Archive for March, 2012

To Teach Creative Writing

I ran across W. H. Auden’s comments on this subject in the Spring 1974 issue of The Paris Review. The interview was based on a 1972 conversation with the poet. In answer to the question whether he has ever taught writing, he replied: “To teach creative writing–I think that’s dangerous.” Dangerous is a rather strong adjective to describe the activity by which many published authors have to eke out a living when the earnings from their poetry books and mid-list novels do not pay the rent. Writers teaching aspiring writers how to write is a booming business. It is fair to state that the teachers of writing may be earning more money from workshops, community college courses, and writers’ conferences than they do from sales of their books. Besides, these venues provide other markets to sell their books.

But dangerous? Dangerous to whom and to what? Is teaching dangerous to creativity, to a writer’s productivity? Is the implication that the writer should devote complete time and effort to writing and not to teaching others how-to (and that raises the question whether creative writing can be taught or whether it is best mastered by doing it over and over again in a room alone)? I am  still pondering what Auden meant by dangerous. Since he was a teacher, Auden certainly wasn’t saying writers should not teach at all.  After using the startling word dangerous, Auden continues: “The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.”

This expansion left me as mystified as I previously had been with dangerous. In practice, Auden taught academic courses in literature at various universities in the United State and England. He believed that a grounding in the classics, in philosophy, traditional poetic forms, rhetoric, and the humanities did more to develop the creative writer than any course that purported to teach creative writing. Apparently, this type of teaching is not dangerous, but the how-to courses are.

I pondered longer and came up with an interpretation of the dangers Auden may have sensed.  Auden was espousing that contemplation, deep thinking, and familiarity with literary tradition precede the creation of art. Immersion in the great artistic works of previous centuries provides the best preparation for the aspiring writer. Auden went so far as to warn against teaching courses in contemporary literature. In this regard, he chose to teach only academic courses on eighteenth century literature and romanticism in which he could expound on the merits of the world’s enduring works. Auden was intent upon training of the mind first after which the would-be writer might be able to formulate some worthwhile thoughts of his own to share with the rest of humanity. Cogitation! That’s what pre-writing entails. Cogitation!  What a wonderful word for the purposeful wool-gathering preparatory to perhaps penning the great American novel.

The results of acting before thinking are evident in many arenas of modern life–impulsive consumer spending, anti-intellectual diatribes by political candidates, and the inability of college freshman to write coherent essays. Think before you write (or speak) seems a simple enough principle, but high school students are herded into the computer writing laboratory to write term papers before they have formulated one cogent idea in their heads, and consequently, launch into a cut and paste mission that brings plagiarism to a level that would have rocketed Miss Harrod, my high school English teacher, off her stool and through the school roof–and she would still be orbiting earth now in her floral dress and pearl necklace.

It is dangerous for a culture if society doesn’t learn to think first.


More of Szymborska

For decades the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska wrote a newspaper column that she called Nonrequired Reading. When I learned that some of these columns had been translated into English and published in 2002 under the title Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces, I ordered the book.  As she explains in her author’s notes, these are not the usual literary book reviews. Her choice of books is quirky and varied, more often than not they are non-fiction. The book is an excuse to write equally quirky pieces of one paragraph extending for no more than two pages, the topic suggested by the reading. Szymborska tells us right off the bat she is not interested in writing a treatise on the merits or the contents of the book. We are in for the unexpected, and she delivers.  I don’t recall ever laughing out loud so many times while reading a book, not even one reputed to be a humorous work.

Springboards for Szymborska’s column come from books on reptiles, the Chinese alphabet, home improvement, the history of clothing, graphology, a button museum, comic strips, and Alfred Hitchcock, to name but a few of her far-ranging interests. She comes away from these books with her characteristic oblique, odd twist on the subjects, and wry slants, which only Szymborska could think of, making us laugh at the understated or absurd aspects of the subject that the book’s author may never have considered. Szymborska has a delightful way of posing questions that makes me burst out laughing time and time again. Her response to a book on yoga is hilarious. Describing at length yoga’s bodily contortions on the “road to perfection” as corporeal macramé, she concludes the piece with: “At this moment the skeptic begins to disentangle himself from the Kukkutasana. We hope he’ll succeed without the help of paramedics.”  I thought this piece was hysterically funny until I got to her review of One Hundred Minutes for Beauty, in which she satirizes the exercise and beauty tips offered a woman all for the sake of making herself attractive to a husband who eventually moves out of  the house to allow his wife more space for jogging and long-distance jumping. “And do you know whom he’ll move in with, that husband?” Szymborska asks, and answers “With Bozena, who begins steps from her knees, stands in line with slumped shoulders, and, can you imagine, looks her age. . . ”

I guarantee you will also find something to tickle your funny bone in this collection of ninety-five short pieces–and this is only a selection from the three volumes of Nonrequired Reading (Lektury Nadobowiazkowe) that Clare Cavanagh chose to translate.

I will keep Nonrequired Reading in the bathroom and reread these little essays in my bubble bath.