I started teaching creative writing in 2017, and all this while I’ve been grappling with something that, until now, I couldn’t quite name. I felt it when I opened a textbook that purported to teach me how to teach the subject, or perused a sample syllabus lent to me by a colleague. There seemed to be a disconnect – between my experience of learning how to write fiction and what lay within these pages.
At first, I stowed away my disquiet, and taught, so to speak, by the book.
I relied on Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, David Morley’s The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. In class, we discussed craft elements – point of view, setting, building character, dialogue, imagery – and guidelines on how to use them effectively to produce “good” writing.
Who makes the rules?
Soon, certain rules became all too familiar – use adjectives and adverbs sparingly, write character-driven plots, kill your darlings, write what you know, know the rules before you break them. With workshops, I followed a traditional format of asking the author to be silent while their peers offered feedback and prescription on their writing. But I think it was while prepping for a class on “show, don’t tell” that finally something snapped. “Who says so?” I asked myself.
Which writer could forget, or ignore, his famous dictum today? “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” In other words, relate story and characters through sensory details and actions rather than exposition.
Friends with MFAs in Creative Writing from America confirm that standard feedback fare for novice writers is “show, show, show,” “externalise,” and “what does this place or character look like?” And while this advice isn’t without value, surely “show, don’t tell” couldn’t always be the most effective artistic technique?
For Cecilia Tan in “Let Me Tell You”, this rule, as with others touted by the literary establishment (mostly of the white, male, privileged kind), worked under the assumption that their experience was “universal.” The power to show, not tell, she explained, stemmed from writing for an audience that shared so many assumptions with them that readers would feel that those settings and stories were “universal” and familiar to all.
For Namrata Poddar in “Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Universal Truth or a Colonial Relic?” the rule stemmed from a remnant of colonial infrastructure dismissive of non-western modes of storytelling. She wondered if 21st-century America was overvaluing a singularly sight-based approach to storytelling. Could this be, she asked, another case of cultural particularity masquerading itself as universal taste?
In short, yes.
As Poddar noted, it’s often posited that oral, communal practices of storytelling organically evolved into modern modes of storytelling, consumed by a reader in “privacy” – but this is in fact the understanding of a Western history of storytelling as a universal one. For most non-Western countries this was not the case.
What about one’s own traditions?
In many formerly or currently colonised regions like South Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, the American South and Native America, there has always existed a rich, vibrant tradition of oral storytelling, one that was marginalised, often violently, through an imposition of an allegedly modern, white Western language and culture.
Literatures from these places differ from mainstream UK-American storytelling marked by narrative brevity and an economy of words (think New Yorker fiction), and also, importantly, upend the dominance of visuality that we see in many fiction writing workshops with their show-don’t-tell credo,
From here onwards the floodgates opened.
The creative-writing programme, I’d known, was an American invention, and recently had become an American export – not just to the UK, where the first master’s degree in creative writing was offered in 1970, but further to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the Philippines, and yes, India.
I hadn’t yet asked though what it meant for us to inherit a creative writing pedagogy from elsewhere. It meant, I began to see, that we inherited a set of craft conventions that tended to dismiss anything outside their ambit as “bad” writing or (worse?) something “experimental”.
I was also finally able to pinpoint how, for me, the teaching of creative writing had always felt like a partial exercise, because in that space the oral, stood dismissed, or at best, ignored. Having grown up within the largely oral Khasi community in Meghalaya, whose creative expressions mainly comprised song and “iathoh khana” (storytelling), it puzzled me that, in none of the canonical creative writing textbooks, had I come across a discussion on the influences of oral storytelling on craft.
This was why when Morley spoke of the “double helix” of reading and writing fiction, I’d found myself asking, but what about listening? Worse, there I was, teaching creative writing in a classroom in the Indian subcontinent, a region where oral storytelling traditions, the epic, the folk, the mundane, have thrived for centuries. Were we going to toss them all away, unacknowledged, on our quest to become Writers? To me it seemed ridiculous, and a tragic waste.
How can this problem be solved?
This, however, isn’t the only reason why creative writing pedagogy remains problematic in a postcolonial world.
In Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, Matthew Salesses questions the craft conventions at the heart of the creative writing programme. The challenge, he begins, is to take craft out of some imaginary, “universal” vacuum and return it to its cultural and historical context. Race, gender, sexuality, etc affect our lives and so must affect our fiction.
“Real-world context, and particularly what we do with that context, is craft,” he says. Here I learned that our current methods of teaching craft date back to at least 1936 and the creation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the first MFA programme, which rose to prominence under Paul Engle, a white Iowan poet, who was invested in “Iowa as the home of the free individual, of the poet at peace with democratic capitalism, of the novelist devoted to the contemporary outlines of liberty.”
“In other words,” Salesses notes, “the Workshop never meant craft to be neutral.” In fact, it expressed certain artistic and social values that could be weaponised against the threat of – you guessed it – Communism. Craft conventions, I realised, didn’t just emerge out of nowhere, in a state of benign and innocent grace.
In fact, if we take craft to be what Salesses calls nothing more or less than a set of expectations – then for certain these expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class (white) males. In India too something similar with the addition of “upper caste” to the list.
Worst, according to Salesses, is to teach craft unreflexively, within a limited understanding of the canon, reinforcing not only narrow ideas about whose stories are important but also what makes a story beautiful, moving, or good. “We need to rethink craft and the teaching of it to better serve writers with diverse backgrounds, which means diverse ways of telling stories.”
This doesn’t just entail, as I’ve seen some “how to decolonise creative writing” guidelines suggest, including a diversity of texts in the reading list – it means to go beyond that, and critique how creative writing is taught. To interrogate the “rules of good writing” and ask of them first where they come from and whom they benefit.
Craft, Salesses made me see, is cultural. And in many textbooks, and workshops, the dominance of one tradition of craft, serving one particular audience, is essentially literary imperialism that poses – it isn’t hard to imagine – a threat to minority and marginalised voices. Instead we need to acknowledge the existence of many different craft conventions – with each being as valid as the other.
Slowly, I’ve mustered up the courage to include sessions on “listening” in my creative writing courses – we now open the semester with students gathered around a virtual bonfire (in these days of online teaching), telling stories to each other. We speak of silences, hesitations, circulatory, repetition, breath.
We listen to podcasts, they record their own, and this active “listening” practice I’ve noticed, informs their reading and writing for the rest of the semester. They’re better attuned, I think, to pauses in the text, to how a character holds her silences, to how a story can be told in many ways. They’re encouraged also, in their fiction writing, to draw on storytelling traditions, oral or otherwise – dastangoi, kathputli, the songs of the Bauls.
Our workshops are now “ungagged” – only in a world of shared assumptions, says Salesses, does a traditional silenced workshop make sense (one in which men used to being heard were forced to shut up and listen). Instead, the writer is invited to be part of the discussion, and the guiding force in the workshop is a spirit of enquiry rather than prescription.
But most importantly, no more quiet acceptance of craft conventions as handed down to us – rather, a quest to know where they come from and whom they serve, in order to know what and why and how to mean. The debate on whether writing can be taught still rages on, but while these courses exist, I would hope for them to discuss craft critically, with deeper cultural understanding and sensitivity. In this act itself lies the fiercest deconstruction, and dismantling, of colonial ways of telling and teaching.