Sunday, March 11, 2007

Educating Writers

I've run into another First Rule situation, so blogging is going to be very light for the next few weeks. (The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer, in case you've missed one of the earlier discussions of it, is — everyone repeat after me — Paying work on deadline always takes precedence.)

Ergo, for the next few weeks, I'm going to cut back to one post weekly, which I plan to put up on Sunday nights so that it flushes through to all the folks on FeedBlitz first thing Monday morning. I'm hoping to use each of these posts to tackle a Big Question, which with luck will stimulate a week's worth of discussion.

To kick it off, Boz writes:
My wife is the grammar school dean of a private classical Christian school, and she was conversing with one of her teachers who is the mother of a young lady who graduated from the school a couple of years ago. The young lady — who was the class valedictorian — had gone to college to pursue a major in journalism. Mid-way through her second semester, a professor and advisor called her into a meeting to strongly advise her to change her major. The reason?

She was too good of a writer to spend her talents in journalism!

Being the product of a college Journalism program, I have to say, I'm not surprised by this. "Journalism" and "good writing" are two areas with some measure of overlap, but they are not the same. True, there's a certain romantic aura associated with journalism — think Twain or Hemingway — but I'm inclined to believe that that's an old paradigm. Real mass media journalism, as it's practiced now, is all about getting the quote, getting the scoop, and getting it out NOW.

Good writing, which requires research, understanding, thoughtfulness, and careful editing and rewriting — well, heck, son, there isn't TIME for that. We got a NEWSPAPER to get out. (Or a show to go live at the top of the hour, etc., etc.) And don't bother polishing your prose, 'cause our readers only read at a 5th grade level, and you've only got six column inches in which to tell your story anyway, and besides, polishing prose is the copy editor's job.

This is not to say the Journalism degree was a complete waste of time. In the program, I was taught many useful craft skills. I learned that it's okay to write simple declarative sentences. I learned that I didn't need to show off my vocabulary every time. I learned that no matter how excited I was, there was always time to take a deep breath and think before I started writing, so that when I began, I had some idea of what it was I was trying to say. Most importantly of all, I learned that having the story DONE was more important than having it PERFECT. All these skills have stood me in good stead in my real career, which as most of you already know, is technical writing.

But when it comes to creative writing, here's the Big Question: What are good subjects to study in college?

I would have to recommend starting off with a good ground in classic literature, I suppose. If nothing else, it saves you from having to start all over again with a bucket of nouns and verbs and no clue of how to put them together. But after that?

I'm not much of a fan of creative writing courses. I took plenty of creative writing courses, back when they were simply fluff electives in the English Department and before it was possible to major in creative writing, and I have to admit, all those classes pretty much were a complete waste of time. The most useful writing class I ever took wasn't even offered through a university; it was held at a community center, where we worked through Peter Elbow's book, Writing Without Teachers, and the real value of the course wasn't even the method, but the fact that for the first time ever I had to expose my ideas to people who were not affluent college-educated white liberal 18- to 22-year-olds. It was a real eye-opener, I'll tell you.

The biggest problem I see with people who come out of university creative writing programs now is that there's a certain dreary sameness to the work. They may have the technical chops, but there's no life in the stories; they're reduced to spinning out variations on ideas they've read in other people's books. In contrast, as I get older, I find it's the people who have been out there living who actually have the interesting stories to tell, but of course, that whole idea is antithetical to the idea of a university education.

So to restate it, here's the Big Question again. Given that it's impossible to impart experience and maturity through mere coursework, what are good courses for the aspiring creative writer to take in college?

Your thoughts, s'il vous plait?