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Poet Teaching Rhetoric: How Creative Writing Informs Academic Writing — By Mariya Deykute

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

A few months ago, while on home leave in New York, I was chatting to a fellow writer who was finishing an MFA program. We talked about life after the MFA, cats, existential despair -- the usual. “But what will I do now?” He asked. “You could teach.” I ventured. “Well, yes. But I don’t want to teach comp. Everyone is teaching comp. It’s just a waste of time, isn’t?” I got defensive. “Why?” “Well, there’s just no poetry to it.”

We talked for a bit longer (mostly, about the cats). The conversation stuck with me, though, and I found myself thinking. Why? Was I feeling defensive because I agreed with him, but didn’t want to admit it? Was there really no poetry to what I do, day in and day out? Should there be? Then I realized the real issue was the itch of words unsaid. I didn’t explain to him that to me, teaching rhetoric and composition felt like an organic extension of writing poetry, that the two felt like two springs that fed the same river rather than a a boring irrigation channel (necessary, but not scenic) that diverted life-giving water from a pristine stream. His words stuck with me because in the moment, I couldn’t make a convincing argument.

This bothered me. I teach students how to make arguments, after all.

Over the days that followed I found myself arguing with him in my head. In my head, I was deeply eloquent. I would tell him that many of the skills we foster in the MFA workshop transcend creative writing. The ability to navigate difficult, dense text. The ability to appreciate tone, internal logic, allusions, syntax. The ability to create a text that works, whether as a speech, as an essay, as a letter, as a poem.

But then my devious imaginary opponent would say: but Masha, what about the soul? Are you really equating Essay 1 and Macbeth? What about the magic of language, the transcendence, the freedom of it?

I would fumble, but recover, and may be concede a bit, graciously. But I would tell him that there is an even more important component to my teaching than concrete skills. The attitudes and values that inform my life as a poet, the ideas about words, the relationship between myself and language are not absent when I’m teaching underlying assumptions.

They are there when we are paraphrasing, or analyzing, or battling conclusions. The idea that words, even a single word, have incredible power. The idea that, as Jonathan Swift put it, our job as writers really is putting “the right word in the right place”. The idea that all writing exists in conversation (with other writers; with oneself). The idea that the writer is an alchemist -- and sometimes, if one works carefully and precisely and long enough, it is just possible to distill lead into gold. It is just possible to communicate, through the infinitely limited tool of tiny rearranged letters, exactly what one wants to say.

I may never have this discussion in real life. But you’ll read it, now. Perhaps, this is one of the great joys of writing, too: the ability to take a frustrating, joyous, important, confusing argument with oneself, write it down, step back, and invite the world to the conversation.

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