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.

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