Sarah Maria Griffin reflects on last week's RIA conference which asked 'Can Creative Writing Be Taught?'
I am always late for things, often finding myself in taxis racing towards wherever it is I should have been five minutes ago. Sometimes, if the driver is particularly charismatic, they ask where I am going. Or if the conversation goes on, they ask what I do. I usually pause heavily and think very hard about saying I am a chef, or a nurse, or I am studying law. Then I tell them the truth, just to see how they react.
When I started my M.A. in Writing last year I was hesitant to tell people what I was doing. They’d make these faces, somewhere between bewilderment and scorn, full of ‘So, what exactly does that qualify you to be? A writer? Didn’t know you could teach people how to be a writer…’ I’d tell them I wasn’t exactly sure if you could, just that I knew I needed to take a year to myself to get better at what I wanted to spend my life doing. That was it, however naive it may sound.
So, approaching the Symposium on Friday which promised to discuss, if not possibly answer some of these questions, I was pretty sickened. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to know if writing could be taught. Would my M.A. be rendered obsolete? Even worse, as a creative writing teacher myself, would my choice of career be undermined entirely? This was not ever going to be a day undertaken lightly. I knew that everyone else in the room was looking for these answers as well.
There were three panel discussions, each tackling a different area of study, and nine short papers, delivered by some of the most educated and experienced heads in this branch of the writing industry. Every time the subject matter changed, some new light was shed on what exactly the study of creative writing means.
Sometimes I was disturbed by the truth of it: perhaps a young aspiring writer should get out into the world and live a bit, so they have something to write about, as opposed to spending a year being nursed and cultivated when they have no real life experience at all. Perhaps workshops only serve as a critical vacuum where no truth ever emerges. Perhaps all the writers who come from these academic programmes are stunted and produce work that is manufactured and without spirit. Homogeneous even. Perhaps the students who enter it just want a quick route to writing as a career, a quick route to writing as a means to gain fame. (Even re-typing my notes I feel unnerved, almost ashamed).
Other moments lifted my spirit and reassured me, showed me that the way I had been thinking wasn’t all wrong. Writing is learned, not taught. Craft is developed through these courses. In teaching writing, it is imperative to be an instructor rather than a dictator, to allow your students to sing in their own voice. In this it is possible to teach them to teach themselves. On this issue, Yvonne Cullen put it well when she said the aim of the teacher is to take what the students are producing and to “Narrow the flow, make it stronger.”
Meanwhile, John Kenny, who teaches on the undergraduate programme in creative writing at NUIG, described teaching writing as a way of telling his students to look at the world from a different angle. Telling them to get under the couch. To look at the world from there, to look hard, making sure that nobody can tell you’re there. Things must be seen, he said, and shown to be strange.
The idea of taking an undergrad in creative writing is something I always raised my eyebrows at, having done four years of English, Media and Cultural studies myself before dedicating myself to the craft. I wasn’t sure that a seventeen year old could walk out of secondary school and into college and suddenly be a ‘writer’, be allowed to tell taxi-drivers and strangers that this is what they do, officially, every day. However, the entry for the BA in NUIG is 550 points. The candidates for this course could become pharmacists, but they are choosing to be writers.
Mary Morrissy gave a fantastic paper about the darkest corner of teaching writing in an academic context: the concept of grading. How does one grade something creative? As a teacher, as a writer, as a ‘real world’ figure, like an agent or publisher? She recalled a particularly horrific anecdote from her time teaching in Arkansas, where she graded a postgraduate writing pupil with a C, only to be threatened with violence via e-mail. This threat was very real: a few years prior, a student at the university murdered one of his professors in the staff room, before turning the gun on himself. Now this is obviously an exception, and the risks usually aren’t as high, but the question of grading is one that is often interesting to discuss but not at all easy to answer. This issue also struck me heavily, as I am currently waiting for my results. I was sitting with a group of students from the MA in Writing from UCD and I could see them shifting uncomfortably in their seats, aware suddenly of what they were facing into.
It was Nessa O’Mahony’s talk, however, that I felt the most strongly connected to. She recalled teaching writing in a rehabilitation facility in Blanchardstown, and discussed how important it was to provide a nurturing environment for people to develop their personal stories. Every student has a story to tell, and a story to be honoured. Her talk, however, was not about teaching writing in a university setting, but in the environment of the community, where I also teach. I completely agreed with her standpoint and understand that these methods are not exactly academic but they are nurturing and soulful and exactly what somebody who is just discovering writing requires. And yes, to pursue writing as a craft (or as a career) might require a different level of engagement, but in a symposium largely built around creative writing as an academic persuit, as almost a science, Dr O’Mahony’s points were a breath of fresh air.
Through all the varied and rigorous discussions that were had, however, my own experience was never repeated back to me. I have nine pages of notes taken from the session (that’s the student in me) and even trawling back through them to compose this post, I can’t see my own reasons or what I got from the MA amongst them. Small moments of recognition were had, certainly. My reason for teaching creative writing (or facilitating it) is that I know everyone has a story to tell and, as Nessa O’Mahony put it, a story that should be honoured.
In the next taxi I take, or the next time I’m in a smoking area looking for a lighter, when I’m asked by a stranger what it is I do, I’ll tell them I have just done an MA in Writing, and from that, I teach creative writing. When they ask if creative writing can be taught, I’ll tell them I still have no idea. Just that I took a year to grow as a writer and to get things done. Or I can show them the notes from the symposium and they can make up their own minds, because these are big questions, ones that every student and every teacher of writing will answer completely differently.
There were no definitive answers given to the big scary questions asked but I’m not sure that any writer (student or teacher) actually wants them to be answered. I’m glad none of my questions were answered because if they had been, the why or the wrong or the right of it would have been there before me. One point from the day reassures me of this: it is the unanswerable that makes the writing process what it is, and the unanswerable that makes us all want to do it.
Sarah Maria Griffin is 23 years old and currently living in Dublin after completing the MA in Writing in NUIG. Her first collection of poetry, Follies, was published by Lapwing earlier this year. She is currently Writer in Residence in Collinstown Community College, Clondalkin. Can it be Taught? Teaching and Learning Creative Writing in Ireland was the topic for this year's conference of the Committee for Irish Literatures in English held at the Royal Irish Academy on Friday, October 7th 2011.