"We Are Not Making Toothpaste Here: 

Synthesizing 'Process-' & 'Product-Oriented' Creative Writing Pedagogies" - Intro

[Submitted as a thesis for successful completion of the MA in the Teaching of Writing degree at Columbia College Chicago in May 2013.]

Why is an essay about teaching creative writing titled “We Are Not Making Toothpaste Here,” you are asking. The title came to life while I was conducting research under the paper’s original name, simply: “Synthesizing Process- & Product-Oriented Creative Writing Pedagogies.” I contacted several university programs and explained that I sought to use Graeme Harper’s On Creative Writing (2010) as a frame for evaluating programs’ relationships to the categories of “Process-“ and “Product-Oriented,” leading to an outline for a semester-long workshop that incorporates concepts and methods from both types. Harper asserts that the experience of creating—the process—should be valued in even greater proportion than the object that is produced—the product. In addition to describing this research focus to these program directors, I requested campus visits. Further, I suggested that I interview them, as well as sit in on workshops. 

All requests for observing workshops were denied for various reasons: “only prospective students may do so,” “our university is going through some changes and it’s just not a good time,” and so on. There was also a no-reply or two. Understandably, as a writing teacher—and I considered this perspective after sending out these requests—I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about a random researcher popping into one class to critique it and then go commenting in a paper about what I and my program “do.” One individual, though, seemed to take genuine offense at my query. In addition to accusing me of attempting to treat their young writers like “lab rats,” this person attacked the validity of research that sought to make distinctions about the workshop. In fact, they were dismissive of having a discourse on creative writing pedagogy altogether, because “No one knows how art comes about.” The title of this essay is taken from yet another comment by this person. After informing me that creative writing can not be taught and scoffing at my suggestion that their program’s workshop mode fit Harper’s description of a “Product-Oriented” pedagogy, they exclaimed: “Product-Oriented? We are not making toothpaste here.”

No, we are not making toothpaste in the workshop; however, a better response is required than “creative writing can not be taught.” Harper says, “Creative Writing is something that we do and…it is something that happens to us. We can say that it thus can be learnt, and therefore taught” (91). And, in her Introduction to Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?, Dianne Donnelly considers the “lab rats” when she argues, “[I]f we name [the workshop] our practice, our signature pedagogy, if we assign it curricular substance for fulfillment of a degree and usher our students out into the workforce and community with diploma in hand; then should we not consider how we manage that which defines the heart of our course?” (9). So, while it is a widely discussed topic within creative writing studies, this essay asserts, “Yes, creative writing can be taught,” and proceeds from here with that understanding.

Harper says that creative writing is a set of acts and actions much more than it is an object produced. In his view, the traditional “Product-Oriented” workshop does a poor job of recognizing this fact and, thus, often sells the creative writing student short. Having experienced traditional workshops in the Creative Writing program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a “Process-Oriented” pedagogy in the Fiction Writing program at Columbia College Chicago, I propose that a workshop that synthesizes the two modes will best serve students. The first two-thirds to three-fourths of the semester should employ process-developing and work-generating exercises, then the latter portion will be best utilized discussing and close-critiquing peer work in the fashion of the traditional workshop. A synthesis of the models would simulate—would BE—a more complete writing process, from ideas to editing.