How does one learn to write? By writing, of course. But is learning to write best done that on one's own? Or is it best nurtured in a group, with a mentor, with the support of like-minded souls?
Louis Menand has a long essay on academic creative writing programs in the June 8 New Yorker which explores their signal success, and their fabulous expansion. It’s worth reading for anyone who aspires to write or who wonders how good writing is accomplished. If I understand correctly, Menand’s conclusion is that some programs have encouraged some marvelous writers:
“When Vonnegut was at Iowa, he taught a class that included John Casey, Gail Godwin, Andre Dubus, and John Irving. Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines (“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”), and Tillie Olsen were all in a creative-writing workshop at Stanford at the same time. Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, and Richard Ford (a student of Doctorow, before Doctorow went to N.Y.U.) are products of the program at the University of California at Irvine. Susan Minot, Rick Moody, Tama Janowitz, and Mona Simpson all went to Columbia.”
But most of the students in these programs may never be published, and certainly many of their teachers are not well-known even to avid readers, Menand notes. One of the things the programs do, however, is to encourage the passion for writing and reading, and Menand contends that may be as important an accomplishment as turning out literary stars.
I’d add that providing an income for writers is another accomplishment of the programs that should not be underestimated. Menand says that in 1975 there were 15 creative writing programs on the master’s level in the US, but that today there are 153. I don’t have similar figures for Canada, but factor in the number of creative writing classes offered at various levels taught by writers, and you get a nice supplement to the nearly non-existent income most famous writers get from their writing. Teaching a creative writing class or two a year often makes the difference between poverty and a more-or-less middle class life.
Not that I’ve ever taught. I’ve used that other writerly strategy: team up with somebody who has a good day job! It's one or the other for those of us who haven't joined the rich and famous, it seems.