So in my research on the role of research and in creative writing, I finally got around to reading the AWP Recommendations on Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates, a document that seems to guide the undergraduate creative writing curriculum in the same way the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy guides information literacy instruction.
As a former undergraduate creative writing student, this document was really interesting to me. I’d never seen it before and it made me think back to the content of the program I graduated from and suddenly it all made a lot more sense. The classes I took, from creative writing workshops to classes on literary criticism, all fit neatly within the AWP’s recommendations.
What surprised me was the emphasis the AWP Recommendations place on the idea that, at the undergraduate level, creative writing programs are not meant to teach students how to write but instead how to read. As an undergraduate creative writing student, you read in order to cultivate an appreciation of literary techniques and then, through writing workshops, attempt to apply those techniques in your own work. The reason for this seems to be that, at the undergraduate level, very few students will actually go on to become creative writers, so what’s the point of trying to teach them how to actually do creative writing? Apparently you have to wait for that until you get to the graduate level, assuming you are talented enough to get there.
I never got to the graduate level with my creative writing education. I was told as a student that, though my work was not publishable per se, I had a lot of potential and for that reason I would probably be a good candidate for an MFA program. I chose not to pursue this for a lot of reasons. First, I had no real mentor to help guide me through the process, something I would have needed as a first generation college student who didn’t know anything about graduate school. Second, despite the (qualified) praise, I had no real confidence in my abilities. Third, life happened and I chose a different path, one that has so far turned out to be very much the right choice for me.
Besides, I assumed my undergraduate degree gave me the credential I needed to consider myself educated in the subject of creative writing, at least at a basic level. I had already been taught how to be a writer. Or so I thought.
Having now discovered that the goal of my program was not to teach me how to write but instead to teach me how to read, I feel a little betrayed. And annoyed.
On the one hand, this approach makes sense in part because the undergraduate audience is not as specialized as the graduate audience and you have to make sure everyone walks away with something valuable. Teaching an appreciation for literary technique is a way to do that. I’m sure it’s the same for any creative or art-related undergraduate program, not just creative writing.
Certainly there’s value in the idea that in order to become a great writer, you have to first become a great reader. God knows this is an idea that’s endorsed often enough by those who write books about creative writing. (Though it has also received some very thoughtful criticism, as in the essays in Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy.)
So from a practical, teaching perspective I can understand where this comes from. But as a student, I think I would have been really disappointed to learn the reality of the program I was participating in. I thought I was learning not just how to write but what writers do, not just in terms of technique but in terms of process.
Maybe I’m naïve, though. I keep going back to this idea of music and all of the great musicians out there who never had a lesson in their life, who started out just by picking up an instrument and noodling around with it. When it comes to creativity, there is so much value in just noodling around. For many, the necessity of learning technique may actually be a barrier. But at the same time, you can’t design a curriculum around noodling. Not if you expect to make money.
Still. Now that I know that creative writing programs are more about appreciating literary technique than they are about writing, it makes a lot more sense why I never learned, for example, the role that research plays in creative writing. Research is not really a part of technique.
Except it could be, if you think about it. And not just because the actual definition of technique is nebulous at best. But it’s possible to look at a creative work and find evidence of research in the text. One of the things that started me on the research path I’m on now was noticing a detail in a novel that had obviously come from the writer’s research and starting to wonder what other research that writer had done to enhance her work.(1) Being able to seamlessly incorporate research into a creative piece is just as much about technique as any of the canonical craft elements.
But we don’t think about research this way, even when we teach it. A composition instructor might give their students an example of a research essay to learn about things like tone and structure but they never ask them to notice how the writer actually incorporated the sources they used into their work. Information literacy instructors are much more about finding and evaluating sources than they are about how the sources get used. When it comes to learning about techniques to effectively incorporate research into a text, the closest example I can think of is They Say/I Say.
Reading the AWP Recommendations has certainly put a lot into perspective. It’s not just the content of the curriculum I experienced as a student that now makes more sense, but also the content of the creative writing books I’ve read which are often used as texts in creative writing courses.
(1) It was one of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, in which a character makes a point of mentioning that, for cultural reasons, Native Americans rarely show their teeth when they smile. Obviously, Gabaldon must do a massive amount of research for her novels and incorporates a lot of it seamlessly into the story, but this detail stood out to me as more of an interesting factoid than an organic part of the story and got me wondering about the role of research in fiction writing.