I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

"...I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”

“…I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”

“I could never teach writing,” a literary novelist of my acquaintance said emphatically over dinner the other night.

His reading to our MFA students had run long, and each of the book buyers waiting to meet him had asked additional questions, worshipfully eager to extend their time in his presence. It was very late, and the restaurant was deserted, and I thought, He’s my guest and I’m tired. Do I want to get into this fight? We had just received our salads. I was already tucking in, but he lingered before picking up his fork, fingers stroking the tines, as if what he had to communicate was far more important than food. “It takes too much from you. It destroys your ability to do your own work.” He glared at the busboy, who was already hovering, ready to move our meal along. “None of my friends who teach in MFA programs ever produce.”

I hear this a lot.

“Students sap your energy.” “Student work infects your work.” “Student work fills up your head so that you can’t find space for your own creative thinking.” So many people have said things like this to me over the years, and with such authority, that I feel a vague shame admitting to the fact that my experience is different. Working with the MFA students in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton has had the opposite effect on me. Student work inspires me, gives me energy, and satisfies a primal need to share. I’ve learned so much in the last two decades about what one needs to think about in order to write engaging, interesting fiction—I want to communicate it. Why does every young writer have to reinvent the wheel when those of us who have already been there can pass on our hard-earned knowledge?

“I could never teach writing,” he said again, and finally turned to the glistening beets and arugula on his plate. Behind him, our waitress and the busboy were rolling clean silverware into napkins in anticipation of the next night’s shift.

“Me neither,” I said. “I think you’re right. But I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”

And in fact, that’s exactly what I do. My students learn how to read for craft—why was there an em-dash here rather than a semi-colon? For that matter, why phrase that last clause as a question?

What happens when you set a single sentence aside in its own paragraph?

What happens when you separate a number of clauses by commas instead of periods, speeding up the action, driving home the points you are trying to make? What happens when you cast that same sentence into the past tense? What then? What’s gained and lost?

We read for sentence, and paragraph, and language, and punctuation. We read for openings and closings, for point of view, for authorial distance, for tense, for the way the unbelievable is established as fact. Most weeks, my poor students read seven or eight published stories for class—anyone from Tolstoy to Gaitskill, from Atwood to Hawthorne. Over the semester, each one presents a story of his or her own choosing as well. Because I read my students’ fiction at the same time, I am always looking for the work I think individual writers can benefit from reading. My syllabus changes week by week, and so I am always learning more and seeing more as well. Teach writing? Maybe not. But teaching writers how to read, oh, that is wonderful!

Teach reading. You will always be inspired and excited and energized.

Teach reading. You will never find yourself struggling to find “brain space” for your own art.

Teach reading. Create writers. That’s how it works.

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About mem13

The world is a rare and colorful and unfathomable place. I hope to capture it here as it looks through the slant of my lens. This is a blog where I write about any- and everything I can think of. Mostly past and present stuff, although if you look closely you'll pick up some prophecies, too (prophecies void in Tennessee). Links to book reviews I've written elsewhere. Once I did a mixed media poem thing. That was cool. The two coolest people I’ve met were Ralph Nader & Chuck D. Chuck praised my threads. Can’t beat that.
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One Response to I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

  1. SamSarma says:

    I found this post extremely thought-provoking. I have very little knowledge about teaching creative writing, which is what I believe the conversation (and this post) are specifically about (and not about writing pedagogy as in the case of academic writing, professional writing, etc). But I couldn’t help wondering what the writer (or her guest at the party) would say about the discipline of rhetoric & composition and its pedagogical scholarship where teaching writing through teaching reading was left behind about forty years ago (which is absolutely not to suggest that this field is ahead; I’m thinking that the approach is more necessary/useful in creative writing pedagogy).

    To share my position/background, I did a teaching degree (where I started learning strategies for teaching writing) after my first master’s in English literature (where “teaching” writing was missing), and then I did a PhD in rhetoric and composition after my second master’s in a composition-oriented program (both of which were dominated by pedagogical theories, methods, etc). So, I’ve been convinced that learning to read can only be a first step in learning to write.

    I do think that the focus on teaching writing in composition studies tends to overshadow the reading-writing connection. But when it comes to academic and professional writing–ranging from teaching basic academic genres to advanced scientific communication, writing in the professions, and composition in/for new media–I find it necessary to teach students the process of invention and organization, analysis and critique, revision and editing in the context of specific disciplines/professions and their various genres/conventions. That is, while I think that learning to emulate good writing while reading (as well as learning to write “effectively” in general) is extremely useful, I also think that these are really, really insufficient.

    I said I find the blog post thought-provoking, and I am being deliberately provocative in my response here 🙂 I would love to hear what the writer thinks about the pedagogies of academic and professional writing beyond creative writing.

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