Tips for the Moral Teaching of Creative Writing, Part 1: The Mogan of Primary Values

I’ve been discussing what’s most problematic about the present philosophy and technique of teaching creative writing, and I could probably write a hundred more posts on this subject, but upon request I’ll speak in the positive: how to teach creative writing – despite the problems, despite the inherent impossibility, despite it being primarily a matter of self-discovery. While it remains impossible regardless of what you do, there are plenty of ways to point in the right direction better than surface (empty craft) and subordination (representation fetishism).

You have to start with something missing from every workshop experience and written pithy tippy tip I’ve ever seen: Primary Values – Primary Values are the justification of craft; craft is not its own justification. Primary Values are singular to the writer – despite any incidence of overlap that might seem to reveal a pattern – and can’t be universalized. To proceed without recognition of primary values is to proceed blind. It’s to follow religious doctrine with no concept or love or fear of God. Speaking of which…

Here’s an exercise: draw a Mogan, a six-pointed Star of David. You can use any image if you’re not into the whole God thing – a simple triangle would be fine, but that doesn’t quite have the bi-directional movement of the Mogan, but as long as you get the concept, do whatever the hell you want to:

At the top point, in the position of the source or the demiurge or however you want to conceive of it, you place your Primary Value, the value of a piece of literature, for example, that is the first, irreducible value of the text. This implies that no text can have value without this element. If you say the Primary Value is footy pajamas, no text can be good without a reference to footy pajamas, and everything else is justified by its ability to allow the reader to access the reference to footy pajamas. This is the hardest thing to find in many ways, so this can be the last thing you find once you fill out the other two spaces.

In the middle – in a single space or in a word cloud since this is not three absolutely distinct units but a spectrum of value – you place Non-Restrictive Values. These values are non-restrictive in that good stories have these elements, but it is possible for a story to be good without these elements. This is where most of the pithy, superficial tippy tips of much of the workshop experience belong. Good stories have strong verbs and not adjectives … well, good stories are possible without strong verbs, so that’s not a Primary Value, just one of many ways to access the Primary Value.  The third element is Personal Opinion, so the middle is Non-Restrictive in this sense as well. Elements in this area can make stories that you can recognize as good without necessarily liking them.

Fill up the bottom with Personal Opinion (essentially this is all just opinion since no art can fully escape that, and “value” is only a fancy way giving opinion more strength, but here I just mean stuff you like at the most personal, informal level) – so just dump in everything dump the kitchen sink of story elements you like, whether or not they would necessarily make good stories for everybody. So many workshops I’ve seen place these Personal Opinion elements as the Primary Values. A workshop leader may struggle with getting students to Non-Restrictive Values and away from just Personal Opinion, but that’s just halfway there. You’ve got to climb all the way up the Jacob’s Ladder to Primary Value to have a clear understanding of how stories work – and, in particular, how your story works.

One way to find this is to take writers you like and try to figure out why you like them based on this scale. Say, for example, you take three writers you like who are somewhat different. Figure out the commonality between them and whether or not that is Personal Opinion, Non-Restrictive Value, or Primary Value.

Here’s an example: I’d take Franz Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, and Louise Erdrich – three writers I really like who are different enough to make the sample work. One thing that stands out is that I like monsters. Kafka has great monsters, Vonnegut’s aliens are great monsters, and Erdrich may not make monsters central, but she’s certainly monstery in much of what she does. But clearly I recognize that good stories are possible without monsters. So that’s just Opinion. I might then propose that good stories involve characters caught in incomprehensible situations beyond their control, and this, in turn, gives them some goal and some obstacle in achieving their goal. I’m crawling inch by inch to Non-Restrictive Value from Opinion because I can recognize when someone else achieves this, writes a story with the markers of greatness, but fails to use the monsters I love so much and, therefore, writes a story I would not normally like. So I keep getting closer and closer to primary value, continuously asking myself, “Can I honestly say a good story cannot exist without this element?” You can also do this with writers you hate but others consider good. I can do this with Raymond Carver. I can ask why I disdain “Cathedral” so much. Well, I don’t consider self-important drunken douchebags interesting characters, but I can recognize the way he’s treating character may be valuable. I find easy metaphors obnoxious, but I can see how they can work well within stories in other ways. I recognize from my Kafka/Vonnegut/Erdrich exploration that I do value the juxtaposition of the banal and sublime, and Carver could be said to achieve this somewhat in “Cathedral” maybe.

But the main goal is to find the Primary Value. I’ve known my primary value for years: ecstatic stimulation of the direct experience that breaks down the distinction between self and other. Once I discover it through this process or any other process, I can then recognize every other element on this scale as a means to get to this end. Primary Values are, as I said, singular to the writer, but if you can honestly say this is the main thing that gives any text value, then that gives the writer a reason for writing and the goal in crafting. Without that reason and without that goal, what are you actually accomplishing? What happens instead is that the Primary Value goes unaddressed, and the workshop proceeds with one assumed Primary Value that may not apply to others – this is especially a problem when these others aren’t yet aware of what they value. Workshop leaders certainly can teach from their own Primary Values – why wouldn’t they – but the assumption that this is the only one in existence is egregious.

Just because values are singular to individuals doesn’t mean we can’t debate them. An environment with only one assumed Primary Value and no room for debate leaves little room for self-discovery. Primary Values function kind of like religion: you can believe passionately in them, you can defend to the death the rightness of your Primary Value, but you also have to recognize others have different Primary Values and have just as much right as you to have them.

For example, I criticize representation/subordination as a Primary Value because I’m afraid of the harm this causes to literature – to so thoroughly devalue the ecstasy of direct experience as mere representation – but, like a religious belief, I recognize the right of others to feel this way while still recognizing the negative effects. If a religion justifies the oppression of women, I can bewail the oppression of women without suggesting the suppression of someone’s right to a set of beliefs. To believe that one set of beliefs is the only set of beliefs is morally irresponsible. Too bad the system is set up presently to honor only one anachronistic and oppressive set of beliefs.