Sunday, June 28, 2009

On the Necessity of Transforming (Occasionally) the Creative Non-Fiction Workshop Into Group Therapy

When I was a graduate student, one of my creative non-fiction teachers gave us a syllabus headlined with the following statement: “THIS CREATIVE NON-FICTION COURSE IS NOT GROUP THERAPY. I AM NOT A LICENSED PSYCHOLOGIST.”

At the time, I applauded such a statement.

But now, as the years have gone by, I have come to the conclusion that I was wrong. Why shouldn’t the classroom become a therapeutic space?

What artist didn’t begin creating out of an essential need? Like love?

As an adopted child, I always felt a lack. If I arranged my words in the right way, I believed, that my mother would somehow receive the message. Somehow she’d discover my words and come and save me.

In a small way, I still think that.

As the university transforms into even more of a business, and encourages that horrible word professionalism , there seems to be a greater capitalist need to alienate the personal from the university space. No one wants to say let's right a straight up memoir. We have hybrid genres called charmingly annoying things such as the lyric essay.

(Doesn’t every amazing piece of writing aim for transcendental moments? Are essayists so concerned that their work will be marginalized that they need to attach a qualifier like the lyric? Hoping that the poetic qualifier will justify their writing? Is that why they needed to attach the silly word creative to non-fiction? Out of a fear that –O! My God-someone could mistake their writing as academic, scholarly?)

With the rise of the term creative non-fiction, the memoir feels dated. Old-fashioned. This is what we seem to tell our students now. Write the personal. But. Throw in some factoids, weird typography. Fragment the essay. Give each section an annoyingly clever title. You can then boast that you created a collage.

If anyone invokes the word collage in workshop again, I’ll go to Joseph Cornell’s grave and drive a stake through his heart.

Much to the shock of academics and some creative writing teachers, simple catharsis can produce odd, idiosyncratic details, worthy of an essay. And possibly deserving of classroom space.

Many years ago, I had a beautiful woman in my class. She wrote one of the most intriguing undergraduate essay openings. She listed all of her body parts and explained why each and every one of them were beautiful. (Even her spleen and right inner ear.) This wasn’t presented as self-flattery. She was taking an inventory, something good personal writing can do. Then based on her experience, she continued the essay with a polemic about the ways beautiful people suffer prejudice. I can still remember relishing its weird details. Finally: there was the opportunity to talk about something other than a family vacation or dead grandmother!

Disappointingly, the essay fairly quickly stopped being angry. She used a more conventional narrative to conceal her more taboo, more honest feelings. She went as far to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that we're all special in our own way.

She needed my help. I became a workshop leader because I feel classroom space can provide such opportunities. How could I encourage her to freely vent about her own beauty in a state of undisciplined rage? In this public act of mentorship, how could I also make her less of a spectacle and more of a vehicle to talk about broader issues related to the personal?

This cliff hanger will be resolved Wednesday.


  1. I love this, and I have no problem with the nonfiction classroom being somewhat of therapy, isnt writing supposed to be emotionally exploratory? But then I come from a family of three generations of social workers and I bring that attitude to the class. Professionalism, the professional, all that crap, the university can stick it somewhere with its bad labor conditions, just like social work. A real teacher, as we all know, a real art teacher, like a true social worker, is invested in the emotional lives of their students. A bad one isnt. I've had bad ones, taught beside bad ones. Because there is an ever increasing acceptance of cruelty masked as critique. You remind me in this of some of my favorite theorists, not from creative writing, but from education: people like Maxine Greene. Or from creative writing like Carol Bly who look at the workshop through the eyes of aesthetics and ethics. I'm sure there are many who won't agree with me, but then I probably will never want to take a course from them, or send my children to their spaces. I don't believe in art that doesnt come out of caring spaces. My best teachers--charles simic and melanie rae thon--to name too from creative writing, were intensely caring people and brought that to the workshop. Louise Phelps in rhetoric was a beautiful and honest yet careful person. Those who create harsh workshops I would say don't have the skill to create caring places that are also exploratory and artisitically rigorous. They are failures and mark it with cruelty. They are cowards. I am not saying being caring is easy. Hell, look at our parents. But we try, one must try, one must resist the over masculized redicule. I have been uncessarily cruel at times, but I learned to try not to be, I tried not to be, particularly with young people. I tried to model ways of speaking that are exploratory and descriptive about my own art and life. Isn't that how we uncover what we do not know, and isnt that what making art is supposed to be? There is an ethics to teaching, in how we speak, in how we speak about ourselves, and how our writing is to exist, empathy over anger. Or lets go write stories of cold lifelessness, fall into the same empty platitudes, or the experimentation that turns the heart into formal utterances, interesting, but lifeless. Isn't our job to help words breathe?

    Sean Thomas Dougherty

  2. Sean,

    I'm angry. Your extended comment is smarter and better written than my post.

  3. Steve, I'm waiting (very impatiently) for Part 2. Hurry.