The Absence of Theory

The Absence of Theory (2012) A new Creative Writing instructor tries to conduct a Creative Writing workshop  at a university in Wisconsin only to find that his class (mostly women) rebel against what they call his imposition of ‘theory’ and instead want to write ‘lesbian’ vampire stories. Published in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, February 2012, UK.              


‘Write about what?’

‘Whatever comes into your head. Don’t censor yourself. Just write.’

The woman in black taps a pencil on her teeth in slow rhythm. Ta, ta, ta, like a dripping tap. The man at the back squints at the notebook in front of him in disbelief, writes one word; two words. Stops. The woman with the green hair sucks on her pen.

‘It’s called free-writing: put down whatever comes into your head, without stopping, without lifting pen from paper. Don’t stop to think, or correct, or read back. Silence the critic in your head.’

At the front of the class, the freckled woman writes frantically, whirling page after page. The woman with kiss curls scratches at her yellow notepad as if there’s something underneath she’s desperately trying to reach. The man too is now writing, but his pen is dragging invisible weights behind it. The woman with green hair pushes page after page out of her way as she scribbles in rhythm—tikka tikka tat, tikka tikka tat, tikka tikka tat.

The instructor paces the room, stares out of the window at the white sky, and then back at the seven white faces in the room that haven’t seen the sun for six months. He has been in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for only three of those months, and his golden tan is already beginning to grey. ‘Now who would like to read out what they’ve written?’

They’re not shy: all of them want to read what they’ve written. And most students have written about their love life, or lack of it. The bastard dumped me. I was such a bitch. He’s a stupid ####. The man at the back, in spite of what looked like strenuous activity, has written only one line: ‘The predator stalked his prey, as was his custom.’

The freckled woman, Elizabeth, reads a long tale with too many adverbs and adjectives, tired verbs and sentence fragments, about a car accident. Fortunately she wasn’t injured because it would have broken her mother’s heart. What if anything should happen to my precious baby girl?

The woman in black, Alexis, reads out her lines out in a sigh: ‘Where are you, Muse, when I need you? What do you think of all this? What would you do?’

The instructor turns to the window. The snow outside is banked up four to five foot high against the roadside and has turned various shades of black from the car fumes. Snow in a Wisconsin winter, he notes, doesn’t melt, but is layered on top of previous snow piles, giving a fossil record of the past few months. He can see four layers of grey to black, and it’s only January. He speaks to the patterns of ice.

‘Peter Elbow—yes that’s his name—Elbow—advocates this type of writing. Expressivism, he calls it. Censor the critic.  Tap into the unconscious. Creative writing comes from the dream space in our minds.’

‘I thought this was a writing workshop,’ says the woman in black, Alexis.

He stumbles over his reply—sensitive to any implied criticism of his teaching. She means, why are you talking about the theory of Creative Writing, instead of letting us just write?

‘In Creative Writing classes in this institution, we follow the Iowa workshop model: every week you submit a short story to the class to workshop. By the end of the semester you will produce a highly polished short story.’

‘What’s the Iowa workshop model?’ says Alexis.

‘Craft. Craft .Craft. Show and don’t tell. Murder your darlings; when in doubt, cut it out; what you write about is not as important as how you write; use the third person, present tense where possible; if you mention a gun in the first paragraph, make sure someone pulls the trigger by the end….’

‘I took this class to write what I like, not to be told how to write.’ Alexis speaks as much to the others as to him.

He tries not to stammer. ‘Freewriting is only stage one. Stage two is to invite the critic in to edit and to form, polish and rewrite. Then revise it again. And again. And again. Writing is re-writing. What you read in a successful writer’s fiction is not a spontaneous first draft, but highly crafted, re-edited, reworked material. Some writers like Raymond Carver, for example, rewrote his stories over a hundred times to get them right.’

‘I’m sure inspired writers don’t do that,’ she replies.


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