“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” – Flannery O’Connor
I subscribe to several writer’s magazines and occasionally find an article I like. I like articles that make suggestions, start people thinking on their own, send aspiring writers off to their keyboards where they just go for it.
I made my worst grades in high school and college English classes because, (a) I already spoke English and didn’t know why I needed a course in my native language, and (b) When it came to writing–and worse yet, to reading–the teachers and the textbooks strayed far outside the boundaries of suggestion.
I balk at rules. Suggestions, though, are like writing prompts. (“A man walks into a bar, orders a glass of milk, and the bartender kills him.”) With a prompt or a suggestion, the sky’s the limit. With a rule, the creative person is stuck more or less in a coffin with no place to go. When you ignore the rules, your grade suffers, even when you do it well.
“Write an analysis of this classic book, discussing the symbolism I’ve already told you is it it,” the teacher tells us. Screw that. I’ll tell you what I see in the book, not what you see in it or what the author of our anthology of excerpts (complete with non-transparent discussion questions) sees in it. The book = me + the words. That’s it. You (the teacher) are not there. When the teacher doesn’t find his belief system in your term paper, your grade suffers, and woe be unto you if your belief systems makes more sense to the teacher than his or her own.
When I look through a writer’s magazine for suggestions, I stumble over dozens of advertisements for MFA programs with long lists of regular and visiting faculty members who will help “you” become a better writer. I don’t think this is possible and that what really happens is those who don’t want to write get properly stifled and that those who do only listen to the lectures and critiques and discussions to hear what fits the philosophy of writing they have before they walk in the door.
When kids are free do go outside and simply play, they come up with amazing things as they follow their whims and their imaginations and their feelings of that moment. This is how I visualize writers in the process of teaching themselves. They follow the intuition they have right now, rather than being given a list of literary terms and styles to use in a writing assignment. Unfettered is where our best work arises.
My opinion, to be sure. But try it (that’s a suggestion and not an order). In fact, this entire post is biased because it represents what I like. . .reading what I love, experimenting with stuff, and seeing what happens. Others may like short story instructors to say “today we’re using irony” and poetry instructors who say “today we’re using enjambment.”
It’s not that I think we should legislate against English classes for English speakers and creative writing classes for people who want to write creatively or even against running a Master of Fine Arts degree for people who want some resume material. We might see better books if we did that, but somehow, there’s something uncomfortably authoritarian about ridding ourselves of those who want to force rules upon us with yet another rule. So, we’re stuck with it, being chained to a system for writing freely.
Philosopher Denis Diderot purportedly said, “Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest.” I’ve liked that statement ever since I first heard it in nursery school or kindergarten. A word of warning, if you play with that statement, substituting other professions into it, it’s best not to write a theme in English class that attempts to prove the truth of the argument that “We should strangle the last creative writing instructor with the guts of the last English handbook author.” It seemed funny at the time, but my teacher took it personally, which is what I intended while proclaiming that I was speaking, well, philosophically with a touch of irony.
Basically, I believe that if a person wants to write poems, short stories and novels, they should get on with it, run them up the flagpole, and see what people think. If nobody gets it, perhaps they need work. Well, writing is always work, so that’s win-win for everyone. As writers, I think we flourish when we put out moments of free play down on the page.