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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Creative writing education?

People are wondering why.  Usually they are people who, without writing courses, wrote a book.

In the fall of 1979, I tried a graduate course in library science.  In the fall of 1980, I was in a writing program at the University of Minnesota.  There weren’t many writing programs then and mine was actually an M.A. in English, Emphasis in Writing.  Not necessarily creative writing.  Library science was going to be a field of information technology, not necessarily about books.

Yes there was once education in Minnesota
One day as I wondered if I could really like the computer future of the library, a friend of mine told me about the new writing program.  I thought that fantastic!  I sent a pile of poems and got in, one of 15 students.  In Minnesota, I had resident fees for courses and a fellowship.  I would never have taken out huge loans for creative writing.  I’d always believed writers were chosen.  In grade school, I tried to write a novel about a girl in a flood, inspired by pictures I’d seen of a flood in the region, but I realized how hard the work of a novel was and gave up.  I guess I didn’t believe that writing courses could make a novelist succeed.  

What I wouldn’t have done then was to go for a graduate degree in journalism.  I’d left a newspaper job and was frankly leery about the popularity of journalism and also the sensationalism that was happening because of journalistic competition.  If I had gone to a larger newspaper, my articles would become more compact and features would have been a fight.  At a suburban newspaper, I got to do features and reviews, photo pages, and even a cooking contest.  But I wasn’t making much over minimum wage.  I dreamed of a teaching salary and a three-month summer vacation. 

Thirty years later, when I found internet sites like, I knew I wouldn’t want to pay for a fiction writing course if I was 25.  I didn’t want to say that at the Authonomy forum because I was afraid the sites might consider charging membership fees.

But they advertise workshops that offer the benefit I paid for at the University of Minnesota and at literary organizations, The Loft and the Split Rock Arts program.  My writing instructors were published by major publishing houses; two worked as editors.  Unless a student had some work to present, the courses might only be for observation and discussion.  The first day of an advanced creative writing class, one student simply pulled out a short story from her folders.  I hadn’t brought my recent writing but I saw how she had done the right thing.  The classes were like today’s internet sites, students bringing in written work and obtaining feedback.  That was crucial to me when it came to fiction.  I needed to know how other people responded to my work, whether it was worth pursuing, and which project.

There’s the idea that writing courses are “how-to.”  I never encountered that. 

Literary.  That’s another term that affronts people.  The answer, to me, is again that writers are chosen.  Literary encourages people to write about their own experiences and to develop style.  A person might be a strong stylist and a competent storyteller but if their material doesn’t excite people or obtain a common identification, then they are literary. 

Yet I prefer mysteries, women’s stories, and children’s novels that have literary value.  Great novels have it all:  literary, mystery, thriller, romance, historical.  However a writer starts, as genre, literary, or with a large intent, they’ll do better if they enhance anything that gives a feeling of emptiness.

Creative writing degrees have become like the journalism education of my schooldays.  Hands-on training really did produce great journalism in the U.S.  I notice that in collecting old magazines.  But I remember when a guy with an M.A. in journalism was hired into our newspaper office.  He was less impetuous than the other reporters and at the time, a relief to have at the next desk.

Still, I think the internet programs were what I wanted so far as creative writing was concerned.  They just didn’t exist then.  The only drawback is that you can’t sit in a room with the people who critique or give feedback.  It’s nice to see your readers.  But it’s hard to find knowledgeable readers of your genre or type of writing in any given region.    

The big difference between the classes and the internet seems to be that in classes, students talk to each other while on the internet, writers write to each other. 

Possibly, it’s better to get on Professor Geezer’s Geezermobile if you want to write The Wizard of Oz.


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