By Daniel Bosch.
Writers who are truly honest about art and pedagogy admit that most of the time both end in failure. At the Bauhaus this fact was bedrock, not pillow-talk: the curriculum was designed around honest play with materials.
I believe a Bauhaus-type approach might help lead to needed reform in the teaching of creative writing. So in a cover letter I submitted in application for the directorship of an MFA program, I proposed a play-based curriculum focused on fundamental “materials”, mandatory cross-genre study, eschewal of contemporary readings, avoidance of cults of personality, use of the full range of grades, unplugging of the phrase “terminal” degree, and more.
Explicit identifications of the college have been Xd out.
November XX, 2013
Chair of Department Search Committee
Department of Creative Writing, XXXXXX
To Whom It May Concern,
I hereby submit my application for the position of Chair of the newly restructured Department of Creative Writing at XXXXXX. A curriculum vitae and supporting materials follow this letter.
The Department of Creative Writing deserves hearty congratulations on the occasion of its rebirth. I can imagine that the process of bringing together three programs with separate if similar faculties, histories, and practices was long, difficult, and at times delicate. Yet I can also imagine that the negotiations leading to these programs’ integration raised important questions about writing and pedagogy and the specific identities of the different sub-disciplines, and that the single faculty which has emerged has benefited from thorough articulation of its strengths, its weaknesses, and its visions. As I will explain, it is in part this moment that attracts my application.
Few creative writing programs have shown XXXXXX’s courage and taken strong action to review and revise the way they do things. (Some of your faculty may soon write the stories that trace and shape your recent history.) Yet whatever particular historical causes led XXXXXX to undertake a restructuring of its Department of Creative Writing, I do not think it can be fully explained as a local phenomenon. Literary artists have been teaching writing in American colleges and universities for over a century — a period of great and accelerating technological and social (if not artistic) change. The expansion of Ph.D.-granting (as opposed to M.F.A.-granting) programs; the preference among undergraduates to enroll in Creative Writing courses rather than in English Literature courses (and the shifting budgetary terrains these preferences may prefigure); the breaking of color bars at many institutions that had kept so many faculties relatively homogeneous; the explosion of non-print publishing opportunities (some good, some not so good); the emergence of networks of writers that span continents and oceans rather than towns; among other factors, have encouraged writers connected to the academy to rethink the roles a program in creative writing can and ought to play in sustaining literary arts and artists. Many of these writers believe, as I do, that the education of literary artists can be more rigorously artistic and less inflected by academic scholarship, and that it can make more sense with regard to the stakes at play in authentic artistic endeavors — that the education of writers should be both more artistic and more literary.
So, though my application for the position of Chair begins as a celebration of the steps XXXXXX has already taken, I want here above all to encourage the Department of Creative Writing to seize this moment to embrace further and even more radical change, in keeping with a long range goal of establishing the soundest, most exciting, and most effective Department of Creative Writing in history, a community of literary artists and students of literary art which is committed not only to its own reformulation, but to discovery and implementation of powerful pedagogies and policies that will lead to the reform of the entire discipline. I want to encourage the Department of Creative Writing at XXXXXX to refuse to recreate itself in the image of past programs in creative writing.
What alternative vision might I propose for the Department? Part of the joy of working together with a group of self-conscious artists to discover the means by which future generations of artists might best be trained has to do with the fact that such work is co-discovery, and no such curriculum can be described in advance of the pedagogical experiments which will produce it. Nonetheless, certain principles have been articulated upon which such an experimental approach might be founded, and we all know from our own experiences how various creative writing pedagogies in wide use for the past sixty years succeed and fail. Have you seen the diagram (designed by Johannes Itten in 1922) which is a visual inscription of the shape of the Bauhaus curriculum (in English translation, below)? It achieves a greater clarity and wholeness than could be achieved in twenty pages of prose, and it can guide those who would think forward toward a profoundly new and engaging pedagogy for literary artists.
Time in the Bauhaus diagram moves from the perimeter to the center, from fundamental studies to informed artistic practices. The outer ring is a “½ Jahr (or six-month) Preliminary Course in Materials, a student’s initiation into fundamental practices regarding the most basic “stuff” of art — in the case of literature, sound, word, syntax, image, narrative, character, song, time, and silence — without which initiation no strong conversations can be had, and little substantial progress toward mastery is likely to be made.
Next the Bauhaus curriculum demanded three years of intense coursework under different artist-teachers in such areas as presentation and design; color, composition & space; and “nature study,” (in literary training, these might be courses in Book & E-Book; Space on Stage and in Story; Prologues; Lines; Low Comedy; Images; and Writing from Life) each segment of which was conceived as necessary preliminary training and thus the basis for later workshop courses in the distinct practices associated with materials such as Glass, Metal, Wood, Stone, etc. (In a literary curriculum on this model, the penultimate inner ring might consist of seminars or workshops in specific sub-genres such as Personal Essay, Three-Act Play, Realistic Prose Narrative, Verse Monologue.) At the heart and center of this diagram, as in a literary curriculum modeled upon it, is one or two years of focused execution of minor and major projects, a hard-earned chance for the artist-in-training to use their skills and to “Build” with the full support of the arrayed cohort of instructors and fellow “journeymen.” In a literary training program, I would hope, this final and most-demanding portion of the curriculum would lead to something distinct from what is currently called a “thesis.” A better term might be borrowed from medieval and renaissance guilds — the “Meisterstuck” — with the understanding that any built object which satisfied the requirement for a “masterpiece” admitted its maker to an adult role in the family of makers. Certification following completion of such a curriculum should not be called a “terminal” degree, because everybody in the family of makers knows that to be an artist is to be humbled nearly every day with regard to one’s skill and lack of skill and the recalcitrance of one’s materials. To have built a masterpiece means only that one’s years as an apprentice and a journeyman are behind one. Horace said it: “ars longa, vita brevis.” Chaucer translated it, “the life so short, the art so long to learn.” No good comes from promulgating or participating in arts training programs that pretend it is otherwise.
Though individual students will vary in talent, substantial achievement in ars takes so damn longa because it involves the acquisition of skills which are hard to learn. To pursue art is to confront (hourly, weekly, monthly, for decades at a stretch) failure. The every day experience of working artists is that they routinely fail to hit their mark, to draw the best line, to choose the stronger word, to sound the right note, and these are the stakes that make success in art so satisfying. The admission of this fact can and should liberate the artist-in-training to play the harder and thus learn the more in an atmosphere of passionate experimentation. Imagine, with me, how it would feel to teach as part of a curriculum that offers students neither a fanciful vision of immediate literary (as opposed to popular) success nor a quasi-psychological journey toward some sort of self-revelation (like that described years ago as central to Professor Graham’s pedagogy at the Iowa Writers Workshop), but a reality principle: a literary artist’s joys must be found in serious play with words, sentences, images, characters, stories, etc. Imagine, with me, building a curriculum which frames students’ play in direct assessment of their perfectly normal and very much expected failure to demonstrate that they have acquired necessary skills, a curriculum which is honest about the long road ahead and has no truck with false currencies like inflated grades that jolly students along. Implicit in the Itten diagram is the notion that there are many specific materials, tools, operations, and vocabularies which must be conveyed to apprentices by experts in as comprehensive a manner as possible, and that students will as a matter of course fail to demonstrate substantial proficiency in techniques which are crucial to further achievement. Advancement through such a curriculum could not be earned by mere accrual of credits.
The specificity of the Bauhaus curriculum is obvious when compared to the vague curricula posted by almost all American creative writing programs, for example the program stipulated by the course catalog from XXXXXX (traced out in part below), which is typical. The sketchiness of such descriptions suggests, contrary to fact, that there is little known about how writers have constructed great literary works, or that if such knowledge exists, it is best not to discuss the building blocks of poems, plays, and stories, and how artists handle them, in too much detail:
Poetry Workshop: Intermediate
Through in-class writing exercises, the reading of model poems, and discussion of student work, students are encouraged to produce poetry of greater sophistication. Familiarity with work of notable poets is strongly encouraged.
Rotating topics craft class. Students read literature of specific periods and movements in order to generate poetry (and hybrid writing forms) based on these reading assignments. Craft Seminars that have been offered in past semesters include Poetry Translation, Hybrid Poetics, and Literary College (sic).
Rotating topics craft class. Students read literature of specific periods and movements in order to generate poetry (and hybrid writing forms) based on these reading assignments.
Graduate Thesis Work
One-on-one intensive revision of the book-length thesis manuscript and/or critical essay required for graduation with an MFA in Poetry. Repeatable once.
Vagueness like this serves programs in creative writing that are built around the development and exploitation of cults of personality in “popular” professors and in “star” students (the ones who have “it” when they walk in the door). In such programs students sign up for courses “with Professor (name),” not courses “in (technique).” Such programs consider it inappropriate to require Professor (name) to address any particular subject matter; they also typically abstain from requiring students to acquire any particular skill or fluency. Might such policies stem from the lack of criticality suggested by the wording above, where at a relatively early stage of their coursework (e.g. “intermediate”), students are expected to be producing “poetry”? A more realistic view of writing must allow that the very best literary artists mainly fail to write anything remotely so good as “poetry.”
How many of us who teach creative writing are so good at either writing or teaching, or work among faculties that are so supremely accomplished, that our professing of what is in fact a craft ought to be given such a free range? I love Housman for declaring he “could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat.” But Housman’s wit does not imply that we ought not try to say clearly what we think we are trying to do in a course of study. And if associate and full professors, with all our faultiness, are allowed and encouraged to deliver vaguely-defined courses which are not integrated into an understanding of how they function in the education of artists, should we not find it concerning that such ill- or loosely-defined courses are the bases upon which graduate student teaching fellows build courses in creative writing for the non-majors? Look at how Josef Albers described the effective but modest work done in a Bauhaus preliminary course:
First we seek contact with material…Instead of pasting it, we will put paper together by sewing, buttoning, riveting, typing, and pinning it; it other words, we fasten it in a multitude of ways. We will test the possibilities of its tensile and compression-resistant strength. In doing so, we do not always create ‘works of art,’ but rather experiments; it is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.
Why should teachers of writing too not aspire to such humble, clear, and useful foci for coursework? And to such an owning up to what we really accomplish? Ask your colleagues around the country: a year in a typical program’s history is recalled by the names of the students who were reputedly the most promising, rather and not by reference to any particularly interesting approach or work which was developed in a program’s courses. Then imagine, with me, working in a Department of Creative Writing which may at times fail to be excellent, but never fails to articulate, with the greatest specificity and precision possible, its highest goals and standards — a program which tells time by the excitement generated by the work of learning to write. Imagine, with me, being part of community which is committed to a striving, aided by continual co-observation and collaboration, to occasionally reaching its highest goals and standards, even if only with the tips of our fingernails.
The lack of clearly articulated technique-, skill-, and material-based curriculum like that of the Bauhaus has contributed to at least one further unfortunate tendency among creative writing programs: a kind of amblyopia regarding the work that ought to be used as examples of excellence. When students study “with a professor” rather than “in a craft,” when creative writing courses by design do not focus on conveyance of knowledge about materials and testing of specific and well-defined techniques, the reading lists for courses end up emphasizing contemporary author’s work, especially writing produced in the past 20 or 30 years, and especially work by friends or acquaintances of the professors, who return the favor by assigning acquaintances’ books in their own courses. Professors tenured on the basis of books which are not very strong tend to choose to “teach” contemporary work, in no small part because of how humbling it can be to continually confront the strongest work from the past. But students of literary art thrive best when they are constantly immersed in the very best poems, plays, essays, novels, folk tales, libretti, short stories, etc. In Spain there are pigs that eat only chestnuts; the taste of their roasted flesh is fabled. Fifteen years following any given now, however, critics no longer sing the praises of contemporary writers whose work tastes like the not very strong work that was fashionable in any given then. Let our students read literature if they would write it! Let them engage Dickinson before Dickman (pick one!) Let them interrogate Lessing (pick one!) before Lasky! Let them cry over The Sorrows of Young Werther before the letters of Wenderoth! And while we’re at it, won’t students learn how to do really interesting work all the faster when they are liberated from programs that require them to take workshops which focus entirely on forced drafts by writers who have not yet acquired strong skills?
Today’s academy talks a lot about how it values “interdisciplinary work,” perhaps especially with regard to the arts. But most connective and genre-crossing “work” in the academy is allowed only after an individual practitioner has been induced to shut out for 6 to 10 years any noise coming from other departments. A strong training program in the literary arts must avoid siloing its most experienced students: this deep generic specialization expresses a relatively recent and fundamental misunderstanding of the history of literary composition, which has always been most alive when it is inflected by multiple approaches. The Itten diagram bodies forth the inescapably interdisciplinary nature of the Bauhaus curriculum, which is perhaps the single characteristic most responsible for the incredibly innovative work of its artist-teachers and students. Gropius and Kandinsky and Feininger and Albers and Itten and the rest understood that to struggle with any particular medium is likely to yield lessons useful in preparing to struggle with another medium, that artists who have been trained to work with and to imagine in glass will make more interesting and compelling art in wood, plaster, and steel.
The same wisdom is applicable to training in the literary arts. Imagine, with me, a department that set its student writers immediately at the confluence of the three major literary forms, Verse, Prose, and Playwriting, so that each young artist is faces the challenge of each form armed with the best practices of the other forms. No matter how certain a young artist is that she was born to be a novelist, she will become a stronger literary artist if she grasps the fundamental dynamics of composition in verse, in prose, and for the stage (or screen). The literary arts,
inextricably tied to the word, to time, and to silence, share perhaps even more than the various plastic and visual arts. Plato wrote the world’s most powerful philosophy in dialogue form (he wrote lyric poems, too.) Emerson’s work in verse nurtured his work in the prose essay. “Faust” is a stronger play because Goethe wrote novels and lyrics. Chekhov wasn’t diddling around with short fiction in between plays. Soyinka’s work in poetry and memoir has explicated and undergirded his theatrical vision. Hughes’ “Simple” stories are not simpler-minded because of his work on an avant-garde “Weary Blues.” Beckett’s prose plays and novels reverse the sonic density that animates some of his poems. Woody Allen’s stand-up comedy and his short fiction are the forge of his success as a creator of screenplays. Borges’ and Bishop’s incredibly powerful prose fictions are not the products of minds which have been temporarily distracted from poetry in verse, they are the products of minds and hearts that enter into fundamental productive dialogue with and have learned to exploit one form when they write in another. As the short list of artists above demonstrates, there is no sound basis whatsoever for the idea that isolated training in a single genre leads to literary excellence; in my opinion, training in one genre at the expense of others is a partial cause of some of the weaker tendencies in American literature.
When artists-in-training begin with foundations in many media and are consistently asked to work in several genre at the same time, as they were at the Bauhaus, they become, through actual need, synthesizers and translators. In such literary training novelists would explain to poets how their narratives work or don’t work; a playwright’s account of a character’s development would become the basis for a short story writer’s radical re-conception of her protagonist; inspired by a monologue by a poet-colleague, an essayist would turn, in his sixth paragraph, to a passage in verse. Translation and creative mis-translation have been, for millennia, the intensest workshops of literary autodidacts. This fact ought to be put at or near the center of the pedagogical apparatus through a required course in (assisted) translation. But such experimentation has been discouraged by American creative writing programs, usually via an argument that the translations produced by students in creative writing programs wouldn’t be any good! Here again a lack of criticality forces a missed opportunity (as if students “own” writing was generally any good!) and provides further evidence, if it were needed, of the strangeness of American creative writing program design. But such an argument misses the point of work in translation, through which even fumbling hands can begin to take apart and re-assemble a superbly-constructed object.
I have held here that most writing fails, so I embrace the likely failure of this letter — and my application. Yet I hope that I have succeeded in interesting you in something better and more important than my chutzpah. XXXXXX need not let set and harden the floor it has poured for its new Department of Creative Writing. The discipline needn’t continue to proceed as it has proceeded so far, and lots of practitioners — I daresay at least some members of your Department — know this from lived experience. The discipline doesn’t yet try hard enough to foster the production of truly excellent literary artistry. Yet a truly ambitious Department of Creative Writing can look forward not only to a good faith relation to fundamental truths of artistic creation, but to leadership by example. Such an audacious program would earn its leadership by the production of a significant portion of the excellent literary artists of the late 21st century. And in the much nearer future it would begin to attract, on the basis of its principles and its honest and demanding programs, the most discerning and desirable would-be literary artists.
I have used the Bauhaus curriculum as a prompt to help me put forth some principles that I believe should be on the table in any strong training program in the literary arts. Let me close with an outline of policies which I would argue for if I were appointed Chair of the Department of Creative Writing:
•Development of skill- and material-based curriculum with detailed course descriptions and explicitly stated required outcomes
• Mandatory cross-genre study with no “major” decision until late in second year
• Required coursework in Playwriting and Literary Translation
• All artist-teachers use the full range of grades from A to F
• Artist-teachers agree to discourage students from embracing the idea that literary composition is a form of self-discovery or therapy
• All artist-teachers and graduate students observe other artist-teachers and graduate students courses on rotating basis
• Tenure-track artist-teachers teach all undergraduate courses with graduate students assisting
• No courses should be based on student works (though they may include student work); individual feedback should be given through individual communication (email and conferences)
• No more than one in ten courses should be based on writing produced in the last twenty years (though courses may include such recently produced work)
• The four journals at XXXXXX ought to be combined into one ambitious professional-level literary arts journal aimed at a public readership and an active role in literary life, to be staffed by faculty and students
• The city of XXXXXX, its neighborhoods, newspapers, museums, magazines, libraries, schools and universities, out to be engaged as a working laboratory for literary artists in training
Won’t such a list of policies provide a lot to talk about? In person I am not nearly so long-winded as I have been in this letter — I am a careful and critical listener. I appreciate your taking the time to read what I’ve put down here. I would be delighted to hear from you regarding any questions you have about my application. Good luck with your search for a new Chair! I am
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Bosch has taught writing at Boston University, United South End Settlements, Buckingham Browne & Nichols, Harvard University, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and Merrimack College. New poems by Daniel will appear here three Wednesdays in a row this month. His essay on Lego and the imagination is at The Fortnightly Review.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 22nd, 2014.