How to be Class Conscious
by Tim Waggoner
Have you ever thought about taking a creative writing class?
Working writer or rank amateur, you can benefit from a good
course in creative writing -- provided you know what to look
Teachers and writers have long debated the value of creative
writing classes. Opinions vary, sometimes wildly. Some believe
that writing can't be taught and taking such classes is at
best a waste of students time and at worst damaging
to a nascent writer's development. Others believe that creative
writing classes can provide a valuable educational experience,
perhaps dramatically decreasing the learning curve on the
way to a literary career.
So which is it?
The truth is, both views are accurate. The outcome depends
on a number of factors: the instructor, the focus of the class,
your fellow students and -- most of all -- you.
First, let's examine the reasons not to take a creative
Despite what you might think, instructors don't need any
specific credentials to teach creative writing. I've taught
college courses for eleven years, and I've seen instructors
take creative writing classes only because they thought they
would be a fun outlet for their own creativity, an outlet
sorely needed after teaching endless sections of basic composition.
But these instructors had no qualifications to teach creative
writing -- no publications, sometimes no experience writing
Other instructors have experience, but it's limited, often
to poetry. Since verse is so poorly compensated in our country,
poets are forced to find other avenues of making a living.
And those avenues tend to be found in higher education. If
you're an aspiring poet, this works in your favor. If, however,
you desire to write fiction or creative nonfiction, this can
be a problem. Instructors believe (or have been led to believe
by the university system which spawned them) that having read
and studied fiction in pursuit of their degree is somehow
a substitute for actually writing the stuff.
(In all fairness, the same holds true for fiction writers
who've never written poetry or creative nonfiction.)
One of my creative writing instructors in college was a
published poet who readily admitted that his expertise didn't
extend to fiction. But that didn't stop him from dispensing
advice on how to write it.
Another problem with instructors is that they're often prejudiced
against genre or commercial writing. They see anything other
than literary writing as inferior hackwork. So not only aren't
they as open as they could be to students who wish to write
mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy or horror, they
usually aren't well read (if read at all) in these genres.
And even if they are broad-minded enough to accept genre writing
in their classes, they don't have the knowledge and experience
to help students with the specialized demands of genre writing.
Sometimes instructors are hired to teach creative writing
classes on the basis of their publishing credentials, which
can seem quite impressive, especially to beginning writers
(not to mention a naive administration). But a long list of
credits doesn't automatically translate into an ability to
teach. Often, professional writers can't articulate why and
how they do what they do. They see the process of creativity
as something mysterious and ultimately impenetrable. These
sort of instructors can tell when a student's poem or story
isn't working, but they have difficulty suggesting specific
The workshop method is still the primary technique used
in creative writing courses, and this means that the success
of a particular class depends heavily on the students involved,
perhaps even more so than on the instructor him or herself.
Students don't come to creative writing classes automatically
skilled at giving feedback. They need to be trained. I've
had students tell me that since creative writing is supposed
to be completely free-form expression (or so they believe)
no one can possibly criticize someone else's work. It's all
creative and therefore equally valid. If students aren't taught
how to effectively critique one another's work, several varieties
of bad, even damaging feedback can occur.
A good creative writing class should be a supportive environment,
but taken to extremes, this can result in a class where every
story and poem is great and wonderful, and nothing ever needs
to be revised. These mutual admiration societies might be
warm and fuzzy, but they do nothing whatsoever to help a writer
The other extreme is when all a class does is point out
flaws, sometimes quite bluntly and harshly. Classes like this,
where students struggle to outdo one another in ripping each
other's work to shreds, aren't just unpleasant experiences,
they can be downright poisonous.
Then there are critiques which are too nitpicky, leading
to a half-hour debate on whether or not someone should have
used a comma or a period to end a certain line of poetry.
And given that the class contains creative people, it's no
surprise that there are critiques which focus not on how you
can improve your work, but rather on how the responder would
take your idea and write a different story or poem (something
I was guilty of back in my college days).
Critics of the workshop technique argue that student feedback
leads to group think, to writing by committee, and that it
produces generic, bloodless work. You're better off, they
say, staying home and writing on your own.
I currently have one student who, despite my urgings, has
continually revised the first chapter of her young adult novel
after receiving feedback from myself and the class, as well
as editors and agents at a writing conference. And each time
the writing becomes more labored and less interesting. She's
trying to incorporate every suggestion and forgetting what
it is that she wants to say. It's not uncommon at all to have
individual students with this tendency, but an instructor
has to be careful not to allow the workshop process to take
over the class so completely that all people are doing is
washing garbage instead of moving on to the next story, the
The final problem with workshopping is that some students
become addicted to it. They ultimately end up never finishing
pieces, perhaps never starting them in the first place. Giving
and getting feedback has become their primary creative outlet.
This can also happen with creative writing instructors who've
taught for a while. The result is a class full of people who
don't actually do anything except provide feedback on drafts
that will never be anything but drafts.
The final problem with creative writing classes comes from
how they are evaluated. Properly, such classes should be graded
on a pass/fail basis. If you meet the course requirements
-- completed all assignments, participated in feedback sessions,
demonstrated improvement -- you pass. However, some classes,
usually due to school policy, are graded A through F. But
creative writing is difficult to evaluate in this fashion.
Assigning a grade of D (poor) or F (failure) isn't too tough,
but just how does one rank a story or poem objectively as
excellent, good or fair (A, B or C)? In the professional world,
critics can't always agree on a work's merits, so how can
a single set of faculty at one school arrive at a codified
set of guidelines for determining the quality of student work?
The answer is they can't, and grading is often left up to
the subjective tastes of the individual instructor. Work is
deemed excellent -- or good or average -- for no other reason
than because the instructor says it is. If you don't care
about grades, then this doesn't matter. But if you do care
about them (and most students do), then this can create a
class where students try to figure out what the instructor
thinks an A story or poem is, and then attempt to write such
a story solely to get the grade. You can argue that this situation
approximates writing for a specific audience's tastes, and
therefore might be a valuable learning experience in and of
itself. But such a situation discourages students from experimenting
and self-exploration, both vital aspects of education.
After all that, you might well be wondering why anyone in
his or her right mind would ever think about taking a creative
writing class. But despite the potential pitfalls, there are
still plenty of good reasons to enroll, because when a creative
writing class is conducted properly, it can be an extremely
effective learning experience.
If the instructor is a working professional -- someone who
consistently writes and publishes -- students can gain a great
deal. The workshop method is partially based on the apprentice
model, and apprenticeship has been one of the primary methods
our race has used to pass on knowledge throughout history.
Together, a skilled master and an eager, willing apprentice
can work educational wonders.
The guidance students receive from an experienced writer-teacher
can be invaluable. And this guidance isn't limited to feedback
on written work. It can take the form of advice on publishing,
networking and marketing. Often, professional writers are
able to use their contacts to help advanced students who are
ready to begin publishing.
The feedback from fellow students who've been trained to
respond properly to each others work can also be quite
helpful. Several years ago, a fellow instructor of mine decided
to audit my creative writing class in order to get feedback
on his poetry. He came incognito, and it wasn't until the
end of the course that the other students had any idea he
was an instructor. So many people write in isolation that
having a group of like-minded individuals to share their work
with is a godsend.
Are you someone who's always wanted to write -- or used
to -- but aren't able to any more because between work, family
and the house you just can't find the time? A creative writing
class can provide you with a structured environment and make
you write. Youll have specific deadlines to meet and
by the time the class is over, you should have several polished
pieces ready to send out. So crunched for time that you can't
make regular class meetings? Many schools now offer creative
writing courses online. Assignments are e-mailed to instructors
and fellow students for feedback and classes sometimes meet
virtually in chat rooms for lecture or Q&A. You'll miss
out on some of the intangibles of face-to-face feedback, and
you probably won't have the same sense of community as you
would in a physical classroom, but for many busy students,
online courses are proving to be effective alternatives to
the traditional classroom experience.
If you're already a professional writer, you can still benefit
from creative writing classes.
A class can be a good way for you to stretch your creative
muscles. Are you primarily a nonfiction writer? Then focus
on short stories or poetry. Even if you don't switch specialties
or pick up a second career, the creative techniques you learn
will make your nonfiction that much better.
Are you a fiction writer? Then concentrate on poetry. The
emphasis on economy and a heightened sense of language can
improve your stories on a sentence level, and the focus on
communicating profound experience can give your fiction more
Are you a poet? Try creative nonfiction or fiction. Both
can provide opportunities for a broader exploration of experience
and meaning, plus the narrative techniques you'll learn can
be plugged right back into your poetry, giving you a greater
range of literary tools to draw on.
The workshop setting can also expose working professionals
to other ways of approaching and solving writing problems.
Too often writers become set in their ways, used to working
with a limited number of well-used (and well-worn) techniques.
Beginning writers haven't had a chance to settle into creative
ruts yet, and they come up with all sorts of interesting (to
say the least!) ways of telling their stories. It's this fresh
perspective that can energize a world-weary (and perhaps word-weary)
Suffering from writer's block? A creative writing class
could be just the thing to help you break through it. The
deadlines, along with feedback and encouragement from others,
might well be just the thing to get you going again.
Ever thought about teaching or conducting workshops? There's
an old saying that the best way to learn something is to teach
it. The opposite also holds true: one of the best ways to
learn how to teach a thing is to first be a student of it.
Take a creative writing class and pay attention to how the
instructor teaches. You can pick up a wealth of information
on various teaching techniques and exercises (which you can
swipe for your own classes), but it can also teach you about
classroom management, and how to effectively -- and often
tactfully -- give feedback to students. Plus, your instructor
can become a resource for you to consult when you start teaching
your own classes.
So what should you look for in a creative writing class?
How can you tell a good one from a bad one?
First, check out the instructor's credentials, both publishing
and teaching experience. Ask for a bibliography of the instructors
work and try to read some of it before signing up for the
class. If the instructor is a published author, has had at
least some teaching experience, and you like what you read,
then it's time to take the next step.
Meet with the instructor if you can, or speak with him or
her on the phone. Ask to see a sample syllabus for the course
and the textbooks, if any. Find out what sort of methods the
instructor uses to teach creative writing and what sort of
goals the instructor has set for the course. Find out what
you should get out of the course -- what sort of knowledge
and skills -- by the time it's over. During this conversation,
ask about the instructor's writing and teaching philosophy,
and try to get a sense of your prospective teacher as a person.
Is this someone who you think you could work with and learn
from? Someone you can see apprenticing yourself to for the
next several weeks?
And if you're a working writer yourself, find out whether
the instructor is going to feel threatened by having you in
the class. Some teachers -- especially if they've had little
training or limited experience -- might not be able to handle
what they see as a challenge to their expertise and authority.
And you definitely don't want to spend a semester locking
horns with your instructor in order to determine who's the
alpha-writer. As with anything in life, there are no guarantees.
The creative writing course you sign up for might turn out
to be a frustrating waste of time or it could be one of the
best educational experiences of your life. But if you take
care in selecting the right course and instructor, youll
have done a great deal to ensure that the creative writing
class you take will be the best one for you.