Demystifying and Demythifying the Workshop: On the Supposed 'Lore' of Creative Writing Pedagogy

Gerry LaFemina | May 2011


Having spent a good amount of time looking at the issue of creative writing pedagogy, and reading much of the criticism that emanates from both critical scholars and compositionists, I’m left with some frustrations and also some spaces that just might leave me with enough room to place a pry bar of thought into and wiggle an argument open. Much of what is written about the workshop and its relationship to a “lore” of creative writing pedagogy seems to be itself based on some sort of “lore” against creative writing. In my reading, I’ve never once seen an extensive look at creative writing syllabi,1 creative writing text books, or even the notion that creative writing—like composition and literature—is taught in tiered workshops at the undergraduate level: introductory (often a multi genre workshop), intermediate, and advanced, and that at this level, it is part (in creative writing majors) of a broader departmental curriculum that includes some element of composition and literary criticism. By lumping all levels of workshop into some generalized “workshop,”2 the critics of creative writing can say there is no pedagogy, there is no rationale for how we teach, and there is no sense of what we teach beyond “good” writing—and for many critics of creative writing that means publishable in a particular way or else it means the piece reads like the faculty’s stories or poems.

If we’re going to say that the goal of a class is that our students produce good poems, good stories, and good essays, we need to allow for a value system. Surely good poems share similar qualities with other good poems as well as with good essays and good stories. Or do they? Can we even compare the poems of John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Galway Kinnell on anything but subjective criteria? Should a good writer of fiction be able to write good poems? I know many fine fiction writers who can’t write successful poems. Reginald McKnight, for instance, has a terrific writing process, a love for poetry, and yet cannot write what he considers a good poem. He won’t even show his attempts at poetry to friends. Other writers, such as Charles Baxter, started as poets and slowly discovered that their real skill—their passion—was in fiction writing. Baxter’s three books of poems are quite good, but there’s no doubt that his novels are much better. There are other writers—Stuart Dybek, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood among others—who write well in more than one genre. Dybek has often said that when he begins a piece, questions of genre don’t enter into the equation—genre reveals itself; whereas other writers, myself included, have different processes for different genres. Obviously, then, these writers have certain requirements for good writing, and those requirements are part of the process. Others might say they’re just plain talented.

One of the complaints often lodged against creative writing classrooms revolves around the idea of talent—the idea that writers are born, not made—and associated with this is the notion “that should be familiar to anyone conversant with this discourse of creative writing: We can’t teach students to be creative writers, but we can teach them something.”3 For Mayers and others, the argument is that creative writing workshops spend too much time on Romantic notions of the individual self and the finding of a voice and forms that will fit that voice rather than structures of rhetorical sensibilities. No one would argue that good poetry or good fiction doesn’t have to have a balance of the three elements of rhetoric: logos, ethos, and pathos. What Mayers and others fail to recognize—particularly in regards to poetry—is that form (which he believes the workshop is overly obsessed with) helps give a piece its ethos and logos. Line break, stanzaic patterning, enjambment—all these formal concerns help instill a poem with meaning.

But I get ahead of myself. By discussing line breaks, etc., I am already moving into the realm of technique, which happens later in the poetic process. And I don’t want to lose my thread here—we’re talking about good writing. Right now, we’re on common ground. Compositionists and creative writers believe good writing can be taught.

So let’s get specific: what makes a good workshop?

Recently I was teaching a workshop, and one young woman in my class kept jumping right into the criticism of the poems on the docket: “This line break....” and “I’m not sure about this word choice....” I finally had to reign in the class and say, “Before we talk about this next poem, I want to ask a few questions. What is this poem trying to do? And how is it trying to do it?” This girl—she was an advanced writer and someone I’ve known for several years—couldn’t or wouldn’t answer these questions. She was baffled as to why I was asking. So I used an analogy: “If I brought in a mechanical device and said what do you think, you would ask me what is it supposed to do before you evaluated it. So I ask what is this poem trying to do?”

A good workshop, first and foremost, attempts to not confuse one participant’s poetic goals with another person’s—even the teacher’s. Patrick Bizzaro begins the second chapter of Responding to Student Poems with an epigraph from Dave Smith’s and David Bottoms’s introduction to The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets, in which they admit that they “wanted poems (they) liked” in their anthology in order to suggest that poets want poems they like from their students; fiction writers want stories they like from their students. But what does it mean to like something? The inference after reading Bizzaro’s first chapter is, that poets only like a particular type or style of poem, and that’s what they want from their students, also. This is a particularly ugly vision of those of us who write and teach, suggesting (as many of the critics do) that we can’t have broad tastes as readers and teachers, even while finding a niche—a voice—for ourselves as writers. If we broaden the example, the inference is, of course, that musicians must only listen to one type of music, artists enjoy only one school of art, and that architects only appreciate one vision for a building. Perhaps, though, I might like things I can’t produce. To say I want students to produce work I like is to say I want students to have high standards for their poems. I want them to make me care—through the crafting of language—about each poem.

When I was a student, Thomas Lux never encouraged me to write poems like his; rather he encouraged experimentation. In the introductory workshop, I ask students to spend the first week reading poems from a diverse anthology and then to bring in poems that interested them—formally, rhetorically, content-wise, whatever. Before they even write, I want them to get a sense of what a poem is to them. Some people bring in short lyrics, and others long meditations; some surrealist poems, others the contemporary narrative with a lyric ending, and still others bring post-lyric and fractal poems. This establishes an aesthetic baseline for the class. We’re going to understand poetics and what constitutes the potentiality for a poem. As Priscilla Uppal puts it, “If students arrive with limited experience and a restricted range of responses to authorship, the task of the creative writing teacher first and foremost must be to give them exercises that expand and open their creativity.”4

Although Uppal goes on to say that her experience as a student in workshop was not designed in such a way, what isn’t examined in her discourse (nor in the discourse of many of the other critics who use their personal testimonies as reasons why ultimately “workshop” is a failure—it failed them) is how the concept of workshop has changed in the intervening years. Many of the critics say it hasn’t—that creative writing pedagogy has stalled, and the way to prove this is to ignore the type of workshop-based class many of us have created. It is easy to talk about lore when one is perpetuating that lore.

In her essay “Against Reading,” Katherine Haake points the finger at faculty force-feeding their own aesthetic biases on their students by what they choose for their students to read. Yet many poetry and fiction anthologies on the market showcase diversity—diversity in styles, in modes, in form, in rhetoric, and in cultural and subcultural backgrounds. Still, she too insists that (s)tudents who emerge from... workshops, as I did years ago, will have internalized some vague notion about what contemporary writing is supposed to look like, and in the best tradition of imitative pedagogies, will try to reproduce it. And that is precisely how we have earned our reputation for an MFA-homogenized literature in what Patrick Bizzaro describes as a “...workshop-writing phenomenon (that) no doubt works vertically, where sameness is passed from teacher to student who, in turn, becomes a teacher who passes certain literary biases to yet another generation of students.”5


We live in a time of the greatest literary diversity in this country. Language poets, California school, neo-surrealists, beatnik Buddhist poets, “traditional American” lyric poets, narrative poets; one can find MFA programs that welcome writers-in-training of individual taste, aesthetics, and sensibilities,6 but what is being taught in many—and I will say most—introductory workshops is an introduction to the opportunities literary forms offer. The bigger challenge I find for the teacher of creative writing is juggling the various students and their developing aesthetics—many of which differ from the teacher’s own—so that we can provide individualized attention and feedback to their missions as writers. Chris Green in his essay “Materializing the Sublime Reader” notes something similar when he acknowledges that “(a)s a teacher in the university, I work to provide paths (emphasis mine) for students to use the knowledge they have gathered to strengthen their participation in their communities of choice.”7


The most recent detractors fail to mention Green’s essay, which, beyond other things, boldly reconsiders creative writing pedagogy and suggests new classroom techniques that employ what students learn through cultural criticism to avoid the problems of the so-called “workshop” poem by asking students to consider the individual cultural context in which each one writes. Green suggests, “In addition to writing well and having a broad literary background, our students should learn how to speak to chosen vernacular interpretive communities and their literary traditions. To serve these communities means implementing new theories of consumption and audience as articulated by Jane Tompkins and reader-response theorists.”8 Although I would argue that much of such training happens unconsciously and in response to environment, Green believes the students are better served as individuals when each researches the roots of his or her poetic tradition—not only in the forms of poems through history, but also in defenses of poetry and other cultural texts. That said, Green’s project is not the basis for an introductory class, but something that might happen as a capstone project.

Whether Green’s fundamental premise is accurate or not is beside the point. Rather, “Materializing the Sublime Reader” illustrates various advances in said pedagogy and shows that creative writing classroom practices are evolving as a new generation of writers—ones who have become writer-professor with a belief in classroom practices beyond straight workshop—comes into the academy. Haake, Ritter, Vanderslice and others have complained that there is little pedagogy, little teacher training, and few critical eyes turned toward the “how” of creative writing teaching (and thus, their arguments go, creative writing is a cottage industry that perpetuates lore in methodology; the final product of our students, they continue, is uninspired, unchallenged, and shares a particular aesthetic sensibility: the “workshop” poem; the McStory), and suggest that the workshop is a generation or more outdated.

Reconsidering Green’s sense of writing paths, I’m left to consider the Buddhist teaching that says if you see the Buddha ahead of you, kill him. Anne Sexton did not write like Robert Lowell. I do not write like any of my teachers. Sean Thomas Dougherty does not write like Charles Simic. There’s no doubt there are poets who sound like their teachers, and no doubt there are poets who sound like the writers they admire in. In a practical vein, though, why would a teacher want a student to sound like him or her? Vanity? And why would a student not want to find a voice distinct for herself? What did Lowell teach Sexton? Well we know what she says: “Courage, of course. That’s the most important ingredient. Then... Lowell helped me distrust the easy musical phrase and to look for the frankness of ordinary speech. Lowell is never impressed with a display of images or sounds—those things that a poet is born with anyhow.... What he taught me was taste—perhaps that’s the only thing that can be taught.”9

Of course, taste is not the only thing that can be taught, and one needs to be careful of Sexton’s phrase “those things that a poet is born with” because it leads some critics of creative writing to say we believe writers are born with talent that cannot be taught. People do have talents—we all have taste buds, etc.—but not everyone can cook well. I love to play the guitar. I have all my fingers, a decent ear, and competent hand-eye coordination. Yet, even though I practice daily, I cannot get around certain limitations. As we saw earlier, some writers are more attuned to the writing of fiction rather than poetry. Creative writing classes cannot create an even playing field—some people are more naturally gifted than others. However, creative writing can help students find a mode of writing that fits with their strengths and challenges their weaknesses, and it does teach a lot of significant skills toward becoming a better writer: one is the importance of paying attention. Writing requires attention to the world and to language and to the self. And paying attention means looking beneath the surface of an idea to explore and examine it in the context of language. We then enact this attention through the workshop process also. Pulitzer-prize winning poet and noted teacher Stephen Dunn discusses his workshop and its call to pay attention in this way:

(A) poetry workshop infuses and restores a respect for precision, for finding the right words, therefore moving the writer closer to what can credibly be said about something. This is one reason why teaching still pleases me; over, say, a semester to witness a student move in the direction of the true(r). I treat even the most marginal student’s poem as a poem wishing to be a poem. I hold it to high standards, as if it might be a poem. But secretly, what I know I’m doing is instructing the student about the tendency toward self-indulgence (the main problem of beginning writers), the problem of sloppy feeling and thinking, and something about what the inauthentic sounds like.10

By pointing such things out, Dunn asks student writers to dig deeper, push further, and pay more attention. Creative writing classes also teach and demand that students do this on a deadline, thus forcing students to craft from their own raw materials a piece of writing. Perhaps one of them saw something on the way to school, an image that resonates—just a fragment of something. It caught his eye and asked him to pay attention to it on some level. This is the steel rod that he will now put in the blast furnace and shape and hammer away at, forging it into something that he may not know yet. Workshop helps discuss what choices were made, which choices worked, and why.

One of the reasons creative writing classes look at published material is to discuss the choices made about elements of technique and craft. Myers notes that this is a harkening back to creative writing’s relationship with the New Critics.

To write a poem, on their understanding, was to decide critically among the many creative directions it might take; to read it was to reenact these decisions. And to write criticism, then, was to duplicate the poet’s experience—in a different medium. Blackmur said that “the composition of a great poem is a labor of unrelenting criticism, and the full reading of it only less so;” ...the critical act is called a “creative” act, and whether by poet, critic, or serious reader, since there is an alteration, a stretching of the sensibility as the act is done.11

Teaching this critical part of the process—this way of revision, of making the creative decisions—requires training.

Psychologist Charlotte Doyle, in “The Writer Tells: The Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction,” uses interviews with fiction writers to examine how works get made. She acknowledges that often there was a triggering event—something in the day-to-day life of the writer: something observed or autobiographical or brought up in some other way—what Kinnell called “that spark of autobiography.” Doyle goes on to say that “(m)any psychologists see the creative process as a kind of problem solving (e.g., Perkins, 1991; Werthimer, 1959), but the nature of the problem to be solved has been more difficult to identify in the arts than in the domains such as science. For writers, seed incidents provide a mystery, an invitation to exploration and discovery.”12 She goes on to note:

Gadamer (1975/1989), among others, suggested the recognition of a question already points in the direction of possible answers. In fiction, that direction is the creation of an imaginary world, one that draws on a particular kind of narrative thinking. Seed incidents provide a starting point—sometimes a major character, sometimes a central incident, sometimes the sweep of the plot.13

One of the things that writing teachers try to do is show students how to use creative writing as a means to explore questions (questions of character, of motivation, of emotional or spiritual sensibilities, of language, etc.) through the creative process. Even if we assume writers can’t teach creativity, writers do teach how to give up the pre-fabricated story/poem (that has no resonance)—writing what the writer already knows—,14 and instead try to write as a means of finding questions in order to find new answers. What the best writing teachers teach, then, is a way of observing the world more closely, and to ask questions about what is observed. And to give these questions a language. As I often tell students: our obsessions are our obsessions—we don’t have to force them into our work. We try to find a process that allows our obsessions to appear naturally in the literary text as mediated through the triggering event.

These teachers also teach discipline: they require students to do the work. This forces students to think of themselves as writers, and to think of themselves as using a different form of cognizance: Werner (1962) suggested that it is useful to distinguish among distinctively different spheres of experience. Schutz (1962) called them “finite provinces of meaning” and pointed to “the paramount world of real objects and events into which we gear our actions (the everyday world), the world of imaginings ...such as the play world of the child, the world of the insane, but also the world of art, the world of dreams, the world of scientific contemplation.” (341) For Schutz, each distinctive sphere involves specific cognitive modes.... As the writers described what it was like to sit at their desks in their writing places, it seemed as if they were describing such a distinctive sphere of experience.... (S)uch a sphere of experience can be called the “writingrealm.”15

Creative writing teachers try to teach students to give in to the writing, what Doyle calls entering “fictionworld,” and how students can evaluate their own work once they leave “fictionworld.” Writing teachers also emphasize experimentation, much as scientists do. Whereas the latter’s work happens in the lab, often the fiction writer’s experimentation—a search for narrative voice, the narrator’s stance toward the created world, the form of the story—occurs in “fictionworld” (or “poemworld”). This movement between “writingrealm” and “fictionworld” requires “alternation between reflective and nonreflective thought (Sartre, 1939/1948).”16

Good writing teachers, therefore, not only try to engage their students to access the knowledge they all have in their conscious and subconscious minds, but also “judge” or “evaluate” what they’ve written. All the writers in the Doyle study mentioned showing the work to writers they trust—this directly relates to the workshop experience. Workshop often involves discussing motifs—images, rhythms, allusions, patterning, etc—that may be seen in the work, but that aren’t fully realized. This emphasizes the importance of workshop as a proving ground for newer work, not a venue for nearly polished pieces.17 Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the programs often has students trying to dazzle their peers and their teacher with nearly finished work. Not only does this undermine one goal of the workshop, it can also undermine the confidence of a writer whose finished work is suddenly torn apart.

Both composition writing and creative writing emphasize revision. This is a way to use reflective thought to examine what’s been written. Revision in both processes share similar goals—as a matter of fact, many might argue that research writing requires similar experiences to “fictionworld” and “writingrealm.” D.W. Fenza notes that undergraduate composition and creative writing classes emphasize similar goals: “critical reading skills, the elements of craft, general persuasive writing skills, and an appreciation for literary works.”18 But from there the goals diverge; whereas advanced composition courses often focus on the more utilitarian and professional writing, in creative writing the goal becomes to develop work with literary aspirations. In Art as Experience, John Dewey says:

Because interest is the dynamic force in selection and assemblage of materials, products of mind are marked by their individuality, just as products of mechanism are marked by uniformity. No amount of technical skill and craftsmanship can take the place of vital interest; “inspiration” without it is fleeting and futile. A trivial and badly ordered mind accomplishes things like unto itself in art as well as elsewhere, for it lacks the centralizing energy of interest. Works of art are measured by display of virtuosity when criteria are carried over from the field of technical invention. Judgement of them on the basis of sheer inspiration overlooks the long and steady work done by an interest always at work below the surface. The perceiver, as much as the creator, needs a rich and developed background which, whether it be painting in the field of poetry, or music, cannot be achieved except by consistent nurture of interest.19

The workshop, thus, tries to help develop interest, hone craftsmanship and technical skills, and order the mind, but it also asks students to seek out “vital interest” in what they conceive and to pursue it through language—through syntax and rhetoric and form and technique and inherent talent.

I know I’m playing with fire when I use a term like “inherent talent.” Talent is a factor and can be cultivated, but it’s silly—the way many compositionists insist—to take talent out of the equation. I do believe that many people can be taught to write good poems. I wouldn’t be writing this essay if I didn’t think so. I also think that most people can play baseball at a reasonable level. This is why there are so many minor league baseball teams springing up in small cities across America and why there are numerous adult leagues that people pay to play in every summer. The “proliferation” of MFA programs is in part geared toward the number of people in America who want to write, and want training to cultivate their talents.

In the undergraduate arena, our students are often still trying to figure out what talents they have, and where their predilections lie. I recently met with a young woman who is now my advisee. She’s a junior and a just-declared English major with an emphasis in creative writing. This is her third major. She may stay as a creative writing major or she may end up somewhere else. Compositionists talk about the process of writing a paper, but I think it’s important to allow students, at first glance, to take part in the process of finding themselves. The introductory poetry workshop, for instance, must first and foremost allow student writers to understand the modes by which poetry operates; lyric poems, narrative poems, performance poems, meditative poems—they all operate differently, both rhetorically and formally. Furthermore, many introductory level students have little understanding of what a poem or story is or how it operates. Introductory fiction classes are brimming with stories in which five or six major events happen to the protagonist in three pages, none of them ever examined or explored for their effects on character; or else stories operate like television shows, complete with double-entered section breaks where commercials might go. The making of literature is a mystery to students, and therefore, we have to discuss what these things—stories, poems, plays, essays—are. And then we have to encourage that, yes, they too, can write them.

Once we demystify the poem and story, we get into the issue of choices—subject choices, rhetorical choices, formal choices, technical choices. We can maintain for our students the mysterious workings of “fictionworld” and “poetryworld” while discussing the role of conscious choice in the making of work—that means demystifying, somewhat, “writingrealm.” Dealing with some of these choices may help alleviate some of the criticisms of what we teach in regards to process and “craft.” In order to do that, however, we need to discuss both fiction and poetry workshops although Mayers and many of the other critics often only discuss poetry workshop in describing the problems they see in the way creative writing workshops work. Perhaps that’s because so many people decry the death of poetry, but I think there’s another reason. The workings of prose fiction offer more opportunities (in some ways) for discussion of rhetorical possibilities. To discuss what goes on in a fiction workshop in detail might just diminish the punch of these criticisms. For instance, fiction workshop might often get into a discussion of why a story is told with a particular point of view—how would changing this story from first person to third person alter the story? What if the story were not told by the victim of abuse but by the abuser? How would this change the story? What if the speaker in a first person narrative was telling this story ten years in the future—would his/her perspective change and why?

Again, I was teaching workshop earlier this year, and a woman in the class brought several poems that dealt with a relationship between the speaker and the speaker’s estranged mother, enough poems for me to hypothesize that this was the student’s real relationship with her real mother. We talked in conference about the poems and their sensibility. In all my workshops, I give my students a private assignment—and for this student I asked her to write a poem in the voice of her mother. At first she was shocked, then tentative, but over the coming days she was excited. To take on this persona, to examine the role of the “I” in the poem, and to beg the student to challenge herself and her understanding of perception, persona, and personal experience meant looking at the world, and the language she uses to experience it, differently. This assignment, however, is only a variation of an assignment that many creative writing teachers offer up to their classes: the persona poem, which begs students to reconsider the notion of the “I.” This is the very thing that Mayers suggests doesn’t happen in workshop when he talks about his own experiences taking creative writing in regards to the similarity of one poem’s particular speaker with that of other poems:

This “I” might be recognized under a number of names; voice, narrator, speaker (in New Critical parlance), speaking subject or subjectivity. Under any of these names, this “I” is worth examination. What kind of self or person is it? Is it similar to any other recognizable selves, persons, or subjectivities? What might be at stake in the activation (or “use”) of such a self or subjectivity in this particular poem?20

Mayers’s criticism of his own experience with his particular poem written early on in his (creative) writing experiences may say something more about his process of becoming a writer and compositionist. Did the poem sound a lot like other poems of its time in the same way my novice guitar playing sounded a good deal like the punk musicians I listened to? What Mayers and many of the other critics of current creative writing practices suggest is that voice doesn’t grow and develop, or if it does, it happens in spite of workshop rather than because of it. I ask them to consider, though, the voices of various poets of my generation—all graduates of MFA programs. Crystal Williams, Jeffrey McDaniel, Gabriel Gudding, Sarah Manguso, and Todd Davis all use the “I,” all of these poets came of age at the same time, and yet their speakers all sound distinctly recognizable as the writers have found ways to imbue their poems with the various influences (music, artistic mission, regionalism, upbringing, personal sensibility, selfhood) that make each of these people unique.21 By discussing the work of many authors early on, we hope to start imagining the possibilities of the “I” beyond selfhood and a particular tone. Exactly what many critics suggest we do not do.

The question for many becomes “who is this I?” and “what relationship does he have with language, and with the cultural (and subcultural) contexts around him?” Mayers examines the possibility of a workshop model that examines the role of poetry and society. He goes on to mention a story from Lucia Perillo running a workshop in which a student wrote a poem detailing the author’s molestation by an uncle, and the other students’ resentment toward Perillo for dealing with the work on a technical level without engaging it on its content. For the students (and for Mayers) the work was obviously autobiographical and therefore the author needed to be praised for her courage in writing the poem. Mayers suggests the class should have entered into a discussion of what is the nature of poetry to confession. He says:

Students might be asked to consider, for instance, whether there is significant difference between narrating childhood abuse in a poem—then submitting the poem for consideration in the rhetorical context of the classroom—and talking about such abuse on a daytime talk show or in a support group. Students might be asked to consider the rhetorical effects of submitting such a poem for classroom discussion.22

I have different questions, though. I’ve encountered many poems by students in which a very sincere “I” speaks through the poem in which its emotional core is an autobiographical fallacy. One time a nontraditional student wrote a first-person poem about the death a child from SIDS. Like the poem in the Perillo story, this poem silenced the writer’s classmates. The students were upset and felt cheated when it came out that the writer had not written autobiographically. How are we to know—and when are we to assume—that the facts of the poem are “the truth”? In the case of this particular poem, I thought the students’ reactions to it ultimately made it a successful piece of writing insofar as they “believed” it and had an emotional response. This example begs questions of the writer’s relationship to truth—something that often occurs as a discussion in workshop.

Worse, the conflicting push and pull of criticisms of creative writing in the academy (particularly those dealing with the “death” of poetry) attack the use of “I” in two different ways. Critics like David Alpaugh and others complain about the abundance of banal anecdotal poems being written in which every aspect and insight of the nonfictionalized “I” is brought to the page, while the compositionists ask us to look more deeply in to the issue of the I—Who is she? Why is she writing this? Couldn’t the poem have a greater socio-political impact if it engaged X differently?

Of course, we’re getting into the realm of what a good poem is again. Surely, the idea of what makes a poem good ought to be one of the issues of poetry classes—both literature and creative writing. That said, there are teachers—as there are in all disciplines—who choose to take the easiest route, the route that no doubt leads to poems and stories that sound similar. I have heard rumors of creative writing professors who require students to solely write poems that are twenty to twenty-five lines of narrative with a lyric ending, and when I hear such stories I cringe. Surely such assignments could lead to what David Alpaugh calls the “prosification” of poetry. Fortunately, though, most instruction is not as prescriptive. In a quick look at forty-five syllabi at the intermediate and advanced undergraduate level, all but one teacher was descriptive rather than prescriptive in regards to a student’s vision and sense of craft; however, all the faculty allowed for offering suggestions “that challenged” the students’ sensibilities, particularly in regards to style and aesthetics. Even if students are asked to write narrative poems with a lyric ending, those assignments do not necessarily assume that such “prosification of poetry assures prospective students that they needn’t employ meter or rhyme or cadence or any figurative language.”23 These assignments—no matter how banal—can still lead to discussion of rhythm, sonics, allusion, or other elements of prosody depending on the poems and the teacher. The underlying assumptions in Alpaugh’s essay are that many creative writing teachers actively avoid a discussion of technique and that a study in traditional versification would lead to good poems. Perhaps it might lead to good prosody, but composition aimed toward poor rhymes, lock step iambic rhythms, and other traditional poetic devices often results in bad greeting card poetry, song lyrics, and the like.

The fact is that I sympathize with some of Alpaugh’s criticism. Like him (and many other critics of contemporary poetry) I tire of “the publication of flat, pedestrian prose” broken into lines and delivered as poetry.24 I also find a trend for the “anecdotal, over-literal, and trivial” in much of the poems I read. And surely “(t)he journals are so many and standards (seem) so low that if students can learn to write something called ‘poetry’(easy to do when redefined as defictionalized prose, with or without line breaks) they can get published and even gain recognition as poets.”25 I disagree, however, with the assumptions that he makes: that MFA programs and the rise of creative writing as a “power bloc” in English Departments cause such “problems” with poetry. These shortcomings in our poetry reflect the broader cultural trends that include, for instance, a film industry that has become increasingly derivative. Watching the trailers before King Kong a few years back, my brother and I sat through six for forthcoming films: none of the movies were original—they included two films based on old television shows, one remake of The Poseidon Adventure, two sequels to previous films—one of which was based on a comic book series. Nothing in Alpaugh’s essay beyond hearsay and coincidence suggests that the poor poems being written are directly linked to the rise in creative writing as a discipline. Poor poetry gets written. A lot of it. That has been true for generations. As McHenry notes:

I’ve got a marvelous anthology, published in 1890, called Poets of America.... It contains about three thousand poems, printed in a font size usually reserved for copyright pages, and is “profusely illustrated with over five-hundred life-like portraits.” The major poets of the day are all represented—Whitman, Whittier, Emerson, Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Ella Wheeler Wilcox— along with hundreds of regional writers... whose only other publishing credits are local papers. There are farmers and housewives, and ministers and quartz miners and... many, many Civil War veterans, but if (MFA critic) Neal Bowers wants to see what “poems of remarkable sameness” look like, he should locate a copy. Everything is stiff iambs and singsongy anapests—except Whitman, of course.26

Alpaugh’s complaints are part of a debate that has been going on for generations; surely this was an issue for the Romantics, the Modernists, and the Absurdists. How do we teachers teach “taste” as Sexton put it? Patrick Bizzaro suggests that the teaching of poetry writing is “basically teaching what one believes poetry to be.”27 And Bizzaro makes the assumption that our opinions of what a poem is can be reduced to whom we studied with and their influence on us as writers and teachers. Like many critics of creative writing, Bizzaro paints writers who teach as bad reflections of our teachers’ beliefs about good writing and thus gives a sort of neo-Platonic argument about what’s wrong with poetry—they not only produce copies of copies of an ideal, but their sense of what poetry is is nothing but a copy of a copy of something subjective. But what if we believe that Adrienne Rich is right, that “Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe. It is as if forces we can lay claim to in no other way, become present to us in sensuous form.”28 Poetry, then, is a powerful force and not something that might get produced in a fifteen-week class. Instead, we need to think that the goal of workshop is to plant seeds and provide a process by which students can learn to utilize this power of language.

But Bizarro’s underlying premise, that teachers of creative writing are influenced by their own assumptions, should not be dismissed. Students often argue—and many times change my opinion—about something in a classmate’s poem. The best teachers are open-minded to perspectives that aren’t theirs. Ditto, the best student writers challenge the assumptions of their teachers.29 What I find troubling though is that Bizzaro doesn’t apply the same standards onto his understanding of what makes good reading. We might assume that all trends in pedagogy and literary criticism are influenced by what these professors learned from those who taught them. Bizzaro admits to never having taken a creative writing workshop, therefore the influences for his pedagogical stance—and the position he feels most comfortable stating—is the one he puts forth in Responding to Student Poems. As I’ve already noted, most workshops give student work a variety of different readings depending on the needs and demands of the individual poem and story. What many of the critics of creative writing pedagogy seem to be most upset about is the fact that creative writers do not employ the language of critics and criticism when giving a structural or feminist or deconstructionist readings of a piece. Furthermore, because we can’t foresee the work that will be handed, such theoretical readings are not institutionalized into the syllabus.

In the lower level creative writing workshops, students need to learn to employ the fundamental language of English studies. I have students who continually want to call a stanza a paragraph at the introductory level; many of the students—usually more than half—may not even be English majors. They enjoy the idea of writing poems and stories. They do not read, as Bizzaro insists, in a variety of critical modes. As a matter of fact, I contend that the majority of people who read literature outside the academy—or perhaps even outside of English departments—read with just the text, which explains the appeal of the New Criticism in creative writing classrooms. When we consider the disturbing numbers from the NEA study on reading in America, the appeal of poetry slams and books on tape (never mind radio shows like Prairie Home Companion and Selected Shorts), perhaps it’s the readings of theory-based courses that make creative writing classes so popular.

This is not to say that writers do not need an education in reading, nor is it to suggest that an understanding of theory and awareness that they are employing theory may not be essential for students. Usually some students in my creative writing workshops are traditional English majors, and they will give, for instance, a feminist reading of a given poem. In more advanced classes such comments will lead to interesting, student-run discussions that I moderate and add to, challenging both the creative writers and the critics to think about poetry differently. But I often hear arguments from the writers that their work is being warped by a critical agenda that has nothing to do with what’s on the page. Whereas workshop is meant to talk about the process of composing, the language of critics is meant to discuss the work as a product. Most writers argue that to discuss work-in-progress with the criticism of finished text is to forget that much of the composition of literature is not borne out by theoretical notions, but by nuts and bolts issues of craft and an individual sensibility that is both overt (or conscious) and covert (subconscious).

Taken to its most logical extreme—the theories of group dynamics and group identity (feminist theory, queer theory, and such)—can morph to examine individual perception. We might call this identity theory. In other words, we return to the issue of the I and point of view. And we might ask questions that examine, for instance, the individual (and complex) identity of Adrienne Rich by examining the persona created in the poems and essays but also the body of the poems themselves. Is Rich a purely “feminist” poet, or does her poetry also challenge feminist theory? What creative writing workshop becomes, truly, is a laboratory for this sort of theoretical study as writers explore what it means to be a poet or fiction writer, what it is from their teachers they’re going to adopt, adapt, or throw away, what voices of visiting writers and out-of-class (and in-class) reading they retain, etc. The goal of workshop in the end is to help develop the writer as a persona; the rationale for having creative writing be a part of a healthy English department is that some of the issues of criticism come up in later literature classes. Creative writing is not, as some would contend, a type of composition, but a means by which students learn who they are as scholars and writers, and therefore, who better to teach such classes, than those who have asked themselves these very same tough questions? Most creative writers who teach know that they develop a series of self-identities—one of these is the persona of self as poet/fiction writer.


Gerry LaFemina’s latest book is Vanishing Horizon (Anhinga, 2011). He directs the Frostburg Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University where he is an Associate Professor of English. He splits his time between Maryland and New York.


  • Alpaugh, David. “Imperative: The Professionalization of Poetry, Part 2.” Poets & Writers 31,2 (March/April 2003): 21-25.
  • Bizzaro, Patrick. Responding to Student Poems. Urbana: NCTE, 1993.
  • Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1980.
  • Doyle, Charlotte. “The Writer Tells: The Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction.” Creativity Research Journal 11, 1 (1998): 29-37.               
  • Dunn, Stephen. “The Poet as Teacher: Vices and Virtues.” Walking Light. Rochester: BOA Editions, 2001. 137-144.
  • Green, Chris. “Materializing the Sublime Reader.” College English 64, 2 (Nov 2001): 153-174.
  • Fenza, D.W. “Creative Writing and Its Discontents.” AWP Writer’s Chronicle March/April 2000. 1 January 2006
  • Haake, Katherine. “Against Reading.” Can It Really be Taught. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice, eds. Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2007. 14-27.
  • Mayers, Tim. “Figuring the Future.” Can It Really be Taught. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice, eds. Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2007. 1-13.
  • - - . (Re)Writing Craft. Pittsburgh: U Pitt Press, 2005.      
  • McHenry, Eric. “Imperative: an Anti Anti-MFA Manifesto.” Poets & Writers 31,3 (May/June 2003): 23-29.
  • Myers, D.G. The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1996.
  • National Endowment for the Arts. “2002 Survey of the Public Participation in the Arts.”
  • Rich, Adrienne. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman.” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. NY: W.W. Norton, 1979. 247-258.
  • Ritter, Kelly and Stephanie Vanderslice. “Teaching Lore: Creative Writing and the University.” Profession 2005 102-112.
  • Sexton, Anne. “An Interview with Barbara Kevles.” No Evil Star. Steven E. Colburb, ed. Ann Arbor: U Michigan Press, 1985. 83-111.
  • Uppal, Priscilla. “Both Sides of the Desk: Experiencing Creative Writing Lore as a Student and as a Professor.” Can It Really be Taught. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice, eds. Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2007. 46-54.


  1. This is an excerpted chapter from a manuscript in progress; for this project I examined over 250 creative writing syllabi.
  2. The trump card played by many is that the student work produced by creative writing programs all sounds the same: several years ago much of the hype orbited the so-called “workshop” poem. In the criticism of creative writing programs many of the commentators complain about the Iowa-style lyric poem, although most of the recent crop of Iowa students and the related Iowa productions (the Kuhl House series of books from University of Iowa Press, for instance) show little interest in the traditional American lyric. Iowa has become a hotbed for “experimental” poets–those writing in “post-lyric” or “fractal” modes. This points again to how much the critics depend on lore and how outdated much of their experience is.
  3. Tim Mayers. (Re)Writing Craft. (Pittsburgh: U Pitt Press, 2005.): 119.   
  4. Priscilla Uppal, “ ” in Can It Really be Taught, eds. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice (Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2007): 48.
  5. Katharine Haake, “Against Reading” in Can It Really be Taught, eds. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice (Portsmouth: Heinemann Boynton/Cook, 2007): 20-21.
  6. Currently graduate creative writing programs are probably more diverse than they ever have been. People can study in Neo-Beat style writing at Naropa or in post-lyric stylings at Iowa or study in a program focusing on the American meditative and lyric poem at George Mason or Sarah Lawrence College. A number of programs have a diverse style of writers teaching in their MFA programs, forcing their students to understand different writers, different aesthetics, and a different understanding of American literary history: at West Virginia University, the poets Jim Harms and Mary Ann Samyn represent two different schools of poetry–a more traditional narrative-lyric and a more post-lyric sensibility respectively; at Columbia College Arielle Greenberg’s experimental lyricism is offset by Crystal Williams’s performance-based poetics and David Trinidad’s more traditional American lyricism. Kevin Young’s visionary poetics that take on history and race are wonderfully balanced by Maurice Manning’s persona poems and Maura Stanton’s lyric-narratives at Indiana University (which now has a Director of Creative Writing Pedagogy).
  7. Chris Green, “Materializing the Sublime Reader,” College English 64, 2 (Nov 2001), 168.
  8. Ibid, 155.
  9. Anne Sexton, “An Interview with Barbara Kevles” in No Evil Star, ed, Steven E. Colburb, (Ann Arbor: U Michigan Press, 1985): 98.
  10. Stephen Dunn, “The Poet as Teacher: Vices and Virtues” in Walking Light (Rochester: BOA Editions, 2001): 139.
  11. D.G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1996): 132.
  12. Charlotte Doyle, “The Writer Tells: The Creative Process in the Writing of Literary Fiction” in Creativity Research Journal 11, 1 (1998): 30.
  13. Ibid., 31.
  14. I realize this goes against the grain of most of the ‘lore’ of Creative Writing pedagogy. Although many creative writing teachers insist that students “write what they know” this does not limit the student to autobiography. Rather, most creative writing teachers insist that students use their powers of observation and imagination in combination to find what they didn’t know they knew.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 31-32.
  17. Ibid., 34.
  18. D.W Fenza, “Creative Writing and Its Discontents” in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle March/April 2000. 1 January 2006 accessed online at
  19. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1980): 266.
  20. Tim Mayers, (Re)Writing Craft, (Pittsburgh: U Pitt Press, 2005): 143.
  21. One of the projects that senior undergraduate students do in my classes is research the development of one writer’s voice–examining work through various stages of the writer’s career and discussing the changes in style, rhetoric, tone, content, etc.
  22. Ibid., 147.
  23. 1 David Alpaugh, “Imperative: The Professionalization of Poetry, Part 2” in Poets & Writers 31,2 (March/April 2003): 22.
  24. Ibid., 24.
  25. Ibid., 23.
  26. Eric McHenry, “Imperative: an Anti Anti-MFA Manifesto” in Poets & Writers 31,3 (May/June 2003): 29.
  27. Patrick Bizzaro, Responding to Student Poems (Urbana: NCTE, 1993): 17.
  28. Adrienne Rich, “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979): 248.
  29. Case in point. In my undergraduate days, Thomas Lux once criticized me for using an epigraph from a Kinks song saying that song lyrics and other pop cultural iconography shouldn’t be used in a poem. I disagreed, and kept the epigraph. Many of his students from that time–most notably, Denise Duhamel–have ventured well into the realm of pop cultural iconography in our poems. Lux’s opinion, ultimately, did not define our personal aesthetic.

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