Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Designing new creative writing classes

Yeah, so this is another video game pun. Sorry guys.

I feel at times as if our creative writing curriculum, at both the undergraduate and the graduate level, has passed from the point of codification to calcification. You've got your workshops (prose, poetry, or nonfiction, maybe drama, BUT NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET), you've got your craft classes (what we call form and technique at NMSU; I'm curious how these work elsewhere), you've got your classes that are actually for lit credits but a CW instructor leads the class, you've got the occasional class on publishing a magazine (read: you manage the university lit mags slush pile) or bookmaking (arts and crafts). There are some other things but this is really the main of it.

I wonder sometimes about how we might revitalize our writing and our feeling of community by considering entirely new classes. Here are some rough ideas for new classes. Maybe you would like to teach one of these? Maybe you would like to do it through the blog? I bet that would be fun.

Research for Writing

This is one of my perennial obsessions. When I was in undergrad I majored in journalism for a while on the assumption that at some point someone would teach me how to do some damn research. This never happened. They occasionally sent you out to interview somebody or write about a speech, and eventually I was going to learn how to walk into a police station and look at official police documents (dangerous! subversive! truth-telling!) but they were clearly never going to tell me how to actually discover if something was true or not so I quit the major and never looked back. The English major helped with this a little but mainly I know how to search JSTOR.

What I want is a class that teaches me how to find useful sources that will tell me practical information for fiction and essays alike. So for instance in my thesis there's a section toward the end that takes place in a big store. I needed to know what would be in that store in the '50s but I wasn't sure how, so I named a bunch of products that felt plausible to me and some of them were right and some of them were pretty wrong. So in workshop the instructor suggested I look at old catalogs. And I was like, "OF COURSE." I want a class that helps with stuff like that, and teaches as many other methods of rigorous and esoteric research as possible, from the perspective of the needs of fiction and nonfiction writers. I would love to teach this course (and in so doing, presumably, to learn enough to know HOW to teach it.) I would love to take it.

Blogging 101

Okay this is maybe not a CW thing so much as a writing thing generally but it's inevitable at this point that people will begin to teach blogging. Of course there are already courses on this subject in many places, but I've never personally seen one, and I haven't generally gotten the impression that they focus very much on practical ideas of how to build an audience, how to develop a specialty, how to interact with other blogs, how to add value, etc. I would like to teach this course though I'm not sure I'm that good of a blogger.

Book Design

So you see a lot of classes about making cool books in terms of binding and fancy perfume samples or whatever but how about a class where I become intimately familiar with InDesign? How about something where they teach me how to communicate productively with a printer? Again, I'm sure this is out there but I've never had the chance to take it.

Principles of Entertainment

Right now we spend a lot of time talking about how "good writing" works. However, this disguises the fact that there are many, many kinds of good writing. There are, however, relatively defined and concrete ways of entertaining readers; not necessarily in a crass sense, but in the same way that there are clear principles of good game design or etc., there are clearly fundamental strategies that produce fun: the unfolding of a structure, learning rules, learning about a character, learning about a world, and so on. The goal would be to leave aside good writing as a subject for a moment and focus on writing that demands, by its structure, to be read. The theory being that this sort of writing will often ultimately be quite good as well, but in unexpected ways.

Economics and Practice of Writing

A lot of schools are resistant to discussing this, either because they find it crass, depressing, or pointless (i.e., they don't believe their students will have careers anyway). But why not talk to students at some point about not only how to deal with publication and how to wring a few drops of money from their writing, but how to work out a way of living that makes writing not only possible, but satisfying? I suspect more writers today would be happier if they would take interesting basic jobs like secretarial work in a good environment or childcare and then use all the energy they save by not striving for the upper class to write some damn books. The happiest writers I know seem to be doing something like this. You could talk about that and a lot of other practical stuff. You could talk about the basics of promoting your work, how to not simply promote yourself but to make your writing interesting and vital to some subset of your community.

Community in Writing and Reading

This class would definitely end up pretty argumentative, I think, as the Internet has taught me there are lots of very different ideas about our obligations to our fellow writers and readers. Still, I think it's a subject worth considering in the format of a class. Different people could come in regularly to talk about and essays could be read about how we can and should engage with each other. I've personally found a surprising difficulty in forming community at the MFA, even though my school has a reputation for being very tight-knit. How can we help each other to be great writers? How can we best read each other's work? These are questions I would like to see discussed in a rigorous way.


Okay so these are some starters. I will think of more and post them when I do. Maybe you guys can suggest others, or write about how these should work, or teach me, or start such classes in your community or school.


  1. I share your obsession with research. I would love to take a Research for Writing class where we just explored all the different ways of discovering a thing. Good researchers do not seem to be very good at sharing how they work, because so far the books I've found on the subject have been either very basic or limited in scope. There are some pretty good books on doing research for literary criticism. . . --but there's so much else!

    Where, by the way, did you end up finding archives of old store-catalogs?

  2. I haven't found them yet, actually -- I'll cross that bridge soon. But I'm assuming there are at least some scans around.