MFA in Creative Writing - Carol Ann Davis
A Teaching Overview
In an interview about his work, novelist Richard Ford said: "One of the principal aspects of a piece of writing is: what is its purport? That is to say, what does it ask me to trust? What does it ask us to believe?" The longer I write, the more elusive the question of belief becomes; the longer I teach the more deeply I can see that this question centrally underlies this practice we call writing. Even the smallest image or rhetorical flourish can lead one onto what becomes a path of exploration. On a cellular level, through diction, style, and countless other elements of craft, a writer (student or otherwise) maps out a larger system; as this mapping begins, the topography is unknown. It can remain unknown, or misunderstood, through many drafts, but the pattern that emerges tells the writer (or argues) something about the world, isolates a question, or even, in some cases, reveals a belief. From that process of burnishing - writing and revising - the writer emerges affected, needing through invention to explore this new landscape of belief uncovered; into the larger conversation of ideas that continues all around him or her, every writer must eventually enter, ready in turn to discover, and then test, what it is he or she believes.
As a teacher, it feels only natural for me to speak about belief in connection with teaching, and to discuss writing as a process of inquiry akin to - but distinct from - Plato's discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic value. At a basic level, we write to solve a problem, a confusion; we write to better understand our world and our relation to it. Language, itself a system, tests our own systems of knowledge generation through an enduring process of composition and revision, so my first (and arguably only) job as a poetry teacher is to engage students with language itself. As a process of uncovering, the poem can begin anywhere: with concrete description, large abstraction, or with the lyric, narrative, or meditative modes. At first, I choose the sequence that determines what students examine next, what they read, what subject they address in their writing or the form that writing will take. I frame problems to be solved, and with luck, what they read or write reveals to them something unmistakable, something worth pursuing: something to believe and then to explore, or vice versa. I start the ball rolling by availing students of process.
Every process-based class risks reduction to a list of rules, dos and don'ts, and it's my job to make students aware, instead, of the enormity (and therefore majesty) of the task of writing poems. In creative writing classes, the dictum "show don't tell" is popular. I wish I could modify that to "show and be shown," by which I mean that the process of writing in an exploratory way, if it relies on concretes innate or meaningful but still mysterious to the writer, allows the writer to be shown something crucial, about him or herself, about the surrounding world. The writer tells nothing and is shown everything. Having been shown that thing, the writer continues, as well as he or she can, to use whatever is available to him or her in terms of craft as a method of inquiry. As a teacher of writing and as a writer myself, that's the business I'm in: perpetual inquiry leading, eventually, to revelation, and all of it based in craft. If I can bring all that together and share it with a student, a miracle happens: the teacher - no longer needed - recedes, available, of course, but no longer crucial. The post-revelation reckoning is the fun part, the part that belongs to writer and writer alone. As a mentor there's no greater reward than to see the student transformed - sometimes, it can seem, in a matter of days - into a writer doing the work only he or she can do.