Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, June 19, 2009

late to the party

I know Louis Menand's piece on the creative writing workshop (ostensibly a review of Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era, which sounds fascinating) has already been discussed all over the place. After all, it came out three weeks ago, and in internet time that's an eternity. But I am getting to my New Yorkers late, and I have a bizarre aversion to reading them online, so I just finished the piece this morning.

As someone who occasionally teaches a creative writing workshop (in nonfiction, I hasten to add!), I suppose I have a dog in the fight--though, as Menand presents it, in the end it's not much of a fight. Creative writing workshops are doing something, and they're not going away, so whether or not creative writing itself can be taught actually turns out to be sort of beside the point. But there's almost a throwaway line in his piece that I found very helpful, actually: "Creative-writing courses follow naturally from the 'learning by doing' theories of progressive education: they add practical, hands-on experience to traditional book learning" (109). I've been thinking a lot about progressive education lately, and this rings true to me. It also suggests that maybe in literature courses we ought to be making our students, say, write a sonnet or attempt some fiction. (I think this might be the Bennington approach--Terry?) It's an approach I have to admit I've resisted, because it's 1) not the way I was taught and 2) therefore would have me teaching something I'm not sure I know how to teach. Always a tricky thing.

But, as Menand's next-to-last paragraph reminds us, workshops can "teach [us] about the importance of making things, not just reading things"--and that is, I think, an increasingly valuable skilln(112). Matt Crawford might not think of fiction-making as the same kind of soulcraft that he identifies in manual labor, but there is a satisfaction to making, even making sentences and paragraphs, that I think it's important to acknowledge. And sometimes when students try to write something themselves, they gain an awareness of their reading as made object; they start to be able to look into the craft of it. And that, in turn, can improve their writing as they pay more attention to their own craft.

Sometimes in my children's lit class I've had students do a project taken from Molly Bang's Picture This! How Pictures Work, in which they have to make a picture that tells a story, using cut paper in only four colors. They laugh at themselves for enjoying such a kindergarten assignment so much, but it does give them some insight into what the illustrator's craft requires. I may have to revive that one, and maybe play around with some other hands-on assignments, this time through.

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