Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will Slattery: Impressions and Preliminary Maxims Gleaned from Teaching High School Creative Writing

1. Of late I find myself entrusted with the responsibility of educating Arizonan high schoolers in the discipline of "creative writing." The basic structure of this responsibility is not hugely different from the adjunct-professoriate responsibilities many members of the Essay Daily family know so intimately, though this high school work feels somewhat more honest than its collegiate counterpart, and also it actually comes with benefits.

2. Almost no one under the age of 18 seems to know what us CNF weirdos mean when we say essay—on hearing the word, their eyes darken under the memory of 5-paragraph drudgery—but even so many of them are what we might call essayistic in their disposition and artistic approach.

2a. Absolutely no one under the age of 18 cares about the Montaignean lineage of "essay as essai, by which we mean an attempt."

2b. About 63% of AWP panels every year include the essay/essai/attempt shtick, so maybe we should all knock it off anyways.

3. There is a certain amount of terror hard-coded into the teaching process. Or maybe not terror, but moral anxiety: the fear that, through some slight incompetence, your instruction might serve as a treacherous wreck-collecting shoal rather than as a conduit for exploration.

4. Almost no one under the age of 18 cares very much about the theoretical lines demarcating fiction and poetry.

4a. To write an essay or a story which moves between paragraphed prose and lineated verse is an easy, natural thing for most of the high schoolers I teach. Likewise for stories, essays, or poems which dovetail into illustrations, sketches, maps, diagrams, calligraphy, or collage. They feel no need to explain or justify this sort of move within the text, even though an undergrad or graduate level workshop would undoubtedly spend at least 10 minutes asking if these moves were really working, if the formal innovations were worth the price of the ticket.

4b. So then: what changes? What ideological or institutional mechanism operates on the adolescent mind such that a high school workshop bounces off the walls with formal innovation but a college workshop often tortures itself over something as simple as a deliberately chosen comma splice? I have absolutely no idea.

5. No one under the age of 18 understands or cares about the distinction between an MA, MFA, and a PhD. This is a very extremely excellently Good Thing.

6. If you force young people to listen to Nico Muhly’s music during their daily free-writing exercise, they will be extremely displeased with you.

7. High school writers generally like Ander Monson’s fiction; they are much less certain of his nonfiction.

8. Young writers are often adversely possessed of the notion that great writers simple Are or Are Not, that top-tier literary talent is a thing one simply Has or Has Not. Likewise, inspiration either comes to you, or it does not. The inculcation of this notion is a form of cultural violence, one for which we may thank the revolting and vulgar dregs of Romanticism.

8a. I am loathe to mark myself as the sort of white boy who might mention Aristotle as an authority, but he wasn’t half wrong when he emphasized the role of habit and practice in the formation of moral character. The same is true of aesthetic character, I suspect.

8b. But then habit and practice are so much less intoxicating than genius and afflatus, aren’t they?

9. Almost as loathsome as the notion of fixed genius is the notion of an interesting life, the idea that nonfiction has an experiential barrier to entry—that one must have done certain things, or had certain things done to them in order to even qualify as a participant in the genre. Every day that I teach, I find myself increasingly convinced that the occasionally-talked-about-but-rarely-studied enrollment gap (and the implied interest gap) between fiction/poetry and CNF can be traced back to this omnipresent, noxious phrase.

9a. I have to come to hope that what Patricia Hampl calls the "dark art of description"—the essayitic unfolding by which we refine & elevate the seemingly mundane or unimportant—might serve as a tonic for all this:
Because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He also teaches high school, in case that was unclear. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.


  1. Thanks, Will. A interesting read. Seems to me like you're both lamenting and celebrating the Romantic legacy: how great that these students aren't yet corrupted by the distinctions and concerns fretted over by acculturated essayists like us and at the same time how sad that they believe in innate genius or innate interest, as though these were natural givens rather than the result of acculturation, through an artist's education, practice, etc. The ability to cultivate the divine detail and live in light of it likely goes hand in hand with the ability to understand the importance of essaying, attempting, and how Montaigne revolutionized literature by making the everyday, non-Romantic self a valid focus of our attention. How do your students feel about Ander's poetry?