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Austin Chronicle A Portrait of the Artist as a Grad Student

How Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

By David Garza

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  If Emily Dickinson had learned to wrap her hands around a wooden bat and take a few clumsy swings on the baseball diamond with her closest poet-friends, or if she really loved the grunt and sweat of dashing toward home plate, could she have still conjured the coy persona who silently mothered American poetry? And if she had sat through weekly writing workshops and pursued a Master's in Fine Arts (MFA) degree, could she have endured the harsh weekly questioning of her fellow students: "But really, Emily, what is this damned punctuation?"

These are silly questions, perhaps, but they illustrate the legitimate concerns about the changing way that writers develop their craft and make their way to the presses in our country thanks to the rise of the university workshop as a breeding ground for new talent. Of course, it is now commonplace to hear of universities offering academic credit for creative work at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, but the growing popularity of such programs and their visible effect on American literature makes one wonder, at least, if a writer's blossoming years should be planned out on syllabus dates and if their unsettled drafts should be molded, in part, by the hands of peers and professors.

Tom Grimes, who earned an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1991 and currently directs the graduate writing program at Southwest Texas State University, thoughtfully explores these issues in The Workshop, his hefty study of the lives and creative work of students who have passed through the wildly successful and famous Iowa program. Focusing on the short fiction that has emerged from Iowa over the past seven decades, Grimes assembles a rich and diverse set of texts that illustrate the ability of writing workshops to set the tenor of American letters over the bulk of this century, for good and for ill. Also included is a generous section devoted to recollections of the writing students themselves -- some praising Iowa for its solitude and rigors, others questioning the idea of placing the country's best writers together in stark desolation. The pictures that emerge from his anthology are of lonely writers dreaming and typing far way from home, talking their rhyme and meter at the local bars, and heading out for the weekly poets-versus-fiction writers game of baseball. A rough and rewarding life for the writers and for American letters alike.

Today's Iowa workshop raises its fledgling writers on seemingly polarized principles -- solitude and camaraderie, creative fertility and barren landscapes, academia and the arts. Aptly, the origins of the program reveal that the split personality of the program has always existed; the radical movement toward a national, university-based literary establishment would begin as a radical thought with simply regional intentions at best.

The thought that provoked the University of Iowa to modestly begin the teaching of creative writing was this: Just as painting and sculpture could be taught, writing and the art of literary creation could also be taught. The romantic ideals of the writer as divine messenger or seer of the unseen were discarded for a more practical and practicable ideal: that of the writer as a skilled craftsman. If the writer were regarded as such, not only could writing be taught like painting; the techniques of writing could actually be honed like the skills of a carpenter or plumber.

Advancing this argument, Grimes makes a stunning jump in his introductory essay by linking the creation of the Iowa workshop with the rise of New Criticism in the USSR during the early decades of the century. The New Critics, whose tenets held that the literary text should stand on its own, that it should be analyzed and explicated without consideration of the author's intent, bias, or background, thus served as models for the basis of the function of the workshop. The author is removed from the text and reduced to the role of word mechanic, a worker whose duty it is to tighten the loose ends, polish the dull spots, and grease up the joints, as it were. No longer a messenger from the heavens, the writer is susceptible -- and reliant upon -- the criticism and second opinions of his fellow word mechanics.

"The New Critics insisted "that the author's intentions in writing, even if they could be recovered, were of no relevance to the interpretation of his or her text,'" Grimes points out in his essay. Though similar in spirit and intent, however, the Iowa workshop initially relied not as much on the beliefs of the New Critics as it did primarily on the regional interests of the university itself.

"It started as a local phenomenon," Grimes explained recently. "There's just an interest by some individuals like Edwin Piper, who's teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, to start teaching verse-making classes. And the creative writing classes actually met informally in people's houses and living rooms." Inspired by faculty member George Cook's 1896 "Verse Making" class, Piper and a colleague successfully convinced the graduate faculty to allow creative work to receive credit toward a graduate degree in 1922.

"It was almost like it was a response to the East Coast, to what was perceived as East Coast elitism," Grimes says. "The program itself came into existence largely because schools like Princeton and Yale and Harvard wouldn't take a chance on creative degrees, creative dissertations. And so it was a state school that was sort of looking to improve its reputation -- it didn't risk its stature as a world-class university because it wasn't one."

For all its affinity with the foreign literary theorists of the early 20th century, however, the very idea of the workshop as a means for perfecting literary texts has always shown a strikingly American democratic bent. One of the frequent complaints against writing workshops in general is that, by feeding the opinion of a group to an individual writer, the texts become flattened and sterile. In other words, there may be workshop writers who stop writing to please their own aesthetic and philosophical intentions and write, instead, to please instructors and the will of the larger community -- their classmates. At their very worst, then, these occasional workshoppers write to win elections. "They're so inoffensive, they're offensive," Grimes says.

The flip side of the "democratic" nature of workshops, of course, is their availability to anyone who can write well, regardless of class or stature in society. "It's very sort of American, and I guess probably a democratically fed or inspired phenomenon in that if you work hard and you apply and you get in and some native talent is noticeable, then you, too, can be a writer or literary artist. The rest of the world seems to not buy into that idea," Grimes says.

The accessibility of the writing life via the Iowa workshop blossomed in the 1950s with the swell of World War II and Korean Conflict soldiers returning to college campuses with the aid of the GI Bill. "By the Sixties it had become a well-known phenomenon. Because it was the only place, it was able to attract students because you could pay Robert Frost to go there and things like that. After the Sixties, the whole thing kind of exploded," Grimes says. Nowadays, so many young writers apply for admission to the Iowa workshop in the hopes of living high-profile literary lives that only approximately 3% of all applicants can be admitted. As Grimes points out in his book, even Harvard Medical School has a higher acceptance rate!

The good news for the 97% of writers who are not accepted into the Iowa workshop is that there are now over 300 creative writing programs in universities across the country, all fashioned largely after Iowa's maverick model. The programs are classified as either studio programs, in which students are solely responsible for participating in writing workshops and producing a creative thesis at the end of their two-year stint, or studio/academic, in which outside academic literary study accompanies the studio work. The best writing programs extend the learning environment by allowing opportunities for interaction with faculty members as well as with each other.

At the University of Texas' Michener Center for Writers, for example, students are required to begin their coursework with a broad-based introductory seminar which requires them to write in genres outside of their own concentration. Future poets may write screenplays, and novelists may try their hand at the tricks of villanelles. The discourse between poets, playwrights, and fiction writers who would normally never share academic space together is one of the earliest and most crucial learning experiences at the Michener Center, director Jim Magnuson says.

Another way of opening up this student-teacher dialogue is by offering one-on-one tutorials in the later stages of the MFA coursework. Grimes says SWT is considering allowing its graduate students to register for such courses. Additionally, Kathleen Peirce, a SWT poetry workshop instructor who also earned an MFA from Iowa, encourages communication between students by hosting weekly gatherings in her home.

"Basically, what we started out doing was just quilting -- now it's a standard Friday thing," she says. "Almost everybody brings something to read out loud, whether it's something they're working on or something they've read that week. Or somebody will cook something."

As important as it is for workshop teachers and administrators to facilitate the exchange between students outside of class, their in-class methods often decide whether students regard the workshop as successful and fair. Every creative writing student, of course, has heard more than one horror story about biased and agenda-pushing teachers.

"The best teaching a writer can do for other writers happens in two ways: one is to just be absolutely forward with your own aesthetic and make it clear to your students where you stand and how you got there -- and then cause them to read wildly across the discipline," Peirce says.

Peirce also recalls very clearly how difficult it is to be a graduate student in an MFA program, and "how much people give up to come and have this enterprise. It's not easy for anybody. These kids are broke, you know. They've left home. Some of them have put their relationships on hold. They're childbearing. There's not anybody who does it easily."

And while the MFA degree qualifies recipients to teach writing at the university level, even the University of Iowa's home page admits that open positions are rare. "There are 200 to 300 applications for every teaching job," Grimes says. Plus, those who dream of living the fabled writer's life walk into class knowing that only about 10% of those 3% who are admitted to Iowa will have high-profile literary careers in their lifetimes.

Despite all this, Grimes' anthology resoundingly proves that the rise of university writing workshops, and that of Iowa in particular, is by and large a healthy development. If MFA programs were truly guilty of churning out indistinguishable and sterile texts, an anthology this fat and varied would be impossible to put together (there's even a chance a second volume may be produced). And whether or not poets and fiction writers are nothing more than skilled workers, the New Criticism-based workshop method has succeeded in expanding the reach and flavor of a liberal arts education in this country. Critics of the workshop's reliance on group interaction and the "teaching" of something as esoteric as the art of writing ignore the fact that each student is an independent and curious explorer of his own mind and environment, not some fragile flower whose petals fall away at the lightest foreign touch. It is entirely conceivable that an Emily Dickinson could have prospered in a graduate workshop, brandishing her baseball bat and all.

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