Reflections on comp reading and women in creative writing

Monday, July 15th, 2013

A lot of graduate students tend to bemoan or fear the comprehensive exams portion of their study. I do admit there is stress involved, for sure, and perhaps a little fear, so far I have learned quite a lot from my reading for comps. And while I don’t feel I have made as large a dent in the reading as I would have liked, it seems the more I read, the more manageable this work becomes. It is also nice to be able to go through a very long list and cross out a recent reading. I also enjoy reading something in the morning and then reading something later in the afternoon and being able to already draw comparisons and synthesize the two readings, even when they are very different, such as how I was able to draw comparisons between my Kant reading and later my reading about the creative writing workshop. I know that sounds crazy, but there were comparisons, mainly around the idea of how the mind creates cause and effect.

To be honest, I’ve been reading mostly from my pedagogy list for creative writing because that is the one area I have not had a class in. While I have sat in plenty creative writing workshops, I have not sat down and read about creative writing as pedagogy and creative writing as a discipline. What I have found is while there aren’t very many good histories written about creative writing as a field, most people seem to argue that creative writing is often easily linked to composition and literature, and in fact came to exist at the University of Iowa because of these reasons. At the same time, many feel it needs to be considered its own discipline, distinct from literature or composition, and everyone has their own theories for how to do that. And this fact also explains why creative writing has so many problems with site identity in the university.

But creative writing is also very masculine and why it is so is partly because of when creative writing came of age. When the workshop at Iowa opened, it was right when WWII vets were returning to school because of the GI Bill. And the writers who entered these programs, and why the creative writing MFA came about in the first place, was to give support and a place for experienced writers. But what many scholars, such as Vanderslice, Ritter, and Bizzaro, note is that the demographics of creative writing programs has changed. For example, there are undergraduate programs in creative writing and often writers who are still at the beginning stages of writing are entering MFA programs. Thus the traditional workshop model that is masculine and based heavily in fictive bloodshed is not a good pedagogical tool for these students. Critics of the workshop, such as the late Wendy Bishop, proposed instead the “transactional” writer’s workshop, and this idea was later addressed and revised by Stephanie Vanderslice. This workshop often has three aspects:
1. it demystifies authorship so that students understand what a writer’s life is really like and how there is no such thing as a muse or anything similar to that. It also helps to demonstrate the real work that goes into a piece of writing.
2. the new workshop provides reflection on one’s writing and creative process so that students, particularly those beginning writers, understand what drives their creativity and where and how they are most creative.
3. This type of workshop also provides reflection on one’s own writing process. Bizzaro himself notes that number three, to him, is most important since student writers need that space, in class, for reflection. He also adds that having students look at published poems and help them to imagine what a writer may write next or talk about the possible writing process for that poem is also helpful in regards to numbers 1 and 2.

As I was reading in my office this morning, I kept thinking about a brief exchange I had with a friend who has a PhD in Creative Writing. He has commented a number of times about how the poetry workshop always seemed like a “happier” or more feminine space since his fiction workshops were often like a Bobby Knight school of workshop and composing. I don’t remember saying too much in response, except maybe more or less agreeing or mentioning how there were some moments in poetry workshops where things got tense. But what he was really commenting on had nothing to do with the distinctions between poetry or fiction workshops, and everything to do with the reasons for creating the workshop in the first place during the 1930s-1940s, along with those who were his teachers, along with the reputation of the program itself. Creative Writing, whether we like it or not, has a largely masculine influence.

When I was in my early 20s I had my first in-print publication. It was a collection of writing from three different female poets, all under 25, since women under the age of 25 are the least published in creative writing. I just remember thinking it was cool and not really realizing the significance of the work we were doing. As I continue reading, I keep thinking about creating a press, digital or otherwise, that would focus on publishing only women writers. Even though I think this would be great, and though I am sure similar avenues exist, I also feel that the small press has created a voice for women in creative writing, the small press has also confined women writers to those areas. It is still easier to get published if you are male and writing fiction. Most women seem to publish in poetry or in the fields of creative nonfiction or get published because they wrote a really great romance, or perhaps something akin to 50 Shades and none of these are considered to be “serious” writing. I know this isn’t always the case, but often it is. I know J.K Rowling exists, obviously, but she also published a more “serious” novel under a male name, didn’t she?

Or maybe I should just start telling everyone I am working on a novel.

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