When I was in college I spent two semesters in a creating writing seminar. We had been selected for this course based on our writing samples. I must have shown a little promise, at least to the professor, though you wouldn’t have thought so had you listened in on one of our sessions.
To be fair, nearly everyone in that class was criticized, and savagely—that is the way of writing seminars. You compose a poem or story, read it aloud to a pack of students and one by one they savage it. This toughening process is supposed to be good for you, in the long run. Only a couple students emerge unscathed. I think of these seminars as being identical in universities around the world. There is one gifted poet sure to achieve stardom immediately after graduation; there is another student who has lots of rough talent but seems to care less (this is the one the professor has a crush on); there is a person who writes painstakingly adequate prose; there is a girl who cries.
Did I learn from this class? A couple things. I clearly remember two comments made by the teacher after I read a poem about the sea (comments that elicited much laughter, by the way). In this poem I compared an eel to a phallus, using three examples of the likeness, and the teacher remarked, wryly, that I had “done that poor eel to death.” Which was true. In the same awful poem, I wrote that a sea urchin was “swaying, and praying” for a fish to swim past and the professor put his arms on the table and cradled his head in them and said, “Never ever ever make a sea urchin pray.” Which was also true. I deserved what I got that day.
Aside from those lessons, I’m not sure I took anything away from that class but scars. I actually wound up majoring in English Literature because I was afraid of the math requisites for my preferred interest: marine biology. In retrospect, I am certain that this writing seminar was more brutal than any math course. Creative writing classes taken in college are especially harrowing as kindness is not a foremost concern in our callow youth.
The question has been bandied about: Do creative writing classes really teach people how to write? To a degree, yes. Seeing where we have failed can be very helpful. What can’t be taught is the knowing, the writer’s ear, the certainty one feels when a phrase is exactly right.
I am a better writer now than I was in college, an evolution I attribute mainly to continued effort and constant reading. I read authors whose skills take my breath away. When we read, we learn. All those great examples sink in over time. Which is how life works on every level.