Friday, March 6, 2015

How to teach writing

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a successful writing teacher before he became a successful writer. Usually it works the other way around. Writers gain critical success, but usually not financial success, so they supplement their incomes by teaching in creative writing programs. They teach relatively few classes, leaving themselves plenty of time to do their own writing.

When Vonnegut was offered a job as a writer-in-residence at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1965, he was still considered mostly a hack writer of science fiction short stories. He had written some novels, but few people had read them. Novelist Nelson Algren, not Vonnegut, was considered the star of the workshop faculty. Yet Vonnegut soon became the more popular instructor, both because he was a good teacher and because he was simply a lot more fun than Algren and others on the faculty. Among his students at Iowa were future novelists John Irving, James Crumley, Nicholas Meyer and Gail Godwin.

Vonnegut developed some definite ideas about how to run a successful writing program, ideas that strike me as pretty good.

First, he favored weeding out those students who, however much they may wish to be writers, simply don't have what it takes. I myself was weeded out of the applicants for the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1966, while Vonnegut was teaching there. I must admit I deserved to be weeded out. Despite one published short story, I really didn't have the skills to be a successful writer of fiction.  Few applicants for creative writing programs do. Why waste their time and money?

Second, writing programs need to last at least two years for them to be of any use to developing writers.

Third, Vonnegut thought it vital that instructors not just focus on the short story. Short stories, although hardly easy to write, nevertheless can be written in a relatively brief amount of time so that a student might be able to produce several stories in a semester. They are short enough to be read and discussed in class, and they put less demand on the time of instructors, who must read and grade them all.

Yet today relatively few short stories get published and few people actually read them. Vonnegut thought writing programs should also encourage the writing of novels, poetry, essays, plays, scenarios for television and movies and other kinds of writing. Of course, not all writing teachers feel qualified to teach and grade all these forms. Vonnegut, who had written stories, novels, essays, plays and even news articles was probably more versatile than most of his colleagues.

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