An Interview with Carl Vandermeulen

We’ve just published Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing by Carl Vandermeulen and we asked him a few questions about the motivations behind his research on creative writing.

What inspired you to study creative writing?
The general answer to that question is that it is a practice of mine to think about my classes and what’s going on in them while I’m teaching and, sometimes, to look back afterwards and try to understand what worked and what didn’t and why. The particular inspiration for this book was a poetry writing course that I expected to go well, since I knew and admired many of the students signed up for it. When, instead, the students became fearful and silent I was baffled. When at the end of the course a few students were still silenced or frustrated and as baffled as I was about what had gone wrong, I promised them that I would figure it out. What I learned, with their help, was so provocative that I wanted to offer it to other creative writing teachers.

Do you think creative writing pedagogy is given enough attention in creative writing departments?
No, I don’t. CW teachers are writers, so they like to try to figure out teaching on their own. The irony is that their classroom practice is likely to replicate that of their favourite teacher. But pedagogy offers a way out of that repetition. Just as literature gives readers perspectives for reflecting upon their lives, pedagogy gives teachers perspectives for reflecting upon their teaching. Pedagogy makes teaching and learning visible—and thus revisible. Grad programs in creative writing, if they include pedagogy, are likely to require a course in composition pedagogy. One problem with that is that beginning teachers are likely to apply what they learned there to first-year writing courses but not to their creative writing courses. And if they do apply it to creative writing they may do so uncritically, paying too little attention to the real differences between comp and CW, and I don’t mean differences in genre as much as differences in the kinds of students who take creative writing. CW students are likely to be much more motivated to learn, as well as more likely to view the teacher not only as a mentor for their own becoming but also as a model for the writer and even the person they would like to become. That makes CW teaching much more personal, complicating aspects of teaching that require distance, especially grading.

Negotiating the Personal in Creative WritingWhat makes your book different from others that have been published before?
Primarily two things. First, although many other writers have criticized the dominant full-class workshop, few have described its best alternative, continuing writers’ groups. I argue that making writers’ groups work means rejecting the “silent writer” tradition of the workshop and instead teaching writers to actively reflect upon and question their own writing in the presence of their group members so that the group is invited and enabled to offer response that is genuinely helpful. And that response shouldn’t include critique until late in the course. I also show how group response can interact with instructor response so that both become part of the writer’s internalized thought process for reflecting upon his or her subsequent writing.

Second, as my title suggests, I pay much more attention to personal and especially to the often paradoxical interpersonal aspects of our teaching. A teacher who is viewed by some or many students as a mentor and even as a personal model—but who must still, like other teachers, grade everyone—will inevitably put some students in a difficult double bind, and the consequences can include breakdowns in relationships as well as damage to morale serious enough to make the class all but unteachable. I don’t know of other books that have examined this side of CW teaching.

Were there any books or scholars that particularly inspired you when you were starting out?
If  you mean when I started out teaching, I’d have to say that my main influence was the late Dr. Stanley Wiersma of Calvin College. He taught literature in a way that provoked and drew upon the responses of students and did it in a voice that suggested he was always being surprised at what we were discovering together. Without my realizing it at the time—until others who knew both of us told me—his teaching voice toned my own.

If you mean when I started out writing the book, the strongest influence was the compositionist Peter Elbow. I’ve said that my book might have been titled, What If Peter Elbow Taught Creative Writing? Other scholars who shaped my thinking about teaching writing and creative writing were Lad Tobin, who has looked carefully at the personal in composition teaching, Wendy Bishop, who also crossed what she called the “line” between composition and creative writing and who called specifically for a study of the personal side of our teaching, and Patrick Bizzaro, who explored his own responses to student poetry.

What books – either for work or for pleasure – are you reading at the moment?
For pleasure, I’m reading Eighty Acres by Ronald Jager, a memoir about growing up in the same community in Michigan in which I grew up but about ten years earlier. I’m enjoying ways his experience resembled mine but also seeing how much difference ten years made. I’m also reading—more for my work as a teacher of writing—Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which is subtitled, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. She—and my own observations—persuade me that students now are profoundly influenced by having grown up with personal media—cell phones, texting, instant messaging, video and computer games, personal networking. Since middle childhood they’ve been so constantly in touch with so many people so much of the time that few had time during that long-dreaming time for the deep and wide reading that give us our richest experience of language. As a result, when they do read, they sample a text rather than undergo a real journey of reading. Further, few have time for the solitude and contemplation that seem to me to be necessary for good writing. Here’s another illustration of how much can change in a decade.

What do you think you might have done if you hadn’t pursued a career in academia?
I’m a learner, so there are many other things I could have pursued such as architecture, law, technical writing, and counseling. No regrets, though. I’ve said that the classroom is where I’ve most often felt at home.  At its best, it’s a place of open dialogue, humans engaging with other humans in ways that enable each to become what he or she most needs to become. When that happens, the classroom a good place to be.