Cup of Dcaf: The Value of Creative Writing Classes

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Earlier today, I stumbled across this article from Hannah Jane Parkinson at the Guardian. In it, she talks about her experience with creative writing classes and workshops, and whether or not she agrees that they’re a “waste of time.”

The verdict: yeah, she thinks they’re pretty much a waste of time.

Now, like Parkinson, I spent four years and a sizable amount of money getting a degree in creative writing. But I think I had a slightly different experience from what she writes about.

So, the question is: do I think creative writing classes are a waste? Did I throw away thousands of dollars on a degree that, Parkinson thinks, I could have learned by myself?

The short answer is no, I don’t think it was a waste. But of course there’s more to it than just that. And I should give a warning: there’s a bit of a lengthy rant coming up.

In my four years of undergrad in Colorado State University’s creative writing program, I took five workshop classes. The way the degree is laid out means that there are three levels of requisite creative writing workshops and one mandatory poetry class—regardless of whether or not you choose poetry as your concentration for the three levels of workshops.

(I took the advanced workshop twice, the second time as an elective with a different professor.)

At the beginning workshop level, anyone can enroll in the class. It’s a universal class, with half the semester spent on prose and half on poetry. Most of these workshops are taught by graduate students.

At the intermediate level, though, things start to narrow down. You choose a concentration (fiction, poetry, or nonfiction), and you must have achieved a C or better in the beginner workshop to enroll. The intermediate workshops are mostly taught by adjunct professors.

At the advanced level, tenured professors take over. Students can’t get in unless they achieved a B or better in the intermediate workshop. On the surface, this is a truly advanced workshop. Only the most competent and dedicated writing students get in…

…except that’s not even close to how it worked.

In the two advanced workshops I took, a good half of the students couldn’t construct coherent sentences—much less write a complete short story. It was a year of frustration in workshops, as I found myself spending hours fixing typos and muddling through awkwardly worded sentences before I could understand what was actually going on in many of the stories.

“The other thing that impacts massively on the success of a course (any course) is the tutor and peer group. A key problem for a writing course is this: what if you read your tutor’s writing and decide you really don’t like it? Worse, that you think it’s bad? Then what? And what if you find yourself in a group with people whose writing is incredibly dull to you? You still have to dedicate hours of your time to their work, when the selfish truth is that you’re better off focusing on yours.”

I realize this may sound elitist, but look: I was spending thousands of dollars to waste hours of my time reading and critiquing fiction written by people who probably shouldn’t have passed high school English. When students in 400-level writing classes can’t differentiate between “there” and “their” or can’t stay in the one tense for the space of a paragraph, there’s a problem.

I always tried to give honest feedback, both positive and negative, where I saw it. But it was rarely received well.

The other problem was that many of the students simply and clearly didn’t write. They would only write stories when the class forced them to. On a couple occasions, students with whom I’d share a previous workshop tried to submit a stories they used the semester before—unrevised after ignoring any feedback from that previous workshop—when their critique dates came along.

“But I don’t think wanting to write matters; all that matters is writing.”

Now, of course, that wasn’t universal. There were always a few students who cared about writing, who worked hard, and who gave valuable feedback in workshop. But those were few and far between.

So, in that sense, the actual workshop part of the creative program really didn’t give me anything of value. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything by reading other stories, and most of the feedback I got was, to put it bluntly, either completely beside the point or “retaliation” for my own criticism of their stories.

The impression that I got from a lot of the workshops, at all three levels, was that many of the students weren’t really there to learn. They came to class with stories they’d already written (often years before), and were looking to hear how good the stories were.

Many just wanted validation, not criticism. Instead of wanting to hear about how the intro could have been paced better, they wanted to hear about how unique their character was. Instead of a critique on how they could have dug deeper into the character’s motivations, they wanted to get glowing praise of the neat twist at the end.

Stuff like that.

BUT.

I stuck it out. I could have switched to a general writing major, or journalism, or marketing. But I didn’t, and that’s because I did get value out of those classes.

That value came from the professors. I took full advantage of office hours, I wrote as much new material as I could, and I actively sought one-on-one feedback.

Not only that, but it was the professors who always pushed me, challenged me, and encouraged me. I can say with 100% honesty that I wouldn’t have two published short stories if it weren’t for one of my professors.

So, do I think that I wasted my time with my creative writing degree? No. Do I think that large parts of it were frustrating and worthless? Absolutely.

But in the end, I’m a better writer for having gone through those classes. I not only improved my writing—mostly through one-on-one mentoring from professors—but I learned how to approach reading with a critical eye, and apply that same criticism to my own work.

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