(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