Alex Kuo: Creative Writing Programs: An Essay

Trans-Pacific writer and photographer Alex Kuo’s most recent books are White Jade and Other Stories, and Panda Diaries.  His Lipstick and Other Stories won the American Book Award, and recently he received received the Alumni Achievement award from Knox College.





Having taught creative writing in the US as well as in Hong Kong/China, I have experienced the major difference that evolve from one very significant cultural/educational background:  history.  

In the US, as far as I can determine, individual creative writing courses were taught at Yale and Columbia in the early 1920s.  J.D. Salinger is rumored to have taken a short story writing course at Columbia in 1939.  And full-blown programs leading to graduate degrees in creative writing slowly started emerging in the late 1930s.  

The historical difference is quite dramatic.

I may be corrected, but I believe the first creative writing course taught in a Hong Kong university occurred in 1996 at Baptist University, and the first in China in 2005 in Beijing Forestry University.  That same year the English Department at Fudan University in Shanghai flirted with the idea of becoming the first Chinese institution to offer a creative writing program, but the concept fell apart mostly from incompetency and in-fighting within the department, a most common phenomenon in English departments on all sides of the Pacific.

When I entered Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop forty-nine years ago in 1961, there were only four creative writing programs leading to a graduate degree in the United States, University of Iowa, Stanford University, University of Oregon and Columbia University.

A student had two concentration options, fiction or poetry.   
When I received my MFA in 1963, there were two recipients of that degree in poetry—the other was Marvin Bell.   Including fiction, Iowa awarded seven graduate degrees in creative writing that year.  Adding Stanford, Oregon and Columbia’s, the total that year was about 15 for the entire country.

In the next half-century, graduate degree programs in creative writing in the US have been the fastest growing cottage industry in American academia, at the amazing rate of five new ones every year.  At last count, there are two-hundred-and-forty five such programs.   California leads with 25, followed by New York with 21, then Texas and Illinois with 13 each.
Today a student has a wide range of concentration options besides fiction and poetry.  They include non-fiction, the memoir, script writing, young-adult fiction, even Christian fiction.    

A conservative estimate of the number of graduate degrees in creative writing that will be awarded this 2010 year:  2,500.   Wow!  A nation of 300 million produces 2,500 talented writers every year from its MFA factories.  Too bad our schools can’t even turn out that many readers.

With this astronomical number, the teaching of creative writing has been professionalized since 1967 with the establishment of the Association of Writing Programs that lends respectability to its members.  Today, writers are joiners and networkers who go to conferences, our professional identity socially and academically stapled to tenure, promotion and bureaucracy.  This international organization now has more than 500 member colleges and programs.  Its services include publications such as the program directors handbook.   Oddly enough, such a how-to manual does not exist for any other academic field, physics, law or history. 
Starting at the end of the 1960s, the number of students choosing to major in English nationally has plummeted, until Arizona State University responded by developing an undergraduate degree in creative writing, a stimulus package to its English Department.  While the overall enrollment hemorrhaging has not abated, the majority of English majors across the country have elected to focus on this creative writing track, accounting for 60-80 percent on most college campuses.  While some programs such as that at the University of Washington has been selective in responding to this student interest and screens its applicants, others such as Washington State University accepts any student taller than an AK-47, even when it appears that many are those who have failed to get into the communications program.

How do we apprehend this dramatic change, especially in an era when the publishing industry is looking at something such as literary fiction as an anachronism in much the same way that the music industry has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade.

In apprehending this popularity, it might be useful to re-visit some of the historical discussions surrounding the inclusion of creative writing courses in the academic curriculum.  Can creative writing be taught?  Should it be taught?  What is talent?  How should the students be marked/graded?  Who is qualified to teach it?  And what should be taught?   What is a writing workshop?
While it is relatively easy to look at this change from an exclusively binary model—that the old programs were elitist and exclusive, and the new more responsive and egalitarian—I think it’s more complicated than that.
It could be argued that these four highly respected creative writing teachers of the 20th century, Donald Justice, Ted Roethke (who refused to read any of his students’ writing and therefore did not make any writing assignment), Yvor Winters and J.V. Cunningham challenged and encouraged their students to produce literature; but it should also be pointed out that some of them were mean sons-of-bitches whose behavior pushed too many of their students to an early exit from the program and the university, and terminated their habit of buying books and reading them.

They despised the memoir, and believed that creative writing must not be confused with self-expression.  Their students were made to conform to their view that writing is art, and not to dwell on the ordinary pathetic little lives of everlasting unimportance.  Most of the time they would praise such writers as Donald Barthelme, Amy Hempel, Robert Coover, Barry Hannah, Cathy Aker, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Chambers,  Thomas Pynchon the same writers who would find it very difficult to get their work published today. 
But they made the writing workshop work, in which they validated the peer criticism of students in their early twenties with no publication history—and many have no reading history either—and validating self-expression from those who’ve never had a thought in their head.  (I might add that today these students have no reading history either.)  Today, the successful management of the workshop classroom has become a litmus test in assessing a candidate for a creative writing hire or tenure, as if management and teaching were the same thing.
Some have argued that the workshop has worked so well that its original intentions of encouraging excellence has resulted in compromises and consensus, so much so that many editors of publications warn against submissions that look as if they have been workshoped, that the writing programs have eroded into the lowest common denominator. 
I’m nearing the half-century mark of my creative writing teaching career.  But those initial questions still haunt me each time I walk into a writing class, especially if writing can be taught at all.  I try to turn the students in a certain direction, but remind them that my voice is only one of many in their writing lives.   I encourage them to read day and night, and not just what’s on the page or on the screen, because I tell them that’s what a writer does, to see all, remember all, and understand as much as possible.  Cut loose and take a chance.   And hopefully, don’t write about anything that is not important.   Sometimes we have to confront and work through the screaming cultural conflicts of what we deem is important.
Most of the lives of most of us are filled with the repetitive, pedestrian and unimportant.  Is it the social, herding glue in us humans that makes us want to write and read about it?  Isn’t good writing always about writing across cultures, about the other, even when we ourselves may be the other?  Writing that will startle and astonish us, make us jump, stir doubt and dread, perhaps even change our lives?  Aren’t we always reading across cultures to escape from our narrow-mindedness, to see what Anna and Vronsky felt and believed, but not to have lived through the consequences of their decisions?   To look beyond our inviolable lives?  And how to write as witness?

Is this what our creative writing programs are encouraging, I ask.
Maybe one possible consideration for the development of creative writing programs is to adopt the requirement of merging with a second area of study such as microbiology or economics, so that our graduates would be knowledgeably engaged in producing that I call informed public writing (see George Orwell on England’s coal miners or James Agee on tenant farmers), substantial writing that would offer some important insight that would generate interest in the public and not just in family and friends, such as dependence on oil, the adopting/stealing third-world children by fundamentalist Christians, or why China’s football team was eliminated in the early rounds of this year’s World Cup. 

I for one believe that we do not write in a vacuum.  Likewise, we do not teach in a vacuum.  Creative writing is fast emerging as a very popular course of study in Asia.  Aside from the complex issues of mother-tongue, diaspora of who we are and what is home, and indeed other elements that define and signify what are we and what are the other, Asian programs can perhaps learn from the American mistakes and develop its own distinctively, one unique program at a time.
Finally, are our programs producing writers whose work will be read, and will they be imprisoned, exiled, or killed?  It is of course easy for me to raise these questions in this sanitized multi-media center.  But I want to raise one more question:  can we produce such writers in our programs?  If we can’t, what the f* are we doing besides holding down an unimportant day job.