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William Styron On Creative Writing

A while back, I wrote a piece about why the Creative Writing MFA isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be in securing one’s future as a writer.

As a writer without one, I’ve done fine with just an English degree. But some writers swear by the Creative Writing MFA.

So as I was looking over a Paris Review interview with William Styron, these two questions piqued my interest:

What value has the creative writing course for young writers?

STYRON

It gives them a start, I suppose. But it can be an awful waste of time. Look at those people who go back year after year to summer writers’ conferences, you get so you can pick them out a mile away. A writing course can only give you a start, and help a little. It can’t teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven’t got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn’t be any hope at all. Regularly they put out dreary little anthologies, the quality of which would chill your blood. It’s a ruinous business, a waste of paper and time, and such teachers should be abolished.

INTERVIEWER

The average teacher can’t teach anything about technique or style?

STYRON

Well, he can teach you something in matters of technique. You know—don’t tell a story from two points of view and that sort of thing. But I don’t think even the most conscientious and astute teachers can teach anything about style. Style comes only after long, hard practice and writing.

Styron is a little harsh. I would imagine he would stand firmly in the camp that, no, not everyone is a writer.

And I agree with that, though I do think writing can be taught, to some degree. And I also think the Creative Writing MFA can be valuable. But as I mentioned in the aforementioned blog post, I would never, ever recommend someone go in debt for it.

What do you think about Styron’s comments?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. It is harsh but I can see where he is coming from. I watch teachers do this everyday in different areas of study that fall under the arts. Take singers, or musicians if you prefer, for instance. Look at how many singing competitions are out there that swoon over a flat undertone because of some sob story or of the way the singer looks. The same goes for dancers, actors, and writers. Not everyone is cut out for it. And while some may be in the middle of the road where you can’t tell what the public will think, there are the ones who simply are not ready because they lack that style or finesse, and then there are the ones who really are not meant to be creative writers. Encourage dreams, sure, but teachers should be our funnel of realism.

    End of my ramble. I’m not sure how much of it made sense but I had to answer.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 3 people

    October 14, 2014
  2. I think that the one thing that a writing teacher can teach is discipline. And work habits. And for a lot of us, that would be tremendously helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    October 14, 2014
    • I disagree. I loved my creative writing classes in my undergraduate program. I heard a lot of great tips. I read the same tips in articles. But I have yet to employ them! 😉 Deadlines are nice though!

      Like

      October 14, 2014
  3. Unless you have the money and time to waste a MFA is useless. Spend the time writing on your own and you will have gained just as much but for free. Just my 2 cents but writing is all about practise, not about class work.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  4. Its tricky isn’t it? I mean who are any of us to say what is good and this is bad writing. But then again, maybe some of us need to be told or re-directed to our strengths…If you don’t mind, I might just hang out here with the clean washing, kicking my legs against the fence.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  5. Its tricky isn’t it? I mean who are any of us to say what is good and what is bad writing. But then again, maybe some of us need to be told or re-directed to our strengths…If you don’t mind, I might just hang out here with the clean washing, kicking my legs against the fence.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  6. I agree completely with Styron. It’s easy enough to see whether someone has the potential for great music/writing/sculpture whatever. Culling these out of the mainstream and helping them evolve into their best is what a good teacher should be doing — because that person who is not a terrific writer could well be a terrific something else. And setting them free of false expectations is a good thing. You see? I can be very harsh myself! Thanks for a great post.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
    • No, I get it. I would just hate to be the teacher who has to say, “Son, your writing sucks.”

      Like

      October 14, 2014
  7. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    William Stryon’s “SOPHIE’S CHOICE” blew my mind decades ago…he was one writer who inspired me to want to write seriously. Here is his take on Creative Writing…I agree with Styron. It’s easy enough to see whether someone has the potential for great music/writing/sculpture whatever. Culling these folks out of the mainstream and helping them evolve into their best is what a good teacher should be doing — because that person who is not a terrific writer could well be a terrific something else. And setting them free of false expectations is a good thing. Thanks for a great post, 101 Books, and those who read this post, would LOVE to hear your views on the subject.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  8. I’ve always wanted an MFA, mostly because I would like to teach on the college level at some point. But I realize that it is not necessary.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  9. If it was a great program that got rid of the bad and worked on the good, of course it’s worth it. But that is probably impossible to find.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  10. Really depends on the person, their style of writing, and who the professors are.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  11. Harsh to the point of being supercilious. No not everyones a writer, but like many things one can improve with practise, and one can also improve by learning the tools of the trade. I have a Certificate in Creative Writing, and those two years changed my life and made me a writer. Not a perfect writer, and I’ve learned a lot since the course finished – by writing. People have many reasons for writing. Enjoying the process is a big one for most writers I know, so why not enjoy it further by getting better at it.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  12. Writing is pretty subjective. Madeleine L’Engle got a zillion rejections for the book that won the Newberry. I am glad nobody talked her out of writing. That being said, I have thrown a book away to ensure nobody else had to read it after me.

    Like

    October 14, 2014
  13. I had been writing in the dark for several years before joining an honours creative writing module for non degree purposes. I was there for only one semester, but I learnt more in those few months than I had in years. We had two tutors – one a published author and the other a published poet, and in a class of 7 students they each mentored 3 or 4 of us. The author was my mentor and our weekly meetings and discussions over my work were an eye-opener. He pointed out things to me and steered me in directions in a way that no amount of text-book reading could have done, because it was specific to my novella. What I learnt there encouraged me to scrap my previous two novels and start a new one. I’ve not looked back since, and I don’t regret the time spent on that course. We’re never too old or too experienced to learn something new.

    Like

    October 15, 2014
  14. I think that the reason teachers encourage everyone, including those who will never become professional writers, is (at least in the USA’s public colleges and universities) the students will fill out a survey regarding their satisfaction with their instructor at the end of the course. If several students are feeling stung because their teacher has told them, albeit for their own good, to hang it up and try something else, their satisfaction level is going to be low. Then next semester, if there are more teachers than classes being offered, that instructor may find himself teaching one class or two, rather than working full time. Consequently you see more inflated grading (because a happy student is one who got a high score), and you also see teachers who–like many who work with the public–regard it their duty to be comforting and accessible.

    Ideally, the “accessible” end of that also means that students who need help will see the teacher and get the help, but you are right in saying that to some degree, it is just plain talent that distinguishes an excellent writer from an indifferent one.

    Like

    October 15, 2014
  15. I never took a creative writing class, only an expository writing class and the two basic college freshman English classes. I don’t have an English degree. I love words, reading and writing, though.

    I think the basic rules of grammar and essay structure can be taught (although rules are broken and changed all the time). Voice or style, I agree, can’t be taught but can be encouraged by a teacher who cares about her/his students. Teachers who speak harshly (like Styron) can certainly discourage someone with potential from writing, and that’s a shame. Whether you want to publish or not, writing is a creative outlet that should never be discouraged. And we can always learn from our mistakes! I sure have!

    Like

    October 15, 2014
  16. Where there is a talent, and a profession identified … A university will lay claim to having the key for those who wish to enter such a profession. Purchasing an MFA is not too different from purchasing a motorcycle. Darwin’s theory soon proves itself and the person succeeds or shuffles off this mortal coil. I love writing. I take a course from time to time in order to improve my craft. At 70, I enjoy taking undergrad courses from good instructors. I learn as much from the young students as I do from the instructor and the exercises. I wind up writing pieces I would not have otherwise written. I get involved in group critiques. I find the younger students brutally honest and very helpful. Does it secure a writer’s future? Heck no! Nothing secures any futures I might wish to pursue. It is trial and error and practice, practice, practice. Publishing is not my end goal, but when it comes to that … I’ll take luck over wisdom every time. I pursue what I enjoy. The rest follows. I try to remember that comparison takes the joy out of it. So far, so good.

    Like

    October 19, 2014

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