My dear and beloved roommate (otherwise known as Samuel J. Rascoff '96) argued in his Crimson column ("Trying to Teach Creativity," Feb. 17, 1995) that creative writing courses "do not belong at Harvard." I couldn't disagree more.
I am taking a creative writing class this semester as I did last semester. Not only do I (as most other students) enjoy these classes tremendously, but I also learn a great deal from these classes.
Rascoff claims that creative writing can't be taught because literary quality is difficult to gauge. "If it is un-judgeable, it is also un-teachable," he argues. I agree that it is difficult to find a standard for evaluating creative prowess, but this does not mean that it is impossible. Also, if something can't be judged, it does not mean that it can't be taught. Having taken Philosophy 140 (Deductive Logic) last semester, I can safely say that "un-judgeable" does not imply "un-teachable."
Sam says that teaching writing in a university promotes the mistaken idea that education requires a turning inward into one's self, rather than outward towards the world." Creative writing classes, he claims, take away valuable classroom time reading the writing of great minds such as Milton and Joyce. I agree that turning outward towards the world, learning the ideas bestowed unto us by the Great Minds, is of utmost important. But turning outward does not mean the repression of turning inward to oneself.
As it is necessary to read the Greats, it is also necessary to find one's own voice. This search is something which I found lacking at Harvard. Harvard students are great at name-dropping. Often I would get into philosophical arguments with my fellow concentrators only to realize that it wasn't them with whom I was arguing but rather Kant, Hegel and others. Creative writing classes allow students to find their own voice within the numerous voices of past minds. This is the academic ideal--being able to synthesize the voices of the Great Minds with one's own.
It is important to have the opportunity of writing creatively in conjunction with taking regular classes. When writing for a creative writing class, I often find myself implicitly drawing on that which I have learned in other classes. Rather than forgetting the material the day after the final exam, I am assimilating the knowledge by using my own voice.
Rascoff claims that "one can write--creatively even--without going to writing classes." But the same argument can be made for most classes. It is possible to study--Milton even--without going to a class on the subject. Extensive literature (often by the professor teaching the course) about the subject matter of most courses is readily available.
The mere presence of other writers in the writing classes is of great benefit to the writer. The value students derive from being in an environment with other writers is analogous to learning a language in an environment that speaks that language. The workshop environment that the creative writing classes provide is ideal for the young writer's development.
As a writer, one confronts obstacles such as writer's block, a blank screen, getting stuck, not finding the right words, and many more creative problems. Sharing the difficulties with an experienced teacher and with other writers who are facing the same problems is of immeasurable help. Classes also familiarize one with different techniques used by writers. If anything, Harvard needs more creative writing classes to meet the increasing demand. Tal Ben-Shachar '96