Honesty, Confession, and Other Dramas of "Creative Writing" Print E-mail
Essays and Memoirs

Klee_Monument(AWP Chronicle March/April 1998)

My "Creative Writing" class begins with the same assignment every semester, an idea I stole from the fiction writer and essayist, Carol Bly. Each student must write a ten-page autobiographical essay about a significant person, place, or phase in his or her life and finish it in one week. Raw is fine. First draft encouraged. I read the essays, meet privately with each student, then suggest revisions. I hope this task focuses students on one personal story, which most will produce anyway, and allow their imaginative pieces to emerge separately. Fact differentiated from fiction. A few years ago, when I began this assignment, I received one of the most brilliant and disturbing first drafts of my teaching career—a paramedic's nightmarish story of his worst shift ever on the job. His piece would change my thinking about the "creative writing" classroom forever.

The student’s name is Deacon, and he tells me that he’s been a paramedic for five years. He is a large man, with wisps of hair above a high forehead and a bashfulness that is endearing. The essay is about a crack-addicted, pregnant woman who gives birth while he and his partner rush her to the ER. The story, though, emphasizes the woman in her degraded element—a room in an abandoned building where she defecates in a corner and, to feed her crack habit, prostitutes herself on a two-inch thick mattress. In fact just before Deacon arrives she has had unprotected sex—orally, anally and vaginally—with three men. The sex, they discover, has induced labor.

Part of the story’s power comes from its grim realism and its shock value: Most readers have never seen such a scene. It is a bit like having a literary eyewitness along the night of the Rodney King beating. Another part of the story’s power lies in what it says of the writer, who seems to consciously portray himself as coarse and detached, almost uninvolved. I suggest to Deacon in conference that readers may be revolted because the narrator lacks sympathy for the victim who is far more victim than the paramedics are. He appears unaware of this dimension. I also suggest that the real story may exist not in the woman but in how the narrator perceives her and the brutal crack-culture reality. Stressing revision, I feel confident that the consciousness of the character-narrator will flesh itself out and he, the author, can grow the sensitivity of him, the narrator. So far that element is not there. Only the edge and its grossness.

I seldom let students workshop their autobiographical pieces in the class. These are grist for student-teacher dialogue. But one day Deacon asks if he can read his story in class. Are you sure? I say. It’ll be hard for the class to distinguish between the character in the story and the author in their midst. Deacon understands but he insists, believing the group will welcome, even admire, the shocking truth of his writing. I acquiesce, chalk it up to experience—his and mine. So, revised with a tad more orifice-draining imagery, Deacon brings the group his lurid tale.

At least six of twenty readers bristle with disgust. Because the degraded woman is black, several call the writing racist. They are horrified by its stereotyping of white paramedics and squad-car cops who chide the African-American woman and her cuss-and-spit dialect, intended, perhaps, to bring humor to the ghastly scene. A few are incensed that the author calls the baby, a baby born crack-addicted to its ninety-eight pound mother, a "thing," either dead or soon to be. One man, a Chicano community activist, glares at Deacon and says, "My God, man, it’s an infant, a child of God." The offense is political: They demand a dignified understanding of his humiliated subject, on the page and in the classroom. In their eyes, Deacon is allowed no ironic stance at all. Instead he must intensify his compassion not to embolden his verisimilitude but to underscore his concern. He needs to reveal more humanity. (Does he have more humanity? I wonder.) The students want this moral uplift for they are tired of such unrelieved hopelessness in the News-at-Ten portrayals of young black druggies—of both genders.

After several minutes of stinging critique, Deacon interrupts, "Hey, hold on. I’m a nice guy. Don’t anyone here think I’m different than you are." His intent (as if explaining intent to other writers will save you) is to show the degradation of all involved: The woman, the rapists, the other paramedic, the doctors, the baby. And himself. Especially himself. But so enamored of the scene’s grimness, Deacon is unaware that the Paramedic Savior—a TV image of the unselfish 9-1-1 rescuer, who many students, no doubt, want him to be—is missing in the piece. The paramedic who is described is thoroughly despicable. (One woman tells me later that she felt Deacon himself might be the one who needed help.) And then, all eyes upon him, Deacon suddenly recognizes his Frankenstein self: "I guess I do sound pretty awful, don’t I?"

Still, Deacon tries to shore up his portrayal of crack-addicts as "worthless human beings" by insisting that they become drains on our society and their kids, if they survive, grow to be sociopaths. He sees the consequences of addiction all the time. "Sorry," he says, "but it’s true." Deacon’s next move is most predictable: He rationalizes his behavior with the old saw about the medical professional’s duty to survive with equanimity the horror they witness every day. "We have to be more detached and unfeeling than doctors are," he claims.

None of the students buy it. Instead they point out that if Deacon writes about such an awful character in this class, and he is the author-character, then he has to be better than his self-portrayal, better than a fictional character an author creates who is somehow allowed such innate evil—Shakespeare’s Richard the Third or the maniacal misogynist in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. In order to make the autobiographical "I" appear more truthful to us, Deacon better lie more effectually than he has thus far. I can’t help but remark to the class—a notion which turns few heads—that it appears no self-writer these days is allowed to participate with the worst in people unless he himself is changed by the event while he tells the tale.

And so, prompted by the class, Deacon decides he must change the piece. Change "what happened." One month later, after conferences with me and much soul-searching, he finds in himself the compassion that was neither in the original experience nor in his immediate response to it. He writes forgivingly about the crack-addicted woman. He expresses gratitude to the doctors who saved mother and child. He de-criminalizes the woman’s need to return the next day to her ruined life. And he takes out the word "thing" for the baby and calls it a "child of God whose innocence brings hope and understanding to the world." And, when he returns with copies to read to the class, his audience—his congregation—love him for what he has changed, admiring the piece now for what is no longer there.

Did Deacon’s story improve via the limitations his audience imposed? On one hand, it did improve because he balanced conscience and rawness in subsequent drafts as those forces clarified themselves in him. The reviser brought his reflective sensibility into the tale. Such expansion does, in fact, "change" what happened. On the other hand, Deacon severely edited himself—perhaps self-censored—by following his readers’ dictates. Their advice is no different from editors who remind writers that the tamer preferences of the wider reading audience is usually more important than the insensitive words, racial stereotypes, religious bigotry, or graphically violent descriptions which an author may feel captures the harder core. I thought those graphic elements in Deacon’s essay were neither all nor individually objectionable. A few of his peers suggested that the narrator’s character might have been more repugnant at first, as long as such repugnancy was redeemed at the end. I agreed. Revision often develops the author’s emotional identity: The writer can make his search for honesty a part of the tale’s dramatic action. Such a tact is intrinsic to the spiritual autobiographer’s quest. Read Saint Augustine’s Confessions.

To say that Deacon’s story was better before this class got ahold of it is to say that the story had not yet been held to any standard. Deacon told me one day that he believed his work improved because once he showed it to the class, their response constituted a community standard which, in turn, helped define a complementary individual standard in him. Indeed, his writerhood in the hands of the group’s critique took a back seat to his personhood. At first, Deacon thought that his desire to render the story with uncensored detail and emotional distance were his readers’ desire, too. He learned that they wanted a balance between witness and participant, once he deferred to a community whose moral underpinnings contradicted—and thus clarified—his. As adept as Deacon was at showing his initial vision, whose rawness I perhaps over-indulged, he found that he could write: that is, he could scrap one version and recast the work as he grew more conscious of his audience’s standards as well as his own. The contemporary writer as alchemist. Receiving the new piece, one student tenderly said, "Your heart is finally here—in your writing."

Though Deacon may have been relieved, I wasn’t. I was still troubled. By the conflicts: group- v. self-censorship; the moral authority of the writer v. the group; the responsibility of the writer to the group and vice versa. What, in all this, can an instructor delineate for a student? Is there a manual? Are all conflicts for a class of writers individual? One thing is clear. The notion that a writer is solely responsible for the moral sensitivity that goes into his or her work flies in the face of what I once thought. Before Deacon I believed that the character of the writer is bred predominantly on reading, intuition, intensity, self-sufficiency, and work. Wrong. Writers have become corporate entities, created and enabled by the communities of craft or intention they work in. While equitable, professional groups devoted to such genre as sci-fi, self-help, journaling, romance or literature may for some supersede the creative writing class, these days the donnee for the author is to be immersed in, and governed by, her audience.

With such conscious interplay between author and audience, with such insistent expediency that good writing respond immediately to its chosen or accidental listeners, Michel Foucault’s claim about the author’s disappearance from his sacred autonomy into the new collective space which he labels "a discourse containing the author-function" actually seems clearer to me now than it was in graduate school.


At the urban college where I’ve taught for nearly a decade, I’ve found that many student writers consider themselves far more Henry Miller than Henry James. Strategies of Jamesian narrative—composite characters, the creation of scenes, carefully crafted points of view, metafictional discourse, dramatic monologue—seldom interests them. Their desire is to divulge their experience, and they are often, like Miller, rakishly intolerant of—or in their case Gen-X-ed bored silly with—the masks of literature, especially the occasionally teachable techniques of genre. Sometimes in class, while I’m suggesting that a student consider one of several ways to de-emphasize "I" and briefly establish more distance in the story’s emotionality, I notice some students’ heavy-lidded eyes shutting down: There he goes again, trying to fix what’s not broken. Life—and its lived authority is technique enough for most: "The SOB in my poem," says a student with a smug laugh, "really is my father." Stories, poems, essays, be they flat, mawkish, bloody, heroic, naive—the point is, they’re true. The work’s meaning is its truthfulness, not its artfulness. Truth is meaning, and yet the truth would seem neither interpretable nor negotiable.

Some student writers say that there is a harsher standard for truth-telling, different from the one used for imaginative work. It arises within the presence of the listener. One veteran of creative-writing classes tells me that "when you write autobiography and present it to people you are getting to know, you lose the shield of the ‘narrator.’ It’s you versus the audience and we respond and react to your humanity or your inhumanity because you’re sitting right in front of us." For his trouble, this is what Deacon received—interpreted truth and negotiated fact. But despite his suffering and his redemption, I am absorbed with the response the students gave Deacon because it has to be missing in me. I am not his audience; I am his teacher, even though I take an active role in workshop discussions. What is stronger than my input is the moral questioning which his classmates supply. And that’s what must be missing in me. Not the capacity but the pulpit. In most cases, I cannot critique the morality of my student’s work, although at times I would love to.

The dark side of unqualified acceptance by the class is that students often will write something merely to be liked. How often do the youngest student writers make up their minds to either like or not like what’s put before them, and leave it at that. Liking is key. It’s an expression of belonging, not of judgment. Liking new work means the previously unseen side of the self is also liked. Liking means one will be more often liked in return. Bit by bit, camaraderie grows while students dog-paddle the deep end of likability. Those who don’t like what’s being shared will say nothing—perhaps the worst putdown of all. But, while critically shallow, such liking does produce trust, and trust is crucial. Among friends or fellow students, the fears of writing autobiographically must be nurtured. No one wants to look bad digging his or her grave. Hence, writers seek during early exposure a trust with their readers no different from the way a client seeks candor and assurance with her therapist. One of the grand perks of teaching writing is to watch this trust come to life between like-minded strangers in a classroom as they cushion one another’s fears of self-disclosure.

I admit to encouraging students to pursue personal writing, perhaps at the expense of a "safer" and more distant fiction writing. Personal writing is what I do, so it’s what I feel competent to teach. Again, I hope students will discover their passions, paint the unvarnished tale, let honesty discipline the writing. But honesty, while liberating, is never enough. Honesty, unchecked, becomes sloven confession, and it takes the maturity of a Tolstoy or a Richard Selzer to distinguish the two. Moreover, confession does not inspire the critical depth that other kinds of personal writing does. Confession, in fact, is inoculated against criticism by the unnecessary component of an audience, and yet an accepting, enabling audience is at the core of the creative-writing class. This paradox for me is the pithiest of the creative-writing self-dramas.

One day—this incident occurs in another semester’s class—a woman reads a poem about a very sensitive, romantic other, called "you" and "thou," with whom the students are enthralled. Several wonder, in fact, if it is written from female narrator to female lover. Tim, an outspoken gay man, says that he feels the narrator, the "I," is of the same sex as the object of love. He can’t say why, other than that his gut tells him so. (Increasingly my classes have more openly gay and lesbian students, some of whom promulgate the notion that sexual identity, which has been duct-taped far too long, must now be uncovered, like race or gender, as part of the work’s meaning.) A few class members, however, disagree with Tim. Isn’t it a stereotype, says one, to suggest that men cannot have as tender and sloppily romantic love interests as women can? I maintain that poems should be read to see whether or not the words sensually inhabit the experience, not as snipe hunts for sexual orientation. I then explain the Treasure Island fallacy: Any art work is a clever puzzle which requires its readers to find the key which will unlock the one and only answer. Can we resist that adventure?

But for many Julia’s poem is too deliciously androgynous to resist: Embedded in its mock-Puritan language is just enough shadily disguised diction to warrant snooping. Clues sprout like weeds: "I" touched "her female and feminine" body; "I opened myself to thee"; "thou, love, art like no other fair man has known." Since the "I"s identity is unnamed, the class immediately equates the narrator with the author despite my reminder that the "I" of any writing, even the admittedly autobiographical, should be considered a point-of-view mask to reveal some things, to conceal other things. Huh? Nobody agrees with me—in fact, a few scoff—when I suggest that the poem may be about a rather common male-female romance, older man, younger woman. Hardly, they cry. They want the author to tell them what it means and, if they’re right, to support the author, who some know and others suspect of being a lesbian.

When Julia gets to speak, she announces that this poem contains difficult material which she doesn’t want to talk about but, on the good side, it does celebrate a relationship she has had going strong now for two years. With a woman. When she says "woman," several students cheer: They were right. The poem’s meaning matches the class’s purpose—to discover its secret. This is eerily the same, I am told, for a person who discovers at a young age that he or she is homosexual and then feels the fact unwelcome enough in a world of straights to accept. A more trenchant purpose, particularly for Julia, is to share her seldom-shared secret with a class of fellow artistic types who, usually, won’t bristle at such admissions. I have heard it said before: You don’t know how good it feels, Mr. Larson, to write about gay love and have it be heard as love, not sex.

What all this wide-eye-awakens in me is the notion that students—gay or straight—are fully intent on bringing intimacy into the workshop while I favor options, those multiple advantages an author-narrator can employ to emphasize any characteristic of the self he or she wants to emphasize. That students don’t want to see it my way tells me that I am missing—perhaps a professional necessity—the very closeness which they already share, a closeness I thought my focus on creativity and technique was, in part, establishing. Though a few choose to play with the anonymity of the narrator’s "I," most are devoted to their self-disclosure no matter how it surfaces. I think that what students are doing in creative writing nowadays is setting up the conditions whereby they can reveal to others the pain, the secrets, the love they carry in themselves and, more significantly, which they feel others want to hear.

How curious that I am participating in their strategies of self-revelation far more than I am teaching strategies of writing.