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 for.

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 writing class.

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 at all.

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 revision strategies.

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 grow.

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 next poem.

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 other’s 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. You’ll 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 depth.

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) pro.

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 instructor’s 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, you’ll have done a great deal to ensure that the creative writing class you take will be the best one for you.