Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Creative Writing (in) Composition

My colleague Daphne Desser invited me to be on a panel later today about using creative writing in the composition classroom (other panelists will be Brandy Nalani McDougall, Tom Gammarino and Steve Goldsberry). It occurs to me that I have used less creative writing in my English 100 classroom in recent years than I did when I started teaching. Perhaps this is a signal to remedy that jolt toward the utterly analytical.

I wear two very different hats when I teach comp and creative writing. In the one classroom I tell my students that they can leave no opening or ambiguity in their writing; it is not my job to work to understand them. They must deliver the goods, make an argument, explain how it works, offer detail, and then close the thing down with a conclusion that answers the "So what?" question. In the other, I ask students to leave openings for their readers, to make them do the work; I tell them the poem must provide an analogue experience. I often ask them to chop the endings off their poems, those places where they try to tell the reader what just happened, lest they missed the point.

So why link these two kinds of writing at all, then? Probably because both kinds of writing require precision of observation and notation. If you cannot tell someone how to get from one place to another (UH to Revolution books, for example), you can't expect her to be able to argue or imagine her way there, or to buy the books for your course. And, if you are someone who has trouble setting pen to paper, key stroke to pixel, then your troubles are not solved simply by shifting genres. And, if you can't shift genres, styles, aesthetics, then you won't become a better writer.

Observation and elaboration

--Give your students each a postcard of a Hawaiian fish. Ask them to write detailed descriptions of their fish (without using its name!). Use plain language and be as exact as possible. Collect the postcards and redistribute them. Ask students to read their descriptions; the student who holds the image of the fish described then speaks up.

--Have them revise their descriptions by using metaphors to describe their fish. Each part of the fish should be compared to something else in the world. (I'm always astonished at the ways astronomers and physicists describe the world for those of us who do not speak their technical languages; invariably, they pull the arrows of metaphor out of their conceptual quivers.)

--Now rewrite the fish paragraph in the voice of one of the following: a fisherman, a cook, a naturalist, an ecologist, an artist, a child, a Martian, etc. This gives a sense of how one's perspective changes one's writing, one's way of perceiving the world.

Perspective and argument: Place

The question remains: how to use these skills of observation toward an argument? Given that students often have a hard time generating prose and constructing an argument, collage work can provide a stepping stone toward the full-throated original essay. Here are some steps toward an essay on place. Assignment: compose a collage about the place you are from. Use three points of view to create this collage. Reading: Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue, which combines memoir (in Pidgin), research paper (in standard English) and documentation. Here are possible viewpoints from which to work:

--Ask students to go take photographs of the place they live. Advise them that these photographs must not be touristic, but must show the place as they live in it. Have them post these photos on a class blog, along with short captions.

--Ask students to take TheBus through the place they are from and to take notes on what they see and hear.

--Have students do research on the place they live. They can go to resources like Sites of Oahu, which gives detailed histories of the land, and to local libraries and archives. They can xerox relevant documents for future use.

--Ask students to interview a family member about the place they live in. This works best for students whose grandparents live with them, for example, so that there are family histories in constant circulation.

--Have students write autobiographical pieces on their "small kid time" in the place they are from.

Once they've composed these pieces, each of which could be an essay on its own, ask them to make an argument about the place they're from, and to present that argument by cutting and pasting the resources they have on hand. They can clip from interviews, documents, photographs, descriptions. They can do this either on paper or on the computer, depending on their preference.

Hearing and Thinking about Language

Developing an ear in students who have not heard much language read above a dull monotone is difficult. I have students do a lot of in-class reading, and stop them when their voices flat-line, demanding that they put some energy into execution. The best way to develop an ear is to read and to watch Shakespeare videos, but one can also give in-class style exercises.

--I was about to write that I can never find Raymond Queneau's book on style when I want it, but now I see it's a google book. So here it is! [Oops--this is just a preview.] The very idea of this book is marvelous, that you can take a simple story and write it dozens and dozens of times in different ways. It reminds me of Bernadette Mayer's writing exercises, which stretch student poets out like taffy as they strive to follow arbitrary rules like "write in the mood least congenial to writing." That Queneau's story is about taking a bus means that you could pair this exercise with the bus travel element of the collage piece. And you could also ask students to read the forthcoming "map" from Kahuaomanoa Press, which contains writing about TheBus.

--Translation exercises are wonderful. Have students read a poem by Lois-Ann Yamanaka from Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and then translate it into standard English. Or give students a poem by Ezra Pound ("The Return") or any other canonical writer and ask them to translate it either into other words or into Pidgin, Hawaiian, Japanese, any language they know or are learning. Then ask them to translate it back. Questions of vocabulary and diction come up inevitably and often with striking humor in these exercises.

NATHAN KAGEYAMA (from Tinfish #3)

Stay Come

Spock em, dey stay come; auwe, spock da scayed
Movaments, an' da luau feet,
Stay all twis' an' kooked
Walkin' all jag!

Spock em, dey stay come, one afta da udda
Scayed, haf moe moe--haf not
Wen even spook da snow all white lidat
An' soun' stay in da bareeze
An' haf stay turn da udda way;

Was da "kooks-wit-wings,"

Kahunas wit da flyin' kine Nikes!
Dey get de silva dogs
Smellin' da hauna eya!

Ai sos! Ai sos!
Dey was da fas' mokes

Dose da shaap-smellin';
Dose was da obake of blood

Cruisin' on da leash,
Shmoke dose leash-buggas

[after Ezra Pound's "The Return"]

I'll have more to say after the panel conversation this afternoon, but now I have something to say there!


Some highlights of the panel, after the fact:

Tom Gammarino read and talked his paper,"Class Borders: Creative Writing in Freshman Composition," using the word "robust" to talk about the separation between composition and creative writing in the academy. He also talked about "torturing sonnets."

He had some juicy quotes by composition experts to say that fiction is useless to comp, and that there is no place of CW in composition.

His thesis was that CW does not fit with composition only if you claim that CW is pure self-expression and composition is not. He called this the "self-expressive fallacy." Then he talked about how essays are stories designed to persuade the reader of something.

Steve Goldsberry said he would tell us everything he knows about writing in five minutes. There are three kinds of writing: description, narration and exposition. Writers need to use images from the physical world. Write like you talk. The first rule is to entertain. Sentences are like jokes; the best part comes at hte end. Every title is a poem. Golden fishooks. To make a good title use oxymorons, sounds, messed up cliches, themes like sex, classic phrases. The end of the page must have a cliff hanger. "The naked man"

Brandy Nalani McDougall talked about using automatic writing as a way to release students from their fears of assessment (among other things). She set us up to do four minutes of non-stop writing, during which time she said nine words, including "light" and "sculpted" and "church" and "gravel." She talked about ways students can then supply their own words to the mix, or do the writing on their own, without the prompts. My own free-write started from the fact that my lei (which fell apart throughout the colloquium) was cold, and somehow ended with Hart Crane.

I was last because of my alphabetical challenge. I said what the blog says, above.


Jills said...

Thanks, Susan. Fun read at the end of a long day. Interesting to think about the two hats. I've found I don't really like teaching creative writing, but I do like slipping assignments like these into composition classes, especially developmental pre-comp classes.

Joli said...

Hi Susan - Jolivette here. This post has been really helpful and gear-turning for me as I plan a tutor training course for the fall. Trying to think up some ways to incorporate creative writing in teaching/tutoring writing.
Hope you are well!
aloha, Jolivette

Susan M. Schultz said...

Jolivette! Good to hear from you. Glad you found the post of value to you. We're fine, aside from the budget slashing and faculty losses . . . aloha, Susan