Posts Tagged ‘California State Summer School for the Arts’

Just Old

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

if my head sinks beneath the sea site

If My Heads Sinks Beneath The Sea painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.” Samuel Ullman

A friend suggested that the reason I find contemporary American movies and books and plays and music to be largely junk is that I am just old.

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Crosby, and many other older musicians aver that contemporary popular music today is inferior to the popular music of their day, but that’s just because those guys are old.

Every writer I know over fifty decries the deplorable state of writing and editing today, but that’s just because we’re old. And when older poets recoil at the poetry of younger poets whose verses are rife with clichés, void of subtlety, and might be lyrics to rap songs, they are recoiling because they are just old.

If you ask young people about the movies of today, they will name dozens of films they think are light years better than movies we thought were great when we were younger. Young people are certain I cannot see and hear and understand what they are seeing and hearing and understanding because my eyes and ears and mind are just old, and they might be right about that, though I don’t like to think so.

My mother plugged her ears and shouted, “Turn that off!” when she caught nine-year-old me listening to Ray Charles. Maybe Mom was just old. She liked The Mills Brothers and Artie Shaw, and so did I, but she didn’t like Sam and Dave and The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield because she was stuck in the musical aesthetics of Tommy Dorsey and Jack Little.

“Every age has its storytelling form, and video gaming is a huge part of our culture. You can ignore or embrace video games and imbue them with the best artistic quality. People are enthralled with video games in the same way as other people love the cinema or theatre.” Andy Serkis

I am sixty-five-years-old at last count. Depending on your view of things, I am middle-aged, old, or real old. Yes, contemporary cultural aesthetics are in constant flux, and yes, I am not enamored of most of the latest fluctuations. However, my estrangement from American culture did not begin when I qualified for Medicare and Social Security. No, my disaffection began when I was in the prime of my life, otherwise known as my twenties and thirties, and coincided with the lightning-fast conquest of America’s publishing industry by a few massive, politically conservative, morally bankrupt multi-national corporations.

To echo Allen Ginsberg, I saw the best minds in the publishing business fired by soulless corporate operatives and replaced by Yes people who only follow orders from the unimaginative number-crunchers above them, those orders being: publish books exactly like the books we already know sell lots of copies. Do not buy anything that might be too sophisticated for a poorly educated ten-year-old. Buy nothing remotely original. And only consider things sent to you by literary agents who agree to follow these same orders.

That merciless corporate blitzkrieg of America’s publishers began circa 1972 and the conquest was complete by 1980. Call me a conspiracy nut, but I think this takeover was part of a conscious effort by the ruling elite to snuff out the fires started in the counter-culture renaissance known as The Sixties, with the election of Ronald Reagan a direct result of their coup d’état.

Publishing was not the only branch of our cultural tree thoroughly infected by the corporate fungus during that same decade. Record companies, movie studios, magazines, newspapers, radio stations, and television networks were also conquered and gutted by the same multinational consortium, and we have lived in a culture shaped and controlled by this mind-numbing corporatocracy ever since.

I don’t hold this view of history because I am just old, but because I experienced this cultural takeover firsthand when I was a young and successful writer and screenwriter. When I refused to acquiesce to the new cultural guidelines imposed by the recently installed corporate managers, my career was effectively ended.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” Alan Watts

Before I was just old, I founded the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. Every summer for five years, my faculty and I would greet the fifty young writers we had selected from many hundreds of applicants, and we would invariably discover that all these bright young people were starving for something to read other than Anne Rice or Stephen King or To Kill A (expletive deleted) Mockingbird. I use the word starving because the nincompoops running our schools in collusion with the corporate overlords intentionally deprived those young people of varied, original, challenging and nourishing literature.

One of our first acts of compassion for these bright young people was to give them long reading lists of our favorite novels, short story collections, plays, and non-fiction works, as well as the names of hundreds of excellent writers and poets, most of those authors dead or just old. And for this simple gift of sharing the names of books and writers we admired, we were looked upon by our young peers as angels descended from heaven to end the vapidity of their cultural experiences.

Now that I am just old, I sometimes delude myself, just for fun, by imagining another totally neato renaissance happening in my lifetime. Or maybe, as a friend who is also just old opined, “The renaissance is always here, but like a whale, she dives deep for food and we can’t see her most of the time unless we happen to be watching when she comes up for air.”

Power Over

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

No Illusions.No Replays Nolan Winkler

No Illusions. No Replays. painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.” Bill Cosby

When my mother asked me what I wanted for a high school graduation present, I said I would like to take my girlfriend to see Bill Cosby perform at the opera house in San Francisco. The year was 1967. I first heard of Bill Cosby in 1964 when I was working as a counselor at a summer camp for kids from East Palo Alto. One day, as I was imitating my fast-talking uncle Howard to entertain my group of ten and eleven-year-old boys, one of my charges opined, “You sound like Bill Cosby.”

“Yeah,” said another boy. “You sound just like him.”

After camp that day, I went to Discount Records in Menlo Park, bought Bill Cosby’s album Why Is There Air?, and listened to the routines over and over again until I could do them a la Cosby, much to the delight of my friends. Bill Cosby did indeed sound just like my Uncle Howard—a linguistic mystery given that Uncle Howard was a middle-aged white Jewish guy from Los Angeles and Bill Cosby was a young black guy from Philadelphia.

I never bought another Cosby album, but I did see him perform at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos and then at the San Francisco opera house for my senior graduation present. The Pair Extraordinaire opened for Cosby on both occasions and I bought two of their records—Carl Craig singing jazzy ballads to the accompaniment of bass player Marcus Hemphill.

What I remember most vividly about Cosby’s opera house performance was that I no longer found him funny, but rather brilliantly sad in the manner of Marcel Marceau, the great French mime. Indeed, much of his performance was mime, and I felt he was trying to express emotions with facial expressions and physical mannerisms that no words could properly convey.

Then I lost track of Cosby for thirty years, not being a television watcher, and next heard him sounding repulsively Republican in his chastisement of black people for not trying hard enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Millionaires who blame poor people for their poverty are repulsive to me, and I was saddened that Cosby had become an elitist bigot. And then I thought no more about him.

“Women don’t want to hear what you think. Women want to hear what they think, in a deeper voice.” Bill Cosby

Dozens of women have now come forth and accused Bill Cosby of drugging them and raping them, trying to rape them, or coercing them to have sex with him—the alleged sexual assaults taking place continuously from the 1960’s until just a few years ago. Several of the women initially made their claims years and decades ago, but were ignored or lambasted for coming forth with their stories, and many more of the women are making their claims public for the first time, emboldened by the claims of others. Cosby’s lawyers call the accusations ridiculous, and Cosby, as of this writing, refuses to discuss the accusations.

“We’ve got too many young girls who don’t know how to parent, turning themselves into parents.” Bill Cosby

The sickening scenes described by Cosby’s accusers are reminiscent of the many stories I have heard from women and men who entered the theatre world, the movie business, the New York publishing world, and the music business with great expectations and soon came to critical junctions in their career paths when they were promised advancement in exchange for submitting to the sexual dominance of someone higher up the pyramid of power. In most of the stories, not submitting to the higher-up ended or precipitated the end of the career of the aspirant. In some cases, submitting to the demands of the higher-up did the aspirant little or no good, while in a few cases submission did open doors to greater opportunities.

As one disenchanted screenwriter put it, “The movie business is all about power over. You may not always have to let them fuck you physically, but you always have to let them fuck with what you write or they will wreck your chances forever.”

My own experiences during the several years I was active in the movie business and in New York publishing confirmed the stories of my fellow aspirants, as well as that screenwriter’s assessment of how the movie business works. In the context of those male-dominated power-over systems, the accusations of Cosby’s accusers ring loudly and tragically true.

“There are two sides to every story, and sometimes three, four, and five.” Bill Cosby

Many years ago when I was running the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts, I led a group of thirty aspiring young writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and visual artists in a series of two-hour-long workshops. I divided the performers into mixed gender groups of six, elucidated a creative challenge, and gave the groups very little time to create, practice, and refine their creations before they performed them.

For instance, I gave the groups fifteen minutes to create dramatic scenes revolving around mysteries, the scenes climaxing in songs and ending with the groups forming tableaus that resolved the mysteries. I expected rough stuff at best, and was stunned when each group performed a compelling scene with sophisticated dialogue leading seamlessly into a catchy song with clever lyrics that carried the narrative to a revelatory climax ending in an ingenious tableau.

Had I not watched these groups swiftly and cooperatively create, rehearse, modify, rehearse, and then perform these scenes and songs and tableaus, I would never have believed that works so polished and complex and beautifully synchronized could have come about in so short a time. Yet these groups of inspired women and men created brilliant scenes and songs and dances with astonishing ease, over and over.

For the final creative challenge, I divided the thirty artists into three groups of ten and gave them a half-hour to create clans. Each clan would have a name, a purpose, a creation myth, a history, a code of ethics, a motto, a clan song, a clan dance, and clan gestures, with these clan attributes to be revealed in some sort of artful performance. The results were nothing short of miraculous and proved to me that in the absence of an ossified hierarchy, creative genius flourishes.

Trish

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

Friends of ours recently told us that their twenty-five-year-old son, a bright personable college graduate, but no techie, found the job market so grim he signed up for a seven-year officer training program in the Navy. The benefits are socialist utopian—excellent pay, free healthcare for him and his wife and children (should he ever marry and have children), subsidized housing, free travel, his children’s college educations entirely paid for, fabulous retirement pension and benefits—and he can go to graduate school online while serving in the Navy and becoming a helicopter pilot or a meteorologist or a navigator or just about anything else he can imagine becoming.

The big problem is that he will be a cog in the imperialist war machine and his superiors may ask him to kill people or support the killing of people, which won’t be easy for him because he’s such a nice guy and doesn’t want to kill people or help other people kill people. And, of course, he might get killed or maimed in the line of duty, though if he doesn’t join the Navy he is just as likely to get killed or maimed by some idiot drinking or talking on the phone or taking drugs (or all three simultaneously) while driving.

In any case, the idea of a promising young person joining the military because he or she can’t see any other way out of the putrid economic situation engendered by our insanely selfish stupid shortsighted overlords reminded me of Trish, and I thought you might enjoy hearing my story about her.

Twenty-five years ago, at a low ebb in my writing career, I was invited to take the reins of the Creative Writing Department of the California State Summer School for the Arts, a brand new program for ambitious teenagers who wanted to see about becoming writers, artists, dancers, actors, animators, and musicians—a one-month summer residency program at CalArts in Valencia on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first person they hired for my position stuck around long enough to hire two writing teachers, but then quit when he realized the job actually required a couple months of hard work. I took the job because I was out of money and my wife said she would leave me if I didn’t take the job.

The school’s charter explicitly called for the department heads to be experienced professionals in their fields and not academics, yet I was the only non-academic among the department heads, a situation profoundly disheartening to me because academics, even the nice and well-meaning ones, tend to be maddeningly unimaginative and profoundly crippled by dogmas every bit as stifling as the dogmas of organized religion.

Trish only got into CSSSA because the school was so new there were very few applicants. The second year we turned away many promising writers, but that first year all thirty-two of the Creative Writing applicants were invited to attend, and twenty-seven accepted those invitations.

Growing up in a trailer park in a rough-and-tumble part of San Bernardino, Trish was eighteen going on thirty-five, and one tough cookie. Tall and slender with carrot-red hair, she wore tight blue jeans, T-shirts with NAVY writ large across the chest, and her boyfriend’s big black leather jacket, her boyfriend being a badass biker in jail for aggravated assault but hoping to transfer out of the county jail in San Berdoo and into the Marines. Trish was going into the Navy a few weeks after she finished her month at CalArts and “the only reason I did this summer school thing is because Miss Engle said I should.” Miss Engle was Trish’s English teacher and Trish adored her because “Miss Engle is the only teacher I ever had who thought my poetry was good.”

Trish wrote poems that rhymed, and her rhymes precipitated my first big crisis at the summer school. One of the two teachers working with me, a died-in-the-wool academic, told Trish that rhyming was infantile and creatively restrictive and Trish should write poems that didn’t rhyme. This was before rap lyrics and competitive poetry slams rife with rhyming became all the rage in the hipper college English departments and before I managed to convert my faculty to my teaching philosophy best summed up by Johnny Mercer: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

So three days into the program, Trish came to my office, stood in the doorway, looked at the floor and said, “I’m quitting because Donna said my poems were restricted kindergarten shit. Fuck her. I’m outta here.”

To which I replied, “I’m sorry she said that to you. What a thoughtless thing to do. She’s obviously wrong and doesn’t get the gist of song. Some of the greatest poetry ever written, rhymes. She’s hopelessly out of step with the times. I love rhymes. Bob Dylan, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves, and all those Led Zeppelin songs. I think Donna just stayed in college too long.”

Trish frowned and said, “You want to read my poems?”

“I’d love to. I can read them tonight and…”

“No,” she said, stepping into the room and placing a big black binder on my desk. “Read them now. Okay? I’ll wait outside.”

Her poems were written in curly cursive on lined paper, brief chronicles of her hard scrabble life in a trailer park in San Berdoo with her alcoholic mother and promiscuous sister. Her father was in prison and one of her poems about him rhymed mail and jail and bail and tail, his latest crime statutory rape. Her boyfriend was a heavy equipment operator and a biker who was sweet when sober, crazy violent when drunk. Yes, her rhymes sometimes muted the power of her narrative, but the discipline of rhyming seemed to help her make sense out of the chaos from whence she came.

“Trish?” I called, having lost myself in her poems. “You there?”

She reappeared in the doorway and gave me a furtive glance before returning her gaze to the floor. “You took a long time.”

“They’re fantastic,” I said, tapping her binder. “Why don’t we switch you into my section and see what happens?”

“You like them?” She squinted suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that so I won’t quit?”

“I love them, and I’d love to see you try your hand at writing a story or two.”

“I just write poems,” she said, picking up her binder. “Poems that rhyme.”

So Trish became a permanent member of my morning section, and over the next three weeks she changed considerably, something that happened to many of the students who attended CSSSA where for the first time in their young lives they found themselves in the company of fellow artists and social misfits and original thinkers, free from the constraints of parents and old haunts and habits and educational dogma—breathing the air of creativity and freedom, however fleeting the experience.

Trish eventually wrote several good poems that did not rhyme, at least not overtly, and she wrote a brilliant and painfully realistic story about a young man who robs a liquor store, flees on his motorcycle to the trailer park where his girlfriend lives, and convinces his sweetheart to ride with him into the desert where they are ambushed by the police and the young man dies in his girlfriend’s arms—drenching her in his blood.

For the Creative Writing denouement that first year, we commandeered a large conference room and invited students and faculty from the other disciplines, as well as parents and friends, to attend a performance by our writers of their best new work. Participation was voluntary and those writers too shy to read were encouraged to enlist fellow writers or Drama students to read their stories and poems for them.

I very much wanted Trish to perform her story because I thought it by the far the best short story produced by anyone during that long hard month of work. But Trish said she couldn’t possibly get up in front of an audience and the only way she would consent to having her story read was if I read it.

The great day dawned, and in our audience of a hundred or so students and faculty and parents were Trish’s big handsome boyfriend en route from jail to Camp Pendleton, and Miss Engle, Trish’s high school English teacher.

The show was a resounding success, the audience applauding loudly after every poem and story, and for the grand finale I performed Trish’s tragic tale. And when I finished reading the last sentence and looked out at the audience, there was not a dry eye in the place. And then came thunderous applause and everyone shouting “Author! Author!” until Trish stood up to receive her due.

When she came to say goodbye to me the next day, Trish declared, “They only liked it because you’re such a good reader.”

“Not true. They loved it because it’s a great story. And you wrote it.”

“I’m not a writer,” she said, looking me in the eye. “I don’t have enough to say.”

“That’s what life is for. To give us material.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” she said, gifting me with a rare smile. “From wherever I go after basic training. Promise.”

But she never did write. So it goes. That’s just the way the wild wind blows.

Attention Deficit Nonsense

Friday, November 26th, 2010

“Tell the children the truth.” Bob Marley

1957. Las Lomitas Elementary School. Menlo Park, California

“I invite those people with ants in their pants,” proclaimed Mrs. Davenport, my third grade teacher, “to run to the oak tree and back before we get to work on our projects.”

Those people always included me, so I and several of my cohorts, boys and girls, walked sedately to the classroom door from where we bolted into sunlight and fresh air to run across the playground to the gigantic oak that overshadowed the playing field. Upon our return, Mrs. Davenport would say, “Todd, Jody, Wendy, I invite you to circumnavigate the oak one more time because I can see you’ve still got a little jitterbug in you.”

Mrs. Davenport was from Oklahoma and proudly one-eighth Cherokee. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in all my eight mortal years. She was astute, funny, musical, athletic, and she enjoyed using words somewhat beyond the official Third Grade vocabulary. We loved Mrs. Davenport because she loved us and had great empathy for our collective predicament: being eight-year-olds.

In 1957, may the fates be eternally blessed, there was no such thing as Attention Deficit Disorder, nor were hideous drugs routinely and epidemically administered to children with ants in their pants. Thus I was spared the pharmaceutical suppression of my true nature, which was, as our beloved Mrs. Davenport so aptly put it, “To jitterbug.”

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela

1969. Oakland, California

“You’re kidding,” I said to my friend, a Third Grade teacher at an elementary school with an entirely black student body. “All the kids in your class take Ritalin?”

“Every single one of them.”

“That’s insane.”

“There’s no other way to control them. Forty wild kids in a dinky classroom. Believe me, the ones who skip their meds stand out like sore thumbs.”

Lest you think the situation in that Oakland elementary school was an anomaly, think again. A monumental takeover of America’s schools was underway in the late 1960’s and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s, and is now complete. Today millions of our children are, for all intents and purposes, forced to take prescription drugs if they wish to attend school. And what saddens me most is knowing that had such drugs existed in my antsy childhood, and had my school been run by agents of the pharmaceutical corporations as most schools are run today, my parents would have dutifully signed the requisite forms allowing my jailers to drug me.

“Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their vision.” Aldous Huxley

In 1974 I worked as a teacher’s aide and janitor at a day care center in Palo Alto. All but three of our twenty-seven kids, ages two to five, came from single parent homes with the dads missing, the moms working as secretaries or nurses or maids or salespeople. The children were dropped off at the center between seven and eight in the morning and were to be picked up by a parent between four and five in the afternoon. For all sorts of wrong reasons, I was often left alone to care for several of these little people from two in the afternoon until the last of their very tired mothers arrived long after five.

My strategies for safely overseeing seven to fifteen antsy little kids all by myself for three or four hours included story telling, snack providing, and running my charges back and forth to the oak tree, so to speak, until they were too tired to do anything other than nap or draw or play quietly until their mommies came to get them. Several of these children, according to the school’s director, exhibited propensities for Attention Deficit Disorder; but not one of these angels suffered from any such thing under my care.

“A fool’s brain digests philosophy into folly, science into superstition, and art into pedantry. Hence University education.” George Bernard Shaw

In 1989, as I began my third year of running the Creative Writing program for the California State Summer School for the Arts, the school’s director hired a renowned academic authority to conduct a workshop for the department heads. I was skeptical about the value of the workshop, Strategies for Working With Contemporary Teenagers, because after two years of working with contemporary teenagers I had yet to discern any differences between contemporary teens and the teenager I had been; and my skepticism proved justified the moment that overpaid fraud opened his mouth.

He began with the proclamation that due to the pernicious effects of comic books and MTV, “the teenagers of today are incapable of sustaining focus and interest in a subject for more than a few minutes at a time. Therefore, you must design your curriculum to accommodate their limitations.”

I raised my hand, for I was swiftly approaching the limits of my capability of sustaining focus and interest in what this jackass was saying.

“I will complete my initial presentation,” he snapped, “and take questions after.” He glanced at his watch. “In twenty-four minutes.”

“I will not wait twenty-four minutes,” I said, rising from my seat. “Or even one minute. Your premise is erroneous. The young people we work with are easily able to sustain their focus and interest for hours on end, so I will leave you to your nonsense and hope my colleagues will have the good sense to leave with me.”

Needless to say, the director of the school was displeased with my boycott of the renowned academic, but life went on and our young writers and artists proved themselves illimitably attentive. Of course, we weren’t training our students to jump through hoops and remember meaningless bits of data pursuant to passing tests pursuant to becoming docile members of an emotionally stifled population of neurotic consumers. We were providing them with opportunities, inspiration, and techniques for expressing their original visions, while modeling for them adult versions of what artists might be.

“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.” Frank Zappa

2010. There is today, the authorities tell us, an epidemic of autism sweeping America; and though no one has a definitive explanation for the dramatic upturn in the incidence of autism, massive quantities of barely tested drugs are being administered to our nation’s hapless children in the name of managing the growing problem. Autism is a highly non-specific term, almost as non-specific as the word human, and may refer to a child incapable of even minimal self-maintenance, to a teenager with abnormal speech patterns, or to an adult incapable of making eye contact with other human beings, to name just a few of the thousands of autistic behaviors found under the vast umbrella of the so-called autistic spectrum.

“Yes, well, we have administered the appropriate tests and come to the conclusion that your daughter falls somewhere on the spectrum of being human. Her particular manifestation of humanness indicates she might be more easily controlled were she to take two hundred milligrams every four hours of the drug Freedonia, an absurdly expensive drug cheaply manufactured and available exclusively from one of the unregulated and amoral pharmaceutical giants. This giant multinational corporation claims to have thoroughly tested Freedonia on several thousand unsuspecting peasant children in India. Only a small percentage of those peasant children died or went insane as a result of taking the drug, and despite a notable percentage of the subjects experiencing dizziness, loss of appetite, and an irrational fear of the color blue, a viable percentage of those taking Freedonia showed a noticeable reduction in those symptoms of humanness similar to the symptoms unfortunately exhibited by your daughter. Therefore, we strongly recommend that your daughter take the recommended dosages of Freedonia if you wish for her to continue attending Sweetness and Light Elementary School.”

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Most people find it hard to believe that it was common practice for medical doctors in twentieth century America to prescribe cigarettes for patients suffering from anxiety, but they, the medical doctors, did just that for many decades. My father, a medical doctor, smoked cigarettes until 1957 when the Surgeon General gave his first official warning about the “probable link” between cigarettes and lung cancer.

I have several friends who feel that life would not be worth living without the prescription anti-depressants they take, and I am relieved they have something to help them feel good about being alive. I am not against the use of all drugs. But I am against the use of drugs in place of discovering and working on the underlying causes of what ails us and what ails our children.

A growing body of research suggests that the accepted truth in the not too distant future will be that the exponential rise in the occurrence of autism is at least partially related to the chronic use of computers and cell phones by children who should not be using (or exposed to the rays from) those brain-altering devices until their brains have had the opportunity to fully develop as our brains are genetically intended to develop. Crucial synaptic connections are very likely not being made in the brains of millions of young people who are texting and gaming and cyber surfing before their brains and psyches and bodies are fully and healthfully formed.

Have you ever entered a café where several people are peering into cell phones and twiddling their thumbs on miniature keyboards? These people are modeling several of the fundamental symptoms of autism: disconnection from reality, self-isolation, repetitive physical mannerisms, and avoidance of direct contact with other humans. Or to put it another way, they seem to be missing out on what we old farts call life.

Writing Good

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

(This article originally appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

I daresay creativity cannot be taught. Creativity can be engendered, encouraged, cultivated, and supported, but being creative is as natural as breathing, and so to purport to teach creativity is to lie. And the multi-billion dollar creativity-teaching industry in this perpetually adolescent culture of ours is just that: a big fat putrescent lie. And the crown jewels in this cartel of deceit are the several hundred MFA programs in Creative Writing sponsored by academic institutions large and small that yearly hoodwink tens of thousands of misguided people, young and old, who very much want to become more accomplished writers and have succumbed to slick fairy tale propaganda promising mastery and success with their writing in just two or three years of apprenticeship to writers who, almost without exception, cannot write their ways out of paper bags let alone teach anyone to write any better than they.

I am particularly sensitive to and alarmed by this Creative Writing MFA fraud because several extremely promising writers I’ve been privileged to work with have been severely damaged if not entirely ruined by either undergraduate creative writing classes or these insidious MFA programs. I did my best to warn these folks of the pitfalls of embarking on such misadventures, but the temptations were apparently too many, the propaganda too convincing, and the alternative of decades of solitary labor too daunting, so they surrendered to the academic combine, walked into the maws of institutionalized idiocy, and sacrificed their inherent originality and uniqueness to systems run by sycophants and frauds.

Or to quote Allen Ginsberg, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” and I have witnessed a dozen marvelous writers deformed and defused by the madness of MFA programs in Creative Writing.

Twenty-some years ago I was hired to design and run the Creative Writing Department for the California State Summer School for the Arts. The founding mandate of this summer school for artistically inclined teenagers was that the heads of each department should be accomplished artists in their fields apart from any academic credentials they may have accrued. I was the only department head without a college degree, and though I parted ways with CSSSA after five fascinating years, in the history of that still extant school I remain, as far as I know, the only non-degreed department head they ever had.

I had never taught creative writing when I took my one and only state job, nor had I ever taken a creative writing course. However, I had published novels with big New York publishers, written screenplays for big Hollywood movie companies, published dozens of short stories, and practiced writing for twenty years, so I was confident that practicing was the best way for people to learn to write. I hired teachers who had similar notions about training young writers, set up a schedule of twice-daily practice sessions for the month we’d be working with our mob of ambitious teenagers, and we got to work.

The first thing I discovered was that most people, even those who want to be writers, are reluctant to just sit down and write whatever comes to them. They need prompting. So I invented a bunch of exercises to trick people into writing without thinking too much about what they were writing. Thinking too much about what we are writing is a huge obstacle to maximal writing flow; thus all my exercises were designed to expeditiously circumvent the inner editors/critics/intellects and postpone their arrivals until it was time to rewrite. Analysis and criticism are premiere killers of creative flow, and analysis and criticism, alas, are fundamental to all MFA Creative Writing programs. My several dozens of exercises were compiled and published a decade ago in a volume entitled The Writer’s Path. Viable used copies of that out-of-print tome may be had for a fraction of a dollar each via the Interweb, and though I don’t make a dime from those sales, I highly recommend the book.

The second thing I discovered working with teens, and later with adults, is that nearly everyone in America is terrified of being punished or humiliated or rejected for writing anything substantive, but especially for writing deeply personal things. A week into my first stint at the summer school for the arts, a promising poet handed me her very first attempt at fictive prose and said, “I think maybe I trust you enough to show this to you.” I began to read her story, but a few sentences along she snatched the page away from me and cried, “You hate it!” and fled the room. The next day, finding her in a calmer mood, I asked what made her think I hated her writing, and she said, “Your nose twitched a little and you might have been about to grimace, so…”

Granted, hers was an extreme sensitivity, but I soon discovered that all my teenaged charges, and later all my adult workshop attendees, were nearly as sensitive and vulnerable as she about their maiden voyages in writing imaginatively. With this awareness, and recalling my own experiences of being pummeled by teachers for my flights of literary fancy, I cautioned my faculty that it was essential we ease very slowly into our roles of constructive critics, and that for the first several encounters with our students we should strive to be as uncritical as possible without resorting to phoniness. Eventually, once a modicum of trust and mutual respect is established, writers worth a damn will voluntarily ask for critical help with their work, though that criticism should never be about content, and only about the clarity and efficacy of the writing.

In the adult workshops I offered, in which we simply practiced my exercises designed to trick us into not thinking too much about what we were writing, I found it helpful to begin the course by letting anyone who wanted (which always turned out to be everyone) to testify about the abuse they and their writing had received throughout their lives, and how they had subsequently struggled to overcome the trauma of that abuse. Sometimes it was one particularly horrible teacher who had demolished them for something they’d written, but more often it was a pattern of punishment beginning in elementary school and continuing through college and into the work force and MFA programs that had alienated them from their own language. And yet they all still desperately wanted to express themselves through the written word.

Then I would share my experiences of being smashed by teachers and rejected by moronic editors and agents and publishers, and the commonality of our experiences created comradeship and sped the growth of trust among us.

The other sort of abuse experienced by many of these writers came from bestselling how-to-write books prescribing writing regimens of at least an hour a day, every day. But since for most beginning writers, scribbling for an hour at a stretch is the equivalent of running five miles the first time you try running, such dogmatic nonsense guarantees failure. Furthermore, any self-doubts a writer may have about his or her ability will be instantly ignited with the first inevitable missing of a day or running out of inspiration after twenty minutes, which happens all the time to the most experienced writers.

After the venting was over, I would proclaim, “In our time together, you do not have to share anything you write unless you want to; and criticism and analysis are verboten. If you want to criticize and analyze each other’s work, do it on your own time.”

I recently met a thirty-year-old man in his fifth year of an MFA program in Creative Writing at a prestigious California university. I would name the college, but I don’t wish to be sued. I said I had not heard of a five-year program for writing credentials short of a PhD. “Oh, it’s a two-year program, but I keep getting extensions,” he said blithely. “So I can keep getting student loans until I finish my novel.”

“So do you keep taking the same classes over and over again?” I asked, barely able to conceal my disdain.

“Oh, no more classes,” he said, shrugging. “Just, you know, occasional meetings with my mentor and…” He paused ominously. “…the classes I teach.”

“Excuse me? You’re teaching classes in the MFA program you’re enrolled in? But what are your qualifications?”

“Well, I’ve already taken the classes,” he said, nodding complacently. “And, like, they didn’t get so and so (published author) like they thought they were going to, so I filled in, and it worked out, so…”

Following my interview with this fellow, I did a bit of investigating and found that the practice of “upper level” MFA candidates teaching “lower level” candidates is ubiquitous throughout the accredited creative writing industry. Keep that in mind as tuitions soar.

“And just what do you do?” I asked this buffoon. “As a teacher?”

“I oversee, you know, the seminars. Lead the critiques. People bring in their stories or chapters, we all read them, and then we, like, critique and analyze them, and then they rework them. Oh, and I also teach the how-to-get-published seminars, too.”

“And how is one ultimately judged worthy of the MFA and the title Master?”

“We each have an advisory committee that evaluates our work, usually a collection of stories or a novel, and they see, you know, a couple drafts and then the final manuscript.”

“And these advisors are…”

“Oh, we had (names a well-known writer) on board two years ago, and almost everybody else has, you know, published something, and we might get (names another well-known writer) next year to teach an advanced workshop and be on a couple committees. Man, would I love to get his name on my résumé.”

“Tell me more about the how-to-get published sessions?”

“Oh, you know, we go over the nine steps to writing a successful query letter, the seven do’s and six don’ts of pitching ideas, the five sure-fire plot devices, the four ideal manuscript lengths, stuff like that.”

“And you learned all this from…”

“A guy one year ahead of me.”

“Have you had any luck selling anything?”

“Not so far. But I’m working on a teen vampire novel with the most amazing twist. I’m trying to sell the synopsis before someone else comes up with the same idea. Promise not to tell? The teen vampire turns out to be a consulting detective name Hercules Watson. Get the references?”

I got them, and then I murdered the guy and drove a wooden stake through his heart, but I’m not telling where he’s buried.

So if you or anyone you know is tempted to enroll in an MFA program in Creative Writing, or if you have a kid in college who wants to take a creative writing class, do anything you can to stop them. Tell them if they want to become good writers to read hundreds of short stories and novels by writers who have stood the test of time (at least fifty years) and to practice writing as often as they feel motivated to do so. Tell them to stop watching television or they can forget about having an original inspiration, and tell them to ask everyone they meet along their ways to tell them stories, and to prompt the tellers with questions, and to listen intently, and to take notes if they are so inclined. And tell them if they keep at their reading and listening and practicing, they will get better and better at writing down and rewriting what comes to them from a source transcendent of the intellect.

As for the five sure-fire plot devices, they are all contained in the following sentence. “God,” said the princess, “I’ve been raped, and I don’t know who did it. But I suspect a vampire.”

Audio versions of Todd’s novels are available from ITunes. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com