Thursday, July 14, 2005

Can Writing Be Taught?

I had heard about Lynn Freed’s article “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag,” long before I managed to track down a copy of Harper’s July issue. The title was so provocative I knew it would raise a sh*t storm, and now cries of “foul,” are blasting in the blogosphere.

I know Freed vaguely as she is a perennial member of the faculty at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers workshop, which I have attended twice. She’s South African, very attractive, and aloof enough to be mysterious. I have a friend who adores her, and thinks her comments about writing are tough and penetrating. I have never read Freed’s work, although her novel, “The Mirror,” has been sitting on my shelf for two years.

The worst part about the Harper’s article is the title. It makes it seem like Freed hates teaching because she hates the students. In fact, Freed dislikes the classroom because of the time it takes away from her own writing. She gets so absorbed in teaching she has little room for creativity. The article is a sad confession of her own limitations.

Freed also doubts that writing can be taught in a workshop format because the hard work, the real work, must be done alone in front of the computer, not in a class of 12.

“How can one tell student writers, most of whom place their trust in the efficacy of group learning, that unless they can turn themselves into solitaries, driven to ride single-mindedly over all obstacles, all reverses, all failures and discouragements, taking what they need ruthlessly, discarding the rest - unless they can become what is, in fact, impossible to become because one must be born that way, talented or not - there is little to be gained by taking a writing workshop beyond a few years free to write, the blessing of imposed deadlines, and the company of other students?”

Another observation:

“to my mind, writing cannot be taught. That workshops can be dangerous . . . That unless the student plans to spend his life moving from workshop to workshop, he will need to be able to rely on his own ear. And that if he does move from workshop to workshop, he is doomed to lose his sense of hearing anyway."

Yet a lot of people are interpreting this article in the worst way, by assuming Freed is saying most students are talentless hacks. Here’s a parody of her piece.

Aspiring writers are insulted by the article because they think Freed is telling them that writing is an innate talent, one that cannot be learned. I think this has been disproved so often – even by Freed’s own experiences – that it’s not worth arguing over.


katia said...

Your comments are very helpful in thinking about the Freed piece. Thank you!

I found the Atlantic article by Ricky Moody much more insightful than Freed's--it gets at what is rotten about writing workshops:

Michelle said...

I could relate to Freed in some sense. As a teacher myself, teaching in two MFA programs in the Bay Area as well as teaching private classes, I find that teaching does take away from one's own writing, if you're a decent teacher. All of this energy that you'd like to spend on your own work goes to the work of your students, because you feel that you owe it to them. There are so few hours in a day, and when several of them go to teaching, it's very difficult to do your own writing. I've struggled with this for years, and most of the professors of creative writing I know have done the same.

But I thought the title was terribly offensive. To compare the relatively easy job of teaching creative writing (it's a lot easier than most jobs, in my opinion) to the Gulag is pretty self-involved.