The Facets of Creative Writing: An Interview with Miriam Sagan

What kind of experience did you from creative writing instruction as a student? How did that compare to your experiences as an instructor yourself?

 

I studied at Harvard and Boston University. Although I had some strong mentors—Robert Fitzgerald and John Malcom Brinnin—instruction was pretty casual. Creative writing wasn’t really “taught” back in the 1970’s—you just sort of found your own way.

When I teach at community college, I tend to be very craft oriented. I teach structure, tropes, forms—in all three genres. But I don’t emphasize being a “professional” or academic literary writer. I’m too much of a hippie, and I was taught more by immersion in reading and writing than anything else.

 

What do you think a student in creative writing courses can expect to learn? How many students enter your classes and see improvement in their writing? What sort of comments do you get from students after they have taken one of your classes?

At minimum, to learn simply from having some time and intention. At best, how their own individual voices combine with traditional techniques. People seem very happy with my teaching, including on-line classes, but I think any teacher who gives true attention and compassion can move a student forward.

 

Do you think writing poetry is different from writing prose? How so?

Well, Paris is different than Chicago. I think different in every way. Poetry is fast, driven by feeling, momentary perception. Fiction has that nasty engine called plot.

 

Is there such a thing as natural talent in this field? What could a person who is naturally inclined to write learn in a course on writing? Do creative writing courses help young students learn discipline in their writing?

 

Of course, but like all natural talent, it really isn’t that important. A lot of teachers rightfully emphasize elbow grease and mastery as opposed to talent—years of work. But that takes a certain kind of talent too. Maybe the greatest talent is to love what you do.

 

What can creative writing teach a person in regard to other aspects of living? Is there anything practical learned from creative writing that can be brought to the “real world”?

Well, maybe empathy and self-awareness. Also, observation. But really I think writing just grows writing. Some excellent authors might be pretty poor human beings. I don’t think the insights necessarily translate from the page to life.

 

What qualities do great poems have from your own reading experience?

Transcendence. Transport. I also like it when the little hairs on my arm stand up. Insight, and the beauty of language and Aristotle’s catharsis. But mostly I like getting that rush.

 

I read advice from Benjamin Franklin concerning learning to write recently. His advice was extremely helpful because it suggested methods. Most advice is “read more, write more” but there is no practice of writing suggested. Do you have suggestions for the practice of writing?

Yes, I do. I studied for a while with Natalie Goldberg, who proposes writing practice. This helps a lot, as does The Artist’s Way’s (Julia Cameron) advice on morning pages. I suggest writing raw every day, using one of these techniques. Then, try working your way through a book of forms or prompts. Essentially you are trying to build writing muscle and flexibility. I once heard the critic Helen Vendler say the best thing a novice writer could do was make a lot of mistakes quickly. Read every day—but as a writer. Keep notes. Imitate.

 

I sometimes suggest teaching in ways that encourage thinking outside of the daily box for creative writers. When someone asks me how to workshop, for instance, I suggest they give an exercise that will lead students away from commonplace thinking. Then edit, edit, edit. What way would you approach editing? Do you have editing methods or specific ideas on how and what to edit?

I hate editing. Allen Ginsberg said—first thought, best thought. This might not really be true, but for me sometimes it’s just—first thought, no other thought! That said, I suggest editing organically.

What is the piece? It’s shape, theme, purpose? Edit towards that shape. Take out the extraneous, add in detail.

Then get someone else to read it!

 

Tell me about your own books. What inspired them? How long roughly did each take to complete? What obstacles did you face in writing them?

I’ve published about 30 books, and written probably close to 30 more, that will mercifully never see the light of day. I’m 62 years old. At thirty, I set myself an impossible task—to publish a book or chapbook a year, or to complete some kind of big project annually. So each book had its muse, meaning, purpose. My novel Black Rainbow took 30 years to write. I have a chapbook forthcoming from Red Bird that took about fourteen super intense days to write (I was in a writer’s residence on Lama Mountain north of Taos, NM).

Actually, I think the books might be one giant project. They feel very interconnected and range from a tiny lovely print out from Origami to a hardback from a university press. They truly are a record of where I’ve been, and who.

My major obstacle was just that often I was learning on the go—my vision vaster than my level of skill. But I don’t begrudge that!

 

James Baldwin said once that any writer will probably think the world conspires against his or her talent. Czelaw Milosz said in his Nobel address that there is a “conspiracy of silence.” In what ways have you felt this yourself? Why do you think writers are inclined more to this thinking than others?

Fight this way of thinking with every fiber. I feel the world doesn’t care about me one way or another. And that’s fine!

 

In your opinion, what separates a great writer from a mediocre one? Do classic writers have anything in common?

Poetry is more of a narrow range. An OK poem just isn’t that interesting because it usually doesn’t quite hit being a “poem” yet. Mediocre fiction can be quite readable—non-fiction too, if you’re reading for plot or subject. “Great” writers might have reputations that come in fads. I’d go for “good”—and here again, if literature takes me out of myself, I’m content.

 

Could you say something about style? What is style? How is style developed? Do writers change styles? What do you think sparks those changes?

Style is an expression of personality—like hair or clothes or cooking. It’s sort of an extended set of accessories of the self. I used to think it was set—like adult height or certain character flaws and virtues. But I had a shocking (to me!) change of style a few seasons ago—so still exploring this question.

 

Does a writer’s worldview have an effect on their use of language? Why are semantics important to a writer’s work?

I really don’t know. It’s a cool question, but I don’t have a strong feeling about it. I almost wonder if language doesn’t affect worldview. Are semantic patterns fixed? Do they come from an individual rather than a language group? I do know that if I curse at something I feel more hostile—the opposite if I bless it.

Finally, there is a lot of talk of kinds of censorship the universities practice today. By this, I mean safe spaces and trigger warnings. I also mean how political correctness is used to silence ideas. What has prompted this movement toward hypersensitivity to certain topics and ideas? Why are students choosing to impose this on their learning experience? Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression. What effects does language have on culture? Do you think political correctness is censorship or could be used as censorship, or is it useful in some capacity? Will it have an effect on literature and the way it is written?  How do we adapt to its demands?

I have little first hand experience with this, as community college settings don’t tend to grapple with this much.

I did have an opposite experience in 1972. At Harvard, my roommates were taking Anthro 101. The professor announced on the first day that the women could expect lower grades than the men because they were biologically less well equipped to study! Of course the women students were completely freaked out. So, I think for those of us with long memories, this emphasis on safe space may be because we remember very unsafe space.

I do agree with what you say—Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression.

To be honest, I doubt very much if art and literature should or could give in to any ideology, including political correctness. Art under Stalin or Mao isn’t what we’d consider a genuine expression of the artist or writer.

Academic approaches come and go.

The true pursuit of writing does not.