Voice and View

University English departments have splintered into literature, film studies, cultural studies, linguistics, rhetoric/writing studies, and business/technical writing divisions, each with its own course rubric and catalog, and each with its assigned seat at the


March 26, 2007

University English departments have splintered into literature, film studies, cultural studies, linguistics, rhetoric/writing studies, and business/technical writing divisions, each with its own course rubric and catalog, and each with its assigned seat at the academic feast. Creative Writing is the red-headed stepchild eating scraps on the hearth.

Nobody really knows how it got in the house. Even Creative Writing (CW) doesn’t know. It’s not that theory scholars, sitting at the head of the table, aren’t so cruel as to toss it out in the snow; it’s that they rather like to look up from their deconstructions and see CW huddled under its shawl over there in the cold ashes. They let it stay to pick up whatever students it can to fill its classrooms, as long as it can do so on a pittance, and quietly, quietly.

(The exception is made when a newly-arrived school has money but lacks prestige. Becoming a critical Michigan is not easy, so instead it buys one writer with a recognizable name and rents several little-knowns and—poof!—a CW program a chancellor can write her mother about.)

One of the problems of perception of CW in the academy is that CW often doesn’t define itself adequately, so it can’t be seen clearly by the rest of the university. What is it for?

Even the teacher-writers who say no one can teach anybody to be a real writer say they teach craft and instill devotion and work ethic, which is why the words of the guilds are used to describe the field—workshops, apprentice writers, masters. It’s a bit flattering, this craft notion. Working class, honest, and physical, in ways that the dons will never know. CW builds walls, stone by stone, and many-windowed houses of fiction. But try telling a writer he or she has the cultural panache of a plumber—minus the pay—and see what happens.

(As much as it will be resisted, the metaphor is probably sound. I was just on the verge of finding the etymological connection between “drawing up” something in writing and “drawing up” water from a well. Unfortunately I’ve gone blind peering through a magnifying glass at my Compact OED. I’ll dictate to Mrs. Churm from here on.)

Truth is, most CW teachers don’t believe instruction should begin and end with trussing dangling modifiers and staying on point. The proof: They’ll teach intro classes in fiction or even creative nonfiction, but not freshman rhet sections, if they can help it. If they’re worth anything as writers themselves, they have ambitions to get at something beyond craft; call it finding and sharing emotionally-significant human moments. That some CW classes fail to say the important things beyond craft is evidenced by everyone’s fear of the “workshop story,” a technically proficient but soulless thing. To say that we can’t begin to discuss why these attempts fail is to say students might as well scribble another research paper on gun control—it’s all writing and therefore good. And this is where it gets tricky.

After all, teachers in corporate bureaucracies—especially those of us without tenure—do not have the freedom to say what’s really wrong with the writing. The real problem with most writing is the writer’s worldview. With much undergraduate writing, immature worldview restricts what can be seen and therefore said. This appears to be a bigger problem in prose than in poetry. There will be exceptional young prose writers, such as the miraculous James Joyce, but many will also never mature, no matter how old they get. And we do not have the freedom to say, as Gertrude Stein in her own salon could say to a young Hemingway, “After all, you are 90 percent Rotarian.” (This is the best insult of the twentieth century.)

I used to think voice was the thing in writing, beyond even character, plot, or theme. But voice in writing is merely a handbag that accessorizes worldview. A writer’s worldview will always out, like murder. If a student’s been thinking of suicide, even in ways he doesn’t understand, it will be apparent in his story in my workshop. If he thinks foreigners smell bad, or women are inferior, or fat people are jolly, or that the black helicopters are on the way, I’ll see it in his text as clearly as if he’d written it in purple crayon.

Which accounts for a cowardly, sly pedagogy in the CW classroom. We don’t talk about worldview, or how mom screwed them up. We discuss motivations of characters, their speech and actions, how the narrative voice itself perceives, judges, and portrays its own fictional world. By pretending this has nothing to do with the authors themselves, we hope to create the distance to make students feel safe (“the story is morally insane, not me”) while making them realize that their personal convictions are worth another look. For instance:

Why’s the story so admiring of the protagonist, she of the belly-ring and hip-huggers and darling southern accent and perfect blond hair that she flips at “boys” every paragraph, when she doesn’t seem all that aware or even interesting? [ Subtext: Don’t flatter yourself, hon.]

Is this woman in a corset, bound to a chair and verbally humiliated by the antagonist, a character we’ve seen before? [ Subtext: Why did you bring to workshop a soft-core bondage fantasy that doesn’t even rise to the basic Lara Croft genre?]

Why does the story not make more explicit, in the service of dramatic irony, that the teen narrator is allowed to give her successful, kind father endless advice simply because he loves her so selflessly? [Subtext: You are not as smart or good as you think—dad is.]

Where else in the academy could this happen? It’s the dangerous utility of Creative Writing, the stepchild in the corner.


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