Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A few notes on teaching intro to creative writing

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.

Lit classes should be concerned with reading "great works" of literature. In my experience, creative writing classes often find themselves in an awkward place between emphasizing what the instructor likes from the present and works that have generally been considered great in the past, without much concern for what students might actually want to write themselves. I've got a lot of ground to cover, as intro at NMSU requires three genres (in my case fiction, poetry, and plays) but the idea of my reading list is to survey a broad range of times, styles, and genres in writing, with some extra weight on currently working writers, in order to engage students in a literary conversation they will find not only engaging and accessible, but urgent and open to their contributions. Thus our first readings in fiction will be from The Things They Carried, but we will quickly move on to Daniel Wallace, Shirley Jackson, Brian Evenson, and eventually writers chosen from online magazines by the students themselves. We'll spend four weeks on Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai.

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."

This will lead, I think, to an eclectic but powerful style of reading and thinking about writing. Students, rather than searching for a way to construct the ideal text, will be required to construct their ideal text. The question of how pleasures and intensity can be found in a work is, though not really a system for the production of any sort of art, my preferred framework for understanding all art. How can we be awesome? How can we be more awesome?

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?


  1. This is a great post, Mike. It inspired me to write about it on HTMLGIANT because I think I disagree with your prioritizing reading over writing. Still, you say great things all around and gave me a lot to think about this evening.

  2. Hi Mike, I came across your blog from HTMLGIANT (I'll be adding it to my blogroll). I read this post before I read Roxane's. You have a lot of great ideas here, but I have to agree with Roxane. If I was a student in a creative writing class (and I have been), I would feel a bit peeved if the focus wasn't writing. Of course, reading is essential, but I don't think a class should be more about reading than writing.

    For an Intro class, I would think that the most important thing would be to encourage writers, and give them some general information. If I hadn't studied creative writing before, I might be slightly crippled by studying in depth how good published writers are. I would probably just end up thinking 'My God, I'll never be this good!'

    As Roxane says in her post at HTMLGIANT, I think getting new writers into the habit of writing, without fear, is more important that making them good readers.

    I really like your idea of joining in with the exercises and positioning yourself as a collaborater rather than a lecturer. I also like that you're going to try and teach new writers to trust their own judgement. I'd be careful, though, as if they are new writers, they are going to want some level of leadership and authority from you. I'm sure it will be a tricky balance to get, and I'd be very interested to follow your teaching through this blog.

    I'm also not sure about the grade being soley about effort. From a student point of view, I'd still like to know if I wrote well. Perhaps you could introduce a weighted mark on these two things? That's what I would do if I were to teach.

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts. I've been a student of creative writing, and I'm interested in teaching it one day, too. I'll follow your blog with interest.

    And good luck!

  3. Thanks for your comments, Sophie! I appreciate them.

    One thing to keep in mind here is that this is an hour and fifteen minute class. I've taught fifty-minute classes up until now, and in my experience getting students to talk about a book or other reading for that long even when we have a clearly established critical framework and goals is extremely difficult. What I'm imagining will happen here is that we'll spend as much of the first fifty minutes as possible on any given day (with some variation) talking about the book, and that this will gradually shade into discussions of our own work, with 25-40 minutes of class being devoted to group and individual discussion of our writing exercises. And the discussion of the works will always be about writing them. So I think there's more emphasis here on writing than is immediately obvious.

    I think you're right there is a risk of crippling students with fear that they'll never be as good as what they read. Here I hope my personality will help -- I don't have any fears of the sort for them or myself (at least in the classroom) and hopefully that will help them feel safe.

    It's true that they will want authority. Probably I'll end up giving in and giving them too much, if anything. It's a tendency I have to watch in myself.

    I'll consider your point about the grading. My experience has been that students feel safer when they know their creative output won't be graded for quality, but maybe I'll ask them if that's really true.

  4. Definitely #2. My best writing/reading classes featured reading lists that, although spotted with a few misses, were comprised mostly of underknown but brilliant books. Students will get the canon anywhere, but they're less likely to get the weird, independent, etc. anywhere but in a writing course.

  5. Hard to teach creative writing... You can explain main principle and ideas, to show great examples to follow and inspire and get zero results. Teacher cannot teach, actually. He or she is in power to propel and cheer. Strong desire and hard work of trainee - that's what's important.