Creative Writing in the Classroom: Well Worth the Work, Part I

A while back, my family took to watching archeology-related shows on PBS, during which our then-five-and-a-half, Lukas, sat spellbound at all of the bones, treasures, and assorted old stuff that was unearthed and put on display for viewers; after which, without any prompting from his teacher-parents, he stated rather matter-of-factly that “When I grow up I want to be an archeologist.” You can imagine my joy at the news because this same thought came to me, though much later in my life (I was in junior high school when I decided this same line of work suited me). Nobody ever asked me then what I wanted to be when I grew up, but if they had that’s what I would’ve answered.

Back then, though, the last thing on my mind that I would want to be was writer. In those days it didn’t occur to me that someone would want to be an author. Why would anybody choose that as their job? We all wrote essays and book reports in class, so we knew first-hand the hassle writing was. But to do it as a job, like my father worked for a paving company for upwards of 12 hours a day? The thought never crossed my mind. Of course I knew there had to have been someone jamming words together into sentences into paragraphs into chapters into books. I wasn’t dense. But the materials we read in class were nothing more than texts we were assigned to plod through. They were by Ray Bradbury, whoever in the universe he was; Guy de Maupussant, whose name I had problems pronouncing and as for his masterpiece, “The Necklace”—quelle horreur for a young middle grader; and O. Henry with his silly trick endings. But to me, a student, they were nothing more than names on book covers. I read them because they were required of me and I wanted the high grades. The authors were long dead, or, if they were still living (which I had no way of knowing, really, and no desire to find out), they were from faraway places like London or New York City, all strange and exotic and inaccessible to a boy from deep South Texas. Nevertheless I read them. They would help me become an archeologist. That is, until I discovered the tedium of the dig lasting between several months to years, with the likely possibility that I may not uncover anything of great significance. I’ve got no memory of it, but I must have changed my tune quick because when I applied for university a few short years later, I checked graphic design for my major, not archeology or anything else connected to science or history. But that didn’t fit me either. Nor did accounting, journalism, or publishing.

Author, then, if it entered my mind (which I’m positive it didn’t) was for others to take up as a vocation. It was for the leisured, the monied, the educated. None of which I was. In high school I was required to write two fictional pieces, for which I received As, but even so I didn’t entertain the notion of myself as would-be writer. (On a side note, I’ve kept both stories, now hidden away in some unmarked box in the deepest, darkest corner of our garage, buried there because I realize now they are horrible and cheesy. As far as stories go, embarrassingly so.)
It wasn’t until I was in my second year of college that I granted myself the permission to conceive of myself a writer-in-training. Not a writer, mind you, but one merely in the making. With years of training ahead of me still if I so chose this course. I had no assurances of success, only of hard work and certain rejection. Even so, I chose the path that would require of me much. Ultimately, argues author Nicholas Delblanco, “the definition of a writer is, simply, ‘one who writes’” (135). This is not to say that the simple act of my putting pen to paper automatically earned me the right to call myself “writer.” Like I said before, as early as high school I wrote, but I wasn’t a writer. To be able to call myself a “writer” would take more than scribbling a story down in a notebook, pounding my chest when I’d finished a draft, and pronouncing myself so. “What it comes down to,” writes Delblanco, “both at the end and in the beginning is work….work and work and work” (135). He likens the process of becoming a writer to a medieval cadre: after apprenticing himself to a master-craftsman for some time, the apprentice turns journeyman laborer, and eventually, having learned what he can at this second level, he becomes master-craftsman himself (124).

Such a master is short story writer Raymond Carver who says, “There has to be talent” (87). Cynthia Rylant agrees: “…writers are born with the word in their blood and the plain truth of it is not everybody can be a writer” (18). Nonetheless, a writer writes. Those with talent, she proposes, belong in an altogether different “room entirely,” Van Gogh’s room she calls it, where would-be authors are about the work of writing: they “are talking about art, about thinking art and creating art and being an artist every single day of one’s life” (19). Delblanco’s argument that creative writing takes “work and work and work” and Rylant’s notion that writing consists of “talking about art” and talking “about thinking art and creating art” take time and dedication on the beginning writer’s part, time that we educators in the classroom setting don’t seem to have free chunks of.

In Texas, where I live and teach, our curriculum is governed in education by the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Throughout children’s academic careers, they are expected to write creatively. As early as kindergarten, students are required to write “to tell a story and put the sentences in chronological sequence” and will accomplish this by “dictate[ing] or writ[ing] sentences” (The State of Texas, “110.11. English Language Arts and Reading, Kindergarten,” 14.A). Not much changes between then and 12th grade. As per the TEKS for English IV, “Students write literary texts to express their ideas and feelings about real or imagined people, events, and ideas. Students are responsible for at least two forms of literary writing. Students are expected to: (A)  write an engaging story with a well-developed conflict and resolution, a clear theme, complex and non-stereotypical characters, a range of literary strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense), devices to enhance the plot, and sensory details that define the mood or tone; (B)  write a poem that reflects an awareness of poetic conventions and traditions within different forms (e.g., sonnets, ballads, free verse); and (C)  write a script with an explicit or implicit theme, using a variety of literary techniques” (The State of Texas, “Chapter 110.34”). Nowhere in this document does it state that educators must dedicate a specific amount of time to teach literary or creative writing, how to fit it into their lesson plans, or that when they teach “literary writing” that they need to do much more than to touch on genre and devices at a very superficial level. Educators, in general, are not trained in teaching creative writing, and the responsibility of ensuring that their students pass one state-mandated exam or another is foisted on their shoulders, so who has time to meet this writing standard other than to give it a passing nod?

Admirable though it is that students are challenged to write creatively, even minimally, Rylant says in essence that a different kind of writing involves its very own approach (19). It requires a mindset modification, from writing academically to writing creatively. It entails a significant shift in writing gears. But students cannot go it alone, nor can they do it with only a surface knowledge of the craft. The implication in Rylant’s article is that teachers must accompany their students as they step out of one room and into this other.

To Be Continued...

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