Q&A with “Creative Writing Essentials” instructor Aram Mrjoian

Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, critic, and educator. He is teaching an upcoming multi-week class called “Creative Writing Essentials” which starts on October 6. Aram shared some of this thoughts around teaching creative writing with us.

1) This class has a particular emphasis on “artistic decision-making” — can you explain what you mean by that, and why it’s a crucial component of this class?

In my mind, one of the most difficult and important things to learn in creative writing is how to take full ownership of all of your choices on the page. Strong impressions about what makes good or bad writing – from school, personal reading preferences, etc. – are hard to shake, so learning how to navigate feedback and traditional writing advice and taking control of what you really want to say and how you want to say it is key.

Admittedly, this approach might not appeal to every writer, and I do believe in writers’ intuition, but I want to help my students feel confident in their creative choices and know that they have the agency to revise and respond based on their individual artistic goals. This is to say artistic decision-making is crucial because it’s an essential need for a sustainable writing practice, especially since most of the time writers work in isolation. Whether you’re just starting out or have been writing for years, there’s no easy way to get a sense of when something is finished or how others will receive it. My creative writing essentials class is designed so that students are learning techniques that they can then decide when and how to implement, rather than a sort of paint-by-numbers approach.  

I should say, I’m no pioneer here, and the class will include a lot of readings about this philosophy from writers way smarter than me. In particular, we’ll be reading several craft essays by Melissa Febos, whose work has been integral to my approach to teaching creative writing.

2) How will this class help writers subvert and overcome some of the traditional creative writing methods?

Through my own workshop experiences, I’ve found traditional creative writing advice can sometimes be reductive and problematic. There comes a point where you can only hear the same formulaic recommendations so many times, especially when they’re baked in to prove some level of superficial critical expertise. Workshop gets pretty boring and routine when all anyone adds are safe ideas, different versions of “put this paragraph in scene” or “I’m not sure you’ve earned your ending” yada yada.

To be clear, these suggestions can be very useful, and are mostly offered with the goal of helping improve a story or essay, but also they’re frequently more about the reader’s preference than the writer’s vision. In my class, I aim as much as possible to center the writer, talk about opportunities rather than solutions, and to think about things on a scale. In other words, each writer can choose to ignore traditional creative writing advice or lean into it. Tons of successful writers adhere to commercial tropes because they work. Others find ways around them and find success too. We can point to maximalists or minimalists, writers who show or writers who tell, those who have never used an adverb or those who use them flippantly, all those in between, and find examples of fame and mastery in every camp. The main thing is recognizing the choice is individual. That decision isn’t up to me.

3) What are two things you hope writers will take away from this class?

I want writers to leave my class with the understanding there’s not one right way to tell a story. Great work often shirks our expectations, but that usually comes from meticulous revision and artistic awareness. The main thing for me is creative agency. I hope by the end of the course writers have the agency to confidently talk about their work, agency to revise with patience and precision, and agency to selectively take feedback. If writers complete the course and tell me the two things they took away are a sense of authority to make small and large changes in their writing, as well as strategies for rewriting and revising, I’ll be very happy indeed!

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