This semester I'll be teaching an intro to creative writing class at NMSU. I am conscious of the possibility this will be the only class in writing I ever get to teach. I want to make it great. At the same time, I hope to experiment with approaches to CW pedagogy that I think will improve upon the standard strategies. I'll be posting here throughout the semester as I learn from the experience, sharing what I do with my students and how the semester progresses. (I think also that Tracy will share some of her thoughts, as she'll be teaching a fiction workshop this semester.) For now, here are a few of the premises I'm working from in planning the class:
1. Intro to CW should be more about ways of reading than ways of writing.
There are essentially two goals in an intro class: waking students up to the possibility that they might enjoy writing, and teaching them a critical vocabulary through which they might become better readers in their own lives and, potentially, in future (workshop-oriented) classes. It seems to me that the best way to accomplish both of these goals is to emphasize reading over writing. If they're going to be great writers, they'll need to be great readers first. And if they don't ultimately decide to go on writing, as most of them won't, they'll still benefit in the long term from skillful, broad, and deep reading. If they do go on to workshop, they'll need to be skillful readers to help each other. If they don't, it won't hurt any. And of course the main way to find out if you want to write is to see what other people are writing.
We will do writing prompts, but those will take up less time in class and out of class than our (considerable) course of readings.
2. Reading in an intro course is not about introducing students to canonical works, but giving them a broad survey of what's happening (and what's happened) in writing.
Poets will include Hart Crane, but also Saul Williams (including his rap) and Abraham Smith, whose book Whim Man Mammon will be our primary poetic text and first longform reading.
3. As that reading list may suggest, I think intro reading should be challenging.
There is a natural tendency to assume beginning students will be bored by or incapable of appreciating the writers we love most. I think this is a mistake, and I find it condescending. Students will be most engaged when their instructor is most engaged, and while it might be a mistake to start them off with Finnegan's Wake, ferinstance, I don't see a way to engage people in writing except to show them what they can accomplish. It's not that I need them to produce or aspire to a certain kind of art, but I do think you've got to show them greatness and complexity if you want them to think of writing and reading as something worth real time in their lives.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think reading on the next level should be more manageable -- when you want students to start mastering small bits of technique, you've got to break it down into more recognizable pieces. But intro is, as I see it, largely about provocation, about opening up, about imagining potential. If sometimes the students feel frightened by the work they read, or intimidated, that's all for the better; we should sometimes be scared of our own potential, because this is the only way to understand how much we really have.
4. I am not interested in promulgating a coherent theory of literature or writing.
In fact I aim to do something like the opposite. I'll write another post explaining this in more detail, but I don't find it useful when instructors attempt to create one unifying theory of art. I can come up with my own ideas about what writing is -- what I need from them is practical advice about how to do what I'm doing better, and also opportunities for doing other things. My idea is to focus on how writers create different pleasures in reading -- the pleasures of character, of structure, of language, of plot, and so on -- and how we can create and intensify those pleasures in our own work. Each discussion of each text will come from the open-ended question of what brings us pleasure in reading it -- not so much "what makes it work" as "what makes it great."
5. I'll do the work the students do, and they will see my work.
I think writing instructors derive a lot of authority from creating mystification around their own writing, and also often forget to foster a discourse that they themselves would find beneficial as students. They practice authoritarianism when they should be collaborators. As such I will do all the exercises I assign my students, and when they share their work, I will share mine. I'll talk about my writing with them. I'll share the frustrations and what I know about how to get past them. If they can imagine me as a perfect source of knowledge, I will be less useful to them. If they understand that there is no point of mastery, they will better understand the work of writing and reading, and they will learn more. I don't want my students to substitute my judgment for their own.
6. Students can fail this class.
While harsh grading for its own sake is a plague on the CW course on those rare occasions where it crops up, I do expect students to treat writing with the same respect they would treat biology, chemistry, or law, as a legitimate field of knowledge and expertise to be studied diligently. Students will be graded on reading, participation, and not success, but effort in their writing. Not everyone will get an A.
I will advise those who took the course in hopes of an easy A to withdraw.
How would you teach CW? How have you done it in the past? Have you had a particularly effective instructor?