Toward Changing the Language of Creative Writing Classrooms

Praise, Like Criticism, Can Make Us Forget What Art Is For

By  Helen Betya Rubinstein

I open the creative writing courses I teach with this vow: “I’ve seen far too many workshops become an indoctrination into an instructor’s taste—a semester-long exhortation to love what the instructor loves and to hate what he does too—and I am going to do my best to avoid that.” The statement is meant to protect students from the shame I felt when, in the first semester of an MFA program in fiction, I listened as the director mocked a writer whose books my parents, sister, and I all loved.

I absorbed the verdict as truth even though the disdain felt like snobbery: I would never tell someone they were wrong to love what they loved. It wasn’t that I wanted to please my professor—I’d already voiced my dissatisfactions with his course. What I wanted was to master the social mores of a culture that, in some unconscious and unexamined sense, I’d entered the MFA program to join: the culture of the tastemaking class.

It wasn’t despite but because of the shame I experienced that the first creative writing courses I taught reproduced the canon of that program almost exactly. I wanted to shield my students from the embarrassing ignorance I’d discovered in myself; I thought they should know what “good taste” entailed. A pedagogy course had introduced me to the problem of education as acculturation—a means of assimilating students into the dominant culture of a powerful class—but I discussed acculturation only with students in my composition courses, not in my creative writing workshops. I wasn’t yet paying attention to the connection between the problematic constructs of “bad grammar” and “bad taste.” I was still a student of “good taste” myself.

We should grab readers by the collar and never let go, I learned. Write stories so transporting our prose becomes invisible. Use as few words as possible to move the story forward as fast as we can. Never be sentimental, and avoid “purple prose.” Great emotion manifests only indirectly, we were told. When a frustrated classmate in my MFA program declared himself a maximalist, I chose to pity him. Poor guy: everybody knew restraint was superior, but he’d missed the boat.

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Conventions of artistic apprenticeship demand that students be schooled to recognize, imitate, and aspire toward inherited ideals of greatness. So maybe it’s not so shocking that a writer might publish two acclaimed books before looking down at her own work and realizing that all along, she’d been pandering to old white men. This is what Claire Vaye Watkins unpacks in “On Pandering”: the troubling discovery that her “hard, unflinching, unsentimental prose,” and the details she wrote—like a “nubile young girl left for dead in the desert”—reflected her teachers’ ideals, not her own. As Tajja Isen describes in “Tiny White People Took Over My Brain,” such men had become the “imagined judge and jury”—if not also Watkins’s actual judge and jury, writing her first glowing reviews. This is one way conventional workshops ensure structures of power are reproduced.

Even praise, like any other drug, will eventually poison art. Like criticism, it makes us forget what art is for.

As a student in 2008, I participated in the workshop of a story about a Black man’s murder by white plainclothes police. The writer was the only Black person in what poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young have called the creative writing industry’s “mainly white room.” Per convention, he was silent as we debated whether the story was “too familiar” or “unbelievable,” the obviousness of the racism it portrayed resulting in a kind of cliché. When we were finished, the writer blurted, “But it actually happened!” He’d been rewriting the 2006 murder of Sean Bell.

It’s difficult to capture in fiction the impact of a real event. But when I remember that workshop, I can’t help but feel that I joined in an effort, by a group of white readers, to muffle and ignore a story of anti-Black violence. Back then, I still believed race-blindness might be a virtue, and what my criticism boiled down to was this: The racism in that story was too overt. I didn’t want to believe it—that’s what “unbelievable” meant.

Aesthetic values don’t only include “hard” syntax and imagery of “nubile girls,” but also the varied shapes of narratives that readers welcome and pursue—from the fairy tale’s arc toward happy ending, to stories like my classmate’s that progress toward an uncomfortable truth. The one story that never gets called “too familiar” may be that of white upper-class domestic ennui. And if academia’s entrenchment of certain literary-aesthetic values needs further proof, consider the case of students like a quiet junior I met while teaching at the University of Iowa. He had come to Iowa especially to study writing, but had yet to meet a professor who seemed to respect the science fiction and fantasy he loved. He’d been silent in writing courses, he confessed, ever since a first-year instructor had told him she was tired of hearing his voice. University workshops, especially prestigious ones, are notoriously unkind to writers of so-called genre, like him—but you have to be on the inside, or close to it, to know this before entering the system yourself.

A few years after completing my MFA in fiction, I enrolled in an MFA program in nonfiction. There I learned new codes for “good” work. Previously I’d internalized the ideal of a reading experience so effortless you forgot you were reading, but in the nonfiction MFA I met readers for whom the effort of an effortful read was a pleasure in itself. In the fiction MFA, Do Not Bore Me had been law, but my new professors praised meandering prose. Before, my professors talked book deals in terms of advances; now, my program director exhorted us never to sacrifice a book’s integrity by selling it for more than $10K. These differences were a product of genre, yes, but they were also the result of different communities and their values. In the fiction MFA, we read through a consumer’s lens and aspired toward commercial success. In the nonfiction MFA, earning money from writing, or aiming to please an impatient readership, was viewed with ambivalence.

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I am convinced that we can teach creative writing without the language of failure or success, criticism or praise.

A friend introduced me to Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process during a conversation about how difficult it was not to internalize the aesthetic values of instructors with the power to grant degrees, fellowships, recommendations, and blurbs. Lerman, a dancer, offers a value-neutral approach to “getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.” The method, she says, “enables a group of people to uncover their various aesthetic and performance values,” making them “aware of the numerous ways people see art, and the array of value systems underlying their differing visions.”

Lerman’s four-step, capital-P “Process” begins with what she calls “statements of meaning.” These are responses to the question “What was stimulating, surprising, evocative, memorable, touching, meaningful for you” about the work? This is followed by questions from the artist to responders; neutral questions from responders to artist (not “Why’s the cake so dry?” but “What kind of texture were you going for?”); and opinions the artists may choose to hear or not. (“I have an opinion about the texture. Do you want to hear it?”)

I wanted to follow Lerman’s example of making individual students’ values more transparent. But I knew that many undergraduates are determined to experience the creative writing workshop they’ve imagined: a silent writer taking in the readers’ chorus. I also wanted a paradigm that would apply equally to discussions of published and in-progress work. The solution I came up with is an adaptation of a stubbornly entrenched model, not an overhaul. It’s a strategy for addressing craft, giving feedback, and conducting workshops, when I’m not sure that addressing craft and conducting workshops should be all, or even most, of what a writing course does. I call the practice “value-transparent,” since neutrality is a problematic goal, and because I hope the exercise might help students recognize and trust their own values.

I’m not convinced that my way of teaching is ideal. But I am convinced that we can teach creative writing without the language of failure or success, criticism or praise, and that doing so will help us avoid reproducing systemic oppressions, damaging students psychologically, and stunting creative work.

The experiment begins with two questions: What happens if we take value language out of the classroom, avoiding words like good, working, strengths, better, improve? Can we abolish our faith in writing that is “good” or “bad”? The result, I hope, is that our conversations about craft can be reinvented and reinvigorated as conversations that remind us what art is for.

*

“Write the story (or essay, or poem) you want to read in the world.” My courses begin with this invitation for students to create their own goals: for the student who loves being entertained to figure out how to entertain; for the student who loves difficult prose to examine how such work engages him. As they share examples of writing they love, students begin to articulate their aesthetic values, which they’ll return to in discussions of published and in-progress texts, and later use as touchstones when they revise their work.

Our workshops begin as our conversations about published work do, with Lerman’s statements of meaning. “Meaning,” in this case, doesn’t refer to interpretation: The approach treats interpretation as part, but not all, of the experience a piece of writing exerts. Students are pleased to learn that the work they’ve produced resonates in some way, and reorienting the conversation around meaning, rather than praise or criticism, also reorients students around socially motivated reasons to write and share work—to create an experience for someone else.

Conversations conducted in the language of positives and negatives make the writer’s feelings the conversational subtext; the writer becomes the conversation’s implicit subject. Worse, such conversations habituate students to writing for extrinsic rather than intrinsic reward: for pats on the back. And copious pedagogical research demonstrates that a focus on extrinsic reward reduces risk-taking and hamstrings the quality of creative work. “When people do things in order to earn rewards, they become less creative; and when they do things that they think will be evaluated in some way, they become less creative; and when they do things to please someone else, they become less creative,” write two scholars about this widely observed effect.

This is why workshops oriented around praise and criticism don’t only attract narcissists—a word I use in the sense of one who is unsure of his own worth, and so seeks external esteem—but also create narcissists. They unsettle a writer’s inherent sense of worth, and divert attention away from intrinsic reasons for making art. Even praise, like any other drug, will eventually poison art. Like criticism, it makes us forget what art is for.

When I remember that workshop, I can’t help but feel that I joined in an effort, by a group of white readers, to muffle and ignore a story of anti-Black violence.

Our conversations about craft might remind us what art is for by shifting away from what “works” toward what actually happens when we read. Does your heart race? Do you cry? Think? Forget that you’re reading? Pick up the dictionary to look up a word? More important: Which elements of the text, and of the world the text inhabits, determine your response? When a student is asked to move away from value-laden language in conversations about creative work, she is being asked to resist a set of nebulous, arbitrary, class- and culturally-coded aesthetic values, to study the reading process, and to define her values for herself.

“Should we have no standards?” is one response I’ve heard when I explain that I never say, “Great job,” never put checkmarks in the margins of student work. “No,” I reply, “we should not.” As teachers, we might have standards for how students approach their work, for how they read, observe the reading process, define their aesthetic values, and revise in pursuit of those goals—and we might use these standards to evaluate student performance, when we must. But “standards” inevitably narrow the scope of what writers envision as consequential elements of their work.

“But I want to know if people liked what I wrote,” students might plead. I’ll ask what they mean by “like.” “If they wanted to keep reading,” one says. “If they feel moved,” says another. These are qualities we can discuss without risking that the writer’s objectives are obscured. “You don’t believe that Faulkner is good and Danielle Steele bad?” is another question I’ve heard. I point out that different people—or the same person, on different days—might choose to read one author instead of the next. Their bodies of literature fulfill different needs.

After statements of meaning, students and I spend most of our time pointing to details of a text—authorial choices, conscious or not—and examining their effects. This differs from convention only in that avoiding the language of explicit value pushes us to examine the reading experience with a mindful attention that results in the discovery of our own values. It’s not easy to avoid saying, “This is great” or “This works.” We slip up all the time. The learning happens when students are asked, and I ask myself, “What do you mean?”

*

Teaching this way has helped me identify my own (ever-shifting) aesthetic values. But the more interesting discovery has been how obviously tied these are to my political and social values. When I long to convince students to “unpack” or “complicate” the tidy happy endings of their personal narratives, for instance, it’s because I want them to reject dominant cultural narratives that obscure what I see as important truths. But to what degree should I not only teach in a way that reflects my values—as this approach reflects a desire to foster inclusivity, mutual trust, and students’ self-worth—but in a way that encourages students to adopt my values? The solution I’ve found is not to hide these values, but to frame them as such—personally and politically informed—and to be clear that I won’t be using my position as instructor to privilege my views, that students will have the space to identify, explain, and find authority in their own values.

That a class might arrive at a shared value system isn’t surprising: Aesthetics—like grammar, fashion, and politics—serve as markers of belonging.

Even in a course where aesthetic values are relentlessly questioned, I’ve observed that a collective value system nevertheless tends to emerge. In one class, students spoke of their “engagement” with each other’s texts in laudatory tones; to keep the conversation in line with my goals, I needed to ask what “engaging” meant, and how a text worked toward that end. Was “engagement” always desirable? Did “engagement” ever happen at the expense of something else? Maybe “engagement” meant distraction, escapism, a turn away from the contemplative and toward commercialism’s empty thrill, we thought—but then again, maybe “engagement” could also refer to the surprises of poetry and the challenges of conceptually thorny prose.

That a class might arrive at a shared value system isn’t surprising: Aesthetics—like grammar, fashion, and politics—serve as markers of belonging. And the values we identify as our own aren’t fixed. I doubt I’d love the author my professor once derided if I read his books today, and that’s not only because my aesthetics have changed, but also because I have changed, and my ethics have changed—partly as a result of the conversations I joined when I started my MFAs. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that author’s work doesn’t hold value; its value to certain readers, including readers I love, is plain. Instead, this is evidence of how unfixed our aesthetic values are, dependent far more on a reader and her context than on the text itself.

Which brings me back to the question of what art is for. I won’t attempt a universalizing response. But I suspect that there is an ethical dimension, conscious or not, to most artists’ work. If you ask a beginning writer why they write, there’s a good chance they’ll respond along these lines: to voice what is unheard, to comfort or move a stranger, as a form of protest, a crying-out against or in accord. Even art created solely in pursuit of pleasure arises from the imperative that pleasure, too, deserves space—like outrage or grief, pleasure is something artists can make.

The conventional workshop tends to distract students from these motives, graduating writers who wonder whether publishing a book will change their lives, instead of whether publishing a book might change the lives of others; writers who wonder whether their work is any good, instead of whether it does any good. I’ve heard debut writers say that they can’t wait for the first year of a book’s life to be over, that the barrage of award cycles and best-of lists, the sense of constant assessment, feels torturous. They struggle to follow the advice of writer and Iowa Writers’ Workshop director Lan Samantha Chang, whose plea that writers protect their “inner lives” rather than fall prey to the career-driven concerns so “toxic to creativity” is difficult to follow not least because the institutional structures that ostensibly support emerging writers do so little to protect their inner lives.

Maybe, though, writing programs and workshops could train writers to focus their energy somewhere other than assessment, prizes, and reviews. Maybe, in refusing to take aesthetic values for granted, in uncovering and starting conversations about the ethics these aesthetics manifest, creative writing classrooms could become spaces for considering the role of writers and the work they create as actors in a public space, agents of the sort of social change that begins when a reader is changed.

The final question my students and I address in our conversations is “How else could this be?” This is an invitation to imagine a variety of paths toward the next version of the work, and the experiences these alternatives might produce. The question has its origins in the traditional workshop, but I encourage students to imagine alternatives outside of what conventions of “improvement” would suggest. Our job as reading writers is to remember that the story can always be told differently. I spell it out on the blackboard: our job is to practice imagining change.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the fall 2018 edition of Poets & Writers.

Helen Betya Rubinstein
Helen Betya Rubinstein
Helen Betya Rubinstein has taught at Brooklyn College, the University of Iowa, Cornell College, and a variety of nonacademic institutions. Her creative and critical work appears in The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, The Chronicle of Higher Education, LA Review of Books, and more.





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