Yes, of course, creative writing can be taught, and it is very successfully taught. It might be the most successful humanities enterprise in the American university, if success is to be measured by stated goals. As for "improvement," yes to that too, if by "improvement" we mean internalizing the principles of creative writing. Dramatic and measurable improvement are not only possible but happen all the time.
Now, having gotten the provocative answer out of the way, let me be clear. Creative writing is not literary writing as has been understood for all of the history of writing. Creative writing is a subset of therapy, with the same essential modalities -- except, like everything else in our culture, it comes in a stripped, dumbed down version that partakes little of the rigors of psychotherapy. More appropriately, we might call it the Oprahfied mindset that penetrates workshop. Life lessons and living a more authentic life are always just beneath the surface of any workshop discussion.
Students "improve" in the direction of imitating their teacher and the narrow range of models -- Carver? Hemingway? Barthelme? Plath? Glück? Levine? -- she brings into workshop. Students "improve" in the output produced, compared to the beginning of workshop or the graduate program, when they start reproducing stuff that looks like the models.
Literature as we have known it through history springs from genius -- that most politically incorrect of words. By definition, no creative writing teacher can give official sanction to this terminology. And so the literary criticism of Horace or Sidney or Coleridge or Eliot is out the door. All of literary criticism is banished. Creative writing can flourish only in this enormous vacuum. Creative writing is taught with this single most important premise: no criticism, as the word is traditionally understood, can be allowed into the workshop.
In workshop, members judge each other's work according to feeling or desire. Technique is also a big part of it -- judging the story or poem according to how it works, how the plot and characters and narrative are put together to achieve a desired effect, or how a poem's rhythm and line breaks and diction serve a unified emotional purpose -- in other words "craft."
Craft is a very revealing term, as though writing were a matter of figuring out the essential components of a story or poem (the novel is typically not taught in workshop, because it's too hard a nut for craft to crack), and duplicating those elements in the comfort of your home. In that sense, creative writing can absolutely be taught. It's just that it's not literature.
Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn--for that is too reductionist a term--but be challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.
Literature is not about expressing yourself -- that all-important desideratum of sincerity, so precious in the workshop -- but about penetrating, at the deep intuitive level, what other fiction writers or poets have done in the past, as they confronted aesthetic challenges in their own milieus, and realizing what your specific aesthetic challenges are, both in collective and individual terms, and then going about it, alone and without comfort, in resolving the challenge you have set for yourself.
None of that can ever be taught in workshop, whose whole psychology militates against such an individualist, rather than industrialized, method of learning.
The psychology of the workshop has not yet been thoroughly explored. It is a mild form of hazing, an officially sanctioned sadism in which students eagerly participate. The student sits quietly while his work is read in front of him, not allowed to intervene as peers shred his work or occasionally praise it. All kinds of political, gender, class, and racial subtexts pervade such peer-to-peer "critique." Those criticizing are as ignorant of the art of writing as those whose work is being discussed. They're picking up cues from the instructor as to what is acceptable or not acceptable.
The methods of the workshop lead to "improvement" by subtraction -- since by definition the instructor can't compel the student to produce something that's not within his capability. So you work with what the student has given you, and you make that inherently flawed piece of work look a little better -- make it conform to the Carver or Glück model -- by subtracting, taking away the really egregious flourishes that make the writer appear eminently stupid.
It's not a coincidence that minimalism became so popular in the seventies, or that Carver or the domestic confessionalists became such huge national influences in the eighties; this is the period when the workshop model was getting established. All workshop writing leads to a type of minimalism, even if not strictly in the stylistic sense. For example, everything to do with politics or class must be expunged, since in the politically correct academy (as on Oprah) such subjects cannot be raised without the false consensus, the feel-good atmosphere, falling apart.
What can we agree on, and therefore teach? That you--at twenty-one or twenty-nine--have had some personal experiences: your parents divorced or you had a bad time in high school or your sister had a terrible sickness. You can make a story out of that--or creative nonfiction, that's okay too. Or a short narrative/epiphanic poem. As long as it conforms to the elements of "craft" you're being asked to upheld.
We might make the case that creative writing is what composition ought to be, in allowing idiosyncratic expression. Creative writing also functions in opposition to the rhetorics of literary theory, where everything is politicized (though in an insanely misguided manner, focused only on language) and the author as independent idea and will do not exist.
The remarkable thing--but it shouldn't be so, in our age of conformity--is how malleable, how teachable, students tend to be. All their lives long they've learned to play by the rules of socialization, and creative writing workshop is just taking the social game to a different level, where your experience is validated (but not really, because you must follow the model) and you're given the appearance of having your hands held and being consoled (even as your work is being ripped up, it's couched in the language of therapy).
It's perhaps also a refuge from self-help (which is where memoir flourishes), as you're told that we're all here to help each other. No wonder creative writing is the most popular scene on campus. Show don't tell, find your own voice, write what you know, sure, you can do that while carrying on a hectic social life and not even feel guilty you're wasting time. Come to think of it, Louise Glück, that Pulitzer winner, doesn't look all that different from what you've been doing. You just need to get the technique down a little better. Maybe in the next poem about your dog that got lost.
Yes, creative writing can be taught. And we're all fucked because of it.
This piece appears in the current issue of Boulevard magazine.
Anis Shivani has just finished a novel, Karachi Raj. His other books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (May 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).