Fibbers, Nappers, Hens

Grammar and Grading in the Creative Writing Workshop
Originally published in AWP eLink

Whenever I teach Creative Writing to undergraduates, I find time at the very beginning of the semester to hand out a chart to clarify any confusion between lie and lay. The students look surprised when they see it. This is a Creative Writing class, not an “English” class. They haven’t signed up for a lesson in grammar.

Here is the chart:

Lots of TimesLiedLainLaid

I tell the students to make up sentences, quickly, in which children fib, women habitually sleep in the daytime, and hens (or humans) set an egg on a clean bed of straw.

After a vigorous round or two of Fibbers/Nappers/Hens, a tentative hand will usually go up. “We aren’t going to be graded on our grammar, though, are we? We’re going to be graded on our writing.”

Well, of course they’re going to be graded on their writing, I reassure them. What else could they be graded on? Then I direct them to the required reading list on the syllabus, which usually includes a copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White.

To my students’ further horror, I soon explain to the group of would-be novelists and short story writers that certain subjects and types of writing will be banned. Yes, in Creative Writing, I am outright prohibiting a number of subject matters and approaches.

These include

– anything written from the point of view of an animal
– anything written from the point of view of an inanimate object
– any work of fiction set on another planet
– dialect, without written permission of the instructor
– stories that end with a character waking up
– stories that begin with an alarm clock ringing

By the time I’ve finished with another grammar exercise and a few more guidelines, some of the students look depressed; others are furtively consulting a battered copy of the course catalog.

To my knowledge, Creative Writing classes are the only ones in which even the shy and retiring students will, before the first assignment has been discussed or scheduled, actively debate and argue about what their homework should consist of, what they are to be graded on and why, and whether the professor assigned to evaluate their work is qualified to do so. (Or whether she is simply predisposed to apportion A’s to the stories she likes.)

Set aside for a moment the fact that most prose and poetry produced in an Introduction to Creative Writing workshop is very easily recognized as A, B, C, or F work. The distinctions aren’t subtle. The larger question – the one that a significant number of students and even teachers of Creative Writing tend to get worked up about – has to do with grading on the basis of what some would call effort (I would call it compliance) versus talent.

“I don’t think it’s fair to penalize students for a lack of talent,” several fellow teachers have told me. How strange, I think. If only such generosity of spirit had been extended to me when I studied Economics. I simply had no talent for the subject. No particular gift or calling. Despite my faithful attendance at the extra study sessions and my earnest note-taking technique, I failed to thrive. I doubt the professor thought twice about awarding me my final C. I can’t imagine him wringing his hands about my lack of talent.

But writing is different, the argument goes. Writing isn’t like Economics. The implication here is that economists (and mathematicians and philosophers and linguists and sociologists) succeed in their respective fields because of years of honest hard work. Writers, on the other hand, succeed because they are born that way. Sort of like Miss America candidates, they are simply endowed with good fortune. Talent. Or luck.

This might seem to be an issue particular to the arts – not only to Creative Writing but to music, dance, studio arts, and theater. Not so. Undergraduates enrolling in an Introduction to Ballet class are likely to confess to their two left feet, their lack of experience or natural inclination. But students in an Introductory Creative Writing class seldom express a similar lack of preparedness. On the contrary: they have feelings, and they have ideas. They are therefore prepared. They have been arranging words on pieces of paper for many years.

To extend the analogy a little further, the student of dance doesn’t come to the first session thinking, I have been moving my arms and legs around for decades – of course I can excel in this class. But the Creative Writing student is often operating under this sort of delusion.

Which is why I keep piling on the exercises, a series of plies and jetes before a single student is allowed onto the floor to dance.

1) Write a grammatically correct sentence one hundred words long.
2) Write a one page short story without using the letter E.
3) Write 11 sentences in a row that contain exactly 11 words each, every other sentence beginning with a dependent clause.

The students groan. They have stories roiling away inside them: a stormy afternoon spent fishing with a best friend, a great aunt’s fourth marriage, a family trip to Mexico. And their teacher is talking about the semi-colon and the dependent clause. Worse, she plans to grade them (at least in part) on essays in which they have to analyze a given writer’s voice or style.

The larger question here is one that writers who teach are (too) often asked. Can Creative Writing be taught?

No, I answer firmly, whenever I am asked. Neither can music. Or dance. Neither, of course, can Economics. I am living proof of this fact, for I survived an entire semester of the subject but never learned it. After receiving my C minus I understood that one either had an aptitude (and learned) or one didn’t. Furthermore, I understood that an “A” in Econ 101 was not necessarily a mark of genius. It was a reward for those who brought to the topic a particular combination of hard work and natural aptitude, neither one of which was graded by itself.

Can Creative Writing be taught? Yes — that is, like any other subject it can be studied and, up to a point, learned with assistance. But it can’t be taught well if it is structured experientially as an exercise in write what you feel. Though some organizations do encourage writing as therapy, this approach has no place in a formal classroom. I am not a therapist: I’m not prepared to grade the quality of a student’s grief for his dead brother, and I don’t want to assign a B minus to a date rape or a meditation on the end of the world.

On the other hand I am always eager to help a student learn to recognize a weak or mixed metaphor, or to help him cantilever a one hundred and seven word sentence out into thin air.

To grade Creative Writing students on “effort” or attendance or compliance is to do them a disservice. To allow an ignorance of style and grammar is to teach wood shop without a working knowledge of the tools. And skillful employment of the tools is generally the best subject of an undergraduate writing class: most writing teachers would agree that it isn’t the overall idea that makes for a successful workshop story – it’s the execution.

An ability to distinguish lie from lay shouldn’t be the aim of any Creative Writing class. The aim is an awareness and an attention to the rhythms and networks and structures and possibilities of the language, to its unending potential and its demands.