Let’s Silence the Creative Writing Course Snobs

April 21, 2018 William H. Gould 0

I enrolled on a fiction MFA at Boston University. My decision to study in the US had more to do with funding than anything else: I couldn’t afford to pay fees, and BU offered full financial aid. There, I was taught by the author Leslie Epstein, who distributed a document called Tips for Writing and Life at the beginning of the year.

Epstein’s “tips” were alarmingly specific. “One must have in mind between 68 and 73% of the ending” before starting a story, he advised, tongue only slightly in cheek. Writing about dreams was discouraged, if not outright banned, as were ellipses, abstract nouns and satire.

The purpose of Epstein’s approach was not to churn out Epsteinian clones, all writing identical books; it was to impress upon students the need to master strong, clear writing, to develop a foundation robust enough to support original ideas. It seems to me no different to musicians practicing scales, or artists studying anatomical drawing. If there are such things as institutional styles, they are likely because students choose to attend courses taught by writers they admire, not because their education has instilled in them an institutional formula. I now teach creative writing myself; nothing could be less productive or more boring than forcing all my students to write in the same way.