Productivity as Practice: An Expert Performance Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy Part 1

            Much of the pedagogy in creative writing workshops derives solely from tradition and rests on the assumption that the mind of the talented writer will adopt its own learned practices in the process of writing. The difficult question of whether mastery, or even expertise, can be inculcated through any process of instruction, and the long-standing tradition of assuming the answer is an only somewhat qualified “no”, comprise just one of several impediments to developing an empirically supported set of teaching methods for aspiring writers. Even the phrase, “empirically supported,” conjures for many the specter of formula, which they fear students will be encouraged to apply to their writing, robbing the products of some mysterious and ineffable quality of freshness and spontaneity. Since the criterion of originality is only one of several that are much easier to recognize than they are to define, the biggest hindrance to moving traditional workshop pedagogy onto firmer empirical ground may be the intractability of the question of what evaluative standards should be applied to student writing. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s central finding in his research on expert achievement is that what separates those who attain a merely sufficient level of proficiency in a performance domain from those who reach higher levels of excellence is the amount of time devoted over the course of training to deliberate practice. But, in a domain with criteria for success that can only be abstractly defined, like creative writing, what would constitute deliberate practice is as difficult to describe in any detail as the standards by which work in that domain are evaluated.

            Paul Kezle, in a review article whose title, “What Creative Writing Pedagogy Might Be,” promises more than the conclusions deliver, writes, “The Iowa Workshop model originally laid out by Paul Engle stands as the pillar of origination for all debate about creative writing pedagogy” (127). This model, which Kezle describes as one of “top-down apprenticeship,” involves a published author who’s achieved some level of acclaim—usually commensurate to the prestige of the school housing the program—whose teaching method consists of little more than moderating evaluative class discussions on each student’s work in turn. The appeal of this method is two-fold. As Shirley Geok-lin Lim explains, it “reliev[es] the teacher of the necessity to offer teacher feedback to students’ writing, through editing, commentary, and other one-to-one, labor intensive, authority-based evaluation” (81), leaving the teacher more time to write his or her own work as the students essentially teach each other and, hopefully, themselves. This aspect of self-teaching is the second main appeal of the workshop method—it bypasses the pesky issue of whether creative writing can be taught, letting the gates of the sacred citadel of creative talent remain closed. Furthermore, as is made inescapably clear in Mark McGurl’s book The Program Era, which tracks the burgeoning of creative writing programs as their numbers go from less than eighty in 1975 to nearly nine hundred today, the method works, at least in terms of its own proliferation.

            But what, beyond enrolling in a workshop, can a writer do to get better at writing? The answer to this question, assuming it can be reliably applied to other writers, holds the key to answering the question of what creative writing teachers can do to help their students improve. Lim, along with many other scholars and teachers with backgrounds in composition, suggests that pedagogy needs to get beyond “lore,” by which she means “the ad hoc strategies composing what today is widely accepted as standard workshop technique” (79). Unfortunately, the direction these theorists take is forbiddingly abstruse, focusing on issues of gender and ethnic identity in the classroom, or the negotiation of power roles (see Russel 109 for a review.) Their prescription for creative writing pedagogy boils down to an injunction to introduce students to poststructuralist ways of thinking and writing. An example sentence from Lim will suffice to show why implementing this approach would be impractical:

"As Kalamaras has argued, however, collective identities, socially constructed, historically circumscribed, uniquely experienced, call for a “socially responsible” engagement, not only on the level of theme and content but particularly on that of language awareness, whether of oral or dialectic-orthographic “voice,” lexical choice, particular idiolect features, linguistic registers, and what Mikhail Bakhtin called heteroglossic characteristics." (86)

Assuming the goal is not to help marginalized individuals find a voice and communicate effectively and expressively in society but rather to help a group of students demonstrating some degree of both talent and passion in the realm of creative writing to reach the highest levels of success possible—or even simply to succeed in finding a way to get paid for doing what they love—arcane linguistic theories are unlikely to be of much use. (Whether they’re of any real use even for the prior goal is debatable.)

            Conceiving of creative writing as the product of a type of performance demanding several discrete skills, at least some of which are improvable through training, brings it into a realm that has been explored with increasing comprehensiveness and with ever more refined methods by psychologists. While University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about the large group of highly successful people in creative fields interviewed for his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention as if they were a breed apart, even going so far as to devote an entire chapter to “The Creative Personality,” and in so doing reinforcing the idea that creative talent is something one is simply born with, he does manage to provide several potentially useful strategies for “Enhancing Personal Creativity” in a chapter by that name. “Just as a physician may look at the physical habits of the most healthy individuals” Csikszentmihalyi writes, “to find in them a prescription that will help everyone else to be more healthy, so we may extract some useful ideas from the lives of a few creative persons about how to enrich the lives of everyone else” (343). The aspirant creative writer must understand, though, that “to move from personal to cultural creativity one needs talent, training, and an enormous dose of good luck” (344). This equation, as it suggests only one variable amenable to deliberate effort, offers a refinement to the question of what an effective creative writing pedagogy might entail. How does one train to be a better a writer? Training as a determining factor underlying exceptional accomplishments is underscored by Ericsson’s finding that “amount of experience in a domain is often a weak predictor of performance” (20). Simply writing poems and stories may not be enough to ensure success in the realm of creative writing, especially considering the intense competition evidenced by those nearly nine hundred MFA programs.

            Because writing stories and poems seldom entails a performance in real time, but instead involves multiple opportunities for inspiration and revision, the distinction Ericsson found between simply engaging in an activity and training for it may not be as stark for creative writing. Writing and training may overlap if the tasks involved in writing meet the requirements for effective training. Having identified deliberate practice as the most important predictor of expert performance, Ericsson breaks the concept down into three elements: “a well-defined task with an appropriate level of difficulty for the particular individual, informative feedback, and opportunities for repetition and corrections of errors” (21). Deliberate practice requires immediate feedback on performance. In a sense, success can be said to multiply in direct proportion to the accumulation of past failures. But how is a poet to know if the line she’s just written constitutes a success or failure? How does a novelist know if a scene or a chapter bears comparison to the greats of literature?

            One possible way to get around the problem of indefinable evaluative standards is to focus on quantity instead of quality. Ericsson’s colleague, Dean Simonton, studies people in various fields in which innovation is highly valued in an attempt to discover what separates those who exhibit “received expertise,” mastering and carrying on dominant traditions in arts or sciences, from those who show “creative expertise” (228) by transforming or advancing those traditions. Contrary to the conventional view that some individuals possess a finely attuned sense of how to go about producing a successful creative work, Simonton finds that what he calls “the equal odds rule” holds in every creative field he’s studied. What the rule suggests is “that quality correlates positively with quantity, so that creativity becomes a linear statistical function of productivity” (235). Individuals working in creative fields can never be sure which of their works will have an impact, so the creators who have the greatest impact tend to be those who produce the greatest number of works. Simonton has discovered that this rule holds at every stage in the individual’s lifespan, leading him to conclude that success derives more from productivity and playing the odds than from sure-footed and far-seeing genius. “The odds of hitting a bull’s eye,” he writes, “is a probabilistic function of the number of shots” (234). Csikszentmihalyi discovered a similar quantitative principle among the creative people he surveyed; part of creativity, he suggests, is having multiple ideas where only one seems necessary, leading him to the prescription for enhancing personal creativity, “Produce as many ideas as possible” (368).