“Teaching” Fiction – A Critical Essay

February 16, 2014

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If there are no rules in writing, then what is the purpose of the workshop?

Ever since Creative Writing Workshops started, there have been skeptics. People have asked: Is creativity something that can be taught? What about talent? Isn’t writing, after all, subjective? Do workshops really work? I have sat through seven years of Creative Writing workshops: first on the undergraduate level at Princeton, then during my MFA at UNC Wilmington, where I attended both graduate workshops and taught undergraduate ones. And I have learned a lot, but not in the ways I expected.

MFA programs get a lot of flack for turning out homogenized writers. But, in my experience, the best workshops do the very opposite: they encourage individuality. They recognize each writer’s unique aesthetic, and they teach the writer how to develop that aesthetic to its fullest potential. Workshops are classes in a creative art, so of course the question arises: How do you teach the rules of fiction to students and at the same time convey that there are no rules in fiction? This is an old question. Many writers have addressed it. But, while I enjoyed all my workshops, I don’t feel like every class I participated in had the answer entirely figured out. There was no consensus.

The best writing workshops are not prescriptive. You can’t teach anyone to have ideas. You can’t give someone a perspective or a voice. You can only teach students different ways to express themselves. Writing is fueled by a desire to speak, and everyone has something different to say. Most workshops begin with the basics of fiction: the Freytag, character, setting, point-of-view. This is a good place to start. Everyone should know how to write a “traditional” story. Many students will write nothing but traditional stories, and that’s great. But, after one semester, the basics have been covered. With Creative Writing education expanding far beyond the introductory realm, it’s worthwhile to ask, again, what the workshop should be teaching. Just as important as learning the rules of fiction is knowing that they are not absolutes, that literature can evolve beyond them.

While I was earning my MFA, I taught a semester-long Introduction to Fiction class to undergraduates. We learned the elements of fiction. We went over mechanics and grammar, and mapped out stories based on their traditional structures. But I also brought in cookbooks and had students write stories in the form of recipes, just so that they would know that there were other options. I encouraged all of my students to write a traditional story first, though I did not require them to do so. Some people would say that everyone should have a command of the basics first. And most students did write traditional stories. But I found that the stories students wrote based on their natural inclinations were always outstanding, traditional or not. My students turned out stories in the form of letters with textbook narrative arcs, but no scenes; stories that took after lyric essays, focusing not on plot but on theme; tales from the point-of-view of inanimate objects.  The first thing I emphasized was that fiction comes from excitement. You have to write about what interests you, you must follow your own tastes and obsessions, to write well. Of course, I am by no means the first writer to say this. Our craft book for the class was The Art of Fiction, and John Gardner emphasizes the importance of individual aesthetic and the danger of fictional rules. In the first chapter, he writes: “When one begins to be persuaded that certain things must never be done in fiction and certain other things must always be done, one has entered the first stage of aesthetic arthritis, the disease that ends up in pedantic rigidity and the atrophy of intuition.” I believe that every writer should read this book.

Almost everyone I know from my MFA program has at one point complained of what Gardner calls “aesthetic arthritis.” They write a sentence, then they think about what their workshop would say about that sentence, then they delete the sentence. The very worst workshops I experienced were paralyzing. They made me question not only my approach, but my initial idea: why had I been so pumped about my story in the first place? The worst workshops function like quizzes: what single element is this story missing? The best function like family dinners. They are collaborations.

After all, at the very heart of the writing workshop is discussion. A student submits a work of fiction, and everyone in the class shares their opinions on it. That’s the workshop model. The point is to be exposed to vantage points other than your own. Workshops teach students how to critique fiction. This critical knowledge, in turn, strengthens each student’s own writing. After all, writing is about thinking. Writing is about creating. Discussions build these muscles. The idea is that writers will emerge from workshop with a strengthened sense of their own unique voice and style, and how they want to express it. The best workshops I experienced made me realize things I had not noticed about my own ideas; they made me see gaps in my writing and possibilities I would never have thought of myself. They made me excited to write.

Writing is intellectual, sure. You could study fiction writing all your life. But, at the same time, creativity is primal. It comes from the place in your head before you consider what your workshop will say when your story has no denouement, or is written from the point-of-view of a cereal box, or is all dialogue. The beginnings of stories are sparks. They are magic. They are tiny seeds of ideas. The workshop helps the author figure out how to turn them into the best stories. The workshop should champion this initial excitement: this incredible, unteachable thing.

By Sadye Teiser


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