An Essay on Risk Taking in the College Classroom and the Creative Writer’s Role in Fucking Shit Up*

An Introduction:

Freshman writers have particular trouble with two aspects of writing, for which creative writers have answers.  The first is revision.  Still many composition professors assess product rather than process, and therefore stress editing rather than revision.  Creative writers, because of the way we understand the writing process and practice it in creative writing workshops (ideally, anyway) bring fresh and refreshing attitudes to the issue of revision and the assessment of revision, especially where risk is rewarded.

This brings me to the second challenge of teaching freshman writers.  Creation, and therefore creative thinking, tops Bloom’s taxonomy.  Many learning outcomes confuse critical thinking for creative thinking (our institution is now having this argument), but creative writers know there is a difference.  According to AAC&U’s definition, creative thinking “is both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking.”  Creative writing, more than other disciplines, values and encourages innovation, divergent thinking and risk taking because it is this kind of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama which makes for the most enduring, satisfying and life-changing reading and writing experiences.  Our college’s mission includes the phrase “transforms lives.”  There are many ways to transform lives, but creative writers play a special role in preparing freshman students for that transformation.

 

Part I – On Revision:

The creative writer in me has always been uncomfortable assessing freshman writing. Mostly this is because of the artificial circumstances of the classroom. The old canard about Kafka’s stories being bashed in a creative writing workshop reveals legitimate anxieties. How will the strange, the inspired, and the truly weird and innovative writer fare in a college classroom? As it turns out, she fares fairly well. I’m confident that most of us, MFA and PhD alike, recognize those who are truly talented and do our best to encourage their individual, however idiosyncratic, development into mature writers. For these already formed, though immature writers, the process of writing is the process of coming to the understanding that indeed, I am a swan and not an ugly duckling. Here revision is about re-seeing what has always been there, and if we are lucky, we get to act as the mirror into which the would-be writer gazes and says, “Yes, I can do that.”

I remember when this happened for me. If you’re in this audience I bet you remember when this happened for you. I’ve always thought that Wordsworth’s line about the child being father to the man had more to do with poetic birth than actual birth, and therefore, it is the infant poet, who must father the adult full-fledged poet. To understand what I’m saying requires a closer look at what revision is and isn’t. If revision means, as the SUNY General Education requirements suggest, “improving texts,” than obviously, there will be no transformation, no second birth, no moment of recognition, when the would-be poet says, “Yes, I can do that.” Instead, a beginning writer edits an essay and aims, when she does, to make it better. There is no real risk in this. There is no experimentation. In fact, this way of looking at revision encourages a conservative approach to writing. When Pound said we should make it new, I doubt very much he had in mind the text only. Creative writers understand that good writing requires us to be willing anyway, not only to change the product, but we must also be willing the change the producer. Robert Bly, in his Little Book on the Shadow cites from another source, saying that there are certain books we should not read unless we are willing to change our lives. I would add that there are certain texts we should not begin to write or revise unless we are also willing to change our lives.

The real risk for a student, when she engages the writing process like this, is not that she won’t be able to improve her essay, then, but that she might come face to face with some fact of her life—and here life is a metonym—which must be faced and, when faced, accepted or changed. I’m put in mind now of that 12-step prayer that requires serenity, but I’m also put in mind of Keats’ definition of negative capability, where the writer doesn’t irritably reach after fact and reason. My mentor pointed out to me a long time ago now that the important word in that definition is irritably. As a writer, there is always reaching to do, but a good writer finds the serenity to take the necessary risks writing requires without freaking out. When freshman students—who shouldn’t be held to Keats’ standard—feel the anxiety that accompanies this kind of revision, their risks must be encouraged and rewarded. Creative writers will tell you that they have learned more from their failures than from their successes. Maybe this is because, for most of us, even the most successful of us, there have been far more of the former than the latter. A freshman writer who begins to see that the stakes of each writing assignment isn’t the grade she receives, but who instead develops the willingness to challenge former notions and misunderstandings is in a far better position to contemplate what Thoreau called the higher laws and what we have come to think of as the point of higher education beyond any talk of employment or job training. After all, aren’t these practices and habits of mind what potential employers really find attractive?

Every semester I find as many of these transformations happening or beginning to happen in my freshman composition class as I find happening in my creative writing workshops and sophomore lit classes. And because there is so much more potential for gain early in a college career, it’s probably true that the transformations I witness in freshman composition are that much more profound. The reason I got into teaching isn’t all that noble or heart warming. What else is a poet to do? But the reason I stayed and still stay has everything to do with this idea of revision. I’m equally happy when a student comes to me mid-semester and says he likes my class but he’s purchased a wood splitting business from his uncle and needs to focus on that. What poet could deny the experience, if it is genuine, that leads to that transformation? Ideally, it would be wonderful if the experience of first-year writing classes, what we’re calling “bread-and-butter” classes, led to all students being able to meet the challenges of higher education. But it’s been my experience that the things most worth having are those that cost us the most in labor and time and are, therefore, relatively rare.

 

Part II – On Creative Thinking:

Students often complain that they aren’t creative, but very few conclude that they can’t think or be critical. Only when they are required to write essays, which plainly propound—to steal Stevens’ phrase—a valid, interesting and nuanced argument do they begin to doubt the soundness of their judgment. This experience, of course, is a necessary one, where the student writer comes face to face with her own ignorance. The revision I sketch out above is impossible without this essential crisis. Until a student empties herself of the errors of the past, there is no room for a new way of thinking to enter and take hold. Creative writers, who can be as arrogant and blustery as any academic, temper pride with the understanding that good writing is good writing, and all the excuses one can imagine can’t persuade an audience to love what is ill-formed and poorly conceived. For the creative writer, the workshop (ideally, anyway) teaches us to rethink and, often, reimagine our original plans and devices. The risks we take don’t always pay off, but they cause that habit of mind, which the AAC&U’s definition calls creative thinking.

Besides, the beginning writer’s claim that she isn’t creative is more defense mechanism than fair appraisal and stems from her misunderstanding of what creation is. For her, creation is always creation ex nihilo. Only God creates something from nothing. Not me, she thinks. The creative writer who enters a creative writing workshop convinced that she must avoid the infection of influence to remain original soon learns that this formula leads instead to the exact opposite of what she intends. Original writing comes not from avoiding the world of ten thousand things, as the Chinese poets call it, but by combining and recombining the things of this world and our experience of them in new and startling ways. Coleridge says that poetry is “the seeing of similars in seeming dissimilars,” but when I explain this idea to my students I try to be less high-minded. Critical thinking takes apart. Creative thinking puts together. When a student’s conclusions feel estranged from the rest of her arguments, the usual problem is the failure of her imagination to make the necessary and sometimes apparent connections between her experiences and her utterances. With practice and encouragement, the student writer comes to understand that the soundness of judgment she seeks and which is necessary to good writing comes not just from analysis but also from a wholeness of mind useful beyond the writing of essays.

The advantage the creative writer has in aiding this change is simple. She occupies the world of the academic and the world of the professional writer, who still means to speak to a larger audience. Her approach then is practical and not theoretical. When students talk to me about the rules of writing, the answer is always the same: if it works, it works. They mean to engage me in a conversation about style and, ultimately, about grammar, but I’d rather engage them with the real problem of thinking. Even for us, thinking is difficult work, and largely the fruits of that labor only make, as Frost’s poem suggest, “all the difference.” The difference is only that I have concluded these things myself and haven’t been handed these conclusions without the work of testing and retesting them. Because I teach at a community college, this idea can at first seem very foreign and threatening. Students want to believe, for instance, that Frost’s poem is titled “The Road Less Traveled” instead of “The Road Not Taken.” The first is a poem they can swallow whole and leave undigested. The second requires much chewing.

The real risk our students must be introduced to, then, isn’t that they might change as the result of writing and revising, but that the difference can’t necessarily be measured in material successes. Most of us have dedicated our lives to a vocation, a calling, with the understanding that hard work and discipline aren’t enough. This is probably true in other professions, but it is certainly true of ours and, most importantly, it is true of life—and here life isn’t a metonym. I don’t think I could continue teaching bread-and-butter courses or otherwise, if I didn’t know that my job as teacher was exactly my job as writer, and that is, to bring my students closer to reality. One of the Institutional Learning Outcomes I fought for the hardest (beyond ethical reasoning and action) was aesthetic reasoning. The word aesthetic is the antonym of the word anesthetic. When Odysseus concludes life is pain, this is an aesthetic statement and comes from the putting together of experience and utterance. I don’t think that these conclusions are always painful ones, but if there is to be any potential for genuine happiness, for joy, then the potential for danger must be admitted. I take seriously the point McGurl makes in his book on the program era that the role of the creative writer in academia has always been to fuck shit up. Gardener’s point in “On Moral Fiction,” that the writer’s work is always moral in that particular way of beating back chaos forgets the ossification, which leads to another kind of death-in-life, which is equally immoral to witness and ignore.

I want to end with one last thought, which may seem an unnecessary digression, but I’ll risk it. However much the creative writer enjoys the teaching of bread-and-butter courses, the privilege of the creative writer in academia is a perilous and uncertain one. I recall reading in one of the lives of John Berryman that during his tenure at the University of Minnesota, where he taught for the humanities department (not the English department, but the humanities department), his colleagues began a movement to disassemble the humanities department and, consequently, threaten Berryman’s livelihood. By all accounts, Berryman was a dynamic and inspirational teacher. This was true whether he was teaching a creative writing workshop at Iowa, or his humanities courses on “Western Thought” at UM. Possessed with the craze for accreditation, the short sightedness of his colleagues at the university promised to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. The same threat now faces many of the MFAs who mean to teach at 2- and 4-year colleges and universities. Though the MFA is a terminal degree, most colleges aren’t equipped to make the distinction between scholarly and creative work, and therefore can’t distinguish between an MA and an MFA. This matters for promotion, but there is more at stake than whether instructor ex becomes assistant or associate professor ex. The real danger is that the creative writer has to do double the work. She must be both scholar and artist, when no such responsibility falls on the shoulders of PhDs. It is essential that, when hired to full-time tenured positions, the creative writer advocates for her brothers and sisters, and I would submit the best way to do this is by becoming involved in contract negotiations.

*This essay was written for and presented at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle, WA.  The panel was called Best-Kept Secret: The Joys of Teaching Composition at Two-Year Colleges.  I was joined on the panel by Lauren Smith (event organizer), Jennifer Militello, Lynn Kilpatrick, and Ryan Stone.

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Poem Appearing on TSR’s Site

Here’s a poem recently published in TSR and appearing now on their site.  Thanks to Lou Ann Walker, Julie Sheehan, and the other editors for their continued support.

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Another New Song

Here’s another new song.

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Upcoming Reading

Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Pen Parentis Literary Salon
featuring Adam Penna, Sarah Kain Gutowski and others
75 Wall Street, second floor,
New York, NY 10005.
Time: TBA

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An Original Song

Here’s something I’ve been fooling with: writing songs.  Love to know what you think.  We call ourselves Possum & Porridge.

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Upcoming Reading

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Poets on Parenthood and Childlessness
featuring Adam Penna and Sarah Kain Gutowski
at the The Poetry Place
58 Waverly Ave
Patchogue, NY 11772
7 p.m.

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Publication (sort of)

A few months back I posted an acceptance to Bull magazine’s “Choice Cuts” section, where they post a line or two from a story they like.  Here is a link to the archives, where you can find a choice cut from my as yet unpublished story, “Men’s Extended Care.”  Thanks to the editors of Bull, especially Jarret and Kaj.

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