Power and Identity In the Creative Writing Classroom remaps theories and practices for teaching creative writing at university and college level. This collection critiques well-established approaches for teaching creative writing in all genres and builds a comprehensive and adaptable pedagogy based on issues of authority, power, and identity. A long-needed reflection, this book shapes creative writing pedagogy for the 21st century.
About the Author
Anna Leahy is Associate Professor of English, Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing, and Director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity at Chapman University, USA. She has published widely on creative writing pedagogy, as well as creative non-fiction and poetry. She is the editor of TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics.
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Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom
The Authority Project
By Anna Leahy
Multilingual MattersCopyright © 2005 Anna Leahy
All rights reserved.
Personal Therapeutic Writing vs. Literary Writing
Lately, I can't help but notice the relationship between writing and psychotherapy in American popular culture – it's everywhere. Take, for instance, Moulin Rouge, a recent film musical that is a wacky postmodern version of the back stage musicals of the 1930s, a la Busby Berkely and Ruby Keeler. The film opens with Christian, a young writer played by Ewan McGregor, weeping over his typewriter. He is about to write the story of his true love, a dancer named Satine (played by Nicole Kidman), whose untimely death has left him utterly grief stricken. The story unfolds as Christian writes of their meeting and falling in love, of the obstacles they faced together, and ultimately of Satine's death. When the film returns to this frame at its close, Christian's grief has been transformed into a bittersweetness. The film implies that, for Christian, writing his story has been a kind of solitary talking cure. He has gotten his grief off his chest, and now he can begin to move on with his life.
Another example of this popular connection between writing and psychotherapy is HBO's thirty-something-single-girl-sex-comedy Sex in the City. Carrie, the main character, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, writes a newspaper column about the sexual trials and tribulations of Manhattan party girls. The column, which is used to structure each episode around a particular topic or question ('Are all men freaks?' Carrie asks in one episode), provides a way for Carrie to sort out her boyfriend troubles, examine her life's goals and choices, and evaluate her feelings about various sexual-political issues. Carrie's column (and the show) is a kind of diary – a place where Carrie can work through difficult times and personal problems.
The idea that writing is primarily a means of self-expression, as opposed to a craft or a creative discipline, has been widely held by members of my classes and, for a variety of reasons, it has created challenges for me as a teacher. Not the least of these challenges has been to my authority in the classroom, as both a teacher and a writer. Because I promote writing as a matter of craft and skill with language and because I challenge the idea that writing is primarily a means of exploring one's psyche, I find myself in conflict with popular images and with the vast marketplace of goods that support that very idea.
As a young woman teaching writing in academic and non-academic environments, I've faced various challenges to my authority. I've had students suggest that, because I am younger than they are, I am not qualified to teach them. I've even had a student physically intimidate me. Those challenges to my authority were difficult to address, but I always felt that I could prove myself and refuse to be intimidated simply by doing a good job teaching the course. The challenges to my authority that I've faced as a result of the popular relationship between writing and self-discovery have been significantly more difficult to overcome. The marketing of this idea has been so convincing, and the commodification of the artistic process so undermines the reality of that process, that I sometimes have found it nearly impossible to have meaningful classroom interactions with students heavily invested in the popular mythologies dealing with writing and creativity.
I do not disagree or take issue with the idea that writing can help one work through difficult personal problems, or even with the idea that good literary writing can rise out of exploratory personal writing. Articles with titles like 'Expressive Writing and Coping with Job Loss,' 'Prison Poetry: A Medium for Growth and Change,' 'Postmodernism, Spirituality, and the Creative Writing Process: Implications for Social Work Practice,' and 'Establishing a Creative Writing Program as an Adjunct to Vocational Therapy in a Community Setting' indicate that writing can indeed have a positive therapeutic effect for the writer. There is even a periodical entitled The Journal of Poetry Therapy, devoted to the discussion of a therapeutic writing method. Clearly, writing is a great way for many to deal with difficulties in their lives and gain helpful insight into their emotions and experiences.
Private journal and diary writing, however, differs dramatically from literary writing. While I am glad that many find comfort and insight through the writing process, solace and self-discovery cannot be the goals of a productive literary creative writing workshop, which has become the dominant classroom teaching practice for creative writing in the United States. Generally, private writing is an end in itself. In other words, if consolation is one's goal, and the process of writing produces a feeling of consolation, the written product is somewhat beside the point; its quality as literature, at least, is really not at issue.
By contrast, the work of a literary writing workshop – where participants share work with the group, then listen silently as group members discuss the merits and weaknesses of the piece, and then revise the written product – even one that pays close attention to process, takes as its goal the production of literary writing. Therefore, the class must concentrate not primarily on the writer's feelings, but on craft, style, narrative conventions, and other elements of writing for an audience. The public writing produced in workshops can begin where private writing leaves off, but often work that begins in a private journal must be heavily revised or even wholly transformed before an audience can participate in it as public, literary writing.
In general, the workshop method emphasizes the role of revision in good writing largely by assuming that participants are still actively working on the pieces they present to the group. A workshop assumes that writers will consider, and perhaps incorporate, criticism and comments from their peers as they write, rewrite, work, and rework a piece; otherwise, what would be the point of hearing the feedback? Though, to first-time workshop students, it often seems that listening to criticism is the hardest part of a workshop, those who are serious about writing learn that revising is the really hard and invigorating part. Stepping back into a piece one has already spent a great deal of time on, cutting lines or paragraphs or even pages, restructuring major portions of a piece – these are often the most difficult parts of the writing process. So, the role of revision is one of the central differences between the private and public writing processes.
If students in my classes have been reluctant to recognize the differences between private and public writing, it is hardly their fault. In recent years, a tremendous commercialization of the act of writing and of the writing process has occurred. Many media forums, bookstores, and publishers have promoted writing as a means of psychological cure in various ways.
The Oprah Winfrey Show has been particularly successful in marketing this idea. Writing, as it figures in the world of Oprah, consists mainly of private journal writing exercises such as gratitude journals, which were made popular by the book Simple Abundance, in which viewers are encouraged to note five things each day for which they are grateful. On the show's website, viewers can create their own personal journals to explore their day-to-day experiences. In the online journal of the 'Your Spirit' section of the web page, Oprah notes, 'Keeping a journal will absolutely change your life in ways you've never imagined.' Even Oprah's Book Club invites readers/viewers to write to the show telling about their personal experiences with the book at hand. Moreover, selected books are primarily discussed and valued not as literary art, but as tools by which the reader might pursue self-discovery.
Discussions of journaling as a path to healing often include a pitch for one of a number of guidebooks to help one journal more effectively. Popular images of writing as a kind of therapy are well supported in book stores by these diary and journal writing guide books and by blank writing journals that encourage writing as a means of soul searching through the inclusion of writing prompts and inspirational quotes (one can easily imagine a blank book with a still image from Moulin Rouge or a photo of Oprah or the stars of Sex in the City on the cover).
A veritable industry has been built around one self-help writing guide, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (1992). The Artist's Way, Cameron states in the book's introduction, 'is, in essence, a spiritual path, initiated and practiced through creativity' (p. xi). The book outlines a process by which artists might '[create] pathways in [their] consciousness[es] through which creative forces can operate' (p. xiii). Each of the 12 chapters is devoted to another step in the process; if you are reminded of 12-step programs, there is a reason: Cameron, a recovering alcoholic, refers to The Artist's Way as a 'do-it-yourself recovery' (p. xvi). This creative process has become so popular that Cameron has published a variety of spin-off books and journals, including The Artist's Way Morning Pages Journal, The Artist's Way at Work, The Vein of Gold, The Artist's Way Date Book, Reflections on the Artist's Way, Inspirations: Meditations from the Artist's Way, The Right to Write, and The Artist's Way Creativity Kit.
The popularity of this kind of guide can be understood to mean that many people feel compelled to write and are in search of some kind of permission to do so. The pages of The Artist's Way are rich with quotations intended to offer permission: 'Saying no can be the ultimate self-care,' Claudia Black (p. 164); 'In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,' Albert Einstein (p. 165). Additionally, the popularity of such books lends further support to the psychological benefits of writing. Many of the exercises suggested in the 'Tasks' sections of each chapter are, in fact, about self-improvement more than they are about writing. One task during Week 2 reads, 'List ten changes you'd like to make for yourself, from the significant to the small ... (get new sheets, go to China, paint my kitchen, dump my bitch friend Alice)' (p. 58); tasks for Week 10 include 'Make a quick list of things you love, happiness touchstones for you. River rocks worn smooth, willow trees, cornflowers ...' (p. 175).
My own teaching employs some methods that are at least theoretically similar to these: I am a teacher who starts each class by reading and discussing published works I hope will help my students grant themselves permission to take risks in their writing, and I often use writing exercises to help students explore stories, characters, and the writing process. But The Artist's Way and other writing-as-self-exploration tools fail to mention many steps in the writing process that might help to propel personal writing into public writing. Revision, for example, does not appear as a step in the Artist's Way process nor even as a term in its index. By contrast, poet Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town (1979), an older, less commercial, and more academic book about writing, one that guides those interested in producing literary writing for an audience, includes a chapter entitled 'Nuts and Bolts' that is almost entirely dedicated to practical tips for revising one's work. Hugo's warning that one should 'never want to say anything so strongly that you give up the option of finding something better' (p. 38) clearly has little in common with Cameron's view of the writing process.
The Artist's Way and similar books blur the differences and distinctions between personal or private writing and writing which is intended for an audience. Students who uncritically absorb the popularized lesson that the goals of creativity and writing are insight and self-expression are often ill equipped to deal with the constructive criticism at the center of workshops. These students expect a writing workshop to mimic the kinds of discussions they've viewed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where everyone's contribution is equally praised.
As a workshop instructor in both academic and nontraditional educational environments, I have tried to embrace my students' enthusiasms about writing in whatever form they show themselves. The idea that writing is therapy, however, is so counter to a productive workshop that I have taken issue with it often and early in my classes. When I've confronted and disputed this idea, though, I've been faced with challenges to my authority as a writer and as a teacher that, on occasion, have brought the class to a stand-still.
In workshops that I've taught in a nontraditional setting, there has often been a class period that goes something like this: a student reads a short piece of private writing to the class, and I point out some good things about the piece, talk about how it might be revised to be made more accessible to an audience and how it might evolve into something other than a personal diary entry. 'Good writing,' I say, 'is about language and craft. It is not merely about self expression.' Inevitably, the students look at me, some in disbelief. 'If this is rude, then I'm sorry,' a student once said, 'but you're wrong about that.' Others nodded in agreement. In academic workshops, these student attitudes are often suggested less overtly but underlie many comments.
The discussion that follows this sort of classroom exchange, while in some ways productive, is often extremely difficult. I talk about the expectations of an audience, and the ways in which writers address or complicate those expectations. I quote William Stafford (1978: 12): 'A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way'. I quote Richard Hugo (1979: 6): 'The words should not serve the subject. The subject should serve the words'. I talk about ways we evaluate good writing and remind students that the writer's experience writing a piece doesn't necessarily have direct relationship to the reader's experience reading or judging it as literature. I quote Hugo (1979: 10) again: 'Get off the subject and write the poem'. 'Does it matter,' I ask, 'if the writer worked through his feelings about a personal matter?' I answer my own question quickly, 'No. What matters is how well the writer crafted her sentences, how she's created her characters, and how I, as a reader, am able to participate in the piece.'
Some students seem amazed that I, the writing teacher, could be so ignorant about writing. Students in both academic and community settings often voice their disagreement:
'The reader can get what ever he or she wants from a piece of writing.'
'If the writer has grown by writing something, the reader will know it.'
'When someone tells about his emotions, the reader can see himself in the writing.'
'Honesty about your feelings is the most important thing in writing.'
'If you aren't writing about your true emotions, what's the point?'
Occasionally, such conversations become somewhat combative, as students argue that writing is primarily about the experience of the writer, that self-expression is an important goal of any kind of creativity.
During one class, very near the end of the class meeting, one student interrupted me as I was talking about my own love of language and how that that is a driving force in my own writing. 'What?' he said loudly, 'You don't express yourself in your writing?' I was left feeling certain that his final rhetorical question had been a significant blow to my authority in the classroom.
Excerpted from Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom by Anna Leahy. Copyright © 2005 Anna Leahy. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Anna Leahy,
Part 1: Understanding the Larger Influences,
1 Personal Therapeutic Writing vs. Literary Writing Nancy Kuhl,
2 Who Cares – and How: The Value and Cost of Nurturing Anna Leahy,
3 Inspiration, Creativity, and Crisis: The Romantic Myth of the Writer Meets the Contemporary Classroom Brent Royster,
4 Reinventing Writing Classrooms: The Combination of Creating and Composing Evie Yoder Miller,
5 The Double Bind and Stumbling Blocks: A Case Study as an Argument for Authority-conscious Pedagogy Carl Vandermeulen,
Part 2: The Teacher's Place, Voice, and Style,
6 Teaching and Evaluation: Why Bother? Mary Cantrell,
7 Who's the Teacher?: From Student to Mentor Audrey Petty,
8 The Pregnant Muse: Assumptions, Authority, and Accessibility Rachel Hall,
9 Dismantling Authority: Teaching What We Do Not Know Katharine Haake,
Part 3: Course Design,
10 Contracts, Radical Revision, Portfolios, and the Risks of Writing Wendy Bishop,
11 An 'A' for Effort: How Grading Policies Shape Courses Suzanne Greenberg,
12 Gender and Authorship: How Assumptions Shape Perceptions and Pedagogies Susan Hubbard,
13 Writing the Community: Service Learning in Creative Writing Argie Manolis,
Part 4: In the Classroom,
14 Where Do You Want Me To Sit?: Defining Authority through Metaphor Cathy Day,
15 Duck, Duck, Turkey: Using Encouragement To Structure Workshop Assignments Mary Swander,
16 How To Avoid Workshop Dilemmas: The Use of Myth To Teach Writerly Concepts Amy Sage Webb,
17 Writing in the Shadows: Topics, Models, and Audiences that Focus on Language Sandy Feinstein,
Afterword The Reason It Is; the Rhyme It Isn't Graeme Harper and Stephanie Vanderslice,
About the Authors,