed to speak for the rest, reminding me loftily that they were creative people, not to be bound by high-schoolish rules or inhibited by fussy concentration on grammar and spelling. I think Joe Gruber had been away from college for a year or so, perhaps in the Army. He looked older than the others, and had the superior air of one who knew the world was waiting for him. I had heard from colleagues that he was a talented and ambitious writer. I had expected him, more than the others, to appreciate the chance to have an ex-literary agent as a writing counselor. No such thing. If Joe Gruber knew anything about my literary experience, he considered it worthless. He saw me, I soon realized, as a prissy old schoolmarm who could not possibly offer any valuable comments on his avant-garde fiction and erotic poetry.
This was 1970. Professor Pence's gospels of order aroused disgust; "discipline" was a dirty word to these young prophets of freedom. I had started off emphatically on the wrong foot. This may have contributed to the general ill-nature of that class. The writing wasn't very good, and the students' criticism was harsh and insensitive. Joe Gruber had a couple of side-kicks, Alex Wiley and Pete Rockingham, and the three of them dominated the class. They contrived, without writing very much, to impose their inflated ideas of their own talent on the other members of the class, so that these members felt humble. One student wrote a 40-page novella about college life, which was clumsy and inept but honestly felt. Wiley and Rockingham dismissed it summarily as too long, tedious, trite. Gruber told the writer with killing condescension that he should "revise and revise, and try to realize his characters." Sound advice, which Gruber might well have taken himself: he never wanted to revise anything.
One day we had a guest in our seminar, a visiting novelist who had recently won the Great Lakes College Association's "New Writer Award." Elizabeth Cullinan was a gentle, elegant young woman, who besides being a novelist, was on the staff at The New Yorker. She talked to the students about her development as a fiction writer, the writer's problems, the difficulties of getting published.
"How much do you think working at The New Yorker and knowing the right people had to do with the success of your novel?" asked Pete Rockingham, with a knowing grin.
Her poise was exquisite. "I know that question was asked from a sincere heart and with no intention of being tactless. The answer is 'nothing.' Editors are pretty tough. They don't publish things because their friends have written them."
I tried having the seminar in my apartment, hoping that by offering food and drink and an open fire, I could soften the ill-will of some of the students toward one another, and toward me. This helped, or something did. They became less tense and touchy than they had been at first; they were funny and breezy and I began to enjoy them,
I couldn't tell myself, though, that I had taught them much. I knew in my heart that the course had been a failure, even in human relations. The last meeting confirmed this: the seminar ended as it had begun, with harsh criticisms, arrogant put-downs, and hurt. The only enjoyable moment for me was when Joe Gruber, who had some critical solidity along with his arrogance, dismissed Rockingham's manuscript as a "stock, trite story." It was. I didn't suffer for Rockingham, but I did suffer for Sally Forrest. The three nay-sayers took her piece apart, spotting all the hackneyed parts but offering no word of praise for the clever parts. I defended her story, but this didn't soothe her pain. She cared much more for what her classmates thought of it than for what I thought.
What did I learn from the failure of this course? Something that is probably obvious to an experienced teacher: that it's a mistake to emphasize the negative. I had started out with a series of commandments: "Thou Shalt Mots." I should have started with beatitudes: "Blessed Are They Who." I should have told my students of my hopes for them and tried to inspire them with hopes for themselves.
Robert Giroux, the distinguished editor, tells a story of Jack Kerouac bringing him the original draft of On the Road, on a long roll of teletype paper. Kerouac announced that he had written it under inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and that not a word could be changed. Giroux immediately countered that even a divinely inspired manuscript would certainly need editing. This response infuriated Kerouac, who took his manuscript away and gave it to another publisher. Giroux realized later that it had been a great mistake to squelch the excitement of an author who had just completed his masterpiece. "I should have said, 'My God, you've just finished a book! Put the manuscript on my desk and let's go and have a drink to celebrate.
Just so, I was wrong to greet a group of students in their senior seminar, the crowning course in their composition major, by issuing a series of warnings and prohibitions.
One of the wonderful things about the teaching profession is that every semester you can start over. You have a new course and new set of students who haven't witnessed your earlier mistakes. In the following semester I had a course called "Creative Writing," mostly peopled by sophomores. Though I had by no means abandoned my belief that would-be writers must learn to meet deadlines and to respect the English language, I tried to present these requirements in a more positive way. The sophomores accepted them piously. They were not yet jaded or self-assured; they hoped they had writing talent, and they wanted to convince themselves and me. Moreover the course was in demand, partly because of its title: "creative writing" sounds adventurous. There was supposed to be a limit of twenty students, which of course added to its appeal. I did loosen this limit, but there were still some students closed out, so that those who got in felt an incentive to do well.
This is the way I taught it. I asked all the students to choose a pen-name. For the first six weeks, each student was to submit a short fiction, the front and back of a single page, under this pen-name, every Monday and Thursday. Twelve short fictions in all. No, eleven, for I would allow them one "pass." They had to bring their stories to class and pile them on the desk face down. They weren't to hand them to me or put them in my mailbox or in any way let me connect the pen-name with the person. I wanted all criticisms, mine as well as the class's, to be offered to the "author" not to the "person."
The pen-name idea pleased them. The demand for two new fictions each week scared them, but they rose to it. (I heard tales of paralyzing Sunday and Wednesday nights when they sat at their typewriters and tore their hair for an idea.) The stories poured in and I was flooded, but it's much more entertaining to read stories than to read term papers on the causes of industrial pollution or on the meaning of freedom in Huckleberry Finn. I always returned the stories at the next class, covered with questions and comments. I'd read two or three of them in class. I was using R. V. Cassill's excellent book, Writing Fiction, with its concise and practical prescriptions and its small anthology of six stories. I would usually find in every set of student stories a few examples to illustrate Cassill's discussion of plot, character, scene, dialogue, or setting. At the end of this six weeks the writers were to come to me for a conference about their fiction, revealing their real names. Each one now had a stock of fiction ideas, for many of these little vignettes had possibilities for fuller development. In the conference I'd help them plan two fully-developed stories to present for class criticism during the second half of the semester. They could continue to use their pen-names or not, as they wished. Most of them were now ready to take off their masks and receive their classmates' comments full in the face. There were some hurts. I saw it, but I knew it couldn't be helped. As an author myself, I know how wounding even a minor disparagement can be, especially if you know it's deserved. I tried hard to see that the students noticed the good qualities in a story as well as the flaws. I always began a discussion of a story with the question: What do you like about it?
My "Blessed Are They Who" approach resulted in better human relations in that class. But in due course I came to realize that I could not control single-handedly the dynamics of any group. Individual personalities could have a tremendous influence on the spirit of a class.
The next year Steve Westerman spoiled the comradely mood of a Creative Writing seminar. I first met him when he asked me to sponsor him in an "independent writing" project during Winter Term. (Winter Term was a month-long interval between the first and second semesters during which students took a course which was non-academic.) Steve was a big fellow with a head of dark, uncombed hair, a full beard, dark eyes, and red lips. He talked so slowly that I wondered if he was on some kind of drug. I asked him to come back after I had read the manuscript he brought.
This story, a fantasy about an artist, was surprisingly good. I decided he had talent and it would be interesting to work with him. When he came to hear my verdict, I noticed that his hands were trembling and I wondered if he was nervous. It was a always a shock to me to realize that students might be afraid of me -- I was often afraid of them, or nervous of them. After I began working with Steve his hands no longer shook, but he talked as slowly as ever. Another professor told me that he had some problems. His mother had died recently and he'd had to drop out of school for a while. I didn't ask what other problems, but I was thinking of drugs. I saw him twice a week and every session was a long one. He talked coherently about his writing, but with hesitations and pauses. I thought probably he was thinking out a story by talking to me. He had a beautiful face, with fine deep eyes. He looked like Christ. While he was placing one word deliberately after another, I had plenty of time to both listen and wonder how he'd look without his beard and with his hair cut and combed. He smoked constantly.
During the Winter Term he finished the story, and it was a good one. Then he signed up for my Creative Writing seminar that spring. I liked the way he fitted into the group. He was gentle in his criticisms of other people's stories, but firm too. I could see that the others respected what he said. The group seemed to become fond of one another, in contrast to that senior seminar of the preceding fall, which had been so full of ill-will. This class was enjoyable for me. A couple of the students were humorists, and we laughed a lot. I had nearly all the sessions at my apartment.
About the middle of the term Steve Westerman began missing classes, although previously he had seemed devoted to the course. I saw him on the campus so I knew he wasn't sick. He had told me one time that he always skipped a lot of classes, and now I reproached myself for not telling him more strongly that he would never be a good writer without discipline. When he came back to class again, Steve looked terrible: haggard and dirty, and probably stoned. His personality seemed different. He was cruel and nasty in criticizing other students' work, where previously he had been kind. "This dialogue is rotten," he said to Mary Jo Bertrand about her story. She was deeply hurt.
I asked Steve to come to my office the next morning. He came in freshly showered, but definitely shaky. He said he was having trouble with his girl, trouble sleeping, trying to catch up with all his missed classes, and irritable with everybody. When I pointed out how brutal he had been to Mary Jo, he said he would apologize, but he never adequately did. You can't really apologize for a thing like that. "I didn't mean it when I said your dialogue was rotten?"
The morale of the seminar had been ruined by that incident. Doug Allen, one of the humorists in the class, had added a few tactless quips to Steve's remarks, and Mary Jo, who was not a very loving person herself, now hated them all. The warm rapport that I had been so pleased with was gone from the seminar, and I couldn't find any way to repair the damage.
Much later I was talking this over with Nancy Schneider, who had been in the group. "That wasn't like Steve, that unfeeling criticism," I reflected. "I think Steve must have been on something that day." She laughed. "Steve was always on something. He was never straight."
Because I had had no encounters with drug-abuse, I was only half aware of something that was obvious to the students. Though I had occasionally suspected what Steve Westerman was up to, I never confronted it. Perhaps if I had, I could have been more helpful to him as well as to the members of that class.
Few students who take a creative writing course will ever actually make creative writing their life work. But the effort to shape a story or a poem so that it moves or entertains or inspires its readers has both literary and nonliterary rewards.
Literary rewards first: writing creatively exercises many of the same skills as writing informatively. If you want to inform or instruct someone, you must capture and maintain his interest. You do this most effectively by being concrete, giving details, furnishing examples. Writing fiction fiction teaches you to be concrete. The scenes, dialogue, setting, descriptions, and action make the story, and these elements are all concrete, or should be. The tried but true maxim for fiction writers, "Show, don't tell," is simply an admonition to dramatize rather explain. In writing poetry it is even more crucial to be concrete, although most novice poets assume the opposite. They think poetic language is composed of abstractions such as love, nature, Spring, truth, loneliness, death, and freedom, rather than of concrete images such as "the yellow smoke that slides along the street." A creative writing course forces students to produce details and to steer away from generalizations, helping them develop a lively expository style, useful in many of the jobs they will later hold,
What I call a nonliterary reward is the habit of searching for honesty in oneself. This favorite precept of mine, "be honest," carries over from expository writing to creative writing and back again. When writing fiction, students often rely on contrived effects that they have admired in literature or television to give their stories emotional clout, instead of digging into themselves for the real, if not always creditable, emotion. Since their fictional characters are apt to be thinly disguised variations of themselves, their protagonists are usually flawless and their plots sanitized campus and family conflicts. Or daydreams of success and glory. Sentimentality is rife: sentimental reconciliations, sentimental suicides, sentimental deaths from cancer or heart attack. All false and dishonest.
Unsophisticated in literature, most of my students could not even see that an honest, unidealized picture of a character in crisis, such as William Carlos Williams's story, "The Use of Force," packs more power than a romantic tale of a medical student stepping up to the operating table, pushing the drunken surgeon aside, and saving the patient's life. I tried to make them see that most television serials do not show an honest picture of life, nor do most movies. I told them what Conrad said, that "all idealization makes life poorer;" that prettifying their characters, or for that matter uglifying them, was dishonest and cheap, and resulted in trite, boring stories.
The same is true, of course, for expository or factual prose. Dishonest heightening of the good or bad in people and situations leads to cliches, verbosity, and pretentiousness. Feature articles and public relations prose are full of this kind of heightening. An article about a priest who runs a residence for retarded adults, for example, shows the priest as invariably gentle, humorous, optimistic, and successful. The retarded adults are clean, cheerful, industrious, and sober. No fights, drunkenness, runaways, littering, or complaints of neighbors are mentioned. The article is unconvincing because of its idealization, and it fails in its good purpose, which is to gain public approval for a system of housing retarded adults. The public perceives it as biased and hence unreliable.
Another kind of dishonesty, trying to show off a good vocabulary or noble sentiments, harms both fiction and nonfiction writing. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," said George Orwell. "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink." A story-writer trying to evoke an emotion which she does not honestly feel turns to stock details such as hot tears, tiny hands, pounding hearts, velvet skin, fragrant gardens, and pitiless sun. "In literature, as in life," said F. L. Lucas, "one of the fundamentals is to find, and be, one's true self."
So the search for one's true self in a creative writing class is a nonliterary benefit. I mean that when students try to find the real in themselves for story purposes, they are also performing a valuable spiritual dig. Asking themselves, what did I really see? what did I really feel? what was really behind that fight with my father? why did my boyfriend cool off? they may confront things in themselves that they haven't understood. A wholesome, if not always comfortable, experience.
Likewise they may, through story-writing, perceive motives in others that they haven't realized. Trying to figure out what makes a friend betray a secret, they probe into fears, jealousies, and ambitions that may lie behind the action. Or they may discover that a seeming betrayal contains a core of compassion: the friend tells the secret in order to bring help. Writers learn -- they must learn -- to watch and listen carefully to others. They must see and hear what's behind the public front that others present They should be alert to the quickening of breath, the blush, the hesitation in speech, the stiffening of posture, the jerk of surprise, the clench of anger, the tightening of control. They must try to follow these hints back to the soul, that is often swathed in so many layers of contradiction. This is the creative writer's constant task: trying to understand so as to truly express. But the effort to understand, alone, enlarges the person, even if no writing comes of it.
So I added up the rewards to the students who took "Creative Writing" as the following (with no attempt to rank them):
Of course I had received all these rewards myself as well.
© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.
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