Sunday, March 1, 2009

Back to the Basics

This semester, I’ve been given the honor of teaching Introduction to Creative Writing – Fiction, a class that grad students in my program aren’t usually allowed to teach. I should add that my being offered to teach this class was largely based on luck, a right time right place sort of thing.

Already in the first half of the semester I’ve gained so much from teaching this class that I now firmly believe that teaching creative writing should be a requirement of all MFA programs. Not only is it much easier to teach than academic writing (and I actually believe that the regulations on who is allowed to teach academic writing should be much tighter, at least at my university – come on, these classes are essential for these students’ future success in college and a lot of TAs don’t take it seriously at all, but I digress) but you also learn A LOT as a writer from being on the other side of the desk. After all, the best way to learn is to teach.

I’m sure my teaching experiences will be a frequent subject in my blogs for the next few months because there are numerous interesting and useful things that I have learned (and probably will continue to learn) by teaching creative writing. Perhaps the best place to start – and probably the most useful thing I’ve gained so far – is how useful it’s been to go back and revisit the basics.

That’s right. The basics. Working from an introductory level textbook that focuses on the fundamentals – plot and conflict, tension and resolution, revising and re-imagining – I’ve been reading about things that I haven’t thought about in years – since I was an introductory student, myself, and it’s funny how much some of this stuff has sort of slipped into the back of my mind as I’ve been taking more advanced workshops and forms classes.

I had an epiphanic moment (that’s right, epiphanies do happen in real life) when I was doing the reading and planning my lesson a few classes ago. There’s a story that I’ve been working on recently where I was focusing all my attention on exploring certain themes and working out the main character’s voice. Since all my attention was going into some more advanced techniques I was working with, I inadvertently allowed a sort of basic, beginner level mistake to seep into the writing. The reading that I had assigned for my class addressed the very same mistake, laid out in concrete terms why this doesn’t work, and talked about some alternative techniques that can be used instead to greater effect.

At first I felt like an idiot. Here I was teaching creative writing and here was this stupid mistake that I myself made in a recent story. I finished planning my lesson and then went back and revised my story. Even though when I wove the problematic technique into the story I had very specific reasons for doing it, the story is better off without it. As with most experimental writing (in my opinion), it was a cheap and easy way to try to get at the character’s voice when it’s actually much better – much more difficult to write and therefore more rewarding to read – if I get at the character’s voice through more traditional methods.

Going back to the basics is something that I think many MFA writers could benefit from. The textbook includes what has probably become my new favorite writer-on-writing quote. Flannery O’Connor said that as a writer, “you can do anything that you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” While many of us like to believe that it’s only by breaking the rules that you can achieve genius, I think the rules are there for a reason and while now and then breaking or bending one or two of them doesn’t hurt, totally abandoning the basics by the wayside is really just sort of arrogant and pretentious, and it isn’t likely to impress more than a handful of arrogant and pretentious readers.

So I’m excited to be taking a refresher course at the introductory level – by teaching it. Already my writing has dramatically improved by going back and restudying some of these things that I learned so long ago.

1 comment:

Justus said...

So what was the basic mistake you were making?