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On In(form)ality: Creative Writing Pedagogy in the Youtube Generation

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What follows is the first of what will likely end up a series of reflections on participating in an MFA program and instructing in the field of creative writing within a university. The Huffpo audience is likely to have more than a few things to add to the conversation around creative writing in America, its pedagogy, and its programs, given that these subjects have come up before, more than once.

One thing that renders me reluctant to begin writing about the MFA-program-fueled "business" of writing and the teaching of writing, besides the obvious solipsism that can really snake-eat-its-own-tail up an already rather "hothouse" field, is the sneaking suspicion that there are things I lack that "real writers" should have in order to teach. I can trace some of this to the fact that I have yet to read The Aeneid in its entirety, and some to the fact that I'm a teacher of the "wooey" variety. The question of whether this is a service or disservice to today's creative writing students is up to debate, and as such it is an opportunity to examine how changing culture between generations of teachers shapes the experience of their students (who are also steeped in a markedly different culture than the "last wave" of students).

I don't know what it's called ("Generation Z"?), but I represent some of the worst and best of the confessional-"real-life-TV"-YouTube-blogger-validation-focused generation in which I came of age. I made waves as an undergraduate in my nonfiction course by writing about getting my period while modeling nude for an artists' group. I'll totally go there, at worst perhaps because the more of myself I share the more likely I am to be validated by my listener or reader, but at best, because I don't see the point of communication, especially of writing, if it's not to "lean in the direction of the skid," as Dean Young put it. Those with more delicate sensibilities or strict social codes are occasionally annoyed by my informality when I don't read their particular social cues, but through my failure on that front, they also know that I am not someone who angles for anything less innocuous than the occasional "wooey" validation, and they occasionally let me know they value that transparency. But, I wondered before beginning to teach a few years ago, would students value it too? Could it serve them somehow?

Being an informal person has its rewards and pitfalls inside the classroom and out. I dig the peopleness of people; my mother is a first-grade teacher who reads her kids the book "Everyone Poops," which message I never forgot even when talking to humans with impressive job titles. If I preemptively choose to be vulnerable enough with people to let them know what's actually going on in my life as opposed to being guarded, it appeals to their humanity, and a lot of folks find this refreshing. They tend to respond in kind because once I have opened up they don't need to worry about the risks of doing so themselves--and this has proven to apply to heads of government agencies as much as it has to students over the past few years. I surrender first.

I'll go ahead and use the controversial phrase: it creates a "safe space" to be the first to let down your guard. 98% of the time, openness has led to openness: genuine interaction, genuine friendship, genuine affection. Instead of being a liability, this very tendency to be informal, to be the one whose students know they can sometimes cry, the one to surrender the particular control we maintain by keeping potentially embarrassing information hidden and parts of ourselves under wraps, clued me in to what I hope is a valuable aspect of being very much a teacher of my generation.

It follows that I am also an informal writer, which also may affect my attitudes toward students' work. The form a piece of my writing takes emerges pretty naturally if I busy myself with the content. Compared to the discerning thoughts of some of my righteously skeptical peers, I'm rather less concerned with defining the boundaries between literary forms than I am in playing in the nebulous space between them. I tried to write a "lyric essay" and Robert Creeley called it a poem, which, if Creeley says something is a poem, I believe him. My nonfiction is sometimes published as fiction at the editor's discretion. I've never been concerned with what did or did not make a poem or an essay. I've never been invested in that conversation, and I'm not sure why. But lately I wonder if it is a culturally influenced case of informality in each possible sense of the term, and whether my creative philosophy has informed my pedagogical one.

My concerns as a writer aren't the strict maintenance and definition of borders, and I wonder if this is somehow related to why my concerns as a teacher aren't so much my students' poetry as their interiorities first, since in my experience of their work (as well as my own), fluency in the latter is what leads to a sensibility for the former. This runs the risk of creating a "sloppy" classroom where less strictly "craft-oriented" and more "therapeutic" processes lead to confessional pieces of work that perhaps aren't as formally sound for it (this piece, I know, could be criticized as such, and the critic would have a point). My students are likely to feel safe enough to explore tough personal terrain, but there might emerge a challenge as to whether we'll be able to bridge the public-personal gap and bring their work to a place above a confession, if it starts as one, to the level of a more lasting work of public art.

It could be that there exists in my youtubed and validation-hungry generation an unprecedentedly weighted dependency, when it comes to our identification as readers and writers, on the affirmation that others have felt the way we have -- prohibitively anxious, like we're nuts, too wounded to go on, plagued by a fairly regular and colossal loss of perspective, etc -- which naturally leads to a question of how that might shape both the (im)maturity of our writing and that of our reading: our goals in both mightn't be loftier than to get reassurance either that we are not insane or that insanity is part of being a good artist. I wonder whether the solace we seek in literature has been somewhat defined and/or substantially changed from that of previous generations by the emergence of a specific culture, one wherein twelve-year-olds with social network profiles have public images that they manage and maintain, not to mention a culturally encouraged acute awareness the concept of "self" in general. I wonder whether the literature we create is influenced by that change, if there has indeed been a shift. In light of the recent suicides of homosexual adolescents in reaction to (myspace- and youtube- involved) harassment of just that very nascent and fragile sense of self, I think these questions are worth asking. Do we need more validation than previous generations? Is literature and art in general where we go to get it, and to express our own angst, more or less often than before? Has the sea change in our culture whose worst side is expressed in these premature deaths changed what we should expect of those who teach an art to young people, and what we should expect their participation in a creative class to do for them in their lives?

I considered one of my best moments as a teacher to be one that transpired a year ago when a student started crying while reading a prompt-response because it was about caring for someone dear who was very sick. To me, that moment of what Paulo Freire calls "ruptura" was part of the healthy, natural arc of the pedagogical and creative process. It meant she felt safe enough to lean into the direction of the skid and feel the pain Flannery O'Connor assures us is part of the creative writing life. I don't see how our writing will persist into the ages if it does not evoke and tap awake the parts of us that ache and sob and laugh and pray any more than I see the point of using workshop time either for parlor chat or for discussions that deal only with craft. Let's get down to it. We may not be the first generation to be comforted by the passion and loss we find resonating with us from the printed page, but we are the first with access to a (sometimes dangerously) instantaneous interface for the kind of interior explorations heretofore found almost exclusively in the literary canon, the first with access to a real-time worldwide conversation of a culture concerned with acts of witnessing, personal exposition, and validation -- a conversation which will hopefully continue to include how this sea change influences us as teachers, students, and writers.