Friday, February 26, 2010

Teaching Literature vs. Teaching Creative Writing

When I walk into my Recent American literature class, my shoulders aren’t tense. I don’t have to do deep breathing. I don’t feel the swirling, pulsing tension that I do when I enter my creative writing workshops. I’ve come to realize that in the literature classroom, you can have a great day, an okay day, a dud day, but in the end, no one is going to be personally celebrated, hurt, wounded or knocked out of the ball park. In short, because students are not producers of the literature but are, instead, consumers of it, there’s filter. It’s that simple.

Or is it?

Although I love both, I find teaching literature far easier than teaching creative writing.

Here are the difficult things about teaching creative writing:

1. The intense “homework” due every single night. For every single class, you must read at least two student-written short stories, then craft a personal, instructive critique letter to each student. It’s good honest work, but it is laborious and intense.

2. You must try to create a “filter” (see first paragraph) even though the actual author sits right there in the room. You must simultaneously “protect” the author from jealous bullies and ignorant readers and make sure he or she is not in a defensive crouch or blind posture when receiving criticism.

3. You must make sure students are not using the words, “I liked this,” or “I didn’t like this,” or “I loved this,” or “I hated this.” You must constantly teach students how irrelevant it is to like or not like something. This is much harder than it may seem.

4. You must guide each student writer towards his or her own personal aesthetic vision, be it one you admire or not.


My literature classroom zings with a steady hum of energy like a good strong refrigerator. Yes, vehement, opinionated stances are taken and argued. Students want others to agree with them and take their sides. There is posturing, prodding, preening. But at the end of the day, no one is in tears. No one storms out of the room, declaring they will no longer be an English major. Random groups don’t gather outside the classroom, taking sides, soothing egos, promising payback. Nonetheless, teaching literature can be tricky, too.

Here are the difficult things about teaching literature:

1. Sometimes I do not want to tear apart a book I love. “Isn’t this a fantastic book?” I want to say. I want the entire class period to be a love fest for that book.

2. The filter I referred to earlier can also have a soporific effect on students. It’s just a book some old guy from Detroit wrote. They can’t “relate” to it. Their engagement level is compromised by the haze of the authorial filter.

3. To have students write creatively in a literature classroom feels like cheating.

4. Reading is private. For years I have resisted book clubs because I find reading (the scouting out of what I want to read as well as the actual act of reading as well as my own response to what I read) to be a deeply private pleasure. Sometimes I find it difficult, even in a college classroom, to coax out someone’s true reaction to a book because I respect the privacy of reading so much.