Saturday, 4 October 2008
shadow of a doubt
or Why I am not a Creative Writing teacher . . . I was some time ago when I worked part-time for a year at the brand-new outer suburban campus of a recently constituted university in Melbourne. At the time Creative (or ‘Professional’ or whatever) Writing had only been taught in Australia for a few years and the Universities and Colleges were straining to catch up with the American proliferation of such courses. Changes to funding mechanisms had meant that it was now feasible to institute subjects for which there was a demand. This was not altogether a bad thing. It broke down conservative opposition to feminist and gender studies as well as entrenched resistance to film and media as fruitful areas of research in institutes of higher learning. With writing however, the Universities realised they were sitting on a gold mine. At a time of pinched budgets here was an area of study for which people were prepared to pay. The overheads were minimal (compared, say, to those of media) and you could even bring in outside guests with little or no idea of themselves as valuable commodities. The results of all this have been mixed. There are many institutions with fine writing teachers that produce an admirable quantity of talented students. There are also places where it is doubtful that any graduate will become a ‘successful author’. Teaching methods vary enormously. When John Forbes taught writing, his classes were an almost casual mix of reading and discussion (so casual that sometimes he wouldn’t turn up). He happened to be a very good teacher and there are several people out there now writing poems who mightn’t have got so far without him. I encountered an entirely different teaching method when I filled in for someone else one day. There was no time at all for chatter in this class. Everything was mapped out with rules and regulations as to who could speak and who couldn’t and when they should do so and the structure of these lessons bore an alarming resemblance to the ‘encounter group’. The regular teacher had herself studied under a (very) famous American writing academic and there was more than a faint whiff of psychobabble in the course description. When I taught in Melbourne I was aware that something was needed to undermine the attitude many people bring to writing classes. I even alarmed some of my students by asking that if they didn’t want to read other people’s work then who did they think would want to read theirs. The class were all nice people but only one of them appeared likely to pursue writing as a vocation and he was very much into ‘performance’ (i.e. not books). To counter these tendencies I took photocopies to the class every week of many vastly different kinds of poems and we discussed this work for half of each session (this was in itself a task since the new University had almost paralysed itself with copyright concerns and I had to fill in multiple forms for every week’s productions). I like to think that at least my students came out of all this as better readers if not writers. Despite these concerns my main reason for not taking up teaching was a less ideological one. Confronting a class each week made me aware that my own method of writing was predicated on doubt. I could never be totally confident about what to say to students when in my own experience such certainties threatened to harden into unusable practices. At a micro level I’m happy enough to suggest losing an adjective, changing a line break, compressing or expanding something, but I can’t, other than through my own enthusiasm, communicate why anyone should want to involve themselves in this often crazy vocation and thus, as a result, I’m not so good at instilling confidence in others.