Opinion: Why Not All Creative Writing Courses Are Interesting

Photo by Alexis Brown

Creative writing is not new. It used to be a requirement of every student’s education for around 400 years, especially in the English-speaking world. In the nineteenth century, literary education was either weakened, or completely dropped from elementary and secondary education. Later on, colleges picked up all of literary education but creative writing. Creative writing was then missing for about a 100 years or so, but in the past 40 years, it has returned. Nowadays, there is a lot of controversy on the issue – some claim that creative writing courses are necessary and beneficial; while others claim that they are useless. I, myself, have participated in such a course, so I will share my experience and viewpoint. Keep in mind, however, that I might be biased because my judgment is based purely on one creative writing course.

As a devoted reader and not so devoted writer, I was curious about creative writing courses. When I heard from a friend, who is a poet, that he attends a creative writing course, I decided to join him. The course was held by one of the most prominent writers in my country. He had won many awards for literary fiction and poetry, and his books have been translated into English, German, French, and Hungarian. The course was for free and the only requirement was to be dedicated and hard working since it was an intense course.

The first day and every day following, he had us arrange our chairs in a circle so we could all see each other. We were not required to write our names on makeshift notebook paper name plates, instead, we had to remember them. The first lesson we were taught was that what is important for a writer is to remember the details and, most importantly, the names of people. This was a promising start that served to make me even more excited about the course. The class covered poetry and fiction, and most of the participants were poets themselves. I was one of the few who preferred fiction and, unfortunately for me, fiction was not discussed as often.

The course would usually last two to three hours with small breaks, since the material covered was quite a lot within the allotted time. The session would start with some theory on specific literary traditions and techniques. This would have taken up to an hour or hour and a half at most. The next half an hour to hour and a half would usually be spent in discussing written pieces by the participants and providing feedback, as well as distributing the subject topic for the next time. The meetings were held twice a week, which gave us enough time to prepare sufficiently for each session. As students, we learned about literature by writing it, and gained a sharper sense of literary form, making certain features of the literary endeavor—such as the effect of influence, the role of the authorial person, and the usefulness of specific techniques.

Nevertheless, there was something I did not quite like about the course. It was when a student would submit some work by saying: “I don’t think it’s very good.” Then they would proceed by reading it out loud. After a long silence, one of the student’s best friends would say: “I really like the way you … ” Then another would add: “I didn’t quite understand the bit where …” and the student would explain it. More often than not, the student would leave with the ego intact and the work unimproved. In the following sessions it became clear to me that the fiction from these creative writing programs often appealed to readers because they rehearse banal topics, such as “Who am I?” —issues that are already part of their inner lives. And contemporary fiction does have many readers.

Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of reflexivity? Not much. I just thought that being around other people who felt the same way about literature mattered more than anything else in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems and prose. I do not think the workshop taught me much about the writing craft, but it did teach me about the importance of creating, not just reading. At the end, no one seems to agree on what the goal of good writing is. And students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, did care about the same things, they did learn from each other.

I left the course after four sessions. What happened at the end to me was that this course restricted my imagination instead of fostering it. Ironically, what I missed the most from this course was indeed creativity. It left me with the grim view that writers are products of educational systems, but stories are products of magazine editorial practices and novels are products of publishing houses.

In sum, while a creative writing course cannot turn someone into a writer, if you have the ability and are willing to work hard, a course can help you to improve faster. Although there has been a viral spread of creative writing courses, the teaching is not always necessarily good. Before going to such a course, consider whether it will be useful to you, since the desire to write comes easily, but writing itself is technical and hard.

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Nesrin Nazlieva is a Psychology student at Erasmus University.  She decided to follow the example of her predecessors who, back in 1460, left the Karamanid beylik and immigrated to Bulgaria.  Instead of Bulgaria, however, she chose the Netherlands.  Her short story with a not so short title ‘The Story of a Wanderer Who Traveled the World in Search of His Hat’ earned her a second place in one of the most prestigious national literary contests in 2015.  When she is not glued to a book, she spends time working out in the garden, learning Spanish, and trying very hard not to be the worst player at Ludo.

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Publishing: The Weight of a Short Story

Courtesy of sachablack.co.uk

Before I go on about short stories, I should tell you I’m a proud product of the internet age. The truth is I’ve never done serious work as a writer without having one foot rooted in a digital space. You should know this at the outset, because context is crucial. I want you to understand where I come from, and understand the internet is as much a part of my life, and the literary work that stems from my life, as the language I speak or the life circumstances that shaped me.

Now I’m well aware there was a literary landscape that predates the internet, a big wide world I never had the chance to experience as a writer. If I’m being honest, it seems like it must’ve been a pretty difficult landscape to traverse. Maybe I’m just spoiled by search engines and social media, but when I imagine trying to network and get writing published without the internet to assist me, I nearly break into a panicked sweat. It’s simply an alien world to me, one that was perhaps a bit quieter, but also with far less open doors. It was also a space in which the short story was a more prominent feature of the landscape, and in my opinion the mode has declined as we shifted away from it, into a post-internet age. Read More

The Poetry Market

Walk into any bookstore in the United States and you will find rows upon rows upon rows of shelves dedicated to the various and nuanced genres and subgenres of prose. Along a back wall, there will be perhaps a shelf or two (or in the case of my local Barnes and Noble, half a shelf) dedicated to poetry. You may be able to find a couple of anthologies or the newest work of prolific poets – or famous people attempting to brand themselves as artistic. You may find the complete works of Maya Angelou, a copy of Beowulf, or a coffee table book of poetry from Instagram. You will watch the bookstore patrons stroll curiously by the shelf but not stop. No one is buying the poetry. This is true even in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live, a university town with a thriving local bookstore market. The following question is asked almost daily in my graduate department: Why poetry? What can poetry do that other mediums cannot?

From an analytic angle, it seems the answer is not much. According to Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, two of the top-ten bestselling books of poetry in 2016 were The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer. The fact that books like The Odyssey or Beowulf are bestsellers really reflects the idea that poetry is staid and passé. Even among my more well-read friends, most of them do not buy books of poetry. I decided to ask some of them why they did not seek out poetry. One friend of mine explained her apprehension towards the genre: “While I enjoy poetry, the part of literature that has always moved me the most is story and narrative.” Although poetry has some story elements, she felt that “often the purpose behind poetry is completely different than that of prose.” I recognize that I read more poetry than the average reader; I am literally branded with the language of American poet, Wendell Berry … via a tattoo. But even I at times feel frustration with the poets for binding their meaning in expressive language like a process of rime mummification. In the United States, most people are only exposed to poetry in high school or in university during literature classes; the focus remains heavily on canonized works, such as William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman. Readers are asked to analyze and discuss the seemingly archaic language, much of which has since fallen into the realm of cliché. For most people, reading poetry is associated with having to do the hard work to interpret it. Poetry demands much from its reader; it is asking us to dwell in a land of metaphor and language and of subtext and sounds, which is not easy to grapple with. Another of my friends noted she did not like poetry, feeling it was dense, perhaps too metaphorical, and often “went over her head.” This perception that poetry is something created for esoteric artistic minds and not for everyday people permeates the potential market. Read More

The Black Voice on Being a Public Text

I had the opportunity to attend a reading done by Roxanne Gay for her new memoir, Hunger. She began with this explanation of the book’s origin: “When you are fat, especially when you are fat and black, your body becomes a public text.” It resonated with me, as I was steeped in my own otherness at all times, held up to a harsh light and appraised from every angle through a loupe. The black writer knows that our otherness defines us, and that otherness creates our public text persona. The way we might talk about a new film with friends and strangers alike, the way we might have a roundtable discussion about a classic work of literature or a salient opinion piece, the black body must survive in that space. We are personified in all forms of media, and yet our own selves remain a mystery. It is tenuous place between the realm of being unknown and being constantly seen; a driving force in much of African American literature is the liminality of this running commentary. I would like to examine two poetry texts that really dig into this notion, but I would argue many texts talk about the running commentary of the white imagination placed upon African Americans, works as diverse as Kevin Young’s essay “Blacker than Thou,” the classic novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and even the hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The anxieties and pressure of being a public text are found within these texts, but by focusing on Citizen by Claudia Rankine and There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker, I hope to illuminate how the African American writer uses their work to reconstruct life underneath this microscope. Read More

Trope or Cliché

Courtesy of Literaryterms.net

Who here knows what a trope is?

How about a cliché?

How about the difference between the two?

Did the last question leave you stumpped? Me too! So I went on a digital spelunking quest into the unknown. I also looked into other vintage sources like a dictonary or two, and do you want to know what I found out? Well… No one really knows, it’s kind of vague.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is a trope? How do you pronounce it [troup]? Heck, I’ve been pronouncing it [troupy] because that’s how I learned it, the thing is, outside of literature university courses, you won’t hear many people speak it out loud, and if they do… case in point. It’s a little like genre, I honestly thought it was pronounced [genier] when I read it in articles until I realized genre was what I’d heard fancy people refer to as belonging to a style, or category = [jánre]
  2. What is a cliché?
  3. Which one is bigger? I ask this because it seems like cliché fits into the great encompassing shadow of the mighty trope. Trope, such a grand word, in the same category as genre, canon and the like. But, cliché just sounds right out bad.

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Opinion: To Hell and Back… the Direction of U.S. Literary Fiction

Courtesy of Worthy of EleganceOriginally I planned to start the article talking about ebooks.  Talking about the Internet.  I was going to quote Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  I was going to say that more people are reading on screens than ever before, and that bloated, antiquated conceptions about “the novel” would have to change to meet the new ways in which we read.  This isn’t that article.  That one is still rattling around in my head somewhere, and I think it would’ve turned out pretty alright in the end.  But that’s not the article I’m writing right now.

This is going to be something else entirely, because, as of this writing, Donald Trump has been President Elect of the United States of America for five days.  In the first 72 hours alone there have been an alarming spike in incidents of hate across the U.S.  Protesters pour into the streets.  The tension is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I’m watching at a distance, seeing it all unfold from an ocean away.  It’s got me scared.  It’s got me angry.  And it’s got me—once I finally managed to shut the news and close Facebook and sat down to write this article—thinking about how truly irrelevant literary fiction has become in American culture at large. Read More

Opinion: Black Friday in Brazil… What a Bad Idea

Courtesy of blackfridayworld.comInflated black balloons drift inside shopping venues!  Black signs hang in department store windows! Marketing firms and modeling agencies post Gisele Bündchen hopefuls at traffic lights.  They’ll smile while handing out black fliers announcing grandiose discounts and sales.  The catchphrase is repeated on national TV, in public squares, shopping malls.  Expectations have been nurtured to go through the roof.  Welcome to Black Friday in Brazil!

The scourge of American-branded commercialism reverberates well into the tropics.  Over the past decade it has turned Brazil into Black Friday spectacle.  It started with images from the heartland of unabated consumerism—shoppers of all stripes pitching tents in front of chain stores, staying awake throughout the night, not as a vigil to bring awareness to any social malfeasance, but to stampede into those stores at dawn, pushing, shoving, and brawling their way to discounted merchandise.  It’s as if securing a half-priced cellphone, laced with tungsten, tantalum, and other minerals extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo will halt a seventeen-year-long conflict that has taken the lives of over five million people.  Maybe purchasing a clothing item on sale will magically force U.S. owned companies to improve working conditions in their outsourced sweatshops in India, Indoenisa, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.  That such zeal and vigor is expended on a day of frivolous, erratic shopping is yet another indicator of the bankrupt moral coffers of a society reared to value material possessions more than anything else.

No matter the ironies of a day like Black Friday, the frantic images of a chance to scoop a hot deal proved irresistible in Brazil.  A meaningless hodgepodge of consumerist fervor now drapes over a nation that, in 2013, had to implement Mais Médicos (More Medics), a health care program that imported 4,000 Cuban doctors to work in impoverished and remote areas.

It’s been disappointing, to say the least, to witness the ease with which Black Friday has taken hold in Brazil.  America’s mass consumerist ideals and its media influence abroad are no joke.

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photo_jun-colaJun Cola is a translator based in Brazil, who has translated everything from Marvel Comics to academic papers, travel & tourism magazines to fiction, real estate contracts to poetry, and then some.  Jun is working on bringing Brazilian voices to the world stage.

Opinion: On Slovak Literature

flag_of_slovakia-svgWhen I first moved to the Netherlands I would be cross-examined by my new acquaintances regarding this mysterious, unheard-of and potentially lethal country called Slovakia.  On one of the occasions, after having established the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia and explaining that yes, we do have internet over there, and no, we don’t usually torture and/or slaughter tourists as seen in the movie Hostel, I got pinned by another inquiry from my friend Edmond: “Are there any famous Slovak writers?  Is it possible I have read some of them?”  Oh, my.  I don’t even know why I took a second to think about it, since the answers were obviously: “No;” and “hell no;” respectively.

I always feel uneasy when discussing my national literature with foreigners.  We don’t have a Tolstoy, Faulkner or Austen.  We don’t even have an E. L. James.  There are no writers, no artists among the big names of Slovak literature.  Mostly, they were just people of various professions who merely happened to write something from time to time about a cause they cared about; like national liberation, women rights, or how socialism might not be the greatest idea ever.  But aside from that, they were… peasants, I guess.  And I mean it in the best possible salt-of-the-earth, more-than-meets-the-eye way.  Didn’t care for art, fame or money.  Just said what they had to say, when they had something to say.  However, in the past twenty-five years or so, there’s been a shift on the Slovak literary scene. Read More