William Bradley at the blog Incertus takes issue with the recommended "goals" of creative writing instruction for undergraduates as expressed by AWP. The first two goals listed are "An Overview of Literature" and "Expertise in Critical Analysis", while "Understanding of the Elements of a Writer’s Craft" comes in third. Bradley asks:
Does it seem odd to anyone else that "Understanding of the Elements of a Writer's Craft" is listed as the third goal for creative writing instruction? Doesn't it seem like learning how to write should be priority number one? Yes, getting a strong background in literature and honing critical thinking skills are important, but aren't they important in a creative writing class because they help facilitate the goal of students learning how to write?
I do find it odd, but only because I would have thought that by now the AWP would have given in to complaints about requiring literature courses for creative writing degrees and given its approval to craft-driven approaches. This would only be in keeping with the general drift toward "practical" relevance in most undergraduate degree programs, and it's to the AWP's credit that it hasn't yet gone with the flow.
Learning how to write should indeed be the ultimate goal for students in creative writing, but exactly how one would learn this without the widest possible familiarity with literary history and with the basic principles of literary analysis is not at all apparent to me. Students who take "learning how to write" seriously are not learning a set of rules or some generalized standards that simply need to be applied. They are learning how they might eventually write poems that do not just invoke the name of "poetry" as it has been codified into a set of established precepts or write fiction that does not just perform some known variations on the "well-made" story. They can do these things, in my opinion, only when they are relatively familiar with the "tradition" that gives their own work definition and that in turn they hope to revise or modify. (This can certainly be done by any aspiring writer without the mediation of an academic program, although an academic creative writing program should make this encounter with tradition more focused and more organized, or else it really has no useful reason to exist.) And I really don't understand how a "strong background in literature" can "facilitate the goal of students learning how to write" unless it comes first. Otherwise, works of literature are used only for imitation, to illustrate ""pacing" here or "characterization" there.
To approach creative writing instruction with the assumption that "the elements of craft come first" is to reinforce the idea that "writing" can be reduced to a collection of techniques and devices the student must master in order to become a certified writer. Creative Writing programs probably already do reduce the writing of poetry and fiction to a simple "how-to" process, and perhaps for reasons that at one time, at least, were unavoidable. "An Overview of Literature" and "Critical Analysis" (mostly understood as formal analysis and "close reading") were expected to be at the heart of literary study as offered by most English departments, to which was added "creative writing" as a kind of practicum. Over the past twenty-five years, most English departments have more and more withdrawn from this arrangement, offering less and less of an "overview" in order to concentrate on Theory or Cultural Study, and programs in Creative Writing, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level, are going to have to pick up the slack by providing more critical-literary instruction or else their students will have practically no "background in literature" at all.
One of the first things they should do is to insist that there is no "craft" involved in writing poetry and fiction unless this simply means that both forms have a history that provides us with models of how the form was used at some point in the past. Imitating those models might have some initial pedagogical value, but ulimately the best writers will learn how to discard them. Beyond that, craft becomes only the self-applied anasthetic of literature.