Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy

Fred D'Aguiar | October/November 2016

Fred D’Aguiar


The students from diverse backgrounds who made it into the program had to be good writers first and strong individuals second...

In my first tenure-track MFA job in a two-year program that I went on to direct at the University of Miami, fully funded students taught two courses each semester and left with an MFA in fiction or poetry. I remember a session on poetry where we discussed the poem “In My Craft and Sullen Art” by Dylan Thomas. I waxed about the idea of art aligned with nature and how solitary and seer-like the calling of the artist and what a huge responsibility to be the visionary on behalf of a partially blind society which relies on the artist for ways to improve itself. A student piped up that when he read the poem in his teen years he blushed because he thought the poem was a paean to masturbation. His reading centered on the line, “exercised in the still night” and hinged on the verb, “exercised.” The student thought that if Thomas had chosen “practiced” instead of “exercised,” he (the student) would have thought of the more heraldic alternative than the intimate one. The lesson was not that our readings were at odds with one another and one or both of us might be wrong due to cognition governed by desire or its lack, but that art holds contrary possibilities as a matter of artistic procedure.

I helped to recruit the poet Maureen Seaton whose collaborations with Denise Duhamel showcased how cooperative and plural the lonely arts can be; how convivial in its insistence on community even at that coveted point of creativity. The lonely enterprise of writing, Seaton and Duhamel were saying by quiet example, need not be so lonely. Writing itself can embody E.M. Forster’s principle for life and art, “only connect,” but at the very level of composition rather than promulgation from a lonely place of crafting to the communal link with a readership. Of course, for Forster, that connection is as difficult to make in life. But the challenge is to see the cooperative impulse and the will to connect as twin sources of need in the artist and not as some bonus asset.

I left for another opportunity (as they say), this time to help in the ratification and inauguration of Virginia Tech’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, my second tenured job, a three-year program this time with the same exchange of funded study for teaching resulted in much the same qualification, an MFA in fiction and poetry. By the time of this second post, in the early 2000s, Dylan Thomas was out of fashion with students and I kept his secret ministrations on my nervous system to myself. My alternative was to turn to Sylvia Plath and her daddy poems as models of patriarchal malfeasance and imaginative attempts to buck it in dramatizations meant to release, by way of cathartic readings, solutions to traumatic crisis. One student thought the poems were just about the deep currents of “daddy love” gone horribly wrong due to poor mental circuitry in the poet. The lesson here (one of many to be sure) is that Plath (and the work of all authors) manifest in the imagination of the reader according to certain conditions formed at a particular time of that reading in the life of the reader and is therefore subject to change over time and between different readers. Nothing new about that. The take-away (one of many) might be to ask how does this variety of interpretation varying over time and between people apply to models of teaching creative writing in universities.

I found the same freeing illumination in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “At the Fishhouses” at the point where she breaks into a new stanza and direct statement about the quality of the body of water in front of her where she is about to sing Baptist hymns to a seal (ludicrous, I know, but startling true in tone). Her “Cold, dark, deep and absolutely clear…” clears the table of discreet utterance for the large brush strokes of the philosophic. She earns that quantum leap from what you might call her pigeon steps of the proverbial to a ballet dancer’s rhapsodic grand jetes by a stroke of imaginative space opened by the stanza break for an intake of air and for the plunge into the element she related to up to that moment in a circumspect kind of way, as if testing the waters, as it were.

Surely, there is more to this learning moment, more than a Joycean epiphany, as in, for example, the music declared by Joyce in that “shook harness,” in his short story, “Araby.” More even than Morrison’s Beloved, that terrible American history of slavery, when I had to relinquish my turning of the pages because I found the mother’s mercy of killing her babies to save the children from a life of slavery, too much to bear. This is the equivalent of my private reader’s sense of verve and permission granted to me by one writer to another to be brave in similar ways, especially in my teaching life, that calls for the help of all of the writers mentioned here.

I talked with my Virginia Tech colleagues about adding nonfiction to fiction and poetry and in the curriculum offerings we kept up courses in nonfiction and drama to at least present the students with a morsel of the cross-genre work practiced by many of the faculty. We fretted about diversity, less so in my first job, but did nothing to alter the structure of recruitment, of how students found their way into our program. The formula for recruitment, inherited from the first Creative Writing program and tweaked over the years, basically asked applicants for a writing sample, two or three letters of recommendation, and sometimes a supporting statement by applicants saying why they wanted to study a particular art and craft and, if lucky, an interview conducted by a portion of the faculty. At no time did it crop up that the very structure of recruitment, if it wished to capture a diverse population, would need radical restructuring or risk repeated failure to reflect a need to train the nation rather than the ruling element of it.

I blame myself for entering the academy with a mentality that given structures could only be reformed at best, and left to founder at worst; that the real work of writing could happen because of my luck of landing a teaching job; that the problems of society as a whole could not be fixed by stirring up trouble for myself with useless reform thinking borne out of a longing for the academy to lead society rather than living in the shadow of it.

The students from diverse backgrounds who made it into the program had to be good writers first and strong individuals second, that is, imbued with a double vision (akin to Du Bois’s double consciousness though not synonymous with it since his two aspects of the self were both social, first to the group, and second, to the wider society). The students had to be able to hold their own in workshop settings and strike sparks of originality in each story or poem or essay or short play. The idea of defending their race, group, or mental space was a corollary of their artistic location, a sort of trade-off between the gifts offered by a professional setting for the improvement of their art, versus the static of always having to defend a mental and creative space defined by the particulars of their ethnicity, gender, race, or ability.

I imagined myself in their shoes and how I would negotiate this double pivot of having to write as I developed my writing persona and having to defend myself in the same writing space because of my particular historical place as a black male in a hemisphere where modernity was predicated on profit beaten out of my ancestors held in bondage. I talked with my students about the need for self-care and love of their art, of how to balance writing ambition and maintain mental health. At no time did I tell them the system was rotten to the core and all who walked into it risked a similar contamination of their creative soul. I did not believe that a spiritual death would accompany any compromise with an institution; that outsiderness as a stance would preserve my well being even if it proved deficient for the accelerated growth of my art as promised by an association with a creative writing program. I was not a student of Proudhon or Mayakovsky. I did not believe in an anarchic solution for bad structures—that tearing them down and starting over would save a lot of people a lot of pain. Instead, I wanted a romantic notion of engagement with the academy, one that would grow lasting and incremental reform of benefit to everyone regardless of privilege.

The selection process itself, imbued with certain values of what makes good writing or broadcasts good potential, needs close scrutiny.

Writing in the academy held out the promise of a betterment of imagination and self together with others. The model for society as a whole could be tried and tested in the academy with the academy exporting its tested systems to a society begging for improvement. Then I woke up. Not to Proudhon. Not even to Alan Watts and his mediation of the spiritual philosophies of the east for the betterment of the materialist west. I woke up to the limits of individual reform and loose associations with likeminded souls in order to bring about change in the academy in the face of systematic and organized efforts that thwarted any such piecemeal and rhapsodic work. I saw race (one crucial piece to the diversity puzzle) as locked in a long battle with the country’s rulers as the nation struggled to realize its potential by including all its citizens and by giving up on the promotion of the majority by keeping down and exploiting minorities. Race still presented itself in the 21st century as DuBois conceived it in the 20th but with added groups side by side on that color line with blacks, with women’s rights, LGBTQ, and disability rights forming a more diverse opposition to the status quo. I thought the creative writing program could be this experiment in a just society with the arts of the imagination at the center of the enterprise spawning new systems for a more cooperative and kinder society with lessened extremes of wealth and health between groups. It seemed to me that as writers dreamed up their texts, simultaneously, their vexations with society would be addressed, that somehow by osmosis and due to the porous nature of thought and actions, the interconnectedness of these, that writers’ institutional affiliations, their teaching, inevitably would enrich and inform their writing and vice versa.

Tradition and individual or even group talent do not match up as if by magic but demand a lot of design and willful intent. As Eliot’s essay tells us, the values of an artistic tradition steeped in cultural patterns that are tried and tested in history transfer from one generation to the next in a complex play of reward and punishment conducted in a public sphere of prizes, reviews, news, and swift endorsement or curtailment. If it’s not automatic and underpinned by genes and genius then what is it and how does it work? What makes a writer great, successful, popular, even read and published? Popper says that “what is” questions walk into the trap of an enquiry posed on terms that cannot be met by reason alone, that intuition intrudes and spoils rational thought. We’re better off asking why a poor condition persists rather than what adds to its persistence.

The MFA, MA, and PhD in creative writing, now firmly a part of American and British cultures, need to be reframed in light of their persistent contribution to cultures of partiality (Wilson Harris’s term from his notion of an inevitable partial bias to all initiatives that need to be written through in order to reform that bias). In terms of diversity, this partial or bias frame for training writers has promoted whites by excluding blacks, Hispanics, Latinos/Latinas, Pacific peoples, and people with disability in a roughly patriarchal, ableist white supremacist model passed off as democratic pedagogy for training writers. Some minorities make it in the model; some pass through those turnstiles of control but most do not make it through the process of submission of an application with or without an interview. And it isn’t simply a case of whites as gatekeepers stopping others from entering the coveted spaces of writing programs. Some blacks make the same decisions of what passes for a writer with potential, talent, or ability in sufficient quantity to merit earning a place in a program.

If this is the case, if blacks in positions of authority repeat bias against otherness in the selection process in favor of whiteness or in preference of asserting a majority culture, then we need to ask why and how that happens. The selection process itself, imbued with certain values of what makes good writing or broadcasts good potential, needs close scrutiny. I have heard colleagues say that a good piece of writing seen blind, that is, without a name or any authorial marker attached to it, should declare itself to the reader, no matter the conditions under which it is read by the reader. In other words, good is good no matter how it is expressed since the reader cannot help spotting goodness. The problem with this claim is that it implies a degree of awareness in the reader, a depth of knowledge, which surpasses the usual makeup of writers in the American academy. The model assumes that the writer reads internationally and across all genders, races, and cultures, in translation and even in languages other than English.

This is far from the case. The objectivity claimed by a writer who says that good is clear because good writing can be detected anywhere and every time simply express another form of bias and arrogance designed to insure the success of the majority culture in the application process. That type of writer parading as objective reader sees whiteness, or enactments of it, every time, and declares it good always, which fills the programs with that expression of sensibility embodied by that writer at the expense of other forms of expression. The process of application, that first point of entry to a program needs to be reconceived to omit the repeated problem of readers who recruit like minds.

The reform should target the writing sample, add correctives to it, and build in a set of counterbalances to widen the scope of what passes for good. A short phone interview helps to bring out strengths hinted at in the writing sample. The short phone interview, say, fifteen or twenty minutes with another ten for discussion among the interview panel of two or three writers, aims to see if the promising writer can survive the program with its specific demands on the personality of the writer outside of any test of that writer’s talent. For example, many programs expect students to train and teach composition for the most part and some creative writing. Hearing from applicants that this expectation does not clash with their writing ambition helps those writers to make it to graduation. A short statement of one, or two pages max, in support of the application about why the applicant wants to write in that environment and what got the writer started on the path of writing and wanting to continue as such, helps to clarify intent and devotion to a difficult path ahead and shows whether the writer is a reader as well (reading remains a single most important component in the formation of a writer’s sensibility and in the growth of it too). Along with getting in touch with current students and campus visits, an open model—one that is porous and unafraid of close scrutiny—helps to widen recruitment and retain variety.

But the application process, even with these added reforms, remains a first step to recruitment but does not address the problem of retention of applicants from minority groups. The culture of high attrition rates for minorities in majority settings where they feel isolated and on the defensive that needs to be staunched as well. But how? Once inside the citadel of a writing culture, it is hard to examine it from the inside. The open dialogue appears to stop once the student arrives. The process of isolation and a rise in the tension and a shift of talk from cultural to psychological take precedence over the usual and easy to identify bias practices. Now it becomes psychological warfare. Who likes whom and who takes over the workshop and which teacher is most solicitous of whites at the expense of others takes over talk among students in and out of classes, assuming that the minority student is able to talk about this at all which is not always the case. Most minority students in a majority culture feel silenced and bear the burden of account and defense in isolation until they feel overwhelmed and have to leave the program to stay sane.

Going out to catchment areas where minorities thrive and bringing them into institutions divorced from and at variance with those communities seem tantamount to designing the recruit to fail as a student who is cut off from the very nutrients that feed the writing persona. Opening satellite campuses in the communities starved of varieties of capital investment or occupying empty buildings in communities profiled for crime and prison and not learning and improvement, may be a better step. Drawing on oral and scribal traditions practiced in those communities, and on orature and literature generated by them, as tools for instruction, cannot be bad either. Why not study existing structures, such as Wednesday and Thursday night Bible instruction at churches in the heart of those communities? For their strategies of instruction, among subjects ordinarily viewed as outside the remit of creativity, may improve the democratization of our own mired as it is in elitism. 

I am not talking about religion (as__would say in his ironizing zeal posited as an art of resistance to despotism). I am talking about creative pedagogy. Not quite pedagogy of the oppressed but echoes of it. And why not? Why must the liberal exclusion of all things radical be the norm for reform? (An oxymoron if ever there was one.) To be fair, some elements of communal outreach and input exist in the academy. For example, I recall my former colleague Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech organizing a bus to ferry students and some faculty to an audience with Maya Angelou in North Carolina. A large cage in Maya’s yard stood with its cage door ajar signifying that the song may have had a hand in unbolting that door and that the songs have spread far and wide. As a still moment inviting the student gaze and contemplation there was the momentum of a flown bird in the current of an endlessly unfolding newsflash about its art. Maya dropped pearls of wisdom that afternoon about her abhorrence of the n-word seen by her as beyond rehabilitation, about art in life as life itself, and by her example of continued artistic practice and spiritual and political thought at the disposal of society.

The extent of the control exercised by faculty and students alike over a tyranny of interiority, of behavior on the inside of a writing program that masquerades as expert creative writing pedagogy but is just bias on the rampage, becomes central to keeping women and minorities in healthy numbers and in good health in any program. Cultures within programs school newcomers into early compliance to its rigors and strictures. Creativity must make accommodations to those cultures of conformity. A healthy creative writing program seeks to minimize those variables that stifle creativity and diversity and foster the ones that promote growth of the talent and the person.

Ideally, programs should be all about the writing, but as in most things in life the expression of talent is tied up with the person’s feelings of comfort with the writing environment. Democratic spaces are all about diversity and inclusion. But diversity can be undermined by a minimalist devotion to meeting its requirements. Writers in the role of administrators become odd arbiters of taste by paying minimal attention to inclusion as a gateway to a diverse student body and therefore a varied creative writing practice. On one level, the radical imagination thrives outside of teaching time. On another, the most conservative responses from writers are on display during term time as if the radical is reserved for the real enterprise of writing while teaching must suffer slings and arrows of blind conformity and dispiriting bias. It’s wrong to separate the two as private and public. They function in tandem in that the writing of the teacher is made possible by the teaching of the writer. Radical reform as a creative imperative—better scripts that upset the status quo and invest in invention—must feed into teaching and administration since the reverse is true as well.

What seems to be true is that while writers studiously hone their writing skills, they stumble and fall back to knee jerk reactions when it comes to administrative decisions that shape and define a writing program. This means that more training may be needed for writers who act as administrators. Writers in administrative roles may need instruction in how to examine biases and invigilate against them. Leaving it to chance and throwing up hands in exasperation when it comes to diversity and retention of students just won’t do anymore since to surrender rather than to embrace reform risks a process of atrophy of the institutional imagination in a testing economic and social climate when there is urgent need to grow and be flexible.

At no time did it crop up that the very structure of recruitment, if it wished to capture a diverse population, would need radical restructuring or risk repeated failure to reflect a need to train the nation rather than the ruling element of it.

Recruitment of diverse faculty seems paramount in the process of growing diversity and inclusion. The usual single search where one or two diverse faculty find themselves in a throng of majority culture merely serves to cement weird practices not reform them since the few diverse faculty must answer to the majority for tenure reviews and other committees. What happens all too often is that minority faculty are stretched and pulled to answer too many demands on their time at the expense of productive participation in the reforming aspects of life of the institution. Instead, the minority status of minority faculty leads to institutional burnout. A siege mentality on the part of the minority writer and teacher who must protect their writing time and sanity quickly replaces a creative institutional engagement. Recruitment when deployed as a token gesture fails at the outset and may be viewed as designed to fail even though it advertises itself as the opposite and presents disguised as a liberal and democratic initiative.

Writing a job description may be key to recruiting diverse faculty and at least two jobs if not three may be needed to help to bring about a supporting and supportive cast of writers. No writer I know wants to be the only one to represent reform. All writers crave a supportive community, which speaks to their writing and their person. A diverse faculty is a prerequisite for a diverse student body. Diversity feeds into the curriculum as well and into the formal innovations claimed by some writers who do not see the silos of their thinking as they busy themselves with occupying as much white space on the page as possible in bold ways.

Who do you read and teach? This may be a question for current faculty of programs to pose themselves. Lunchtime sessions of research-in-progress that include books to read and talk about should help to change the culture of conformity among writing faculty. Difference may be the new template just as taste seeks to cohere in calcifying practices of sameness in sound, look, and feel. Breaking that mold may call for a difference matters movement in the same resistance narrative and practices of the Black Lives Matter movement. What is dying in the academy is varied imaginative practice. What’s at stake is the very diversity of thought in the culture that is needed to undermine stories of hostile others. Arguments constructed on delusions of communal monocultures gain traction by appealing to a sense of powerlessness and by claiming a past glory that never benefited more than a few.

The idea that creativity in educational institutions—the creative being that last bastion of inclusion, that is necessarily plural and inventive at the level of form and content, that it must kowtow to current cultural patterns or face extinction rather than amp up the dials of its own scale for reform versus conformity, diversity versus uniformity—seems a no brainer to me at this moment in history precisely because I believe that the creative imagination aimed at societal questions tends to trump social theory borne out of maintaining things as they are. Creativity can and should shape social practice if only because of the privilege of contemplation granted to the creative thinker in the academy versus the hustle of everyone else in jobs that number two or more to pay the bills and often lead to continually deferred dreams aimed at the moment of retirement that founder at the age of retirement in that dreamer’s instant death from exhaustion, assuming they make it to that point. I see writing programs as miniexperiments in civics, grounded in the generation of texts and intertextual by nature (as well as naughty) they model systems and organisms of social being, of inner and outer worlds working together, of reader and writer engaged in the same revolutionary practices of making and unmaking, remaking and molding the oral and written texts in and out of private and public individual and varied group contexts.

The magical thinking of the creative writer, quantum and inventive by nature, should have an impact on the institutional forms given to students who come to the academy to hone their writing skills. But how to avert the great danger of mis-education (as intoned by Lauryn Hill) of inculcating values into student writers that merely serve to shore up recalcitrant elements in wider society and denigrate free thinking? By the time student writers reach graduation, they feel excluded from civic society as if to participate in civic acts were somehow vulgar to the refined arts of the imagination. Unexamined creative writing schooling presented as exclusive imagination at work frequenting results in feelings of exclusion among students from the very arts these programs purport to serve for the greater good of art and society. Such schooling is really malpractice, embedded in the nuts and bolts of programs, in reading lists for courses, in discussion etiquette and student-faculty protocol, and in pedagogical practices, all of which work in concert to demand a surrender to their coercive rules in exchange for graduation, and all aimed at a civics of compliance by citizens but disguised as indispensable time-tested rules of writing,

I don’t buy it. Why should our students? The blank page, the mic, demand invention as progression, the story and breath ask for continual surprise. The long engagement of fiction, drama, poetry, and nonfiction, even when those forms shrink to haiku, sonnets, flash fiction, and short monologues, including the MC in the sound booth in front of a demanding mic and armed with breath, chemistry, and calling at fingertip control, all that risk leads to reward; that the high jinx of waking up each day to a writing project may be the greatest reward of all. So why pull creativity’s sting for a docile and mute artistic practice invested in conformity and exploitative pluralistic practices? Why settle for a dull version of the norm where variety is imported piecemeal and pressed into service to shore up a purportedly monocultural edifice? (Purported because things aren’t necessarily what they seem in that mono I.D.–run institutions and places advertise one thing on the surface but scratch that surface and they reveal quite a bit of sustaining diversity that is sidelined or forced into the background for foregrounded stories of sameness as a precursor for belonging. Alternatively, the Machiavellian and cynical radar in me must point out the opposite to be just as true, in that diversity when it is foregrounded by institutions and places may simply be using diversity and inclusion as a front to hide a mono I.D. practice wholly invested in maintaining dominant group rule over minorities.) Students should be suspicious of these enticing (for enticing read spruced up with rhetoric and funds) models and teachers who are writers even more so if they wish to resist ascribed roles within institutions as agents for sameness.

I cannot be wrong about the power of the imagination since the work of dreaming remains the single most transformative aspect of being alive. I want students to arrive at places of stillness and contemplation as represented by the academy, wide-eyed with possibility rather than jaded and guarded. I want them to make it a habit to be present where libraries foster stale air of nonmovement of the body in contrapuntal relation to the flux of thought, for them to remain receptive to and inventive of what seemed impossible as it is made suddenly real. By them. By the models in institutions that are meant for them opening up fast and reaching out far to send a clear signal to writing students how available these models really are to anyone who wishes to learn the craft of their chosen art. Dream on. With or without the offer of that institutional olive branch. Of the writers inside saying to those students coming in, that they are welcome, and what they bring is valued and needed by the academy to foster its experimental persona of excellence in the arts of life for the life of the arts, practiced as those arts are, for a better understanding of ourselves, our puzzlement, and for the improvement of life in society.

Claudia Rankine’s cross-genre exegesis of racism practiced against black people in all walks of life and her AWP LA conference lecture about models for recognizing and sidestepping the psychogeography of racialized practices aimed to promote white privilege and continue the underdevelopment (Walter Rodney’s term) of all minorities and of women as well, presents the opportunity for this radical re-envisioning process by writers and students in an academy rife with faults and therefore ripe for radical reform. Grab it. The moment (if history could be invoked in the middle of the literary and metaphorical) reveals symmetries between the academy and society. There is matching institutional and social unrest. Given that the two are coterminous in their discontents now may be the time for forward thinking administrators and teachers and students to pool their collective worth at reconfiguring a much needed creative thinking space on the basis that the academy still looks like a fit place for the teaching, mentoring, and modeling of this art and craft.

Ideally, programs should be all about the writing, but as in most things in life the expression of talent is tied up with the person’s feelings of comfort with the writing environment. Democratic spaces are all about diversity and inclusion.

I channel the critic, Hazel Carby, here when I thank Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784) for her mischievous secretions of rebellious intent in her 18th-century panegyrics to her sponsors. With no other means available to her, Wheatley broadcasts her discontent in coded double-speak of praise tinged with blame, with loss of Africa informing her affirmation of a new and sustaining America. Could this seeing two things at once be a condition for a reinvigorated institutional contract between writer and institution?

The model of the writer, with story, narrative, lyric, drama, of the artist with plastic arts, could lend itself to teaching in the academy. Writing asks for a fluidity and nimbleness on the part of the writer. An intuitive imagination is at work inching the poem forward one word at a time or the story line by line or the phrasal architecture of drama, or simply adding sound to a call for silence (contradiction as a creative imperative) or managing the consciousness of time as art.

My young colleague at UCLA, Justin Torres, has a first book of linked vignettes, We the Animals, no more than 128 pages tops, which has the intensity of prose poetry and yet it works by an accumulation of scenes and details like a fat 19th-century Russian novel, the same lasting reverberation of feeling and meaning. The wonder is how did Torres achieve such bigness by such compression. The answer, one of many, resides in the belief that the image and scene really do compress things readers find endlessly yielding as sites of contemplation. That characters outside of their acts and speech and in league with the two, signal dilemmas and life changes only readers can divine. As an act of reading We the Animals over and again, I ask if there is submerged within the confined spaces of Torres’s meta-narrative, solutions for institutional pedagogy? Maybe so.

I know from my readings of Torres (spoiler alert for those who have not read the book) that the image towards the end of a father bathing his normatively transgressive son emits an illuminating charge every time and commands me to make all sorts of links to my life and to benevolent authority and sensuously governed teenage explorations of the self and of belonging. The quantum thinking encouraged in readers by stellar models of creativity such as Torres’s should, as a process, be applied to creative writing teaching programs. The translation of one into the other may depend on reading more translations into English from other languages and comparing versions to see how meaning and feeling between objects and thoughts moved across language boundaries flourish. I have just read Sholeh Wolpe’s translation of The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the Sufi poet from the 12th century (forthcoming from Norton) and feel a similar font of knowledge (a layered cake of meanings if you like or if it helps to see it, a pond into which a stone is dropped to cause those widening circles outwards to the end and back from the edge) with wider application to my teaching as a writer and my reading as a writer (who writes as a reader as well).

A sense of building meaning or a critique of it goes hand-in-hand with these structures and organisms of thought. Can the academy with creative writing at its center mimic these creative procedures as a way for enshrining creative pedagogy? Low-residency programs free up writers to work and live as they make their art. In my present job at UCLA, where a long-term goal for an MFA provokes my daily work practices, I’d like to see a mixed model of funds gleaned from empathetic sources in private industry, with matching monies from the academy, form the basis of an MFA in creative writing.

I’d welcome the porous model of a place deliberately kept open to influences from outside as an imperative for policy and practice. Some offsite part-time teaching in atypical places and spaces minorities live in, would be a good thing for the academy and the writer teaching in it. Such outreach would serve as cultivating ground for recruitment to the luxury of full-time study in the academy. Diversity and inclusion conceived as central to creativity at UCLA should invigorate the art with a relevance unblemished by institutional paralysis of groupthink disguised as think tank and Balkanized defenses of small spaces and supersized, self-proliferating bureaucracies. Love of the arts, central to any dedication, should be the guiding light of our working lives as artists.

A healthy creative writing program seeks to minimize those variables that stifle creativity and diversity and foster the ones that promote growth of the talent and the person.

I prepare with each poem, story, play, and essay to fail as a way of embarking on those forms in the first place. With Beckett’s “fail again, fail better next time” as my raison d’etre for artistic production I see my life in the academy as attempts (elegantly failed ones some would say) to reconcile the bravura of art with the quotidian of academic routine. Another image, if I am spinning many plates on rods as a way in the world I really do not want them to come crashing down due to neglect of one aspect of my life in favor of another, I’d like to think that I can move from each plate and give each one the whir it needs to maintain the flux I benefit from in untold ways.

All of this boils down to an altered MFA and PhD in creative writing that is inclusive in nature and cross-genre by definition since it gives equal weight to at least three genres in terms of credits taken. Faculty, drawn from each genre, comprises a selection committee tasked to recruit students for the multigenre degree. This prevents those stultifying silos of thinking, practice, and recruitment designed to Balkanize student body loyalty to certain approved and recalcitrant practices, which undermine diversity in training and bowdlerizes creative thinking. The mixed degree and varied selection panel break down disciple syndrome tendencies in the recruitment of students, that is, faculty would find it harder to recruit students who mirror their style, values, and tone which brings in greater variety to the program and may well translate to a higher presence of minority voices. This new plural model helps small programs to diversity as well by promoting cross-genre work, intergenre talk, as mixed faculty bring their particular expertise to bear on a search committee and must listen and exchange with colleagues from other genres and disciplines (perhaps a literature faculty could be invited to join the process) for the selection process to be a productive one. The new MFA, no longer forcing students to specialize and securing diversity in student training, better prepares students to write in a world that is international and multigenre in scope. Experimental work would find it easier to meet a ready audience, receptive to the spirit of invention and overcoming barriers. As a result a multigenre, creative writing MFA or PhD would sport a distinct identity of diversity and flexibility among a crowded field of specialisms while appealing to work that demands a nimble creative spirit. While many programs allow some cross-genre work for students who are required to specialize in one genre in order to earn the degree, none have put forward this plural model which privileges the creative enterprise as a whole rather than a single genre over another. The two-fold aim of this upgraded model for teaching creative writing in the academy is first, to grow a writing program’s diverse student body, and second, legitimize the cross-genre writer and reader persona of every writer. A broader outcome legitimizes the plural reader in all writers. Multiple sources feed the writer’s art and craft, exercised and practiced at all hours, day and night.                


Fred D’Aguiar’s most recent poetry collection, his sixth, is The Rose of Toulouse (Carcanet, 2013). His latest novel is Children of Paradise (HarperCollins, 2015). He is an associate editor of CALLALOO and Professor of English at UCLA, where he serves as Director of the Creative Writing Program.


Selected Texts

Maureen Seaton and Denise Duhamel, Oyl (Pearl, 2000) and Exquisite Politics (Northwestern, 1997).

Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems.

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems.

W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk (1901).

James Joyce, Dubliners (1914).

T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” first published in The Egoist, 1919 (see Selected Essays).

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1999).

Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood (OUP, 1987).

Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems 1929–1979.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968).

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Collected Poems.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property and The General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, The Bedbug and Selected Poetry and My Discovery of America.

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951) and Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975).

Claudia Rankine, Citizen.

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