Blaylock on teaching Creative Writing

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Blaylock on teaching Creative Writing

Postby Tom » Wed Sep 16, 2009 10:33 pm

I have been meaning to do this for a while. My daughter attended the Orange County High School for the Arts (OCHSA) for 5 years. She was in the Creative Writing (CW) program for just one year, until she managed to pass the auditions to get into the dance programs. I was pleased that she spent a year in the program and I was happy to learn that the CW program was run by Jim Blaylock, who had taught me English Comp 101 at Fullerton Colege years before. Though Katie had left the CW department years ago I somehow remained on their email distribution list. Last September Jim sent out a newsletter which included an essay by him on the teaching of CW. Though I am not a writer I found it a good read. Six months later, in March 09 he followed up with an essay on the art of getting published. I sent a message asking if he would mind if I shared his posts with the members of the Harlan board. His response:

Tom: Go ahead and share them with whomever you please. I'm always happy to have readers to yack at. Jim

So I am finally getting around to digging up the originals and trying to get them on the appropriate section of Harlan's site. The posts are good sized so I will try to post each one individually. Here is the first one, from 11-08. There are bulletin board type references to events long past that I thought about taking out but then you find little nuggets like a T-shirt designed by Tim Powers and I hate to be the one with the guillotine, someone may want to pursue the odd bits. I hope this fits:

In this edition of the Creative Writing Conservatory newsletter you’ll find some interesting updates about what our students and faculty are publishing, information about our new and improved Playwrights Festival, and a chat about the teaching of creative writing, which, as you can imagine, is something I’ve got an interest in.
Jim Blaylock
Director, Creative Writing Conservatory

Garrett Calcaterra, long-time faculty member who teaches Songwriting, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Flash Fiction, Dystopian Fiction and other classes, recently published two stories: His science fiction story "The Tracer Pilot" appeared in the Summer/Fall 2008 issue of The Oregon Literary Review, and his horror novella "The Key Ring" is forthcoming in Arkham Tales.

Mindi Combs, another veteran faculty member, has recently sold her short story “The Fork” to Acappella Zoo, a new, high-profile journal that publishes works of magical realism and experimental fiction.

Tim Powers is currently hard at work on a lengthy novel for Morrow Books, a historical fantasy involving the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jim Blaylock’s new novel Knights of the Cornerstone will be published in about two weeks, and while he’s on the subject, he’ll point out that he’s doing a reading and book signing at…
Borders Bookstore at Crystal Court, South Coast Plaza.
Saturday, December 6 2:00 p.m.

This year the Playwrights Festival will be held for the first time in a real theatre – at the Ebell Club in Santa Ana: 625 French Street, at the corner of French and Civic Center, on Tuesday, February 10. There’s a parking lot behind the building. This year we’re partnering with Music and Theatre: M&T students will audition to “act” in the plays chosen for the readings. Festivities will start promptly at 7 and end at 9. There’ll be a five dollar admission charge this year to help pay for the venue.
Also, we’ll be selling the usual array of Inkblot magazines, stickers, and t-shirts. I point that out because supplies of the current “moonfish” t-shirt are running out. We’ve still got all sizes in stock, but not a lot of them. If you want this exceedingly hip shirt, artwork by our own Tim Powers, then you’ll have a chance to buy one (or several) for $15.00. See you there!

As many of you know, I put together the Creative Writing Conservatory some nine years ago with Tim Powers’s help. We chatted about grading (something that doesn’t appeal to either of us) and decided that it would be Department policy that teachers didn’t assign grades to creative work. There would be no such thing as a C- poem or a B+ short story. Semester grades would be based on attendance, participation, completion of assignments, and other factors that the student was entirely competent to control. The virtues of any grading policy are a matter of opinion. Our opinions were based on several things: First, being professional writers we could take a close look at our own artistic development and the way we were affected by grades and other influences. Second, we’d been teaching for a couple of decades, and we’d had a great deal of experience with grades, rubrics, and always-changing philosophies about grading among academics. Third, we made the conscious decision to try to foster the spirit of a community of writers in the program, teachers and students included. That meant assuming that students were giving us their best work – which they most often do, by the way – and in that case a grade was superfluous or perhaps destructive. It’s turned out that we’ve been happy with the result. It’s astonishing to see the progress that students make over the years, and it’s heartening to see that they make that progress happily. .

Having said that…

Some Thoughts About the Teaching of Creative Writing,
by Jim Blaylock

No one can teach the craft of writing or learn the craft of writing in the way that one teaches or learns algebra or business management or the history of the Civil War. The craft is not information, and it is not a process or a formula. “Art,” Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darios pointed out, “is not a set of rules, but is a harmony of whims.” John Steinbeck, when he was far along in his career, said that he still didn’t know how to write a short story. He wasn’t kidding. He didn’t mean that he couldn’t write one; he meant that he couldn’t say how it was done. Therein lies the problem with state standards that require, say, the teaching of the paragraph in 8th grade English classes (or in 6th grade, or whatever it is) in the same way that they require the teaching of the multiplication tables in third grade arithmetic classes. A reasonably competent third grader can remember that 12 times 12 equals 144, and once having learned that bit of information will remember it forever, but the brightest eighth grader on the planet can have only a rudimentary understanding of the paragraph, and will have comparatively little stuff to fill it up with, because a paragraph is a monumental, perhaps infinite thing, and an eighth grader, even a bright and talented eighth grader, is a small, new thing. The eighth grade was a productive time for me as a young writer: I wrote some solidly good paragraphs (and stories) given that I was an eighth grader. I wouldn’t write those same paragraphs today, however. All humility aside (and to borrow from Steinbeck) despite being a pretty good eighth grade writer, I didn’t know very much about how to write a paragraph, although I no doubt thought I did at the time. I had begun to discern paragraph from non-paragraph, but that’s something different. This paragraph I’m writing at the moment, which might or might not be a good one, and which has become longer than it has any right to be, I couldn’t have begun to write back then. In some sense it would take me another forty-odd years to learn to write it.

Flannery O’Connor, the brilliant, Southern, regional writer, said that to learn the craft is to develop “the habit of the artist.” She wasn’t talking about mundane habits – a productive daily routine, say, or the determination to proofread carefully. She meant that an aspiring writer accumulates, over the years, bits and pieces of knowledge and technique, an ear for the patterns and rhythms of the language, a particular way of seeing and saying things, and an ability to use language to make others see things that same unique way, and so on and on, until at some point those myriad elements attain a sort of critical mass, and one is no longer an aspiring writer but is the writer one had always been competent to become, and did become, after years of putting in the work.

We can facilitate our students’ progress by trying to compel them to read intelligently, to write creatively and carefully, and to take the craft seriously. We cannot, however, teach them to write a paragraph or a poem or a story that equals 144. We can “teach” them useful jargon words and phrases, like “plot” and “rising action” and “voice,” and have them contrive definitions for these things on an objective test, but it will be years before they’ve come to understand them fundamentally and to use them to create an effect and to craft a story. In other words, we can provide students with what seems to us to be useful information about the craft, but we can’t provide them with the craft itself. Keep all of that in mind as you read through what follows.

We should bear in mind that each student is different. We’re vastly more concerned with encouraging a student’s progress than in standardizing anything, including grading. A student’s quirks and eccentricities – even a student’s inattention, anger, and doubt – might one day transform into interesting artistic expression. If you can, find a way to make your class work for the student. Again, there’s a vast difference between standards and standardization. It’s arguably true that artists of all sorts have a naturally high regard for standards and a low regard for standardization.

Here’s a useful way to look at the teaching of creative writing: All of us, and all of our students, are more or less literate. If we construct a literacy continuum (a word I’m fond of) it would look something like this:

Utter Illiteracy____________________________Utter Literacy

We start out way over on the left hand side of the continuum when we’re born, but we don’t stay there long. Perhaps, in fact, we’ve already begun to move to the right during our time in the womb (especially if our mothers or fathers recited Shakespeare to us, or read Mad magazine, or some other useful thing.) We never, however, arrive at the other end of the continuum: utter literacy (call it “perfection” – whatever it consists of) will always elude us. Our best efforts aren’t enough to reach our destination, because “utter literacy” is another infinite thing – our “destination” continually recedes before us. Speaking of Shakespeare, it’s safe to say that he made it considerably farther along the continuum than you or I will before he drew his final breath. (I’m certain about me, not so certain about you. The next Shakespeare might be a student in the Creative Writing Conservatory right now.) It’s also safe to say that the more Shakespeare learned about the craft and about the human beings that peopled his plays, the more convinced he became of his own limitations. “We’ve never made a statue worthy of our dreams,” Robert Louis Stevenson pointed out. And he was right. That’s why we keep on making statues. That third grader who learns the multiplication tables can be excused for thinking that he or she is a fairly big bug, mathematically speaking. But Einstein would tell you that mathematics is immense, and that the more one knows, the more immense it becomes. Our literacy continuum stretches into the infinite. Once we understand that, there’s no shame or false humility in saying (as Steinbeck said) that we “don’t know how to write a story,” while at the same time we’re making a mighty effort to write one, and often a successful effort. Our goal as teachers in the Creative Writing Conservatory is to encourage and cajole students (and ourselves) into moving along the continuum at an accelerated pace, hoping that somewhere along the way our students will develop “the habit of the artist” and become self-propelled.

I encourage you to express concerns or ask questions by sending me an email at

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