Best of 50 contributor, Jacob M. Appel, blogs about the disservice that the current education system does to aspiring writers and what students and teachers can do to change that.
Mark Twain once said: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Okay, he didn’t actually say that—it’s most likely an apocryphal quotation that has never been traced back to Twain. But my sixth grade teacher told our class he had said that, which only furthers the point. I think “Twain’s” wisdom especially applies to writers, and I’d like to use my visiting blog post to discuss the ways in which I think our current education system stifles aspiring writers from an early age. I should add that I do not mean to disparage the wonderful teachers I’ve been taught by over the years—and I now have seven graduate degrees, so there have been many—but rather to address some systematic problems in the training of writers. We often hear heated arguments about the value of MFAs and graduate programs in creating writing, but while I am both a graduate and a fan of such programs, these programs often are left with the challenging task of undoing the damage of two decades of prior training.
The major problem with our education system, as it relates to creative writing, is that it is not designed to train writers at all. Students study “English” or “Language Arts” in high school. While these classes may include some creative exercises, their purpose is to train future scholars, not future artists. Millions of students across the nation write the same tedious essays on the meaning of the green light at the end of the pier in The Great Gatsby and the symbolic value of Holden’s hunting cap in The Catcher in the Rye. Allegedly, writing five paragraph essays on these subjects teaches students how to think. I doubt that has ever been established empirically. But whether or not these exercises have value—and consider me among the skeptics—this approach is not the way to inspire future Fitzgeralds and Salingers. Training future writers would entail asking structural and craft questions about the text: Why does the author use tag lines with his dialogue? How does she speed up or slow down the pace of the prose? What devices are used to make the characters recognizable or likeable? For future writers, the moments in Gatsby worth studying are those that capture human nature—for example, when Jordan Baker leaves a borrowed convertible out in the rain and then lies about it. Training future writers would entail pointing out these techniques to high school students—and then asking them to generate works of their own, either fiction or nonfiction, on topics of their own choosing, using the craft elements displayed in the works that they have read. I do not doubt that some gifted teachers somewhere are doing that already. Many are not. I know this because when I teach creative writing to adults, I often find that my otherwise talented students have an easier time pointing out the symbolism in a work of literature than in explaining why they enjoyed it.
These problems are compounded for the future literary luminaries who advance to the university level. Increasingly, some form of introductory expository writing course is a rite of passage for college freshmen. As unfortunately, teaching these courses has become an early-career staple for the flocks of underemployed graduate students and recent Ph.D.s in the humanities—including MFA graduates—who are unable to find work teaching in their fields of passion and expertise. Most of these courses consist of close readings of texts that the instructor (or, in this age of systemization, the university) has chosen and then writing analytic commentaries upon them. I imagine many students wonder: Why is this important? I would like to assure them that it is not. In fact, it is hard to imagine a less useful exercise. As an educational method, it ranks alongside reading all of the books in the Bouville library in alphabetical order. Requiring students to write about texts and subjects they don’t connect with does not teach them to think better, it teaches them to care less. In contrast, I know of no university that requires a creative writing course of its first year students—nor, for the record, should such a course be mandated. But if universities were serious about generating creative thinking, they would encourage students to engage in writing projects on topics of their own choosing, in forms of their own preference. I cannot help wondering how many gifted voices are silenced—particularly in underrepresented communities—because the students throw up their hands during the required expository writing classes and think, If I have to study something formulaic and dull, I might as well become an engineer or a physicist.
The third problem with out education system—both as it relates to creative writing and to writing exercises more generally—is that all but senior scholars are treated as infants. Few and far between are the college professors who urge their undergraduates to write for publication or to share their ideas with the larger world. This shortcoming can be seen in the nature of many high school and undergraduate assignments: A 10-page close-reading of “Tintern Abbey” or three five-page response papers to scenes in Hamlet are, by their conceit, virtually unpublishable. The problem is not confined to English literature courses: A brief survey of the causes of the Cold War or a short comparison of the developmental theories of Freud and Erikson is also unsuited for external consumption. Each year, millions of students generate billions of pages that, by design, are headed for the recycling bin—their only purpose being to prove that the students have understood a subject or, all too frequently, engaged in the busy work of pretending to care about it. I would like to propose the insidious idea that all written assignments in all classes should be designed so that the most talented and industrious students have a chance at publication. That does not mean, of course, that all will succeed. Assuredly, most will not—at least, with any particular project. However, treating students as scholarly colleagues, and assuring them that their efforts do matter, might motivate many to produce worthwhile work. I recall a particular professor I had many years ago who assigned me a poor grade in a creative writing class. I still wonder what the point of grading creative work in this manner could possible be. Nobody is ever going to publish or not publish my book based on a grade I receive in a writing class—nor will the grade affect my life in any tangible way. After all, students engaged in creative work are presumably motivated to succeed and are striving their hardest to do so, as I was, so grading their work seems yet another way of kicking them while they’re down when we should be helping them to their feet.
Whenever I teach fiction—whether as a visiting artist in high schools or as an adult instructor at Gotham—I treat each of my students as a fellow professional. I sincerely believe that each of them is capable of publishing creative worth that others will enjoy and appreciate. If your own teacher does not approach your work in that manner, I suggest you find a different teacher. If you are a parent, I suggest you ask your students teachers whether their assignments are geared toward publication. If you are a college student enrolled in a mandatory expository writing course, remember that in a decade, you could be a best-selling literary author, while the poor sop leading your class will likely still be teaching comp.
So what is an aspiring writer to do? One of the great comforts I take as a reader is the reassurance that, despite these systematic problems in our training of writers, American literature remains very much alive. Not a year goes by without dozens of brilliant novels and stories appearing on the market. I suppose if I were a self-interested cynic, I might even be appreciative that our system stifles other writers, increasing my own chance of success. But I am not. Instead, I spend a lot of time thinking about those potential visionaries whose voices have not yet been heard—and how I can help them in the confines of a system designed to silence them. I can only hope that others in the literary world will read my reflections and will rethink their practices.
Jacob M. Appel is a physician and lawyer in New York City. He is the author of more than two hundred published stories and teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. More info at: www.jacobmappel.com