Back in the earliest days of my college career, I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I also knew I never wanted to be a creative writing teacher: Don’t get me wrong, creative writing is one of my passions, but by that time I’d spent years participating in online writers communities, reading others’ stories and providing very detailed feedback.
And, if I may, I was damn good at it. People I’d never met before knew my name because of the quality constructive criticism I gave, and sometimes writers would ask me out of the blue to read their rough drafts or proofread their final copies. I was even invited to judge not one but two different short story competitions!
So why didn’t I want to become a creative writing teacher? And now that I’ve finished teaching a four-week creative writing elective, why will I never teach it again?
1. High school writers =/= college writers
I have many fond memories of my creative writing classes in college: We’d share stories, we’d do peer review, and it was a lot of fun laughing along with literary jokes. I recall one classmate’s story was about a baker who got pregnant, and let me tell you, the puns during our class review were some of the best I ever heard in college!
But alas, high school is not college. Whereas in college the average student had a full grasp of basic grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing, the average high schooler does not–especially not in a mixed grade class like this one that was full of first years, sophomores, and seniors. Trying to balance grammar lessons with writing lessons was a daily challenge, and don’t get me started on grading! I felt like I needed a different rubric for every grade level to accommodate for the differences in English language mastery that could fairly be expected from each cohort of students.
2. The drama don’t stop
If I have to read one more story about a teenage girl who steals another teenage girl’s boyfriend, or about a teenage boy who cheats on his girlfriend, I will literally scream.
And, no, I don’t mean figuratively. I mean literally. Literally.
On the one hand, the characters are trite, and the plot has been beaten to death so much there’s not so much a manuscript as a puddle of muddled letters and shredded paper.
On the other hand, could we get more sexist? Not only do these stories reduce actual people to possessions (and not just men possessing women, but women claiming men as possessions too), it enshrines outdated gender roles and relationship norms. Yes, many people still firmly believe in monogamy as the only acceptable relationship archetype, but opinions are progressing, and it’s not uncommon now for people to explore non-monogamous relationships. Maybe Sam’s perfectly fine with Josh sleeping with Kylie, so long as they’ve both consented to be sexually open and everyone plays safely.
And on one more hand (because why the hell not?), they’re all underage. And half of them are drunk. And all of them are texting and driving. It’s just too much.
3. What’s the difference?
Everyone was required to submit a rough draft and then a revision. Sounds simple, right? So why are all my revised final drafts almost identical to the rough drafts?
Maybe I’m just not a good writing teacher yet, or a bad English teacher, or a bit of both, but when writing a story and revising a story could each be their own courses, how am I supposed to manage both in only four weeks? Not to mention, peer review is also a skill that must be developed, and therefore must be taught, so if I only dabble in each of these, why should I expect the final drafts to be any less rough than the rough drafts?
I guess this reason isn’t so much a complaint as a rant. Don’t forget my pedagogical training is in mathematics, so it’s not surprising I’d feel this way about writing.
4. Reading for work or for pleasure?
I love reading for pleasure; there’s nothing like curling up with a good book and a puppy snuggling at my side. Reading for work isn’t too bad either: Usually I understand the intention of the assignment, and if it truly helps me grow in professional ways, then I’m motivated to read it no matter how dry some nonfiction reading might be.
But taking short stories (which I read for pleasure) and making them reading for work?
No thank you. It’s gruesome, even disgusting. It’s like why you don’t have relationships with coworkers: It just muddies everything up and makes it all awkward. You’re like, let me read this story and feel moved and overjoyed. Then you’re like, no, wait, let me read this with a critical eye, because I’m still on the clock. It’s the kind of juxtaposition that you look at and think, “Yeah, this should work,” but then you try it out and realize you’ve never been more naive in your entire life.
5. It’s soulcrushing
This, I fear, is at the heart of it: Back when I was deep in the worlds of online writing communities, near the end of my involvement therein, I found my love of reading slowly dissipating. I was training myself to notice every flaw and immediately wonder how it could be better written. And no matter how often I gave my feedback drenched in honey, that hint of bitter lemon in the middle made me feel bad: I know how much it sucks to receive critical feedback, even well-meaning and quality feedback that pushes the story to greater heights and the author to great ability, but it still stings like a Beedrill.
And it’s worse if the audience of your feedback is all children.
I wanted to foster a love of reading and a love of writing, but also develop stronger skills in either domain, and I’ve become so critical in giving feedback that it’s no longer easy to temper my feedback to the audience I’m reviewing. As I read my kids’ stories, the pendulum in my mind swung from brutally honest (which made me feel good but discouraged my students) to problematically positive (which encouraged my students but made me feel like I was being dishonest with my feedback) and then back again. In time, as with most pendulums that eventually swing to a stop when their motion is damped, I would probably come upon a beautiful balance of kind and critical, but the discomfort of getting there isn’t worth the journey when the venture is entirely optional.
Still, though, if the GSA disbands (a concern I’ll address a different time), I’d be happy to lead a creative writing club–one free from grading, free from daily lessons, free from critiquing. Just thirty minutes a week lends itself to a different structure than two hours every day, and a club invites those who are truly interested in developing their craft that an elective for credit doesn’t (especially when a fourth of the class admitted the first day that they didn’t want to be in creative writing at all). But if this comes to be, it’s unlikely to be this school year, so I’ll decide the path to follow if I ever reach those crossroads.
And in the mean time, I will never teach creative writing again.