"You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught."
I don’t want to spend too much time dissing Bradbury here—he’s had a long and very distinguished career—but, I mean, is he kidding? No one is taking this seriously, right?
Sadly, someone probably is.
The quote reads like a excerpt from an interview, though there is no citation. (Note to my comp students: See? Citations help!). Bradbury displays no real knowledge of what goes on in a college classroom—which makes sense, because I found this quote on his Wikipedia page:
"Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years."
I truly and honestly admire his desire to write and his drive to communicate and his love of reading. He achieved a great deal—he’s written some fine books—despite the handicap of not going to college. But he still doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Let’s look at the important parts of his statement a line or so at a time:
“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t.”
Wrong. My teachers knew more than I did, and I know more than my students do. I have more experience writing and reading than my students do. No brag—I’ve been at it longer than they have, and with, generally, more dedication. I can show them things they don’t know and make it easier for them to go on and discover new things for themselves.
“They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”
Yikes. Henry James, for all love! Sure, everyone has prejudices, but is a teacher really going to force a student to write like Henry James? A good teacher is going to help you write more like yourself—your true self. At the same time, the student has agency: if she wants to write like Henry James, she’s going to write like Henry James, and no one can stop her. There are bad teachers, of course, and there are good teachers who are not the best teachers for a particular student, but by-and-large students benefit from the instruction they receive. I know my students do.
Still, it seems like “Can creative writing be taught?” is a question that just will not die. It’s like a virus. I was even asked the question during my dissertation defense. It occurs to me that there are three underlying questions lurking beneath the big question:
1. Can Writing be Taught?
2. Can Good Writing be Taught?
3. Can Creativity be Taught?
I have the feeling that all three questions are based on nothing more than a simple desire for muses—on the wish that some little demi-goddess will swoop down and sprinkle golden genius-dust on our shoulders, and make our creative endeavors easy and nice.
I’ve never seen a muse, though, and the answer to all three questions remains Yes.
Stuff to look for:
Advice to Writers, the website that has the Bradbury quote, has other interesting quotes from writers. Some of them are helpful….
Ray Bradbury’s Wikipedia page. (Yes, comp students, I just cited Wikipedia. And though it does have its place in the world, it’s still not a scholarly source).
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance has some fine articles on the importance of teaching and coaching, and on the promotion of creativity and excellence.
Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing is an enlightening and very readable history of writing programs and how programs have influenced and shaped contemporary American literature. I cited it many times in my dissertation.
David G. Meyers’s The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 remains an influential discussion of the history of writing programs….
Nancy Andreasen’s The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius is a good overall look at how our brains think and create. Very useful for any teacher or writer.