Tips for the Moral Teaching of Creative Writing, part 2: The Mini-Movement

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If the first, most important thing to do in teaching creative writing is to establish essential principles upon which work is to be assessed and guide young writers to find their own principles of assessment to judge their own work and likewise judge the judgment of others, etc. (hence the Mogan of Primary Values I spoke of in part one), part of the problem with this is that young writers, if we are to assume they are inexperienced and seeking help, may not have confidence enough to embrace or fight for these principles. This is why small group work is necessary: to build this type of confidence, create mini-movements that give students a foundation of principles shared with classmates from which to assess and argue effectively. Even if an inexperienced writer is uncertain about arguing from principles, two or more writers with the same principles can bolster that writer’s confidence.  It’s not like this is science class where everyone has to learn the accepted principles as dictated by the unimind before being able to challenge them, like you have to learn why an alligator is a reptile before you can prove it’s a mammal (I’ve already discussed why “you have to know the rules to break them” when applied to any of the creative arts is an inaccurate, elitist cliché). A young writer’s principles are already correct just as everyone’s opinions are inarguably correct. A sense of what is beautiful cannot be made superior simply by experience because a sense of beauty is innate and subjective — perhaps changed but not improved in any objective way by experience or interaction with others; learning can perhaps hone a sense of this instinct or give someone a practical capacity to tap into this instinct and translate it effectively in the creation of a piece, but there is no way to make it greater than what it innately is. The problem comes when creative writing teachers, no matter how egalitarian they claim the classroom is, will teach from a principle (or more commonly from superficial truisms disguised as principles, as I’ve discussed in the past) that have an assumed superiority based on experience, and students don’t have the tools to resist this. Teachers may claim the goal is to guide students to better writing — but better writing based on what? Or to find their own voice — but what does that mean? A unique narrative style still being judged by principles that aren’t their own, principles the writer (or teacher for that matter) may not even be aware of? The way to circumvent this taken for granted uncertainty is first to build confidence that the writer already has perfectly valid tools of assessment. Creating a mini-movement can accomplish this and takes only a few simple steps:

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1) Find out the students’ spiritual/aesthetic forbears and group accordingly. This could be accomplished through a simple survey like “Who is your favorite writer? What is your favorite book? Who would you love to write like? What book made you jealous? What piece have you tried to imitate?  Whose principles of writing have taught you most?” and so on. In this way, the teacher can judge who best belongs together: maybe the Hemingway and Carver students will agree on a lot; maybe the Orwells and Huxleys will have interesting arguments; maybe the Stephanie Meyer and Edgar Allan Poe students can learn from each other; maybe the Kerouacs and the Rushdies will have a blast together (I’d totally be in that group). However the teacher sees fit to group the students is irrelevant, as long as there is the perception that the students’ concepts of great literature will work well together.

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2) Have them write a Mogan of Primary Values and eventually a manifesto. I consider a Mogan of Primary Values a very practical way to assess what is merely opinion and what is deep level, irreducible principle. It’s something students could/should do on their own, but it is also a simple way to start the mini-movements on a shared task to find their shared principles. Any mechanism for achieving this is fine, as long as they are working together to find what is at the root of any assessment or any argument. Perhaps the Orwell/Huxley group will argue the logic of everyone’s piece, and while this may be useless for, say, the Meyers/Poe group, everyone will know the Orwells need logic in the assessment of their Orwellish pieces or make the other students aware that they need to argue against logic as an assessment necessity. Perhaps the Hemingway/Carver group will start from elimination of extraneous words based on a principle of achieving great psychological effect through language efficiency and indirection, and a comment about eliminating an extraneous adjective may be big help to those who agree, and it could likewise function to reaffirm the principles of the group in a way that bolsters confidence. The elimination of extraneous adjectives won’t do much good for the Rushdie group for whom great aesthetic effect is achieved through the manic overwhelming of senses and irrationality, through catachresis, neologism, and juxtaposition of disparate elements — none of this indirection nonsense — but to a Carverist, these things may seem like mistakes. In this case, if a Carverist tells a Rusdieist to take out some adjectives or fix the catachresis, this will not be a total waste of a comment as such comments so commonly are. The Mogan likely will be incomplete at the beginning of the class (as they will ideally come to a greater understanding of their own principles through the practice of workshopping, etc., in the class) but somewhere around the middle of the semester, the groups should work toward forming something more concrete and specific: a manifesto outlining their principles and the grounds by which they assess the quality of work. Argument about whose now more firmly established principles are most valid can be far more productive than the surface level revision workshops fixate on, even though no final winner could or should be declared.

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3) Conduct small group (mini-movement) and large group workshops. This class will by necessity involve workshopping in the small group and with the whole class, and the teacher can determine the workshopping schedule based on the size of class and the size of groups (even if it’s a four person class with two groups of two), but I recommend starting with small groups, in particular starting with an unfinished or currently developing story or poem. Students are less likely to fear judgment in a small group, especially one that starts from shared opinion and shared principles. If students are given the task of workshopping an unfinished story in small groups, knowing it is unfinished and in need of help, this could significantly increase the effectiveness of the workshopping on many levels. Even if a regular workshop is designed to be for work that is unfinished and in need of help, how are normal students expected to proceed when presenting this work without context right from the beginning? Of course, normal students would be prone to submit their best to avoid embarrassment in front of people they just met, and when you submit your best, defensiveness at criticism rises. Defensiveness, in my experience, has been counteracted with the otherwise pointless and counterproductive cone of silence, and my frustration with that nonsense can fill up a few more pages. Worse, the writer will put forward the most bland and inoffensive to please multiple viewpoints they have no obligation to agree with, and isn’t this precisely the sort of work the MFA system is criticized for producing? If I were making a movie for a group of strangers, the type of movie I would make would be quite different if I knew they were fans of The Human Centipede series or if I knew the most disturbing movie they ever watched was The Worst Witch. If I didn’t know their opinion at all, I’d make it as close to Hallmark Hall of Fame as possible or face an onslaught of the most useless comments. This is also why the small groups can function to determine which works each writer puts forward to be workshopped by the whole class. In this case, if defensiveness becomes an issue (and why not defend, honestly?) the defense can be taken up by the writer’s movement-mate. Offensiveness of a piece will likewise no longer be an issue as someone fighting for one principle over another is more likely to present both the best and most offensive work. Another thing I’ve always found to be a waste was the necessity to include positive comments which, because they are required, come off as empty platitudes. Perhaps they are helpful to writers who don’t already know their strengths, but how long does it take to learn them? Once you have learned them, these positive platitudes become wasted breath, the sort of repeated positive nonsense one receives when conversing with strangers, a relationship the large class model perpetuates — people whose opinions you may never share but with whom you must be emptily polite before you get down to the real business of, well, remaining polite or showing off or repeating superficial clichés so as not to face alone backlash to your original idea, etc., all the multitude of terrible and useless things that happen in this poorly thought out situation. But this becomes quite different when grouped by first principles. If a movement-mate takes up the task of saying something positive about a piece, it suddenly becomes useful; if it no longer functions to bring the writer to greater awareness of strengths, at least it functions to argue for or reaffirm the principles of the mini-movement.

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Final bit of advice: principles should be used to assess, not to write, as writing from principle leads to cold, cerebral argument lacking the sort of instinctive ecstasy that makes great work. However, knowing I’m from the ecstatic Kerouac/Rushdie school, you can better consider how to take that advice. If you were from the George Orwell school, I’d understand why you’d reject that advice all together. And for that, I applaud you.

Iron Man vs The Great Gatsby

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The mysterious metric behind movie scheduling recently created an interesting contest: Iron Man vs. The Great Gatsby. Iron Man and Gatsby are not so different, really — both self-absorbed rich men who wear masks to hide intense insecurities. More relevant to my purposes of fighting against misperceptions of genre and refocusing our understanding of texts in a way that’s much more helpful to writers: both stories are escapist. Few words are used as cudgels more often than “escapist” to beat down stories with fantastical elements — oh, it’s “just escapist,” meaning “it’s not as important as real literature,” meaning “it only serves to take us away from present troubles and serves none of the much more important functions of much more important texts.” But let’s recapture that term from its pejorative implications: escapism is one of many possible effects of a story whether it’s so-called genre, so-called realism, or so-called great literature. Part of the problem with this way of reading a text is defining stories by endpoint functions. To be valuable to a reader, a text must first excite the reader in some way within the present moment act of reading (or viewing in the case of movies) and then give the reader some desired elements as a secondary effect. The value of these elements is different depending on the reader, rendering ridiculous any claims at universal association, for example, between escapism and genre fiction.

Let’s focus on three inaccurately applied concepts associated with escapism:

1) Escapism transports us to different worlds.

This is part of where the association between escapism and genre fiction comes most often since much of science fiction and fantasy transports us more literally to different realms — this is less obvious in Iron Man, as its “near future” sci-fi technology is similar enough to our own world in many ways as to not be much of a transport, but it is much more obvious when considering the Thor film takes place in the same narrative continuity but contains many scenes of Asgard and other imaginary worlds. But what work of so-called great literature fails to transport us to different worlds as well? In that context it isn’t called “transporting to different worlds” — it’s called “sense of place” or “detailed attention to setting” or “portrait of the character’s time” and so on. Don Quixote transports us to a 17th century Spain of Cervantes’ invention as much as Thomas Hardy transports us to Wessex as much as Tolkien transports us to Middle Earth. When an author does this well, that’s a very good thing — not something that need be pejorative. The Great Gatsby likewise transports us to the 1920s of Fitzgerald’s invention, and this is one of the few things I like about the book (full disclosure: I’ve never liked The Great Gatsby beyond small shreds of detail like this, but I’ll try to be fair). Most people who love The Great Gatsby, what do they identify as their favorite elements? Half of them will cite the excitement of the 20s, the lavish parties, etc. and who among us has been to a lavish party in the 1920s? That’s transportation, and that’s escapism. The other half will cite the characters, and that brings me to the next point:

2) Escapism provides only superficial titillation and very little depth.

This is the most inaccurate implication of the term, and character depth is one place that most clearly identifies the misconceptions of the universalizers. Recognition of character depth has a lot more to do with an individual’s engagement in the text than it does some universal association of depth and literature or shallowness and genre. For example, comic book characters get accused of two dimensionality by non-fans — a claim like “comic book characters are flat” equates to “I don’t actually read comics and haven’t bothered to put much thought into them beyond surface and cliché.” Actual fans recognize that comic book characters can be extraordinarily complicated because in many cases their stories are being told monthly over several decades by multiple writers; sustained interest in characters over such a long span comes from exploration of the complexity of character, not from sensational plots. Just read reactions of real fans to any adaptation: a comic book movie is not made better by bigger explosions but by characters closer to the complexity of their comic book versions. Thor is best when it’s about sibling rivalry, not just a big guy who hits stuff. Hulk is best when it’s about a man with deep psychological trauma from child abuse, not just a big guy who hits stuff. And Captain America, the character who should be the flattest because of his lack of moral ambiguity, is still a character who protects the weak because he knows what it’s like to be weak; whether or not stuff blows up is incidental. The complexity of the Iron Man character in film is most often attributed to Robert Downey Jr., but you get the same sort of complex brokenness and vulnerability in the source material upon which Iron Man 3 is based: Warren Ellis’ “Extremis”

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and Matt Fraction’s run on Invincible Iron Man, at least from “The Five Nightmares”

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to “Stark: Disassembled.”

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Tony Stark is in a coma throughout “Stark: Disassembled” and spends most of the story plumbing the depths of his psyche: no explosions, no armor, no punching. This is the sort of story real comic book fans love and real comic book fans give awards to. The plot-heavy action T&A and violence cliché gets old quick. In contrast, Jay Gatsby and Nick Caraway just seem flat to me. I’m honest and self-aware enough to recognize that this just means I don’t like the book, and there’s very little I can apply from this universally, but to bundle escapism, shallowness, and genre all together in any necessary relationship is total nonsense.

3) Escapism helps us forget about the problems of the present world.

It’s hard to imagine this as a mark against any great story because what is the alternative? Political allegory? If The Great Gatsby is really a reminder of the dangers of decadence and if this lesson applies to all times reminding us to look upon and condemn our own decadence, it risks losing the complexity of character I identified as being so valuable earlier; it becomes the flat superficiality of preaching. Who really prefers preaching over great stories about great characters? A text able to succeed on both levels is admirable, but this is likewise not the sole domain of the so-called great works. NPR ran a piece after the release of Iron Man 3 about how Tony Stark is America; apparently Iron Man is the great parable of our decades just as The Great Gatsby was the parable of the 1920s. I don’t personally prefer to think of Iron Man as a parable, but read it however you wish as long as you let Tony Stark be Tony Stark first.  When a text fails on the level of character (as The Great Gatsby does for me and again that’s an entirely personal response) then any sort of political peachiness can be annoying and a mark only of the story’s failure. If Tony Stark succeeded in only showing us the folly of America’s arrogance and there wasn’t a great, complex character to anchor that, it would seem to me a failed narrative and a failed lesson as it still seems to take much of its delight from Tony’s continued arrogance; if he were only the flat servant of whatever lesson he’s meant to be learning and he ceased to be America’s arrogance at the end with a turn-to-the-camera don’t-be-me speech, this would seem like hollow authorial machinations and not good storytelling.

In contrast to these misconceptions, I would argue that reactions to escapism have more to do with a basic narrative element: the ending. If a text ends with a satisfactory resolution, the audience can let it go — it feels more like a temporary escape. Many regard the ending of The Great Gatsby as haunting and tragic, but to me it just seems like one douche is dead and the other douche is going home. So what? I can let that go easily. Comic book stories likewise seem to have resolutions, but every comic book fan knows that villains never stay dead and super villain prisons are terribly guarded, so the sense of crisis is constant. Even Captain America, the least ambiguous superhero, has to keep fighting undying Nazis every month for decades and decades. This is hardly a resolution that allows us any lasting sense of release. Even the tragic and morally ambiguous Hamlet got a temporary victory when he solved the mystery in Act III but the release of death caused an end to his failings; comics present a scenario in which Hamlet has to keep killing Claudius over and over again. Like Sisyphus, superheroes must make the decision to remain good despite the absurd hopelessness of a world where evil never dies. I’d call that much less escapist than Nick Caraway’s final cowardly boat ride home.