Poets & Writers

The Infallible Continuum

JOHN Steinbeck famously asked a group of creative writing students on the first day of a writing class, “Why are you here? Why aren’t you sitting at home writing?” Questions that imply an uncomfortable quandary. I wonder why an adventurous student didn’t throw the question right back at him: “Why did you lure us into this class with the promise of teaching us to write?”

Because I’ve been teaching fiction writing for many years now, I try to avoid worrying too much about whether writing can be taught. “That way madness lies,” as King Lear said when he was anxious to avoid thinking the unthinkable. The subject comes up on a distressingly regular basis, however, and studied opinions can be found everywhere on the internet, many of them unconvincing, others potentially troubling. This morning I spent a couple of hours browsing through them when I should have been writing.

There was disagreement and confusion everywhere, and I found myself contemplating opening a sanatorium in the Catskills for creative writing teachers suffering from a case of impostor phenomenon, as if the condition appears out of the wallpaper like a malevolent ghost. The sanatorium would have an imposing view of the hills, with turkeys and woodchucks and bluebirds on the lawn and what used to be called “cure chairs” lining the porch, where doubtful scholars would perpetually take their ease. All the food would be bland, as would the books in the library. A resident ghost would wander the corridors in an old bathrobe, alternately moaning and laughing. The sanatorium would have many of the earmarks of a writers colony or an ant colony, except that no one would do any work. I’m pretty

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