During my second year of University, I enrolled in a creative writing class. I also took an Early 20th Century American Literature class. To quote a successful author (who somehow never set foot in a creative writing class) "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Beginning with the worst: the Am Lit prof was one of those frustrating creatures who used our classroom as a platform on which to proclaim her unshakeable authority over the subject - we, the paying peons, could attempt to wrest whatever shards of gnosis she might coyly hint at, but gaining a comprehensive understanding of the material was out of the question. Thanks to her methodical obfuscation, the poetry of William Carlos Williams was transformed from something intriguing and mysterious, to something maddening and obtuse. Sherwood Anderson managed to withstand her theorems of confusion, but Hemingway took a real beating. Finally, we reached Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury.
Oy vey. If you've not yet read Faulkner, but feel the need, I implore you to start with something relatively approachable: As I Lay Dying. Better yet, read a few of his short stories and see if you've any appetite left. The important thing is to build up aesthetic antibodies before you ingest TSATF, because that book is harsh. I finished it, but I regretted the experience, and I regretted enrolling in the course. I retrieved my class enrollment slip from the prof, got a partial refund for my troubles, then shook the dust from my sandals and went on the scout for better times.
The creative writing class certainly qualified. It also did a better job of communicating the true worth of different prose aesthetics. The class was typical of its kind - through a series of exercises we experimented with voice, perspective, prosaic structures and pyrotechnics, etc. Every week we read our efforts to the rest of the class. The latter exercise was especially valuable - nothing impresses a writer faster than the sound of his prose going "clunk."
As I age, my memory seems bent on self-flattery by removing my most embarrassing moments, and replacing them with the embarrassing moments of others. I can recall feeling uneasy after some of my readings, but I best recall the general reaction toward a classmate who discovered "Stream Of Consciousness" late in the course, thanks to his recent exposure to (you guessed it) TSATF. We were now finished with the exercises, and toiling on our larger "final projects"; each class was now devoted to a single student's reading. Our classmate, who had until then demonstrated a keen ear for wit and parody, used the occasion to read page after page of tedious SOC drivel, in tones that conveyed the lamentable earnestness of a new religious convert. When he finally set his notebook aside and asked for comments, I took a deep breath, and got ready to deliver the news.
I was all set to tell him even Faulkner at his drunkest didn't expect to fly on a first draft of SOC writing, but one look at my friend's face stopped me in my tracks. His cheeks were aflame; he seemed ready to cry. The "clunk" had been thunderous.
It was just as well: I wasn't at all confident TSATF wasn't a first draft.
Ideally, creative writing classes achieve an extremely tricky balance: the recognition and nurturing of a student's "voice" on the one hand, and a critical appreciation of the elements of fiction or poetry on the other. My own inclination is to seek critical congress on the latter, while letting the former grow on its own in the private playground of notebooks and journals. Perhaps I'm too cautious, but I wonder if my friend might not have gleaned something of greater value had he made a tape of himself reading his SOC experiment. I'm convinced if he'd played it back and heard himself, I'd be writing about someone else today. Now that I think of it, how might it have sounded, and what choices would he have made, had he recorded three pages of his own writing, followed by three pages of Faulkner's?
These thoughts occur to me after reading Eric Liu spend an hour with a Julliard piano teacher. This person apparently has ways and means of releasing a student's musical instincts toward improvisation that, he claims, we bury beneath years of formalist training. I'd love to take a few of those piano lessons, but Liu's stress on the necessity of freeing personal voice can be overstated. Sooner or later, paying people want some formalism asserted on the material: nobody is going to line up outside the concert hall to hear you "play your name." It's laudable to free your voice, but if it has something worth saying, you'll exercise some formality in how you say it.
Also, here's an intriguing piece on exporting Spider-Man to India. Again we have a strict, narrative formula - the origins of a particular comic-book superhero - that experiences rejuvenation via a literally spiritual re-birth. The generic parameters are instantly recognizable to western eyes, but the eastern improvisations within it are, well, breath-taking. Cross-cultural improvisation within an ossified pop-culture medium? That I'd pay to see.
Both links courtesy of Slate.