Trying to Teach Creativity

Call me a philistine, a Cambridge Newt-onian. I am upset by the headline in last week's Crimson which announced that applications for creative writing courses are up. Way up.

Not that I have anything against creative writing. On the contrary, I could scarcely imagine a world without literary diversions--and not simply the canon of greats, but the poems and short stories and novels produced today for our consumption.

My gripe is not with creative writing as such, just with creative writing courses. Creative writing courses do not belong in the academy--in our academy, anyhow.

To begin with, can creative writing be taught? Mulling over the syllabus of a creative writing course currently being taught at Harvard, I noted that the instructor had admitted up front that he would not grade students based on the quality of their work. He would, instead, rate student performance based entirely on class attendance, participation, and punctuality in turning in assignments.

The instructor, I presume, shied away from evaluating literary quality because it is such a difficult category to gauge. But by disavowing concrete standards of excellence, the instructor confirmed my worst suspicions. One doesn't judge the creativity of students because creativity is impossible to judge. But if it is un-judgeable, it is also un-teachable.


There is more. Creative writing, almost by definition, requires of students that they critically evaluate their own lives or experiences. This notion of writing, when housed in the university, promotes the mistaken idea that education requires a turning inward into one's self, rather than outward towards the world.

Education, creative writing style, frequently degenerates into literary self-help. Students write their own autobiographies--their own traumas, their own childhoods. In short, these courses valorize a narcissistic, solipsistic version of education. Education becomes a means of recovering one's own past or reconstructing one's own memories, rather than attempting to understand the lives and memories of others.

Why do students take these courses in the first place? When I pose this question to friends enrolled in creative writing courses, the answer is frequently a variant on the this theme: "I always wanted to write some short stories (or a collection of poems) and the class is a wonderful opportunity to do so." Was someone standing over these students for the past twenty years, forbidding them to put pen to paper? One can write--creatively even--without going to writing class.

Creative writing programs came into being to support a burgeoning coterie of talented writers who could not all make it in the cut-throat world of word-production. The university has become the de facto patron of the fine arts for a new generation of writers and poets. The situation is first and foremost a sad one--sad, because some of our best writers have to teach courses in creative writing in order to make ends meet.

But that notwithstanding, these courses do not belong at Harvard. The university is not constructed to meet all the high-minded ideals of society, only to further the pursuit of knowledge in the arts and sciences. Creative writing, I am afraid, does not meet that objective.

This is not to say that all writers on campus ought to put down their pencils. A would-be poet ought to follow the lead of the would-be cellist. He should take private lessons.

Creative writing courses can be taken for credit in the English department. Students who might otherwise have taken that extra course in Milton or Joyce instead spend precious classroom hours pondering their own literary muses. One can write at any time, in any place. The university, on the other hand, provides a unique opportunity for the serious consideration of other peoples' books or ideas.

Our libraries and lectures are full of the literary legacies of many who knew--and some who know--how to write. In Harvard classrooms, it is to their voices that we ought to be listening. At home late at night, we might listen to our own.

Samuel J. Rascoff's column appears on alternate Fridays.