Zadie Smith’s Hatred of Creative Writing Classes

Practical but fashionable: I love this turban she rocks.
Practical but fashionable: I love this turban she rocks.

“I never attended a creative writing class in my life. I have a horror of them; most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. The best, the only real training you can get is from reading other people’s books.”

Much-celebrated writer Zadie Smith (NW, White Teeth) said this in an interview on the Random House site. I hear what she’s saying — and agree with it, for the most part — even though I make part of my living teaching writing.

I took a few “creative writing” classes in my time, and I always spent them just spinning out material I’d already written so I could get some feedback from teachers and/or classmates. I’m practical when it comes to my writing, and my writing classes. I love what she says about “the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic.” I am not that kind of person. I am really, really not that kind of person. Tom Bissell has referred to these people — most specifically, the people who write “how-to” books for these people — as the Tea & Angels school of writing. These are the ones who are all about writing your feelings in your journal and letting them flow and decorating your special writing area with special inspirational quotes and taking bubble baths and getting it all out and writing your dreams down to get inspired and feelings feelings feelings from the soul soul soul. I’ve met no actual working writers who are Tea & Angels sorts, though they must exist to teach these workshops and write these books. I’ve found that many writing workshops for amateur writers — hobbyists, really — are like this.

I encountered it most strongly through my biannual Zen meditation retreat, where we tend to be otherwise extremely, almost scarily, practical and no-nonsense. Most weeks of the retreat, we’re in silence, sitting in meditation something like six hours a day, and cleaning or cooking or eating the rest of the time. For one weekend of this retreat in the summer, we used to switch over to the Tea & Angels extreme. Suddenly, we were writing out every one of our thoughts without judgement, and then reading them aloud to each other. A professional writer’s worst nightmare, it turned out. Everyone else loved it — I mean, had life-changing experiences through it. To which I say: Writing has healing powers, yes, but not professional writing. And some of us can only do one or the other kind. I’d rather be paid.

Which brings me back to the venerable Ms. Smith. For people like her, and like me, and probably like anyone who has ever enjoyed my classes, writing is, in fact, the exact opposite of therapy. To me, it’s maybe taking some bits of the raw material you write in your journal for its therapeutic purposes while burning your incense — it’s okay, I’ve done it, too — and making it into something practical. That doesn’t mean it isn’t emotional; in fact, a huge part of it is often figuring out how to translate that feeling into something concrete and accessible to others. It’s the sculpting of the big, beautiful rock that you found into the vision that you had, into something others can see and feel and use for themselves. This is as true of good non-fiction as it is of fiction. I like to think, for instance, that my book full of real-life stories about the creative and cultural underpinnings of The Mary Tyler Moore Show does more good than a diary entry about re-watching the show and relating to it and feeling its resonance through generations of women.

Smith is talking about two different things: writing for publication and writing for yourself. Both can benefit from classes, or at least group settings of some kind. If you’re writing for yourself to sort out your feelings, you want a class that’s supportive and warm and drinks tea and believes in angels — at least the writing kind of angels. You want group therapy. And that’s fine. But if you want to write for publication, I guess you take a class from me, and then one day, if you’re lucky, maybe a class from Smith (who does, in fact, teach at NYU). This is where you get the real criticism you’ll need to get better, and the stone-cold practical advice about structure, rules and when to break them, and the realities of the publishing industry.

But she’s also correct on another score: If you never take a class in your life, you can still become a professional writer — as long as you read. The reading isn’t optional. That’s the kind of practical advice anyone can get behind.

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