Here is an excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut Jr's essay titled "Despite Tough Guys, Life Is Not the Only School for Real Novelists" --
When the subject of creative writing courses is raised in company as sophisticated as readers of this paper, say, two virtually automatic responses can be expected. First a withering "Can you really teach anyone how to write?" An editor of this very paper asked me that only two days ago.
And then someone is almost certain to repeat a legend from the old days, when male American writers acted like tough guys, like Humphrey Bogart, to prove that they, although they were sensitive and liked beauty, were far from being homosexual. The Legend: A tough guy, I forget which one, is asked to speak to a creative writing class. He says: "What in hell are you doing here? Go home and glue your butts to a chair, and write and write until your heads fall off!" Or words to that effect.
My reply: "Listen, there were creative writing teachers long before there were creative writing courses, and they were called and continue to be called editors."
The Times guy who wondered if anybody could be taught how to write was taught how to write by editors. The tough guy who made students and their instructor feel like something the cat dragged in, possibly spitting on the floor after having done so, almost certainly, like me, handed in manuscripts to his publisher that were as much in need of repairs as what I got from students at the workshop.
If the tough guy was Thomas Wolfe or Ernest Hemingway, he had the same creative writing teacher who suggested, on the basis of his long experience, how the writer might clean up the messes on paper that he had made. He was Maxwell Perkins, reputedly one of the greatest editors of fiction who ever lived.
So there you have it: A creative writing course provides experienced editors for inspired amateurs.
What could be simpler or more dignified? Or fun?
When I quit a good job at General Electric to become a freelance writer 15 years earlier, there were only two degree-awarding graduate programs in creative writing in which short stories or poems or novels were accepted in lieu of theses: Iowa and Stanford.
I had attended neither one. To have done so would have been good for me. Vance Bourjaily, a permanent rather than transient member of the workshop faculty in my time, said he regretted not having apprenticed at Iowa or Stanford when he was starting out as a novelist. That would have saved him, he said, the several years he wasted trying to find out all by himself the best way to tell a story.
Much is known about how to tell a story, rules for sociability, for how to be a friend to a reader so the reader won't stop reading, how to be a good date on a blind date with a total stranger.
Some are more than 2,000 years old, having been posited by Aristotle. I paraphrase Aristotle: If you want to be comical, write about people to whom the audience can feel superior; if you want to be tragical, write about at least one person to whom the audience is bound to feel inferior, and no fair having human problems solved by dumb luck or heavenly intervention.
And let me say at this point that the best creative writing teachers, like the best editors, excel at teaching, not necessarily at writing. While I taught at Iowa in the company of literary celebrities, the most helpful teachers there were two lesser-known writers named William Cotter Murray and Eugene Garber.
There are now at least 100 creative writing programs in American colleges and universities, and even in Leipzig, Germany, as I would discover when I was there last October. That the subject is taught anywhere, given the daunting odds against anyone making a living writing stories or poems, might appear to be a scandal, as would be courses in pharmacy, if there were no such things as drugstores.
Yes, and our biggest secret about the Iowa Writers' Workshop was that it was one of the greatest teachers' colleges in the world.
The primary benefit of practicing any art, whether well or badly, is that it enables one's soul to grow. So the proliferation of creative writing courses is surely a good thing. Most came into being in response to demands by college students during the 1960's that their courses make more use of their natural impulses to be creative in ways that were not emphatically practical.
When I taught at Harvard for a year, for example, that was because students had asked for what they called "a creative track."
Chuffa, chuffa, chuffa.
Choo choo. Woo woo.
When I taught at Iowa, then Harvard, then City College, here is what I tried to get away with, only in effect, not actually: I asked each student to open his or her mouth as wide as possible. I reached in with a thumb and forefinger to a point directly beneath his or her epiglottis. There is the free end of a spool of tape there.
I pinched it, then pulled it out gradually, gently, so as not to make the student gag. When I got several feet of it out where we could see it, the student and I read what was written there.
You can access this treasure trove at this New York Times link.
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