“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Productivity as Practice:An Expert Performance Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy Part 3

Start reading at part one.
            But the question of what standards of success the instructor is to apply to students’ work, as well as the ones instructors will encourage the students to apply to each others’ work, has yet to be addressed. The skills students develop through practicing evaluating their own work will both be based on their evaluations of the works of others and be applied to them. The first step toward becoming a creative writer is recognizing how much one likes the writing of another. The work the student is initially exposed to will almost certainly have gone through a complex series of assessments beginning with the author’s of his own work, onto commenters and editors working on behalf of the author, then onto editors working on behalf of publishers, and finally to the publishers themselves. Even upon publication, any given work is unlikely to be read by a majority of readers who appreciate the type of writing it represents until a critical threshold is reached beyond which its likelihood of becoming recommended reading is increased. At some point in the process it may even reach the attention of critics and reviewers, who will themselves evaluate the work either positively or negatively. (This is leaving out the roles of branding and author reputation because they probably aren’t practicable skills.) Since feedback cannot be grounded in any absolute or easily measurable criteria, Ericsson advocates a “socially based definition of creativity” (330). And, since students develop their evaluative skills through internalizing and anticipating the evaluations of others, the choice of which workshop to attend is paramount. The student should seek out those most versed in and most appreciative of the type of writing he aspires to master.

            Simply reading theoretical essays on poetry or storytelling, as Vikil has his students do, is probably far less effective than sampling a theorist’s or critic’s work and then trying to anticipate that evaluator’s response to a work he or she has written about. Some critics’ work lends itself to this type of exercise more readily than others; those who focus on literary as opposed to political elements, and those who put more effort into using sound methods to ensure the validity of their psychological or sociological theories—if they must theorize—will be much more helpful than those who see each new work as an opportunity to reiterate their favorite ideas in a fresh context. It may be advisable, in other words, to concentrate on reviewers rather than critics and theorists. After having learned to anticipate the responses of a few reviewers whose work is influential, the student will be better equipped to evaluate his or her own work in terms of how it will be received in the social context that will be the final arbiter of success or failure.

            Anticipation, as it allows for feedback, could form the basis for several types of practice exercises. Ericsson cites his own and others’ research demonstrating that chess players improve not as a function of how much time they spend playing chess but through studying past games between chess masters. “By trying to select the best move for each position of the game,” Ericsson writes, “and comparing their selected move to the actual move of the game, the players identify discrepancies where they must study the chess position more deeply to uncover the reason for the master’s move” (37). In a similar way, pausing in the process of reading to anticipate a successful author’s next move in a story or novel should offer an opportunity for creative writing students to compare their ideas with the author’s. Of course, areas of divergence between the reader’s ideas for a next move and the one the author actually made need not be interpreted as a mistake on the part of the reader—the reader’s idea may even be better. However, in anticipating what will happen next in a story, the student is generating ideas and therefore getting practice in the area of productivity. And, whether or not the author’s ideas are better, the student will develop greater familiarity with her methods through such active engagement with them. Finally, the students will be getting practice evaluating ideas as they compare their own to those of the author.

            A possible objection to implementing this anticipatory reading method in a creative writing curriculum is that a student learning to anticipate an author’s moves would simply be learning to make moves like the ones that author makes—which amounts to reproduction, not creativity. Indeed, one of the theories Ericsson has explored to explain how expertise develops posits a sort of rote memorization of strategies and their proper application to a limited set of situations. “For a long time it was believed that experts acquired a large repertoire of patterns,” he explains, “and their superior performance could be attributed to simple pattern matching and recall of previously stored actions from memory in an effortless and automatic manner” (331). If expertise relies on memory and pattern recognition, though, then experts would fare no better in novel situations than non-experts. Ericsson has found just the opposite to be the case.

"Superior expert performers in domains such as music, chess, and medicine can generate better actions than their less skilled peers even in situations they have never directly experienced. Expert performers have acquired refined mental representations that maintain access to relevant information about the situation and support more extensive, flexible reasoning to determine the appropriate actions demanded by the encountered situation." (331)

What the creative writer would be developing through techniques for practice such as anticipation-based reading likely goes beyond a simple accumulation of fixed strategies—a bigger bag of tricks appropriated from other authors. They would instead be developing a complex working model of storytelling as well as a greater capacity for representing and manipulating the various aspects of their own stories in working memory.

            Skepticism about whether literary writing of any sort can be taught—or learned in any mundane or systematic way—derives from a real and important insight: authors are judged not by how well they reproduce the formulas of poetry and storytelling but by how successful they are in reformulating the conventional techniques of the previous generation of writers. No one taught Cervantes his epic-absurd form of parody. No one taught Shakespeare how to explore the inner workings of his characters’ minds through monologues. No one taught Virginia Woolf how to shun external trappings and delve so exquisitely into the consciousness of her characters. Yet observations of where authors came to reside in relation to prevailing literary cultures don’t always offer clues to the mode of transportation. Woolf, for instance, wrote a great deal about the fashion for representing characters through references to their physical appearances and lists of their possessions in her reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. She didn’t develop her own approach oblivious of what she called “materialism”; fully understanding the method, she found it insufficient for what she hoped to accomplish with her own work. And she’d spent a lot time in her youth reading Shakespeare, with those long eminently revealing monologues (Wood 110). Supposing creative genius is born of mastery of conventions and techniques and not ignorance of or antipathy toward them, the emphasis on the works of established authors in creative writing pedagogy ceases to savor of hidebound conservatism.

            The general pedagogical outline focusing on practice devoted to productivity, as well as the general approach to reading based on anticipation can be refined to accommodate any student’s proclivities or concerns. A student who wants to develop skill in describing characters’ physical appearances in a way that captures something of the essence of their personalities may begin by studying the work of authors from Charles Dickens to Saul Bellow. Though it’s difficult to imagine how such descriptions might be anticipated, the characters’ later development over the course of the plot does offer opportunities to test predictions. Coming away from studies of past works, the student need not be limited to exercises on blank screens or sheets of paper; practice might entail generating multiple ideas for describing some interesting individual he knows in real life, or describing multiple individuals he knows. He may set himself the task of coming up with a good description for everyone interviewed during the course of a television news program. He can practice describing random people who pass on a campus sidewalk, imagining details of their lives and personalities, or characters in shows and movies. By the time the aspiring author is sitting down to write about her own character in a story or novel, she will all but automatically produce a number of possible strategies for making that character come alive through words, increasing the likelihood that she’ll light on one that resonates strongly, first with her own memories and emotions and then with those of her readers. And, if Simonton’s theory has any validity, the works produced according to this strategy need not resemble each other any more than one species resembles another.

            All of the conventional elements of craft—character, plot, theme, dialogue, point of view, and even higher-order dimensions like voice—readily lend themselves to this qualitative approach to practice. A creative writing instructor may coach a student who wants to be better able to devise compelling plots to read stories recognized as excelling in that dimension, encouraging her to pause along the way to write a list of possible complications, twists, and resolutions to compare with the ones she’ll eventually discover in the actual text. If the student fails to anticipate the author’s moves, she can then compare her ideas with the author’s, giving her a deeper sense of why one works better than the others. She may even practice anticipating the plots of television shows and movies, or trying to conceive of how stories in the news might be rendered as fictional plots. To practice describing settings, students could be encouraged to come up with multiple metaphors and similes based on one set and then another of the physical features they observe in real places. How many ways, a student may be prompted, can you have characters exchange the same basic information in a dialogue? Which ones reveal more of the characters’ personalities? Which ones most effectively reprise and develop the themes you’re working with? Any single idea generated in these practice sessions is unlikely to represent a significant breakthrough. But the more ideas one has the more likely she’ll discover one which seems likely to her to garner wider recognition of superior quality. The productivity approach can also be applied to revision and would consist of the writer identifying weak passages or scenes in an early draft and generating several new versions of each one so that a single, best version can be chosen for later drafts.

            What I’ve attempted here is a sketch of one possible approach to teaching. It seems that since many worry about the future of literature, fearing that the growing influence of workshops will lead to insularity and standardization, too few teachers are coming forward with ideas on how to help their students improve, as if whatever methods they admit to using would inevitably lend credence to the image of workshops as assembly lines for the production of mediocre and tragically uninspired poems and short stories. But, if creative writing is in danger of being standardized into obsolescence, the publishing industry is the more likely culprit, as every starry-eyed would-be author knows full well publication is the one irreducible factor underlying professional legitimacy. And research has pretty thoroughly ruled out the notion that familiarity with the techniques of the masters in any domain inevitably precludes original, truly creative thinking. The general outline for practice based on productivity and evaluation can be personalized and refined in countless ways, and students can be counted on to bring an endless variety of experiences and perspectives to workshops, variety that would be difficult, to say the least, to completely eradicate in the span of the two or three years allotted to MFA programs.

            The productivity and evaluation model for creative writing pedagogy also holds a great deal of potential for further development. For instance, a survey of successful poets and fiction writers asking them how they practice—after providing them a précis of Ericsson’s and Simonton’s findings on what constitutes practice—may lead to the development of an enormously useful and surprising repertoire of training techniques. How many authors engage in activities they think of as simple games or distractions but in fact contribute to their ability to write engaging and moving stories or poems? Ultimately, though, the discovery of increasingly effective methods will rely on rigorously designed research comparing approaches to each other. The popular rankings for MFA programs based on the professional success of students who graduate from them are a step in the direction of this type of research, but they have the rather serious flaw of sampling bias owing to higher ranking schools having the advantage of larger applicant pools. At this stage, though, even the subjective ratings of individuals experimenting with several practice techniques would be a useful guide for adjusting and refining teaching methods.

            Applying the expert performance framework developed by Ericsson, Simonton, Csikszentmihaly, and their colleagues to creative writing pedagogy would probably not drastically revolutionize teaching and writing practices. It would rather represent a shift in focus from the evaluation-heavy workshop model onto methods for generating ideas. And of course activities like brainstorming and free writing are as old as the hills. What may be new is the conception of these invention strategies as a form of practice to be engaged in for the purpose of developing skills, and the idea that this practice can and should be engaged in independent of any given writing project. Even if a writing student isn’t working on a story or novel, even if he doesn’t have an idea for one yet, he should still be practicing to be a better storyteller or novelist. It’s probably the case, too, that many or most professional writers already habitually engage in activities fitting the parameters of practice laid out by the expert performance model. Such activities probably already play at least some role in classrooms. Since the basic framework can be tailored to any individual’s interests, passions, weaknesses, and strengths, and since it stresses the importance and quantity of new ideas, it’s not inconceivable that more of this type of practice will lead to greater as opposed to less originality.

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