Lance Olsen’s seminar on the teaching of creative writing 12-13 October 2013

Report by Paul Wessels

 On 12 and 13 October, Prof Lance Olsen, visiting Mellon Scholar-in-Residence in the Rhodes MA in Creative Writing programme (MACW), ran a weekend two-day seminar on the teaching of creative writing, kindly sponsored by CHERTL. Taking part in these 14 hours of intensive discussion were teachers in the MACW programme from Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and other participants engaged in teaching writing in Grahamstown and elsewhere.

 Lance Olsen is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the oldest creative writing programme in the US. Apart from being an experimental/innovative novelist, he is also a pioneer of innovative/experimental methods of teaching creative writing. Together with Trevor Dodge, he recently published an “anti-textbook” on creative writing, Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing (Guide Dog Books, 2012).

 We invited Prof Olsen to Rhodes not only on the strength and orientation of his fiction, but also because we were deeply impressed with the Architectures departure from traditional approaches to creative writing. We felt that his approach, grounded as it seemed to be in the radical pedagogical tradition of John Andrew Rice, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, William James and others, would help us further develop the critical vocabulary and practice that we have been working towards at Rhodes in relative isolation.

 We believe that the teaching of creative writing must produce -- or at least strive to produce -- a space of creativity conducive to channelling or enabling the free play of individual creative expression. Olsen describes this as creating a space of possibility in which reading and writing, as two sides of the same coin, rally against the simplistic. homogenising and regressive values of entertainment. His seminar therefore gave expression to what has been referred to as a “pedagogy of learning rather than a pedagogy of teaching.” As such, we were addressed as writers who taught what we ourselves take for granted, what we process unconsciously, rather than as harbingers of good news or keepers of keys that will open wealth or fame or a certificate.

 Day 1 kicked off with the question “Why do I write?” and we were encouraged to interrogate our own creative impulses. After much animated discussion we arrived at what would become a central pedagogical leitmotif for much of the weekend’s discussion: that our writing was an integral aspect of our reading: it was a conversation with everyone who has ever written. But only through reading can the conversation be initiated, sustained and developed. This holds between teacher and student just as much as it holds within each individual be they a teacher or a student.

 Lance asked us to consider six ideas central to both writing and the teaching of writing: 1. writing as possibility space; 2. the art/entertainment distinction; 3. failure; 4. fear; 5. how to write the contemporary; and 6. the political.

 The idea of writing as a possibility space emphasises the idea of innovation over tradition, experimentation rather than performative mimesis.

 The distinction between art and entertainment is based on the assumption that art slows the perceptual process, encouraging the defamiliarisation (Shklovsky) of our world through the interruption of habituation and so getting us to see the world anew.

 Failure is conceived by Lance Olsen as an active positive value in the teaching of creative writing. Only through failing does the novice writer avoid the false positive of writing as a comfort space helping one to reflect (mirror) the world back to oneself. 

 Failure is intimately connected to fear, the fourth tenet. Fear is as philosophically interesting as it is intuitively understandable: without going into unknown spaces, one cannot grow. As with any developmental growth, the forward movement must of necessity encounter unknown territory where fear is pervasive, and potential for failure imminent.

 Failure and fear provide an answer to the question: how do I write the contemporary? I write the contemporary, says Olsen, by living the contemporary, by embracing fear, failure, and the anxiety of decelerated perception.

 The sixth idea is the political. Politics is awakened when one writes the contemporary as one lives it. Central to writing and the teaching of creative writing are immanent ideas, that is, ideas whose causes and effects coexist in the same space of possibility. This is a politics of becoming which relies on the concept of radical empathy, or as the avant-garde novelist Kathy Acker put it, “when the mirrors break, to see is to become.”

 We then turned to a thorough interrogation of the workshop model as the historical blueprint of creative writing courses. This was framed by the questions: how to read the space of the creative writing workshop?; what is going on at the meta-level? The discussion ranged widely and freely over the abstracted function of the workshop and finally devolved to the importance of reading. If how we read the world is determined by our reading, the workshop space becomes the form and voice or aesthetic of the community as represented by both the workshop convenor/teacher and the students/participants.

 The question then becomes: what is this aesthetic? Is it active and creative, or reactive and mimetic of dominant narratives in the culture? We assumed that those of us engaged in this conversation were all seeking ways to actively and creatively meet/read the world as some form of resistance to the dominant values of mass entertainment. The workshop would then have to be a prime site of process, of testing, of critical thinking and problem-solving on the cultural level of writing, a space for possibilities and their repeating, recursive failure.

 Various practical examples were discussed: introducing close reading of texts to investigate the function of punctuation, of technological form (that is, writing via a word processing programme, writing freehand, writing in a text editor, etc.), reading contemporary critical theory so as to ground oneself and one's writing in the present, and identifying points of energy (books, music, films) and how they influence or shape writing.

 Lance then elaborated his technique of posing questions to a work in progress and its author rather than engaging in directed critique. If done properly, this prompts a most searching examination of a work by its author without issues of judgment or evaluation getting in the way.

 In sum, the teaching that occurs in the ideal creative writing workshop encompasses the developing of aesthetic appreciation, problem solving, critical thinking, self-discovery, curiosity, being in the world, process, how to read, failure as an index of possibility, and the building of trust to facilitate honesty.

 Day 2 began with a discussion on the innovative/experimental defined as seeing the world anew, reconfiguring the world literarily through transgression and opposition. Nietzsche’s understanding of the role of the teacher to help students become who they are, was seen as being equally imperative for all writers, carrying possibilities of renewal for both life and literature. Several immediate and local ideas poured forth in this session: breaking the syntax of English as an ongoing anti-colonial strategy, taking innovation and experimentalism into genre fiction, self-reflexivity as the mirror between text and society, rejecting tradition when it appears as ultimate veneration of tradition, the self or I as innovative source of energy/perspective.

 This was followed by discussions on three practical teaching topics raised by participants: reading, intervention in students’ writing, and grading. Here again, what informed all three discussions was the insight that the pedagogical moment in creative writing was the facilitation of students identifying, reaching and surpassing who they were as writers.

 The discussion on reading began with what we’d established at the start of day 1: there is no writing without reading; the two are indissolubly intertwined. Creative writing courses are as much about reading as they are about writing, and novice writers are not the only ones unprepared for or unaware of this symbiotic relationship. As such, reading is an essential core of effective creative writing courses.

 Intervention in students’ creative writing was an opportunity to teach the student the importance of the editing function in relation to their own writing – but the question is: how far does one go? Lance suggested that piecemeal micro edits be used as emblematic edits to be repeated by the student.

 Responding to a student’s work as a diligent reviewer can also reflect to the student the strong or positive aspects of the work, those most promising in the work. It was also suggested that such encounters should end with a gift – the recommendation of a book for the student to read which resonates with the direction in which the student’s writing is expressing itself. This presupposes of course that teachers are themselves reading voraciously.

 Grading in the traditional sense is obviously not appropriate or applicable to creative writing, where grading has to be a qualitative and not a quantitative process. What can and should be evaluated -- commented on, rather than graded -- is students’ overall level of participation as well as the extent to which they are identifying, reaching and surpassing their own limits.

 The workshop ended with the participants splitting off into small groups to list their favourite workshop writing prompts, and then presenting them to the whole group. It was a cohesive and fun way to end what was an extraordinarily stimulating and productive two day seminar.






Ann Smailes                ISEA Secondary Schools Language Project

Anthea Garman          RU Dept of Journalism & Media Studies

Anton Krueger             RU Dept of Drama

Brian Walter               RU MA in Creative Writing

Gillian Rennie              RU Dept of Journalism & Media Studies

James Sey                    consultant to RU MA in Creative Writing

Jayne Morgan              PR assistant RU MA in Creative Writing

Joanne Hichens           RU MA in Creative Writing

Mindy Stanford           former teacher ISEA Creative Writing short course

Mxolisi Nyezwa           RU MA in Creative Writing

Paul Mason                 RU MA in Creative Writing

Paul Wessels               RU MA in Creative Writing

Robert Berold              RU MA in Creative Writing

Stacy Hardy                 RU MA in Creative Writing from 2014



Last Modified: Sat, 23 Aug 2014 17:39:44 SAST