Prospective Creative Writing Students Should Submit a Portfolio

I wasn't an art major as an undergraduate, but I had always liked drawing and thought a class would be fun. However, when I tried to register, I was denied. Art classes were only for art majors, and to become an art major I needed to submit a portfolio. At the time I was angry at such elitism, but today I understand and appreciate my exclusion. At most universities, art classes are restricted in this way. Creative writing should do the same.


Early in my semester I give an assignment called Great Writers are Great Readers. I give everyone in the class a 10-page handout listing "the greatest books ever," which I tell them is a purposefully incomplete and arbitrarily organized list. Their assignment is to highlight every book they have read and then write an essay reflecting on what the highlighting reveals about them as a reader.


Almost every semester I gave this assignment, one student came up to me after class and confessed they had not read a single book on the list. Not one. This was, and still is, hard to fathom. This was a 3000-level course for juniors--for creative writing majors--and I purposefully included all the public school standards like Slaughterhouse-Five, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, and so forth, as well as popular YA novels. Usually what students discovered through the exercise was that they only read YA novels except those assigned for school. It's usually a dose of reality and they realize they need to mature as readers. But somehow, more than one college junior had avoided reading anything at all, even for school. Did they read at all, I wondered.


After talking with them I found the answer was no, they did not read. Then why were they taking a creative writing class? I still don't know. I'm not sure they knew. All of them were male, and two were ex-military and interested in religion. I sensed that these were men whose lives were in transition, who were confused, and perhaps they thought writing would help them sort out their lives.


It came as no surprise that their writing was the worst I had ever seen, with respect to both content and style. Their stories were intellectually immature and stylistically on par with middle and high school students. It was obvious they had never read a novel and had no frame of reference for what prose fiction looked like. They also contributed little to class discussions and were not helpful in workshop.


Had I been allowed to take that drawing class, I would have been like these guys: Ignorant of basic reference points and a vocabulary with which to talk about art. I had no experience--I hadn't even taken a high school art class--and wasn't ready for college-level work. When I was twenty, my ego and impatience prevented me from seeing that.


Undergraduate creative writing courses need to be as restrictive as other art courses, out of respect for the students who are ready for college work and deserve to be with peers with similar skills and experience, but also out of respect for those who are not ready for college-level work, who will be disadvantaged and do poorly. Allowing them into the course is an invitation to fail.


That is not to say that the unprepared student should have no options. I strongly support offering introductory classes for non-majors at the freshman and sophomore levels. But to take third-year classes, students should submit a portfolio of their work. It will be frustrating and anger some, but it is in the best interest of everyone.

--  May 2014