Penman No. 38: Why I Teach Creative Writing

English Class

Penman for Monday, March 18, 2013

LAST THURSDAY, I delivered the keynote speech at a conference of creative writing teachers held at the University of the Philippines, and this was part of what I told them:

I’m going to propose an idea that will probably sound like heresy today: I teach creative writing not to promote the science or the politics of literature, but to help enlighten the mind and ennoble the spirit. These are big words, but creative writing is a big thing. It has been a big thing for a very long time, and one might even argue that it got a lot smaller when it became an academic discipline, subject to the vagaries and vicissitudes of departmental politics, and the constant and sometimes annoying need to justify its existence to those who ask, with ill-concealed derision, “Can creative writing be taught?”

Let me humor that point for a minute. No one ever asks if music can be taught, or if ballet can be taught, or if painting can be taught—and yet, in all of these artistic endeavors, a mentor-mentee relationship has been the practice if not the rule for ages. It may be that writing is a more solitary act, and indeed, until the 20th century, was something self-taught, and people like Shakespeare and Nick Joaquin wrote without the benefit of a BACW or an MFA.

But most people aren’t Shakespeare and aren’t Nick Joaquin, and we’re no longer in the 17th or even the 20th century. Genius can take care of itself; most people can’t, particularly in a time when what are seen to be the more practical necessities of life militate strongly against a young person’s decision to choose a life of art. This, I believe, is the social function of artistic education today—the preservation and promotion of art as a vital human enterprise, alongside the sciences and the professions, without which society would fail, in the absence of the self-critical mirror that the artistic imagination provides.

Those of us who teach creative writing—or music, or dance, or painting, and so on—should fight to claim our space in academia, not because we need the jobs (which of course we do), but because society needs us for its own well-being, as nurturers of our people’s imagination. Like life itself, each work of art emerges from a synthesis of method and mystery, and sometimes the happiest and most wondrous results arise from what may seem to be accident and serendipity. But as a social project, the production of art cannot be left to chance.

This is particularly significant in the context of a country and a society like ours, whose people remain in dire need of a sense of nationhood—a sense that can only be artificially defined if not distorted by politicians, but more authentically apprehended by artists. The stories, poems, essays, and plays that our students write are this generation’s understanding of who and what we are, and this has been one of the key principles of my own teaching of creative writing: to help the student find not only himself or herself, but to find himself or herself in the community of others, in the life of the nation.

Thus, this semester in my graduate fiction class, I have asked my students to write about characters decidedly unlike themselves, to explore a milieu larger than their immediate and familiar surroundings. “Write about what you know” is what we often tell them, and that’s fine for starters; but I like to push this further and to suggest, as the title of one of my books says, that the knowing is in the writing, that they will never really know their subject until they’ve written all they could about it, until they’ve stood at the edge of the unknown and made that headlong freefall into the abyss of the human condition.

In this respect, allow me to make some observations about the state of the art as I see it in our students’ work. As a writer and a teacher of creative writing, I’ve been privileged to come across the work of some of our best young writers today—in my classes, in workshops, and in literary competitions—and to note their strengths and weaknesses.

The strengths are rather obvious to me—most notably, sharp and felicitous language. It always surprises me how—at a time when it’s become customary to deplore the deterioration of the language skills of our young people—new writers keep emerging who can use English with a mastery and confidence I didn’t have at their age. I suppose that comes from an earlier and more natural affinity with English, which many Filipino writers of this post-martial law generation not only write but think and speak in—at home, at school, at work, at play.

Another hallmark of our younger writers—not only in English but in Filipino and other Philippine languages as well—is their awareness and deployment of more contemporary literary theories that have done away with the stodgy realism of old, and value freshness of approach and cleverness of idea. They write in and from the margins, employ unusual points of view, play around with their use of time, and assume a variety of voices. They cross genres, mix languages, and generally don’t seem to care or worry too much about what other people might think of their work (except for readers of their own generation), and about whom they get published by.

That’s all well and good, but let’s go to the downside of things.

The most persistent shortcoming I’ve noticed in my students’ work is their inability or unwillingness to go beyond the safe and the familiar, to push the story to the farthest limits of its dramatic possibilities. They can take risks with treatment and technique, but in terms of the human drama at the core of the piece, they fall short. In other words, they’re great at writing scenes, sketches, and setups—vignettes that define a character or a situation—but, with a few outstanding exceptions, they won’t go over the edge and take us somewhere we’ve never been. They may be technically polished and even perfect, but they are immemorable and add little to our understanding of ourselves as Filipinos. They don’t connect to a larger audience beyond the university, making what we do seem even more esoteric and irrelevant to many. We often talk in these corridors about the need to popularize science, but what about the popularization of art?

Now, I’m not making a pedestrian demand for our art to be simple and accessible, or to be held to a standard of social relevance as the measure of excellence. I firmly believe that art is intrinsically elitist, even if its aims may not be. Whether among the most common folk or the most privileged, only a few possess the sensibility and the skill to create art.

All I’m asking for is for us to encourage our students to see writing not only as a means of self-expression but as a form of engagement with the larger human community—a love letter, as it were, to the world at large, perhaps full of pain and disappointment and yet remaining open to appeal and negotiation, if not reconciliation. This, I suppose, is what I meant by “enlightenment and ennoblement”—a recognition and admission of oneself, through art, as a human being, with all of its attendant privileges and responsibilities.

That’s the challenge you and I have to pose and, ourselves, to meet: to help produce not only great art, but great art that somehow matters. By “matters”, I don’t mean that it will foment a revolution the next day or the next year, but that it will, one way or another affirm and enrich our sense of humanity and community.

The fact is that very few of our students—counting even the CW majors—will go on to become writers for life. That’s all the more reason why their brief encounters with us should be memorable ones. No matter how poorly conceived or executed, a work sincerely presented for workshop by a student still represents an act of the imagination, which deserves respectful consideration. The best students will benefit the most, taking our admonitions to heart in the same way that I can still remember what my writing teachers told me. From Mrs. Vea, my English teacher in high school: “Good writing doesn’t depend on your mood.” From Franz Arcellana: “This is good, but it needs rounding out.” From my American professor Nick Delbanco: “Don’t forget the narrative line!” What have we told our students that they will remember 40 years hence?

I have always believed that every student has at least one good story, poem, or essay in him or her—and if we draw that out of them before they move on to become lawyers, engineers, and politicians, then we shall have done our duty. If we can inspire the best of them to consider taking the same breathless gamble we took in devoting ourselves to the life of words, then we shall have gone beyond performing our teacherly duties to helping secure the future of the Filipino imagination.

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