The following meditation is from a talk on the occasion of the presentation of the Whiting Writers’ awards:
SOMETIME IN THE early 1950s, for two years running, I taught creative writing at the summer session of the Washington Square branch of N.Y.U. . . . I was uneasy about teaching creative writing for a number of reasons, one of which was that I’ve never been sure that it is something that can really be taught—for better or worse, I don’t think anybody ever taught it to me anyway—and another that I had absolutely no idea how to teach it right if it was. But my main uneasiness came from somewhere else. Suppose, I thought, that by some fluke I did teach it at least right enough so that maybe a couple of people, say, learned how to write with some real measure of effectiveness and power. The question then became for me what were they going to write effectively and powerfully about? Suppose they chose to write effective and powerful racist tracts or sadistic pornography or novels about warped and unpleasant people doing warped and unpleasant things? Or, speaking less sensationally, suppose they used the skills I had somehow managed to teach them to write books simply for the sake of making a name for themselves, or making money, or making a stir. It seemed to me and still does that to teach people how to write well without knowing what they are going to write about is like teaching people how to shoot well without knowing what or whom they are going to shoot at.
– Originally published in The Clown in the Belfry