Craft, Critical, and Social – The Workshop

Quoting Harold Singerman, Amato and Fleisher strongly critique pedagogical approaches that position creative writing as (mere) craft, particularly in the MFA workshop, where the focus on language and style can lead to a dangerous degree of homogeneity.

Singerman (who has an MFA in sculpture), appears to favor a kind of art for the sake of art rather than the sake of style, if that makes sense (and I hope I’m interpreting this right). As he writes, “[t]he goal of the artist’s training cannot be facility, that ease with one’s __metier__ that cannot be challenged and need not be pushed” (qtd. in Amato and Fleisher). I take this to mean that craft (i.e. style, mastery of the fluid prose of beauty through form) is not itself sufficient to be a writer, and that it may not even be necessary. Instead, Singerman (and also Amato and Fleisher) look to the “otherness of the work of art” (qtd. in Amato and Fleisher). It isn’t how you write that matters – it’s how that writing addresses the social differences (or perhaps differance?) that create otherness.

A similar question arises in composition studies – namely, to what degree should we focus on helping students learn and “master” grammar and form? And, to what degree is this useful for the real lives of our students? Academic form, after all, heavily favors the type of dense, theory-rich and content-packed text that doesn’t really transfer well to the personal life of social media or the professional life of memos and grant proposals. Instead, there’s been a serious push to help students focus on expression (per Wendy Bishop or Peter Elbow and others) and a (concurrent?) push to help students see their writing as fitting within a more social framework (per Paul Prior and Jody Shipka and the uses of CHAT).

So the question I have is about how to bring these two things together – the question of craft and the question of critical social awareness. Because from my own experiences, I can tell that craft matters, at least within academic and professional settings. Even on social media, there is a lot of craft involved – if you tweet in academic style, you have probably failed the craft of Twitter. In this sense, it wrong to speak of a single “craft” of writing – instead, there are writing crafts – and each one features its own specific expectations of language, process, and reception.

So in this sense, critical social awareness is necessary if one is to understand and apply the appropriate “craft” to the specific writing situation. And what Amato and Fleisher are getting at, I think, is that a writing workshop that focuses on a monolithic academic Craft will not only fail to prepare students for the real social situations of their writing, but will actually pull them away from the richness of cultural and linguistic diversity that has been long elided by traditional academic traditions.

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