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

For a few semesters I have taught a graduate level class called Creative Writing for the Classroom Teacher. For those several weeks, I ask my students (a few of them working teachers; some future educators) to consider that the teaching of expository writing and creative writing call for different methodologies. Though the purpose of both forms is to communicate a message to the reader, that which is communicated is different. One’s aim is to tell it true factually, the other’s is to tell it true. One relies on verifiable evidence, while the other relies on authenticity. So it makes sense that that which the author sets out to tell dictates how it’s told, therefore how it is written.

So, I ask my students to learn to write in at least “two forms of literary writing.” They write a short short story and a collection of poetry for certain, and if time allows, the script for a short graphic story. I inform them at the outset that ours is not a creative writing class in the traditional sense where we’ll write and workshop our pieces, nor will they be graded on the quality of their short fiction and poems. Though I do expect high quality work, the focus is on pedagogy, that is, how educators take the writing of poetry to their own students.

The class objective is multi-faceted: for my students to experience the very writing that they are expected to teach their own students; to provide them with adequate training for them to more competently meet curricular standards; and to afford them the platform to share their concerns about their feelings of inadequacies as they pertain to the teaching of fiction or poetry writing.

I ask them to talk about themselves as writers, to describe their early educational experiences with creative writing, and to discuss how confident they feel about teaching fiction or poetry writing to their own students today. Following is a sampling of their responses: “I think that the lack of experiences has had an impact on how I do not see myself as a poet or author”; “Basically, my experiences with writing have been pretty weak and generally [include] only the academic writing, formula writing and not real exciting. Stories were not really encouraged”; and “When I think back to my school experience, my opportunities to write creative[ly] in an educational setting were limited.” Those who claim to have been exposed to creative writing wrongly identified journal writing as an example of such. And because they themselves were not trained to teach creative writing, they would either avoid teaching it or simply gloss over it. It is easier to teach a lesson on a specific device (personification, for instance) then have students compose a poem (a haiku is short and sweet thus doable) in which they will include personification. If they do so successfully, they score a high grade and we have met that particular standard. Much easier to do that than to teach fiction or poetry as a craft, in and of itself, with its very own tools that require a specific knowledge. In my own travels into classrooms as writer, I’m sad to report that much of the creative writing that is going on reflects my own students’ reactions above.

Over those same several weeks, I try to instill in my students’ minds the great influence they can be in children’s and young people’s writing lives by simply holding open the door leading to Van Gogh’s room, by making available to them the time to walk around in the shoes of working authors, and by sharing with them the tools of the trade.

To that end, following is a list of the suggestions I offer my students:

1. Distinguish creative writing from all the other writing that students have been doing all their educational careers. For students to begin to conceive of themselves as writers, they must first realize the vastly and categorically dissimilar purposes and approaches to writing essays versus writing stories or poems. If “creative writing” is nothing more to them than filler or another task set before them like all the others, they will never get what it means to be a writer, a poet, a playwright and instead consider creative writing nothing more than an instrument belonging solely in an academic setting. Students will have missed out on the opportunity to think that perhaps they, too, might want to contribute their version of the Body Electric that is our great nation and the part that they’ve played in forming it. Instead, they will complete the acrostic, diamante, or haiku, but will never have thought that they might want to give this writing thing an honest go. Related: though the reading of fiction and poetry plays a large role in one becoming a writer and growing one’s craft, reading literature as such doesn’t help a reader conceive of himself as writer, much less to become writer, and much less to improve his craft (as an example, to have students read The Great Gatsby to write an essay about the meaning of the green light at the end of the pier is different than having them read the same book to discuss how Fitzgerald handles telling about a younger James Gatz and Daisy when neither of them is present in the scene to recount this history: major difference, then, between reading a novel as literature and reading it to learn about the craft. More on this below.)

2. Set apart some serious time for students so to more realistically experience a writer’s life. A two- to six-week unit on creative writing would best serve students and give teachers enough time to introduce them to the craft(s) and, more importantly, to the idea that they have the permission to think of themselves as writers-in-the-works. This is not to say that dedicating two to six weeks to writing short fiction, or six entire weeks to composing poetry can replace actually living the life, but an extended unit will do more than a mini-lesson on onomatopoeia that culminates twenty minutes later in a heroic couplet which utilizes words that replicate sounds. Creative writing involves more than mimicking devices—it is a skill in need of developing. The adage holds true: practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. But practice, especially of the perfect variety, takes time. (Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating for perfection in writing; even the best writers of all time (except for Rylant, apparently) work in drafts. I don't’ necessarily count myself among them, but to help clarify with a personal story: even when my books are published and I’ve worked with more than capable editors over the years, I find myself crossing out what’s on the page, and revising. It’s never perfect. It can always be better. What I am stressing, though, is that time, and enough of it, is crucial to the task.)

3. Provide would-be writers with plenty of mentor texts. If you are teaching fiction, then have handy much fiction as is available, examples of what writers have done successfully or not, but that young writers can learn from either way. I don’t mean how-to manuals that outline how a story’s arc should unfold, where and when the conflict should begin and end, that to get to know a character thoroughly a writer should fill out a character questionnaire, a copy of which, as it happens, seems to always be included in one of the many appendices. Reading must take a different form. Teach them to read a story not for theme or use of symbolism (which writers don’t sit and think about before, during, or after working on a project, so why should apprentice-writers read likewise?) but to see how an author has consciously constructed it. Writers think about how to best develop character, selecting just the right word, how a sentence falls on the page. They think about how to slow down a scene (read how Tobias Wolff in his short story “Bullet in the Brain” does exactly this expertly) or speed it up (for wonderful examples of this read Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty for his more than effective use dialogue and action). When I’ve experienced pacing issues in my own writing I’ve revisited either of these two works by these master-craftsmen, to study again what exactly they’ve done in their storytelling to slow it down or speed it up. This will take some doing because for umpteen years these students have been taught formulaic writing, for the most part, and worse, formulaic reading. They’ve learned how to read for the test: even my own sons who are at this point in elementary school know about underlining “key” words and phrases, circling names and dates, etc. This is exactly what we want to avoid: because when my sons grow up they will think that in order for them to write an effective story or a poem they must require a formula. (As a side note, non-fiction or expository writing of any sort, if it’s any good, is not formulaic. Side note two: dedicating this much time and energy to teaching fiction and or poetry will likely not improve a child’s grades on state-mandated exams, though the benefits will most certainly be greater for the child than this school or that being able to decorate the fence surrounding it with Styrofoam cups informing the world of passers-by that this school or that one is recognized by the state for scoring what it deems good enough, never mind how environmentally unfriendly those cups are. Side note three: above I mentioned exposing would-be writers to poorly written mentor texts as well: if they are bored reading it, why on earth would they want to imitate it? If a poem is overly-melodramatic, let’s say, and weak as a result, take the time to teach why they need to try hard as they will to avoid the same and then teach them how to use melodrama well. If another poem uses too many adverbs (and I argue that one is too many), jump on the opportunity to teach them to show don’t tell, or, conversely, where telling does come in handy. We can never throw away an opportunity. Ever.)

To Be Continued...

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