Saturday, August 29, 2009

How not to teach writing

One of my friends has recently begun a program in graduate level creative writing. At the outset of the program, one of his instructors gave out a list of rules designed to improve writing. Some of the rules were quite useful, I thought, such as "Care about what you are writing about."

Unfortunately, there was also Rule 12. Rule 12 informed the students that they were not allowed to care about Thing X. (Yes, that's a paraphrase. No, I'm not going to link to the actual list.) This was pretty clearly code for, "Don't write speculative fiction stories." In other words, if you want to be a good writer, you can't be writing spec fic.

Look, I understand that nearly everyone has that one section of the bookstore that just doesn't get read. I'll be honest - I don't think I've ever bought a western, and I don't see that changing in the near future. Having said that, I have no problem understanding that by not reading westerns I am missing good fiction. It's just that there are a lot of books that I want to read, and my time in which to read them is finite. There's going to be some stuff, and some really good stuff, that I'm going to miss. But there is a difference between understanding that a particular genre isn't your thing, and dismissing the entirety of it as not worth caring about, and hence not worth writing in.

A casual reader gets to make those distinctions. A teacher does not. It's one thing in, for example, a course on playwriting, to insist that your students turn in something that is a play, and not a sestina. But a good teacher understands the distinction between something that is not the sort of story that he would read for entertainment Saturday morning, and something that is genuinely poorly written. And a teacher who believes that all of Genre X is poorly written needs a new required reading list.


  1. Oh, I hear you. This is why my degree isn't in Creative Writing; the Intermediate course (mandatory for the degree) required that the teacher accept you into the program, and she felt that speculative fiction elements "got in the way of the mechanics I am trying to teach you". Yes, because that makes sense. I dealt with the same prejudice when working at a bookstore, too; one of my co-workers couldn't believe I was reading Dracula in the break room because "I thought you read sci-fi". The idea persists in many heads that if it's speculative fiction it isn't good, and if it's good it's automatically not speculative fiction. I occasionally want to walk into a Literature department and pin up a printout with the definition of "Literature" for their edification.

    Anyway, I'm ranting now, and in a comment no less...good post!

  2. Feel free to rant away - I certainly did. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. I'm sure that same teacher once, in school, was taught that fractions wouldn't be included in the math course because, "they always get in the way of getting clean solutions"

    And that made sense to him.