I hate teaching creative writing

It’s what I’m trained to do (three advanced degrees in Fiction Writing) but it never ceases to drive me nuts when college students apply a whole different standard to their own work in the workshop than they do to published masters’ work. I can’t figure out what makes me crazier, in fact: the casual dismissal of great writers’s work (“boring,” “I didn’t care at all about any of the characters,” “I was confused by the structure,” " I had trouble getting through it") or their insane praise for each other’s drivel (“I didn’t need anything to, like, happen here–but the writing was so beautiful. I liked the images about the sun being yellow and round and all…”)

Last night’s seminar had this exchange:

Me: “Okay, what areas does Nessa need to work on if she wants to continue working on this?”

Nessa: “Are you saying that maybe I shouldn’t continue working on it?”

Me: “You’ve got the option, don’t you?”

Nessa: “It sounds like you’re saying you think this [an exercise I assigned to the whole class, mind you, not an original story] isn’t worth more work on.”

Me: “It’s your call. Every writer has carloads of unfinished material.”

Nessa: “So you’re saying this is junk?”

Me: “I’m saying it needs work, and you may be better off putting that work into something you care more about.”

Someone else: “I think it’s brilliant.”

Me: “As is? After a few hours of working on it? Listen, if this weren’t assigned reading for this seminar, would you have finished reading it to the end?”

SHOCKED COLLECTIVE GASP, followed by “of course!” “It’s wonderful,” “I loved it,” “I thought it was amazing” etc.

Me: “Let’s talk standards, folks. When I read an anthology of published work, like ‘Best Short Stories of 2005,’ culled from hundreds of magazines for their excellence, I usually get bored or confused by some of them. When you read a magazine on a plane, when you have some choice in finishing a story or moving on to something else, don’t you often opt not to? If you read Nessa’s story outside of this seminar, would you really finish it?”

Guess their response.

Are they being collectively defensive about the quality of their work, or are they genuinely clueless and can’t tell the difference between quality literature and pointless, cliche-ridden student exercises? I get “I deliberately made it confusing” or “Does it matter whether he killed her or not?” or “It’s more of a mood piece, it’s just supposed to be depressing, not to have a plot or anything” or “I wrote that dialogue so that both characters would sound identical to each other, I thought it would be funny if you couldn’t tell them apart” so much it’s all I can do not to berate them in class.

The killer part is that I’ve created all these exercises (model plots) so they would have less investment in the story, and there would be less ego and preening, allowing us to focus on techniques to achieve specific goals. (They’re also supposedly working on original stories, which we’ll discuss after mid-term. Presumably spending the first six weeks working on the originals, while producing these stylistic exercises, will bring the quality up from where it’s been in the past, but I’m not holding my breath.) Maybe I just need to teach grad-level classes where this sort of “creative writer” would be weeded out before the course begins.

I usually start by thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give all fifteen of them an A?” and by mid-term I’m thinking “Can I pass any of them in good conscience?” That’s an exaggeration (I have two or three students who are talented and trying, but they’re mostly quiet in class) but that’s what it feels like.

I didn’t like this story.

I couldn’t get into any of the characters.

Except Nessa. She sounded BRILLIANT. You should write more characters like her.


Honestly, though, I do understand your pain, from the other side. I was one of those 18-year-old “poets” from whose pen sprang only masterworks. It wasn’t until looking back that I realize that my worst work was pretty damn bad, and my best work was a decent first draft for someone who would take the craft seriously.

Your students sound 18, and a lot of their identity seems caught up in the work- a flaw in their creations is a flaw in them, and many times others are just as hesitant to point this out lest they seem “mean.” So some of it might be ego, and the rest of it preemptive defenses by the others against the same being done to them.
Have you tried anonymous peer review? It might help.

Along with anonymous peer review, give guidelines - three things you didn’t like about the peice, three things you did, three things that you think could be better if…

The don’t likes will probably be watered down, but it will give the writers something to work on.

Off to MPSIMS.

Do a blind peer review, and don’t tell them the author. I’ve found that I hate almost all the works I’ve read for most of my life. The pieces are too simple and uninteresting now. Tastes change and what they think of a book is based on a lot less experience. They most likely don’t have the character to publicly voice a bad opinon for a popular person.

I agree that a lot of students would be hesitant to publically voice a negative opinion about another students work for fear of having that student (and his/her friends) slaughter their work when it came up. Social pressure can be killer in undergrad.

I feel for you having to read that dreck. I love to read, but have never tried writing because I’m afraid I would be terrible at it!

How about if I’d called it “I fucking hate teaching creative writing”?

Goddamn, all those pus-sucking assholoid pretentious pewling, muking fuckers whin[g]ing in my hateful, miserable Creative Writing class last night really inserted a grenade up my rectum…

Now can this be moved back to the Pit?

Yeah, anonymous seems the way to go, for sure.

Actually a collegue good-humoredly reminded me of an important pedagogical principle last week (when we were talking about a different course): “This batch of 18-year-olds,” he observed ironically, “don’t seem to get what I so carefully explained to last year’s 18-year-olds. It’s so frustrating. What are they, 18?”

My heart oozes for you. I’m afraid I save the blood for my own fiction. :stuck_out_tongue:

I think that Snakescatlady, probably hit it full on the head - it’s fear of what will happen to their own masterpieces that is keeping them from being honest. Well, that and an inability to admit that what the developing author needs is not the, “Gosh, that was great, why aren’t you published?” commentary, but the, “If you’d just take this drivel out here, and tighten up the plot there, you might actually have something that people would pay to read.”

Joyce may be a great writer. He is not the example for the newbie to aspire towards.

The other issue in this CW class (also voiced by Nessa, a few weeks back) was that they really don’t enjoy being asked to select the best overall story and the one that needed the most work every week. The objection was that they don’t like being placed in competition with each other for grades.

“But you’re in college. On some level you’ are competing with each other for grades.”

“But why are you asking us anonymously to grade each other up or down?”

“For validation. If I just impose my own value judgments on you, which I’m going to continue to do to a degree, you might feel that the grading is too subjective. But if you have 10 classmates agreeing that your story needed work, well, that’s something for you to consider outside of my subjective reaction.”

“But I could just say that I don’t like someone’s story because I don’t like him.”

“Sure, but would you? Since I don’t count the first few votes anyway, each person’s vote by itself doesn’t count for anything.” [I eliminate the first two votes, positively or negatively, to discourage students from voting for their friends or against their enemies. You need a consensus, in other words, of at least three people out of 15, before I’ll announce that you drew a reaction one way or the other. Less than two votes, I treat it like nothing at all.]

Bottom line is, they don’t want to be judged by me, or by each other, and they all think they deserve an A just for showing up. It’s disspiriting.

Neither is Hemingway, in my opinion: If a newbie aspires towards Joyce, he ends up with ten-foot-long sentences and a dictionary of new ‘words’. If a newbie aspires towards Hemingway, he ends up with single-clause sentences and the vocabulary of an ESL trucker.

(I remember a college professor of mine warning us against being too terse, saying that we shouldn’t sound like a “demented dwarfish Hemingway.” I have cherished that quote ever since.)

Honestly, I think the old SF masters are good models: They were writing about ideas, not language, and they didn’t regard their work as poetry (with some exceptions). Try Clarke and Asimov, with Bradbury thrown in to taste.

True enough. Though I’d rather read the Hemingway pastiche than the Joyce pastiche. At least I’ll know where I am with the Hemingway.

Agreed, but we’re probably biased by that. The few times I’d looked into a creative writing course the teacher was admanant about not wanting to deal with any “unrealistic claptrap like <shudder> science fiction.” I can see, now, why a teacher at the OP’s level would prefer to make sure that students can write, first, before dealing with any other complexities. But it still didn’t do much to impress me.

And don’t over estimate their ability to discern the difference between good writing and bad writing. Two convincing arguments for the lack of taste of a LARGE proportion of readers are best seller lists and the fulsome praise for some posters dished out on the SDMB.

Maybe peer pressure is part of it, but I think they do truly like the drivel. When I was in year 11 our lit teacher gave each of us a sheet of paper with 6 poems on it and asked us to rank them in order of preference. 3 were by professional writers, 1 was a generic angst poem by an 8th grader and 2 were tables of contents passed off as poems. The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the generic angst poem; the others were “weird” and “confusing”. I dunno if this says more about teenagers or the world of professional poetry.

Uh, hit reply a bit too fast there.

I dunno if this says more about teenagers or the world of professional poetry, that a lit class could not tell the difference between a poem and a table of contents.

No offense pseudotriton ruber ruber, but from your example, your teaching style seems both discouraging and pretentious. I do not think that creative writing should be a competition or a pressure cooker. You want to encourage creativity in people to blossom and come out so that it can develop (possibly even in the far future). Your high horse, bash it with a stick approach seems like the opposite of this. If you have concrete constructive criticism, give it straight out in terms they can understand instead of these lame, passive aggressive, vague hints. I can just see some future wonderful writer becoming completely discouraged by you and giving up completely. Would you rather have a music teacher that taught you the joy of music and encouraged you to create or one that disparaged however subtly your unschooled attempts at creation as the beginners crap that it probably is? What you find to be amazing writing, they find boring and vice versa. It is all subjective. It is not a competition. My advice: get over this “oh so learned” superior attitude of yours. It sounds amazingly defensive. If I am wrong about you I apologize. However, that is the impression I get from reading your OP and subsequent comments.

Satasha, to be honest, I think you’re missing the point of a creative writing course. By the very nature of things, you can’t teach creativity. Or at least it’s very rare. What a creative writing course might be better called, in my mind, would be stylistics - it’s about teaching how to write so one’s creative ideas can be communicated to the reader with a minimum of confusion, road-bumps, and mis-communications.

Comparing PRR’s job with that of a music teacher is disengenuous. First off, it can be assumed that anyone who is taking a creative writing course enjoys literature, in at least some form. The introductory music teacher’s job, however, is to introduce the student to the world of music. At the college level, creative writing isn’t about learning what’s available in the world of literature, it’s about teaching specific techniques that work, or don’t work: What makes for interesting characters versus caricatures.

Above all, a writing group that doesn’t offer criticism is just plain useless.

Unless you seriously believe that all the 15 people in PRR’s class are S.E. Hinton. In which case I’d like to offer you a chance to buy this bridge over here…

I’m sorry, Satasha, can you provide an example or two of my “lame, passive aggressive, vague hints”?

In possibly unnecessary defense of the OP, this sounds like a beginning creative writing class. So their problem is not so much creativity and “letting their talent blossom” as it is learning how to write coherently.

It doesn’t matter how much talent you have waiting for the blossoming if you can’t write a coherent sentance or your point is lost in chaotic organization or incomprehensible dialogue.

Plus, learning to think critically about your own work and the work of others is a major part of any writing - creative or otherwise. It needs to be taught and mastered.

Nessa: “Are you saying that maybe I shouldn’t continue working on it?”

Me: “You’ve got the option, don’t you?”

Nessa: “So you’re saying this is junk?”

Me: “I’m saying it needs work, and you may be better off putting that work into something you care more about.”

What surprised me was how antagonistic the students were. Based on the OP, there’s very much an “us vs. them (the professor)” mentality with the students. Do you know why that is?

And this:

You were trying to force the students to gang up on one of their own. Your last question could easily be read by them as, “Who’d read this crap if they weren’t forced to?” They probably felt sorry for Nessa, because it seemed you were badgering her, and they wanted to make her feel better.

Their reactions won’t make Nessa a better writer, but maybe you could change your teaching techniques so they’ll be more comfortable admitting when they don’t like something.