This weekend there’s a symposium going on in Auckland, the city where I live now, about the teaching of creative writing. I’m not attending, for various reasons: it clashes with the Going West Festival; next weekend will be consumed by the National Writers’ Forum and I don’t want to give up two weekends in a row; I have a substantial personal essay to finish before I go away to Kenya in ten days; I have reading to complete for a feature I’m writing – next week, apparently – about Katherine Mansfield.
Most pressing of all, I have two manuscripts of 20,000 words each to read and comment on before Wednesday. These are chapters of novels-in-progress by two writers on the Master of Creative Writing course. Each week this semester I read two or three manuscripts, add comments and notes and suggested edits, and write a letter to the author with a summary of my response and big-picture comments. Over the course of the year, the prose writers on the MCW submit 30,000 words for workshop; from September on, they submit an extra 10,000 words to me. This month the poets can submit 30 pages to me and to my colleague, Selina Tusitala Marsh, who co-supervises them.
During the month of October I will read the penultimate draft of everyone’s manuscripts – this year it’s nine novels, a memoir and two poetry collections – and give them my final comments. They submit on the first of November and then all we can do is wait for the examiners’ reports to come in. After that, the writers are on their own, revising and re-working, finishing incomplete manuscripts, deciding whether to continue or change course, whether to seek an agent overseas or look for a publisher here.
My job, the one the University of Auckland pays me to do, is to give the writers on the MCW as much as possible in terms of practical instruction, support, reading and writing advice, specific comments, encouragement and straight talk between the beginning of March and the end of October. This takes the form of weekly workshops, where writers submit the week before so everyone else has time to read, think and write letters to each other.
It also takes the form of weekly seminars, where we discuss aspects of technique, of art and craft, and discuss examples of published work. I try to bring in a wide range of reading, including excerpts, and find stellar examples from the genres in which the writers of the MCW are working. Sometimes we have master classes with visiting writers; sometimes industry professionals come to talk to us about publishing, festivals, adapting work for radio or screen, editing books or editing journals.
I hope that writers end the year with a broader understanding of our book culture, its issues and opportunities. From me I hope they get a notion of how obsessed, particular, and determined we must be as writers, how much we must demand of ourselves, and of our engagement in order to make good work – or to make good work better.
My undergraduate teaching is similar but on a different scale, with several workshop groups and one larger seminar built around close reading of published work in order to explore aspects of art and craft.
Some of you reading this are familiar with all of the above. Some of you teach or have taught creative writing, and none of what I’ve said so far will seem unusual. But over the past six years, while I’ve been teaching in the UK and New Zealand, I’ve encountered a number of creative writing teachers who seem to want to avoid the key part of the job – work. Some go to great lengths to avoid work. They eschew workshops because these involve too much in-depth weekly reading. They give as little as possible to students and whisper that ‘you can’t really teach creative writing’. (FYI: they still take these students’ money.)
They put students in groups of two or three and get them to ‘workshop’ each other, or to discuss published work among themselves, abrogating responsibility for managing and directing the discussion. They ask students to blog responses to each other, again abrogating responsibility for managing, directing and – when needed – defusing the discussion as it’s taking place. They share out the work of supervising among as many people as possible, even if it means that a poet is advising a novelist, or a playwright is advising a poet, or an academic is advising a creative writer, because the most important thing is their own workload, not the needs of the writers who are taking the course in good faith and often at considerable expense, financial and personal.
They tell students they aren’t allowed to write ‘identity poetry’, say, or speculative fiction, because they don’t like reading those things. When they choose published work for students to read, the work is often a piece that someone who attended a US college in the 70s might have studied, like 'A Good Man is Hard to Find' or 'Hills Like White Elephants', and their approach to the discussion is that of a literature teacher or critic rather than a writer. They don’t seek out a wide range of contemporary writers, or a range of ethnicities or nationalities or styles, because they don’t know enough about the different currents in contemporary literature. Worse, they don’t ask students to read published work at all, or just give them links and lists to explore in their own time, without guidance or follow-up.
Some people explain that criticism must be sandwiched with wedges of praise, because otherwise the writer will dissolve into a heap of brown sugar. Some ask me, voice trembling, if I use the dreaded Iowa Method, where (they believe) students get nothing but forty lashes and a crack around the ear, and are all forced to write in the manner of Raymond Carver.
I feel very strongly that teaching creative writing is teaching. You need to be an able and inventive teacher as well as an accomplished writer. You need to be a catholic reader with both a broad and deep knowledge of books and writers in the genres you teach. You need to be willing and able to work with writers whose work does not resemble your own, because you’re trying to help each writer take the next step in his or her work.
You need to be able to manage a workshop, to facilitate a discussion that’s useful to the author, and useful to the participants as well, because they’re being prodded to articulate responses to a piece of creative work, and because they’re grappling with many of the same issues. When you set exercises, do them as well, or at least know you can do them: exercises should be challenging, but not impossible.
You need to be generous in sharing your time, expertise and your imagination too – because in some ways you’ll be a creative collaborator with your writers, the way the best editors are.
You will stay home at the weekend reading manuscripts. To all the creative writing teachers who complain about the work, as though they’re being sent down a salt mine on a twelve-hour shift: there are worse ways to spend your time. Try to be of use – or give up and get a real job. Just don’t be lazy.