On Telling Students ‘No’

Nick Mamatas went on a Tweet storm yesterday about creative writing teachers barring students from writing genre fiction. It sparked conversation in the various Internets where writers dwell. I had thoughts.

I think Nick took it too far. Were we close, I’d ask him who hurt him, but alas, we’re not. I do think Nick was onto something, though.

(I should preface the rest of this with the disclaimer that I am not a fiction teacher, nor have I ever had the opportunity of teaching fiction writing, and nor is this a criticism of any creative writing teacher in particular. It’s a hard and thankless job, and it takes a special person to legitimately be excited to help others grow and succeed.)

Ask any writer or writing teacher how to become a good writer, and you’ll invariably get the same sentiment: write a lot, read a lot, and live a lot.

If these are the keys for growth in creative writing, it follows that a creative writing learning environment should foster them, right? If you’re reading this, you’re likely either a writer or someone who would like to be a writer, and you’re either acquainted with the reality or the anxiety that a creative writing workshop isn’t going to be hospitable to the kind of writing you do or that you would like to do.

For just about any writer, it takes a lot of guts to show up to a workshop, and for many writers, there is additional apprehension in presenting a story with, for example, zombies in it to an environment that will judge someone simply because the story has zombies in it.

We throw around terms like “genre fiction,” “realism,” “fabulism,” “magical realism,” and more. I hate to seem laissez faire. It’s not that I’m afraid of labels. It’s just, in creative writing more than any other art form, they tend to be more controversial or even used derogatorily than helpful for identification purposes.

Ultimately, any teacher worth your time is going to push you away from formula and outside of your comfort zone. This is a good thing. This is how writers grow. Fundamentally, we’re telling stories about people who take action for reasons, and generally, there’s conflict and rising tensions. That’s it. The specifics of those elements are just flesh on the storytelling skeleton, which should be recognizable whether you’re a pulp fiction writer or a 16th-century British literature scholar.

So, in my humble opinion, unless it’s for an exercise or to serve an educational purpose, a teacher who tells a student he or she can’t write what he or she wants to write has already failed. At best, the student is going to produce mediocre work, and at worst, the teacher is going to kill the student’s passion for writing. Keeping students engaged, writing, and reading should be priority number one. We’re all storytelling nerds who geek out over things like narrative, character, metaphor and allegory, theme, etc. It’s okay that we like them to varying degrees and that we are interested in writing different things.

I get it, though. If you’re a creative writing teacher, you see dozens of students’ work each semester, and you’re tired of reading the tropes. Or maybe you’re not familiar with the kind of writing your student is submitting, and that scares you because you’re supposed to be the authority on all things fiction. That’s part of Nick’s point.

I don’t believe creative writing teachers need to read all of the Star Wars novels to be able to teach young writers who have a penchant for science fiction (we’re not going to fight about whether Star Wars is science fiction or science fantasy tonight, okay? Stay on task). I believe any teacher with adequate education and experience can find commonality in storytelling even if what the student is doing is not within a fiction genre the teacher is familiar with.

For teaching the art of storytelling, I just don’t see a pedagogical justification for telling a writer “no.” Encouraging them to try new things is very different, but creating obstacles and making them feel rejected or like they aren’t welcome in a workshop because they have different tastes is harmful.

If I’m your teacher, there is a stark difference between helping you be the passionate writer you want to be and communicating to you I want you to be the writer I think you should be. I am concerned that telling creative writing students they can’t write genre fiction is doing less to help them grow and doing more to crush their spirits and reject them as writers by telling them what they love to write isn’t welcome in that classroom, suggesting that kind of writing is illegitimate.

And this conflicts with our fundamental keys to growth: writing, reading, and living, which all take passion.

Sure, if I’m your student, set a guideline with the intent of strengthening a weakness you’ve diagnosed, or provide a prompt to push me into new things. Exposure to new concepts and ideas is the best thing any teacher can do for a student. Expanding the realm of possibilities is the ideal form of education in any craft.

For someone like me, who already feels like a reject in the literary community, telling me “no, you can’t do that” is the worst thing you can do for me. I know that, but many young, budding writers don’t, and for a community that already laments that nobody reads anymore, we should simply celebrate everyone who expresses an interest in our common love of telling stories, even if theirs have zombies in them.