Creative Writing in The New Yorker

Harvard once considered hiring Nabokov to teach literature; Roman Jakobson, then a professor of linguistics there, is supposed to have asked whether the university was also prepared to hire an elephant to teach zoology.

—Show and Tell: Should Creative Writing Be Taught? Louis Menand, The New Yorker.

This anecdote is presented in parentheses, but it’s the key to the entire article, and answers the question posed in the title. I’ve never taken a creative writing course at the college level and I believe them to be largely useless: you’ve either got it, or you don’t, and no amount of lessons at these programs is going to change who you are.

Great artistry is also fundamentally rare, and I think the number of great artists in any given generation will remain proportionate to the total number of people in that generation. So if fifty million people walked the Earth at the time of Homer, there are about a hundred Homers walking the earth today, and I think most of them probably aren’t creative writers. This statement also presumes, for sake of simplicity, that there was only one great artist alive at the time of Homer, and that this artist was Homer, about whom we know nothing, and who may have been many different people.

I do believe these classes can make mediocre writers into good writers, just as someone who likes mathematics can be turned into an engineer. But Einstein was always Einstein. Nonetheless these workshops are probably mostly useful for making connections, or so I hear, and squeezing some measure of lucre from the art form.

But an elephant trumpets naturally, it doesn’t learn to trumpet in school; if a product of these programs ever creates the equivalent to “Sing, muse”, it will only be a coincidence.

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2 thoughts on “Creative Writing in The New Yorker

  1. Luna says:

    Ahhh, the old question of nature versus nurture and the special case of the genius. I’d say we don’t have enough information about this to make a real determination about whether someone can be taught (and part of good teaching, whether one teaches one’s self or whether one is taught, is inspiring) how to write or paint or compose music with stunning brilliance.

    For whatever it’s worth, I’m a particular fan of Paradise Lost and some other of John Milton’s writings, and the man was being taught to read Hebrew, Greek and Latin when he was a toddler; he quickly discerned a connection between poetry and prophecy (in the classics and in the Bible), and saw it as the duty of a profoundly spiritual Christian to write good poetry, so he set himself the task to craft an epic poem “that with no middle flight intends to soar / Above the Aonian Mount, while it pursues / things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme,” and the rest is history.

    Now, maybe you don’t think Milton had that glimmer of brilliance– that he was good poet, but not one that possessed the all-important and elusive spark that separates the Einsteins from the Feynmans– or perhaps you think that his unquenchable passion for the meanings of words in many languages, his not-exactly-unique but nonetheless remarkable understanding of poetry as prophecy, and his compulsion to craft a Christian epic in the English vernacular were due less to his remarkable childhood learning and his upbringing in the culture and atmosphere of Revolutionary Puritan England, and more to that mysterious spark.

    For my part, I’m not convinced either way. I think that what makes a genius is learning– often profoundly interdisciplinary learning of the sort that cannot be accomplished without passion and pizzazz. And we’re creatures built to learn, built to learn just about everything we can, from how to move our legs and hands to crawl and pick up bits of rubbish on the floor that our parents would prefer we didn’t eat, to complex communication of various sorts. I’m sure some minds are built better than others, I guess I’m just not sure how much that matters compared to the astounding potential of learning environments to produce both insight and personal investment in complicated questions and beautiful modes of expression.

    Perhaps a better question than “Should Creative Writing Be Taught?” might be “Is the Academic System of the University Capable of Teaching Creative Writing?” To the latter, I would be as cynical as you are– partially why I decided that I could pursue such things on my own time. But to the former, I am far less sure. Time, I suppose, will tell and test– my Isabelle is a noble experiment. From a simply utilitarian perspective, it seems to me that we ought to assume it’s possible to teach genius until we have ample reason to believe otherwise; if we surround genius with the allure of a magic spark that one is born with and another unhappy soul is born without, then we miss the possibility of actually teaching genius.

  2. freestories says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Luna, but I have to say that any answer to either question posed will be in part a value judgement; a value judgement of genius, of teaching, and so on. The very definition of a good writer or a bad writer is socially constructed. Edgar Allen Poe was considered a bad writer by the elites, but his work lasts. Similarly, Christopher Marlow was, and still is by many, considered a better playwright than Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is the popular ‘genius.’

    It seems to me that ‘genius’ comes from numerous factors working in concert, and nothing can control all those factors.

    So to the question of teaching: teaching creativity is always a personal journal for the student. Any lesson in creativity which tries to do anything more than unlock and empower one’s imagination is an attempt at instilling conformity, in my opinion. You cannot make someone a ‘good’ writer, but that doesn’t mean it’s fruitless to give them the tools to write.

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