11/29/2010 06:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Freedom to Write and to Teach Writing: Notes from the Swamp

What follows is the second 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 HuffPost 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.

I've written earlier about the question of whether creative writing instructors have a slightly different role than professors of less "personal" disciplines. Every so often, a creative writing instructor will encounter a troubling situation wherein s/he comes across in ways s/he didn't intend to students who, due to the specifically personal nature of the work they produce for a creative writing class, are more likely to feel upset and/or picked-on by a pedagogical methodology that, while normal in another discipline, comes across in a creative classroom as removed or unkind. It's gotten me thinking about just what an interesting and complex and sometimes downright impossible position a creative writing teacher in an American university is, given the current post-identity-debate, culture-war ridden society in which we find ourselves.

The goals of the creative writing classroom as (a) a space wherein political, incendiary, sexual, and/or disturbing pieces of work are welcomed and workshopped as pieces of literature (as those characteristics are often traits of great literature); and (b) a space wherein students of a more conservative nature and background feel safe sharing, writing, reading, and critiquing, might be incompatible goals right now in America. It was recently election day, and America, now more than ever, is soaked in culture wars between the sort of people who denounce George W. Bush in Op-Ed columns and the sort of people who, like Bush, call those Op-Ed writers "city slicks." The ivory tower is the site of many of the clashes between the two, and creative writing is caught up in the middle of it, as a word-based art form that addresses disturbing, emotional, religious and personal content with, well, words -- that is, with rhetoric, which is also the stuff of purely political debate. The concept of freedom of speech, or of the right not to be exposed to or required to speak words that go against one's religion, is, particularly for the creative writing professor under fire, unique in that it uses the abstract animal of language as a medium. And creative writing -- more often than not, if it's doing its job -- is where language is stretched in ways that thrill and amaze, offend and sicken.

Is it safe in the university not just to be a student of faith who wants to take a creative writing course without feeling ostracized or forced to read work they are uncomfortable with -- but to be a creative writing instructor? Or, how can one be that professor, when freedom of speech and freedom of religion issues are what they are today in America? Can a professor go about facilitating a conversation that includes and examines the very explorations and documentation of social, cultural, and political assumptions and mores that make up a great deal of both canonical literature and student work without stepping on toes -- and landing as a result in hot water with academic institutions and even in courtrooms? How can a teacher of creative writing possibly succeed in doing what institutions of higher learning need to do: distinguish between discomfort on moral and spiritual grounds and the absolute counter-aim of higher education: the encouragement and maintenance of blissful unawareness on the part of students who don't like how a new idea or topic makes them feel, so they think they shouldn't have to learn about it or discuss it in class? What to do as professors or teachers in a post-identity-debate culture that focuses on the rights of the individual to the point of cultivating the concept of that individual in students young and/or vulnerable enough to respond to identity attacks with suicide? Sensitive young people, warring cultures, and words as both the balm of great literature and the sometimes-sticks-and-stones referred to as "speech" in the document guaranteeing our rights... I have no answer here, I'm just marveling at the double- and cross-duties. The teaching of creative writing is actually the nexus of one of America's largest sites of cultural swampiness.

This swampiness resides in the larger, ever-present debate about how "academic" the field of creative writing is, and, relatedly, how much "authority" professors in the field can be said to have within the ivory tower -- which becomes a very important question when creative professors come under fire. I am reminded of Brian Evenson, who left his post at Brigham Young University because some of the population and faculty there objected to his work. Mr. Evenson was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for years. I studied with him after he left BYU. I still remember his writing in the margin of one of my stories, which concerned Catholicism and family planning in Ecuador: "Don't preach." The man is pretty much as sensitive and informed about both the general use of rhetoric and about Mormon theology -- very possibly more so than many of those who objected to his work -- as one can get. He also writes downright morbid fiction that features Mormon rites in relation to grisly murders. Mr. Evenson, by being one of the kindest, smartest, most articulate and accomplished writers I had ever met, actually inspired me to do the Freedom to Write work I do. He inspired me by virtue of having done what few American writers have had to do or even think about doing: abdicate a position due to objections to their art.

There doesn't seem to be much awareness in American M.F.A. Programs of the great Disneyland-style ability we enjoy as creative writers to write and publish work of grisly or politically challenging content -- or even just creative work, of any stripe -- without being jailed or even killed (see: PEN America's Freedom to Write page for proof of how bad it can get elsewhere). When, occasionally, someone is killed in the (sadly, very American) event of a student wielding a gun, or even criticized in the much more tepid event of a student complaint letter, it's less because of being a "mean" teacher than someone in a very muddy position: professor or guide of a discipline that provides for and actively welcomes a personal investment in work, work that challenges the status quo and describes the darker side of humanity in today's America. The emotions, therefore, run high, and the identity politics do too, including those of a Mormon student who'd rather not say the f-word.

I intimated earlier that we generally enjoy the freedom of speech like happy suckling piglets: relatively unaware that other piglets don't get to eat. But the issues exemplified by the above bring up more of a "freedom to abstain" issue. When and how should students be allowed to object to the use of disturbing stories and/or colorful language in the classroom of an artistic discipline? Debate should be stimulated; opinions should be challenged. But when I stopped to consider the concerns raised by conservative students past my kneejerk reaction, which was along the lines of "if a creative writing syllabus offends you, it's doing its job," I found myself in a sticky and dark spot.

Creative writing is a swamp wherein language (as its medium) puts it smack dab in the middle of a culture war that centers around disagreements about what written language could and should be doing to and for its readers and writers. Offending? Fulfilling? Enlightening? Comforting? Challenging? The Bible is made up of words, and so is Lolita. Good luck to the poor suckers who have to try and teach the craft of words in the American university classroom. Oh wait, I'm one of those suckers.