The Pedagogy of Possibility

Yes, creative writing can be taught.

The Pedagogy of Possibility

Let me begin with this: I believe creative writing can be taught — and by extension, learned. When folks implicitly or explicitly suggest otherwise, I tend to think they want to winnow the field of rivals or project their disillusionment so as to feel less alone. Or maybe they’ve simply internalized a metaphor of the “born genius” that comforts them.

I don’t believe such talk comes from malice but from weariness. But I do believe in the pedagogy of creative writing and seek to think through its efficacy, its metrics, and its joys.

Often, it feels like the discourse around creative-writing education is focused on harm reduction — and rightfully so, as there are many anecdotes and documented cases of the whole spectrum of shenanigans, crimes, and cringe-worthy missteps. Every thoughtful teacher is still capable of making mistakes.

But I find less and less any discussion about what works well or what excellent creative-writing teaching looks like. Perhaps this is a result of the acknowledgement of multiplicity in effective strategies. “There isn’t one right way,” a person might opine, but how often are folks who already clear the doing-no-harm bar actually advocating for a “one right way”?

What often happens, though, is that the sentiment gets conflated with the notion that creative-writing teachers can’t demonstrate expertise because of their own subjectivities, as if they were incapable of showing students options that might work for new writers.

If a person says, “There isn’t one right way,” but really means, “Don’t tell me what to do,” then perhaps there’s a different conversation at play. Namely, if someone DOES NOT believe creative writing can be taught, so much effort is wasted talking around the penumbra of issues connected to that shadowed notion.

Let me acknowledge two misconceptions I perceive after more than a decade in the creative-writing classroom:

  1. Creative-writing education cannot teach certitude about how to become a published author. I understand the desire and the impulse to want to know for sure the steps to success. After all, everyone wonders, “Am I doing this correctly?” But there’s no advanced analytics — like in sports — that can calculate or predict writerly success. Furthermore, success, like authenticity, isn’t a stable molecule (I know I’m mixing metaphors, but bear with me). Still, the creative-writing classroom can teach a student how to navigate and develop the muscle of their imagination, how to bond covalently to new ideas, and how to disengage from ones that are no longer useful. It’s not about certainty but surprise — a penchant for surprise and joy.

  2. Creative writing doesn’t help one “find” a voice so much as expand the voice already present. Using the metaphor of “discovery” can inadvertently suggest a kind of lack (i.e., young writers don’t have a voice yet). This is almost never true. It would be more accurate if an editor said, “I can’t yet imagine how to sell this voice.” I favor the framing that one’s voice is always there — eternal, if you will — but is elastic and dynamic and therefore always expanding as a writer reads, lives, and thinks creatively.

Let me offer two ways I think creative-writing pedagogy is done well, with the understanding that this is nowhere near exhaustive:

  1. When the creative-writing teacher is open and honest about how they learned to be a better writer, it models options for students. Demystifying and decolonizing the mythos of genius are the way to release students from the underlying anxiety of, “Am I just not good enough?” (Or to quote “You Can Have It” by Philip Levine: “Am I gonna make it?”) The first step is for teachers not to perpetuate that mythos by shielding students from how they themselves learned or by carelessly dropping maxims that have been recycled a thousand times. “Just read more,” we say as teachers, but a student might rightly ask, “Read what? And how? And do what with that reading?” We should have answers to those questions before they’re asked. Moreover, we should’ve already modeled the possible answers by talking openly about how we learned. Creative writing isn’t a magic trick; there’s no need to hide how it’s done. Show student how you got from A to B, how you went from mediocre to interesting. Show them that it is possible. Make it an inch easier for them than it was for you.

  2. Students don’t need thicker skins or the armor of ego; they need guidance about how to negotiate feedback, how to stay curious about their own work, and how to let go of myopic internalized metaphors. One of the greatest kindnesses we can offer to students is our serious attention to their drafts in progress. But serious attention doesn’t require an evaluative position. “Art doesn’t need our judgment, it needs our attention,” one of my teachers, Kendra Kopelke, once said. In other words, whether the draft is good or bad, whether the student is talented or not, is wholly beside the point. What might the draft become? Where could it go? Help students decouple from a fixation on the end product and instead wade slowly into the vibrancy of the process. Teach them to love the process and you’ll give them the best bulwark against rejection.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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