Saturday, November 20, 2010

What we teach when we teach creative writing

Let me share a creative writing success story with you.

I was teaching 273: Creative Writing & Literature, an introductory class where students read analytically and write creatively. We were reading Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory, a book that isn't an easy read at any level. I was having them work in groups with their laptops to look up terms and references, and we were blogging with Craig. Students would ask questions, and he would pop up with answers. Craig is not a pompous guy. When I asked the students what they'd taken away from their exchange with Craig, they responded: "he's like us!" Not what I expected, but a wonderful perception. The poet does not hearken from a different life form; he is one of us.

I've chosen this story, not one about a student's wonderful poem (I get those, too), because many of the successes in my creative writing classrooms--especially on the introductory levels--have less to do with finished products than with perception, what one of my facebook correspondents calls ATTENTION. (My question about what we teach when we teach creative writing elicited a wonderful comment stream on facebook; I'd like to thank everyone who wrote a comment on my wall.) My Foundations of Creative Writing class this past week thought about issues of pedagogy. They were split between those who liked their reading for the week, the experiment-based approach of Hazel Smith's The Writing Experiment. These students took exception to her claim that everyone can be taught to write. One student thought her approach "soulless," and wanted a course that included a basis for compassion.

I began teaching creative writing in the mid-1990s. I was hired as an academic to teach "20th Century Poetry in English," and moved into creative writing several years later. At the outset, I too was worried that creative writing could not be taught, or that the less-than-wonderful-writing I was bound to harvest would somehow influence my own, according to some odd contagious lack of magic. But I've come to love teaching the subject (insofar as it is one), but perhaps not for the reasons I would have expected.

And why have expectations? The terms we use in talking about writing are so ambiguous (even in their earnestness) that they are as hard to hold onto as a greased pig on a pole. Even the seeming certitude of a word like "craft" slips out of its holster as soon as you start looking at poems whose content is cliche. Words like "emotion" and "heart" and "expression" seem to make sense until you use them in a sentence in class to a group of 18-22 years olds, or even to the occasional senior citizens who grace the classroom. The problems are manifold. Here's a list of a few of the problems I (as everywoman CW Pedagogue) have faced:

--Students have not read much literature, poetry, fiction, or drama.

--Students have a notion that creative writing equals "freedom of expression."

--Students themselves believe they are not writers and cannot be taught to be writers.

--Students think that writing is about a very limited set of subjects. In poetry these might be feelings--love, depression--or family or vague ideas.

--Students think in blocks of words, phrases rather than in images, details, particulars, sounds, syllables.

--On the upper level, student assumptions are stronger, harder to contest; there's a lot of resistance. Such resistance can be good or it can simply get in the way of playing around.

--Students have forgotten how to play.

That last item is crucial. As any creative writing teacher knows, students are scared. And why not be? The semester is only so long, and risks often lead to worse grades than do tame attempts to fulfill the assignment and move on to another. For me to say "take risks!" is also to suggest the possibility of jumping off the cliff of assessment, which is also a necessary mystery to creative writing students. "How will you grade our work?" is one of the FAQs.

So if I think through how I present creative writing (at almost every level, but in different ways), I try to do the following:

--Break the ice. Start from an exquisite corpse and keep playing. Have students make collages, get on the floor with scissors and glue, do Bernadette Mayer exercises several times a week, limber up. Make sure the class is loose, laughs a lot. Set that model of compassionate action, if not by approving of everything you read. Challenge students to address their favorite subjects in new ways.

--Begin with the material, which is language. Content is very important in creative writing, but don't start there. Writing block lurks around every corner, or its false antidote, the cliche.

--Move into content by using themes. I've taught several courses in Poetry & the City or Poetry & Place, which channel students into working on subjects they think they know but do not. Having them write about their neighborhoods tends to prove to them that they are not paying close enough attention to what is in front of them at all times.

--Have them read books. Not poems, but books of poems. Or novels. Or memoirs. Something whole, not chopped up. A book that shows writers as perceivers with stamina. Have them write about the reading (on a blog, say) and talk about it at length. Break them into groups and have them "teach" the reading. Insist that they google words they don't know. (I have been putting off a student the past couple of weeks who asks me over and again what the term "eminent domain" means. Every time she asks, I tell her to look it up.)

--Have them talk to authors, however they can, either on Skype or on a blog or in person. Direct contact makes it clear to students that writers are people. It's sometimes hard for them to realize this, when they've been told how great Shakespeare and Milton were. Those guys are dead, and besides, dey wen nevah talk da kine.

--Have them write about familiar subjects in vocabularies not usually associated with them. OK, write a love poem, I might say, but use the vocabulary of a social science class or physics or car mechanics. Write a poem about feeling badly, but never tell us that's how you feel except through the language of the Hawai`i Tourist Bureau. Ah, how cliches can be turned on end and used to good effect! Have them write in other languages they know, are learning, or have partially forgotten.

--Have them walk around the halls of the classroom building, or around their neighborhoods, finding language on the walls and then return to the class to write with these found words. Have them go to a pond on campus and take notes. Tell them to go sit in a public area and eavesdrop. Make sure they realize that all language is up for grabs, not just narrow bands of it that include flowers and clouds.

--Make sure you explain that writing can be offensive, but needs to make a claim on the reader that is not merely shock value. This one's tough, but I learned the hard way in a class of young men who all seemed to want to write about rape and violence. Limits are ok; you just need to explain them and then hold fast.

--Be prepared to argue, especially with graduate students, and to meet resistances. You will remember feeling your own resistances. You still have them, but cannot hold them against your students. If a student wants to write out of a very personal point of view, don't shut him or her down, but suggest ways to speak to an audience of more than one. Even if we write "only for ourselves," we want readers and those readers are not ourselves, so we need to touch something in them that is not ours. That place of not being ours is also sacred.

Above all, since not all of your students will continue to write, make sure that they use their semester with you to discover how to look at the world, really attend to it. (An attendance policy is also recommended.) If all you do is have them write a haiku in which they see--actually see--a frog or a turtle or a lily pad or someone's facial expression, and then make a quick shift to abstract statement, one that may be quite amusing, then you have done something. Then he's not like you so much as you are also like him!

1 comment:

Piper said...

Thank you, Susan, for your grace, wisdom, and joyful compassion. I've not only learned a great deal about the foundations of creative writing this term, but also methods of balancing a creative/academic/family life, and myriad ways to build creativity into a classroom. Thank you.