Writers Who Teach: Literary Arts Teachers Share Their Experiences

The growing popularity of creative writing degree over the past 50 years has been accompanied by growing criticism of the institutionalization of writing. This discourse often returned to the same question: can writing be taught?

Although there has never been and probably never will be a conclusive answer to this question, the practice of teaching writing has continued despite the debate. But very often it is those who write who teach. The Department of Literary Arts at Brown has had a faculty of nationally and internationally renowned authors since its inception in the 1960s by poet, translator, critic, and professor emeritus of English and comparative literature Edwin Honig.

You can teach writing, said associate professor of literary arts Karan Mahajan, even if you can’t make someone talented who isn’t.

Author of “Family Planning” and “The association of little bombs», finalist of the National Book Awards 2016, Mahajan tries to locate the strong points of the writer and to encourage them in this direction. “I think you can teach students to access the most interesting parts of themselves and show them that they carry the seeds of interesting stories within them,” he said.

Literary arts professor Thalia Field ’88 MFA ’95 believes “very strongly that creative writing can be taught” but pedagogically disagrees with the standard “workshop model”, a she declared. Field is the author of several innovative and experimental books, the most recent of which is “Personhood”, published in 2021.

The workshop format “confuses teaching with editing,” she said, “and it ignores (the) creative process, which for me is central to learning how to be. a sustainably productive and healthy artist in the world”.

“I see a lot of paralysis and a lot of young artists stuck in their practice because the creative process isn’t central to the pedagogy in most creative writing workshops,” Field said. She thinks most people need coaching and support until they start learning their own creative process.

Field also teaches in a highly interdisciplinary way so that writers in his courses can engage in multiple forms. Her teaching style reflects her writing practice and experimental work, she explained.

“I’ve always worked at the intersection of creative non-fiction and more imaginative writing,” she said. “I find a very important place where both can create opportunities to reflect on issues that are otherwise difficult to resolve.”

The experimental nature of his work was one of the many reasons Field decided to teach in addition to writing. “I didn’t want to strain my books for having to make money that way,” she said. But she was also always interested in “the dynamics of pedagogy” and began teaching in different formats shortly after college.

Literary arts professor Eleni Sikelianos is the author of two hybrid memoirs and several poems, collections, and collections, including a book-length poem, “What I Knew,” published in 2019. Her own research as an artist have influenced what she teaches, she says.

“For me, poetry in particular is an impulse towards freedom, and that can be freedom of syntax, freedom of the ways in which we expect language to make sense – it can mean all kinds of freedoms”, Sikelianos added. “It’s something I always want to think about when I teach: how can I help my students feel liberated in different ways and how can we have adventures together?”

Mahajan also enjoys talking to students about what “it’s really like to be a writer,” he said, which involves looking at the lives of writers and considering not just how they got into the profession, but also how they maintain it.

For many literary arts teachers, the practice of teaching impacts the craft of writing just as writing influences teaching.

Teaching made Mahajan a better writer by making him a better reader and thinker, he said. As a teacher, he must carefully reread the books he has already read, which helps him to extract new value from them.

“And your students show you new ways to look at these texts,” he added.

Since writing is a solitary practice, he likes the balance between having time for himself and meeting students. “I’m always full of energy when I come out of one of my classes,” he added.

“I learn from my students all the time, as well as from the texts that we read together,” Sikelianos said. Her former students also often became collaborators after she taught them.

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But she also acknowledged that teaching can inhibit her writing in some ways. “You try to put frames on the ways of thinking so you can convey it to others,” Sikelianos said. These frameworks may not be the most fruitful approach to one’s own writing. Time constraints pose an additional challenge, she added.

Field is currently on leave to focus on his own work. “It requires having time when I’m not teaching in order to really do the deeper, more dreamlike, more research-based aspects of the process,” Field said. “There are parts of my creative process that are easier to do while I’m teaching and parts that are truly impossible.”

Still, Field finds the teaching very inspiring. “I love working with students and young artists, so it doesn’t hurt me,” she says.

The professors also had tips for budding writers and literary arts students.

“I think people who become writers are people who keep doing it, who are willing to take risks with their writing, who are willing to tell the truth about things that are hard to talk about otherwise,” said Mahajan.

But he stressed that writing isn’t for everyone – it’s a difficult and lonely profession that could make some people unhappy in the long run. “I think there’s a kind of romance associated with writing that I think it’s our job as teachers to dispel and expose students to the challenges you face in a career as a writer. “, did he declare.

Field emphasized the importance of deepening a writer’s relationship with their own work so that it remains “authentic, genuine, radical, and unique.” “The relationship with your work is a primal, evolving, dynamic relationship, and it’s not always easy and it’s not always linear,” she said.

Sikelianos, on the other hand, spoke about the importance of finding a community of other writers. “It doesn’t have to be a living community,” she says. “It may be a community of poets and writers who died centuries ago. But it’s finding those things that inspire you.

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