Creative Writing and the Future

Disciplines never seem to stand still. They keep being reinvented. Take literature. At one time it was thought redundant to teach the literature of one's own language. Anyone could read it, anyone smart enough to be in university, that is. The study of literature was entirely an extracurricular enthusiasm. Then came the Germans with their historically and linguistically-based scholarship who said, in what came to be called "life and times" criticism, that works of literature cannot be properly known without rigorous courses in philology.

After that came critics (they were called "new") who said, ignore the biography and the social forces surrounding the author and focus instead on the work of art and the aesthetics under which it was written. The inevitable reaction to that has now brought us back to one form or another of culturally-based criticism, which tends to see authors less as conscious artists working independently and freely and more as agents of large and complex historical forces.

The same restlessness surrounds creative writing. As we know it today, creative writing is applied aesthetics, the training writers receive is similar in intent to the training painters receive in a school of fine arts. The faculties of the numerous (one has to say, increasingly numerous) programs in creative writing in American colleges and universities consist almost entirely of serious practicing writers. Oddly, this is a new condition, one that the practice and study of creative writing in our universities has evolved into only in the last forty or fifty years. D. G. Myers, who has just published the first full scholarly study of creative writing, The Elephants Teach, traces the teaching of this subject back to 1880. As he points out, creative writing was first introduced as an alternative tool in the teaching of literature, alternative to the standard tool of that day, philology. Creative writing was an antecedent to what we now call composition and was intended solely to give students an opportunity to inhabit the spirit of the literature they were being asked to read rather than to catalog etymological obscurities.

Amazing, we say, but that may be where much of the future of creative writing lies. Creative writing programs will certainly continue to find and encourage a good number of tomorrow's authors, the task that has come to be their central concern, but already, at the undergraduate level, the future Dickinsons and Dreisers sit among large numbers of their peers who look to creative writing for other kinds of help: help with language use, help with creative thinking and personal expressiveness, help with literary interpretation.

The challenge that academic programs in creative writing face today is to meet a rapidly rising interest in the subject among both undergraduate and graduate students and to do so in broad and realistic ways that are not limited to the simple production of authors. A challenge, it seems to me, already being met by the many fine writers teaching in the IU system.

Roger Mitchell, Director
Creative Writing Program
Indiana University Bloomington