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Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project by Anna Leahy

For my Teaching Creative Writing class, I've been reading Anna Leahy's Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project. In this book, Leahy presents essays written by many writing teachers on a teacher's authority in the classroom, a necessary debate because of the many myths and misinformed ideas about creative writing that exist today and the challenges they create for someone trying to teach the subject. What struck me just now was Nancy Kuhl's first chapter on "Personal Therapeutic Writing vs. Literary Writing." Here, Kuhl's points out that many students have been led to believe that writing is about self-expression or self-discovery and is a useful tool in a self-healing process. The danger, Kuhl points out, is that this type of writing is not fit for an audience. This therapeutic writing serves a completely different purpose than literary writing, and this distinction should be made clear if a creative writing teacher is to avoid grief and be rendered, in essence, entirely ineffectual.

Literary writing is about craft and language. It is an artifical construction. It is something which benefits from much rewriting and the whole point of literary workshops is to critique a piece with the intention of improving it. Therapeutic writing is not about these things, and as such, needs to be judged with completely different criteria. It's goal is not to produce art but to provide insight to the writer. Rewriting is useless. Working through personal problems are the key.

Until I read this, I never really stopped to consider the dichotomy, but now that I have, it seems obvious. I guess the best course of action would be for teachers to set out their goals and make this distinction clearly at the outset of any course (as always, clear communication avoids so many problems bred in misunderstanding). Literary writing is not therapeutic writing. They each serve different purposes and cannot be judged by the other's standards. Make sure everyone in the room knows what type of writing you're talking about before you proceed.

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