Teaching Creative Writing and Literature After Olson by Jonas Williams

Jonas Williams

University at Albany—SUNY

This paper has two parts. The first part argues for the potential value of the creative writing course. I will connect this value to a distinction between two kinds of knowledge, which for now I will call knowing-that and knowing-how. Charles Olson’s work will help me articulate this distinction. And I will propose how creative writing courses might be structured, in general, to better realize their potential as sites for the practice of knowing-how.

The second part of my paper explains how a specific creative writing class, or a unit within such a class, could be derived from Olson and Black Mountain. I will discuss the theory of such a class and touch on some pragmatics.

The title of this paper is “Teaching Creative Writing and Literature after Olson,” and I would like to say a few things about that title. I use the phrase creative writing only because of its familiarity as the label for an academic discipline (or sub-discipline if we consider creative writing a section of English Studies). A more appropriate phrase would be literary writing, or the writing of literature, which, I assume, creative writing is usually understood to designate. Equating creative writing with literary writing is useful because there’s far from a consensus about what literature consists of, or what a literary work should do. The fact that any number of definitions of literature can be put forth makes the word valuable as an indicator of open-endedness. The label literary writing can be stretched to include whatever we want it to include. And I argue that it is crucial not to decide in advance what a creative writing (read: literary writing) course will generate, or how.

Regarding the word “Literature” in this paper’s title, I will add that what I am advocating can apply not only to the creative writing course but also to the so-called literature course, which conventionally focuses on reading published literary texts and writing critical analyses of them. In short, there does not need to be a fundamental distinction between these two kinds of courses.

The Special View of History, Olson’s 1956 summer seminar at Black Mountain College, presents knowledge and action as necessarily linked. According to Olson,

it has been the immense task of the last century and a half to get man back to what he knows. I repeat that phrase: to what he knows. For it turns out to coincide exactly with that other phrase: to what he does. What you do is precisely defined by what you know. (29)

Knowing something means being able to do it. This is a knowing of the familiar. So Olson can claim: “It is literally true that you have to know everything. And for the simplest reason; that you do, by being alive” (29). I should clarify that although Olson says you know everything by being alive, everything is not a constant. The limits of everything–of what there is–are expanded by what you do–what you find or make. Through doing, more can become familiar to you, thus come into existence and become known. This kind of knowledge that coincides with action is what I’m calling knowing-how.

We can differentiate knowing-how—my term for Olson’s conception of

knowledge–from knowing-that–the dominant, traditional Western

conception of knowledge. In his essay “Human Universe,” Olson makes an analogous distinction between two aspects of language:

We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450 B.C. And it has had its effects on the best of men, on the best of things. Logos, or discourse, for example, in that time, so worked its abstractions into our concept and use of language that language’s other function, speech, seems so in need of restoration that several of us go back to hieroglyphs or to ideograms to right the balance. (The distinction here is between language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant.) (155-56)

The analogy runs as follows: discourse is to speech (also called “shout”) as knowing-that is to knowing-how. Knowing-that, through discourse, deals with information or data abstracted from the instant of action. Knowing-how, through actions such as speech (which applies when the actions are verbal), is implicit when, in the instant, you do whatever it is you do. Knowing-how is operative in the processes of making art–Olson writes, “Art does not seek to describe but to enact” (“Human Universe” 162).

I propose thinking of the creative writing course as a space dedicated to knowing-how, designed to support learning-by-doing. Students in the course make art–write literature–enact, which aligns with Olson’s idea of knowledge. If we understand literature as a category whose limits cannot be stated abstractly, and which can be extended to include whatever writing people end up doing and calling “literary”–if we understand literature as such a basically elastic label– then we can view the knowing-how that the creative writing course supports not as knowledge of one way of doing things, but of as many ways of doing things as students get around to trying. The method is to facilitate a diversity of methods.

For the past seventy years or so in the United States, there has been a dominant sort of creative writing workshop, which I will refer to as the Iowa model. The Iowa model has students–undergraduate or graduate–bring already written texts to class, distribute them, comment along with the instructor on one another’s writing. The writer remains silent while others voice their criticism. The aim is to make students better writers largely by pointing out perceived deficiencies in their work. Plenty of people have objected to the Iowa model, for various reasons, and plenty have defended it. My goal here is not to complain about what happens in the Iowa model classroom, which can provide one valid and valuable context for student writers. The problem is that a very high percentage of creative writing courses in American colleges and universities follow the Iowa model, and that exceptions are rare. (Exceptions can be found, though, as can published cases for alternative creative writing courses, such as Katharine Haake’s What Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Studies, and Tom C. Hunley’s Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.) To any given student, further alternatives need to become available, or at least a few that are more mutable than the Iowa model, which need not disappear but would better serve as one visible structure of the creative writing course among several.

Over the years, scholars in English Departments have published a vast amount of literary criticism and have performed, assigned, and led innumerable textual analyses and interpretations in their classes. This longstanding habit of textual interpretation suggests that creative writing has been missing an opportunity. Any literary text or corpus can be understood to imply a writing pedagogy, potentially adaptable for classroom use. In other words, we can read literature–we are experienced at this, after all–to find out what it tells us about how to write and how to structure and teach a creative writing course. Doing readings of literature to derive writing pedagogies would allow us to accumulate alternatives to the Iowa model, and thereby to provide student writers ever-new contexts. In new contexts, additional ways of writing become available, and with their practice, knowledge in the sense of knowing-how grows.

To this point in my paper, Olson’s work has been helpful but not strictly necessary to the articulation of my argument about creative writing in general. From here on, I will discuss what reading Olson’s writing, especially in connection to his role at Black Mountain College, can yield in terms of a specific alternative creative writing pedagogy.

It remains to be discussed how knowledge as Olson views it, which I am calling knowing-how, pertains to the interpersonal. If what you know coincides with what you do, how is your knowledge related to everything beyond your body proper? In The Special View of History, Olson defines “the objective” as follows:

anything OUTSIDE any one of us. This is knowable. Most of us stop at the fact that it is experiencable. But the other half of it is that it is knowable, in the only sense in which knowledge makes sense, that is methodological. It can be used. (30)

By way of use, a person incorporates the objective into an action. At that point, the person necessarily knows the action and therefore knows the objective in precisely the sense that it is, through use, part of the action. The essay “Projective Verse” describes the objective and its use in terms of poetry. Olson describes the poem, taken altogether, as a field. Within the field, he writes, “It is a matter, finally, of objects, what they are, what they are inside a poem, how they got there, and, once there, how they are to be used” (243). The phrase “how they got there” reminds us that other people near you, as well as your place and your stance in that place, partly determine what exactly is available for you to use, to arrange in your field–a term which, in The Special View of History, refers not only to poems but to everything that your actions give form to; your field is the history that you make. To say it another way: what you put in your field might end up available for someone else’s use.

In a 1951 letter to W.H. Ferry, Olson lauds Black Mountain College for its letting him do his work in a city, where he claims he works best, and occasionally visit the college to share that work, see what other people have worked on, and interact with them (139). Olson insists both that work is accomplished in a polis, and that the connections made with other workers at the college are crucial:

What happens between things—what happens between men—what happens between guest faculty, students, regular faculty–and what happens among each as the result of each: for i do not think one can overstate—at this point of time, America, 1951—the importance of workers in different fields of the arts and of knowledge working so closely together some of the time of the year that they find out, from each other, the ideas, forms, energies, and the whole series of kinetics and emotions now opening up, out of the quantitative world. (141)

This sentence can serve as an index to key aspects of Olson’s worldview, his Human Universe, for a writing pedagogy. Of the phrase “workers in different fields of the arts and of knowledge,” the double-meaning of “field” should be pointed out–these are workers who use the objective, here called “the quantitative world,” to make forms, energy-constructs available for others to use. Note also that in Olson’s view, “fields of the arts” are also fields “of knowledge”–these are the same workers, active, in the same moment, both in art and in knowing. That “what happens” here takes place between or among workers is appropriate: the results of one person’s actions make certain forms available for others to find, use, and make with, ever differently. The sentence in total emphasizes how much these workers learn by using one another’s work. And the qualifier “some of the time of the year” conveys the importance of the polis as necessary complement to the college for the worker seeking diversity in the quantitative, used and useable, world.

Useful learning, we can say, takes place when the individual, working beyond strictly divisible roles of student and teacher, responds to another person’s field of work by using it in an arrangement, a form, an energy-construct, a poetic or historical action of his or her own. If the individual arrives at this moment of use having been at work on one or more projects, these projects can inform the new arrangement of materials and increase the likelihood that someone else, a potential user, will find it to be new and thus a means to new actions, new varieties of knowing-how.

Providing forms is an act of generosity, not of teaching but of giving means by which to learn. “[L]ove is form, and cannot be without / important substance” Olson’s Maximus states in “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You” (I.1). Furthermore: “one loves only form, / and form only comes / into existence when / the thing is born / born of yourself” (I.3). Love is generosity, the giving to another person something for use. Here Maximus gives the poems to “you,” but does so indirectly, for the form only materializes when “born of yourself” rather than of Maximus. Ideally, in the creative writing class here beginning to be formulated, students present instances of form—by shaping what they can find to use in their respective fields–and then use one another’s work in making more forms, new fields.

In the letter to Ferry, Olson tells of workers in the arts arriving at Black Mountain College, or meeting arrivals there, and sharing projects they had been working on for long, focused stretches. In the typical university creative writing course, some students will arrive on the first day of class with various long-term, shareable projects, which others can work with and from, while other students will have more difficulty finding and recognizing something worth sharing. On the other hand, this discrepancy may be less noticeable than the varying degrees of literacy that students arrive in a given class with.

A more realistic structure for the course would entail all students initially reading the same texts—not necessarily Olson’s work, though his would have the added benefit of helping convey the rationale for the course—and then using these texts to do—write or otherwise make—something else. Further assignments might be necessary, but the hope is that eventually students would find leads in the assigned readings, follow them, and assign themselves subsequent texts to read and work with. What someone makes would become available for everyone’s use, and all would proceed.

Works Cited

Olson, Charles. “Human Universe.” 1951. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin

Friedlander. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 155-66.

——— The Maximus Poems. Ed. George F. Butterick. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

———. “Projective Verse.” 1950. Collected Prose. Ed. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander.

Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. 239-49.

———. Letter to W. H. Ferry. 8 Aug. 1951. Letter 53 of Selected Letters. Ed. Ralph Maud. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 136-45.

———. The Special View of History. Ed. Ann Charters. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.