Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

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I’ll hazard a guess and say that the majority of people who contribute to and work on the Rumpus have some sort of writing degree or are pursuing one, and yet there’s a surprising amount of debate as to just how much one can learn about writing itself in an academic setting. Louis Menand in The New Yorker takes on the discussion.

The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart. There is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same process—a person with an academic degree in creative writing—or a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

I’ve been in these workshops myself, and Menand doesn’t describe the half of it–it’s very much the blind leading the blind, which often deteriorates into either a mutual admiration society or a Lord of the Flies scenario where the group divides into factions and one tries to kill a member of the other off so as to prove its dominance.

But I’ve also been in workshops with instructors who weren’t afraid to guide the discussion, and with fellow poets who were confident enough in themselves that they didn’t have to grab the conch away from whoever had it in order to justify their presence, and in those rare occasions, the workshop system actually worked. The problem is always in recreating that scenario, because the former is far more common than the latter.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →