One of the things that is sometimes debated within various pockets of the literary community is the question of whether writing, (or presumably, by extension, any art) can be taught. Though many authors currently practice workshopping in some form, though a good number of us have availed ourselves of night classes, MFAs, opportunities like Viable Paradise or Alpha, and certificate programs like the one I teach at, at UCLA, there are also those who believe teaching writing creates cookie-cutter work.
There are definitely writers who are ill-suited to workshops, and who’ll generally do better if they bash along on their own. But like all good kernels of thought, it’s possible to get dogmatic about this down with teaching proposition, to argue that a workshop or a class will inevitably ruin new talent by crushing their creativity into some kind of rigid publishing mold.
Naturally, I disagree. (As a general principle, I disagree with anything that presumes that one size fits–or fails–all.)
Now, of course, I would take issue with this, wouldn’t I? I went to Clarion West, after all, and my wife Kelly Robson attended Taos Toolbox. And I do teach, a lot, not only at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program but in person at UTSC. My bread is entirely covered in student butter. (And I think Kelly’s many award nominations since she began to sell short fiction constitute a powerful argument, in their own right, that workshops can be a force for good!)
Do I think writing can be taught? Obviously. Do I think everything about writing can be taught?
With the arts, you’re not a physics professor laying out a formula, some cut-and-dried procedure for which there is one satisfactory answer.* You’re not showing someone how to paint the perfect yellow line down the middle of a strip of road, or fly an airplane without making it go kersplat, or performing open heart surgery. The arts are more fungible. For every so-called rule, there’s at least one fantastic book or story that makes said rule a hilarious joke, a baffled wide-eyed “But!” with cream pie dripping down their face.
So what is teaching writing like?
One of my favorite analogies for the teaching of writing is that it’s a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard, a vast expanse of crushed metal and random parts, oil and cogs and wheels, looming in creaky, ominous, teetering piles.
In a junkyard, at first glance, much of what you see is pretty familiar: busted windshields, steering wheels, coveralls, crowbars, and the smell of paint. Things may be mixed and jumbled, but a gas tank’s a gas tank. Or is that… an oil pan?
Teaching writing is like taking students out to this stretch of familiar parts, and saying: “Okay, you all know what a car is. Now build one.”
They go off. They work at it. Every now and then someone may bring me back a door, or part of an engine, and ask where they should put it. If they do, I’m only to happy to suggest moving a windshield wiper or adding a muffler. But essentially once the task is set, each writer is off, isolated, in their own corner of the wrecking yard, fusing things together into stories, clanking away and hoping it works.
Then, finally, we get to the point where everyone’s made something and the workshop can begin.
Almost all of us have been in more motor vehicles than we could possibly count. How would you even guesstimate? Cars are ubiquitous, less familiar than your skin, but not by that much. You’ve been strapped in baby seats. Drunk and headed home in smelly taxicabs. Alone with a podcast on your nightly two-hour commute. You’ve been on road trips in rentals, trapped on tour buses, and on tenterhooks, possibly, at your driver’s exam.
How many of us could assemble a car out of parts?
In this analogy, the first thing I ask when I see the cobbled-together creations of my students is a pretty simple question: “Does it run?”
If a story doesn’t go, if it can’t carry a reader from some point A to another point B, the author’s generally got to go back to the scrapheap for more or different pieces.
This is an important element of how I think about fiction in all my roles, as a reader, a teacher, an editor, and especially as a writer. I want to create things that are exciting, fuel-efficient, and stunningly beautiful. But none of that matters until the story can move someone. If it can’t, it might as well be a hunk of metal up on blocks in someone’s yard. No matter how great the paintjob, it’s of limited use.
If a story runs–even if it can only cough its way like an ill-used jalopy, to the corner of Flash Fiction Avenue and Finished Street–then I as a coach and the whole workshop group gets to move onto making it run better.
And when it runs pretty well? Then you can really drill into the aesthetics: “Any chance you’d care to make it more attractive and comfortable for the passengers?”
(One of the things that is fun about this particular analogy is that process of translating workshop critique into car talk.)
- “Right now the seats have a funny smell and the ride is really bumpy.”
- “I know POV lives under the hood, but just because you can’t usually see it doesn’t mean you don’t need one.”
- “After the adultery scene, it just kinda runs out of gas.”
Stories and written language surround us, just as cars do. They travel, as cars do. And what the car metaphor gives me is an ability to talk about the building process—to teach via metaphor. You can talk about getting a vehicle up to speed, about skidding out of a turn, about the flashy exterior of a pretty sports car. Oddly, this can sometimes make more sense than “Show, don’t tell.”
Now actual cars do have a right answer, when you’re building them. It would be ludicrous to expect mechanics to learn to assemble them from trial and error.
But what about the part you can’t teach?
I’m an expert, on stories. I can see if they run. I can say if the tires look good and the propeller on top is, probably, a bit too much. But because each writer makes their own story from the ground up, every time, out of a glorious randomosity of bits of wrecked dream, nuggets of grudge, precious hoarded research, glimmers of genius and cobweb threads of memory, the final path to making any tale roadworthy isn’t ever going to be a case of me giving you the One True Answer. Art is not Newtonian physics, or fixing Chevy Cavaliers. I may think that propeller I mentioned, above, has to go. Meanwhile the author’s gut’s is saying “We just need another one, on the bottom. It needs to be made of uranium.”
Somewhere, within that gap between my “That’s not gonna take a reader anywhere!” And their “The propeller is non-negotiable,” is the stuff that can’t be taught. That’s the point where the author has to slink back into the junkyard, wrench at the ready, in search of the pieces to make it fit.
*I got chaff about this, and deservedly so, in a Forbes article by Chad Orzel, who points out that of course there’s scope in physics for creativity. I was thinking about the rote physics teaching I got in high school, which was very much “Here’s how you calculate the force of acceleration, and here’s thirty problems… go to it!” Much of this was driven by the need to have students who could pass the provincial exams, and there were separate problems with my particular physics instructor. I’m tempted to edit the comment (and I did fix a typo!) but I think I’ll content myself with this clarification, and let the point stand.
About this post: There used to be a link on my now-defunct Livejournal to one of my photographs–a picture of a broken traffic light–along with some musings about the nature of teaching creative writing. I called it “the car metaphor essay,” and linked to it often. It contained some handy ideas, but it was also little more than a sketch of the core concept. This new essay attempts to adds a real engine and some new paint to the thing.
As I write these word I am sitting on a VIA train bound from Toronto to Ottawa; Kelly and I are going just for the night, to hang out with friends and bask in the wonders of an emerging arty phenomenon known as The Timberhouse. I had a terrific time in Ottawa when I went to CanCon in August, and am looking forward to getting to know the city better. Our nation’s capital moved up the bucket list as soon as Kelly and I arrived in Ontario, but it took us until this year to get there. I am predisposed to fall head over heels.
The train runs along the shore of Lake Ontario for a good portion of the route; it’s more of the same track I take to Scarborough when I am teaching there. The simple act of riding east fills me with happiness. I thrive on having a once-a-week gig at UTSC, commute and all. I undertand it would be a tiring slog if I was headed out there Monday to Friday, term in and term out. But so much of my incredible 2016 is caught up in memories of taking the Go Train out to campus, of starting and ending my teaching day with solitude, scenic beauty and comfort.
Like many people I had a difficult November: like many people, the heart of it was the turn in U.S. politics, but there were other things, too, like an old friend announcing bad diagnosis on Facebook, like a particularly feisty round of flu germs taking out me and Kelly simultaneously, like the unfortunate chance of my having forgotten that I always struggle with fiction writing in this eleventh month specifically. Usually when I see November coming, I try to plan around that drop in productivity, but this year I was wrapped up in other things, like you, and I only figured out the seasonal angle on about the 28th, when someone else spoke up.
Now it’s December, and my new book will be out on Tuesday, and meanwhile my agent and I have agreed on a schedule for finishing the next novel. I’m trusting that my natural creative rhythms will assert themselves. I want to draft about 1500 words a day between now and mid-February, starting Monday. That means I have this last weekend to fritter: Kelly and I went to see one of our favorite bands, The Weepies, last night at the Drake Hotel. It was a singularly delightful experience: we were eight feet from the stage, in a pack of people who just wanted to hear, and enjoy, and sing along.
Naturally, I’m excited too about seeing how this boho weekend at Timberhouse will unfold.
There have been good things, these last two weeks. Every moment of calm, every joy-inducing sight, every breath of warmth and comfort, every well-written sentence (whether inhaled as a reader or exhaled into my own manuscripts) has had a certain intensity, the fine-cut edges of a rare, faceted opal, flashing ethereal fire against the darkness, spark by spark. I am talking to strangers more, now that I can draw breath without coughing, reaching out. I see that desire to talk, connect, to just be damnwell be nice, mirrored in their reactions. The energy I have at hand for being kind and prosocial seems more abundant. And every moment with my family and friends seems a gentle sort of victory.
Science fiction writers are very good at worst case scenarios, and the part of me that has extrapolated our current circumstances to an exceedingly miserable and bitter end has, at least temporarily, overriden the part assigned to petty worries about the future. Different parts of the brain are chewing different stressors, I know, and while I’m not appreciating the things generated by the newly active neurons, the absence of certain habitual gnawing mind-loops has been a source of both relief and navel-gazy intellectual interest.
I have been dreaming more, and most of the dreams have been unexpectedly good.
I have also experimented with posting the occasional political thing on my social media. I try to be choosy, and in particular to talk about Canadian racism, Canadian responses to oppression. I’m not sure yet what I think of the response. There’s usually a sea of likes and good comments–naturally, I like those–along with one or two wanky pushbacks. These seem to be angry dudes with thin arguments–and I haven’t quite sorted out how much of that I want in my Facebook feed, particularly. I need to get the hang of ignoring them, probably. I don’t need to give everyone who posts a snarky comment a breakdown on why the CBC article didn’t actually say some thing being ascribed to me. The problem is a nagging sense that I owe them an argument, somehow, and that if I’m not willing to have it I should shut up.
What else? I read a book about DDOS actions and activism by Molly Sauter, THE COMING SWARM which talks (among many other things) a present-day tendency to measure all civil rights and other protest movements against a rose-colored-glasses view of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. It talks about how we are tempted to devalue civil resistance when it doesn’t look like Johnson-era marches led by Martin Luther King. This interests me, a lot, and I’m thinking about what I see as effective protest. (I think the book’s interesting and useful, and I hope to get some other recs from her soon.)
In the book I’m writing now (whose working title is WIN CONDITIONS) I’ve imagined a near future society where humanity has a light but geniune grip on a host of climate change problems, where people are laboring mightily to terraform the Earth to make it fit for long-term human habitation. I started this book early in the year, and it ties into some things I said in my SpecFic Colloquium talk: that we cannot simply offer visions of apocalypse, that SF writers have to imagine workable optimistic futures, scenarios where we get out of the political and ecological jams we’ve created.
People can more easily believe in a happy ending if we create it. They can grab onto possible solutions to our current cluster of crises if we imagine the solves, show them in place, and inpire our audiences to tweak and implement them here in the real.
By the time WIN CONDITIONS takes place, the Millenials have long since endured a period called the Setback. Their children barely survived the Clawback. Now there’s a cohort of grandkids who refer to themselves as the Bounceback generation. Bouncers believe humankind will save the earth, one ton of carbon and one reclaimed suburb at a time.
In one of the early chapters I make a passing comment about the first Setback presidency. I was envisioning our present situation, while hoping it wouldn’t come to pass quite so soon.
Still, I choose to believe the Setback will end, and not through some passive stroke of luck. Activism, courage, creativity and compassion will end it. People will end it. It’s easy to say, and much much harder to do, and I know that very well. Do keep me posted on how I can help.
The slice of my life that is all about helping new authors find and hone their voices has been on fire lately, and I have been burning to tell you about all the nifty upcoming developments. Over at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, registration is open for “Creating Universes, Building Worlds,” my workshop course in short speculative fiction. This class makes a nice trial run for something like Odyssey, Clarion or Clarion West: you can write in any of the speculative fiction subgenres, and the workshop is run like one of the aforementioned programs (or as close to it as one can get with an online class.) You get to stay home, write one complete work of fiction, workshop it with the group, and make plans for revision and marketing.
Want more? You also get to read and discuss awesome stories by Kij Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, Harry Turtledove, Tanith Lee and so many other fantastic writers!
But why is that exciting? You may well ask… I’ve been teaching this class for years. But for those of you who’ve taken CUBW and its follow-up, Writing the Fantastic, it does look like there will be a new and more advanced option for you at UCLA come Spring 2016. So that’s one very exciting thing.
The other wildly delightful development is that come January I will be teaching a realtime, face to face, honest-to-deity speculative fiction workshop at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Ontario. Are there (or do you know) any U of T students who might be interested in that? If so, write me and I will give you the scoop as it develops.