Let's Help Each Other Out!

This is a place for creative writing teachers to share idea to be come better teachers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is Anybody Listening?

    With my students, if you write something on the board, underline it three times, and tell them to remember it, they won't remember it.
     That's because they don't take notes. It's creative writing after all. We're here to have fun and be creative, which seems to mean to them at the beginning of the semester--anything goes, free writing, doodle time.
     It could be, since I'm talking about the first class offered here, taken by freshman and sophomores mostly, they weren't required to take notes in high school. Maybe notes don't help when a teacher teaches to the test.
     Notational writing, and being able to listen closely, especially to the ques given my the instructor as to what is essential knowledge, is an important skill they will need to have for many forms of work.
    A friend of mine turns the lights down in the classroom, in part, to prevent students from texting in class. I have never noticed anyone texting, but they could be doing it.
     So I'm going to require students to take notes, and to turn their notes in at the semester, as part of their grade.
    I've tried putting much essential knowledge on handouts, but you can't put everything on a handout. Often they leave them behind. Often they never look at them again, unless you put points on the handout and tie it to how an assignment is graded.  Students need to learn how to listen and concentrate. They need to take notes.  ADD generation they may be, but they can learn to listen and to take notes.
     Listening is such an important skill in this world not only for a career but for interpersonal relations and for being a writer. I can't even turn off listening even when I'm hearing a bad sermon in church. I look around me, and a lot of people have their eyes closed, or eyes glazed, staring off in space.
      Few people seem to be able to listen.  You have to have a few years on you to notice that the gradual decline, but Americans, I personally don't think, haven't been good listeners for a long time. Listening cramps their individuality, their own free expression.  I'm guilty of the crime of not listening at times myself. Who isn't? It's a bit of a challenge to drive, listen to the radio, talk on the cellphone, and pay attention to what my daughter is saying in the back seat.
     Reading--a one media art--just words on the page, no music, no visuals--is another way to teach people to listen. When you read a novel, you are listening to one person talk for a long time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Double Consciousness and the Writer

Watched a documentary about graffiti artists, angry teenagers who now have gallery shows and houses in suburbian these days, and they were discussing their once hostility toward suburbia, calling it "artificial".  What may grate on the young artist about suburbia is its lack of diversity and its isolation from action, from what others are doing.  An artist--including a writer--needs a double conciousness.  Otherwise, they are like the fish who doesn't know it swims in water, in terms of their own culture. Without a rub between you and the culture, there's little to spark creation.

You can start developing a double consciousness by moving into a big city if you grew up in suburbia, by moving to the South if you grew up in the North, by moving to a foreign country, by being aware how your ethnic background makes you different from what is considered "normal".

You also acquire it through age.  With age, you can contrast how it was with how it is now.  You shouldn't  be inconoclastic and turn sentimental, rating the past as always better, but you clearly have a double consciousness.  It may be personally unsettling at times, but it is good for a critical eye on the the world you live in, and for writing creatively.

Double consciousness is, of course, what young writers in creative writing are unlikely to have. So we should be kind and understanding about their first efforts.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

At last they are Stars!

Last Class and Everybody's a Star

At the final exam they turn in a chapbook of their work. Making public is publishing, and now my students are both published and have a book.  A class of 25 has read their work in workshop. That makes it public and makes them published.

At the last class before the final, we have a literary reading. Everybody gets up and reads for 2-3 minutes.  That's short, I know, but this is a class of 25 students and we have only 50 minutes. 

Everyone, for a moment, finds themselves in a nonjudgmental, totally supportive atmosphere, to perform a short work--finally here, at the end of the semester. They've had all semester listening to me, and to their fellow classmates, tell them how to write.

Now they're happily on their own.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Teach Creative Writing?

Once and a while, I have to ask myself this question, to see if I am on the right path. Here's my list of reasons:

1) To help people get in touch with their hearts and souls, and to help them find the important stories they have to tell and to thus find themselves and perhaps help others find themselves.

2) To teach people to be better communicators, both verbally and by writing. Good communication skills are essential to our working lives and our relationships in our private lives.

3) To help people see the power of a group working together through creative writing workshops, so they may use those skills in their lives and have some respect for the work of legislators.

4) To help people begin to think independently and escape, at least in a small way, the limitations of the smaller world they grew up in compared to the bigger world they will eventually move into.

5) To help people to enjoy artistic creation--in creative writing, that would be in the forms of creative writing, such a fiction and poetry.  People take classes in music without ever expecting to become professional musicians.  Many may wish to write as primarily a means of self-expression.

6) To help people to discover and appreciate great writing. I have the least faith in this one, perhaps because my father was so proud that he never read a book after college, and the current generation seems tightly bound to commercial popular culture products. I tend to feel that a passion for reading high quality writing is not often taught, and is usually discovered on one's own, before reaching college.

7) To assist a few students to take up writing as a lifetime calling to benefit society through the wisdom in their writing--and to perhaps make part of a living.  The last goal I list here some may feel to be the primary goal of a creative writing course.  I always have a few students in each class who strongly desire to be writers, and I have had a few succeed. Personally, I don't think one should be a writer unless one is strongly compelled to be a writer. Selling real estate is more lucrative, and just as interesting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Plagiarism in Creative Writing: a Growing Issue

Plagiarism is a growing problem in creative writing. I advise that all teachers put on their syllabus an anti-plagiarism statement so they will be prepared when the problem comes up.

I had a student steal a short story from an internet magazine from the middle east written in English. That was easy enough to catch on turnitin.com, although the student vehemently denied it until I put his story and the copy I'd printed off from the internet on the desk in front of his face.

Requiring the submission of rough drafts, and requiring the students to write autobiographically, are two ways to help prevent plagiarism.

THE NEW PLAGIARISM is the stealing of plots from films and from TV shows. Often plot summaries are taken from internet. Wikipedia has them, for instance.

Stealing plots cannot be detected by turnitin.com.  Also, there are certain motifs in fiction.   If a short story in the Western genre has a faceoff, shootout scene, one can't call that plagiarism. That plot point happens in a lot of Westerns.  Only a human can determine if enough of a plot has been stolen to call it plagiarism.  One must remember also that Shakespeare borrowed plots.

I see a marked decline in reading amongst my students. Writing a short story, even if we read a lot of short stories, continues to mean to them an immitation of a TV show or a movie.  It is plot summaries from these genres that they examine for plots to steal.

This is why I am going to stress, in my beginning creative writing course, WRITING FROM AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL BASE.  I realize the problems inherent in such writing, but it seems to me the most efficient way of preventing plagiarism.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Help! How to Explain?

So, it tends to make for bad stories, when students base their s stories on TV shows.

But how do I explain that is so?

People adapt books into film,

People adapt video games into film.

I can tell them that TV shows are stupid, are not art, are forumlaic, but they love TV, and won't accept that.

Traditional formula genres again

I wanted to open up to the traditional genres of mystery and SF--to be more open minded myself--and aso because there are still pulp magazines out there to publish such short stories in. The may not last much longer.

Unfortunately, the stories I got were poor. The students wrote from TV models, and in spite of my warnings about GI Joe action figure flat characters and conventional plots--well, they gave me just what I warned them against.

So it's back to being Mr. Nasty.  I didn't allow Harlequin romance stories either, but of course I got a few.  Seems like in half the romance stories I get, the guy is called Josh.  I wish they'd call him Lance for the phallic humor involved, or, even better Lance-a-lot.

Maybe next semester I'll tell them they have to tell a story using a plot from Shakesepeare.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Zombie Story

I allowed a student to write a zombie story this semester.  It a sophomoric topic, I know, but I get a lot of sophmores in my creative writing classes, and I need to be more open about other genres of fiction.  He was, he said, going to try to make it more than a yarn and have a significant theme by writing about regimentation and technology.

That's been done a fair amount, I said, but maybe from a zombie perspective you will achieve a fresh view on an old topic.

Well, he completely forgot about his theme, and spent 15 pages in zombie action--arms, heads, and legs falling off, zombies biting humans, humans biting zombies, etc.

The humans were retaking the world, in his story, and the zombies were sad. (That was a cool part) The zombies were used to being in control.  I told him that his narrator, writing in a journal, could be a bit philosophical, and point out that the zombies were the next stage in evolution.  They don't consume much.  If the humans take over the world again, global warming will resume as they quickly reproduce and reestablish consumer culture.

My student said, "Isn't that theme a bit trite."
I said, "No." It's got some irony in it. The dead save the world.

My suspicion is that the student called the theme I suggested trite because he, like many Aggies, does not believe in global warming. We live in a special bubble here.

What do you think, readers?  Trite or not trite?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Class Size Teachng Creative Writing

I have 25 students in my introductory creative writing class at Texas A&M University, College Station.  I can't speak to the class sizes at the other A&M system universities. It would be a good thing to survey.

At the other universities I have taught creative writing--UT/Austin, UT/Tyler, and UT/El Paso, the class sizes were kept to 15.

What a world of difference it makes in the way you can help students with their work and relate to them as human beings.

If you are looking for a creative writing job, be sure to inquire on the size of the intro creative writing classes you will be teaching.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Beware the Power
Once, in my early 30;s, when I had just begun to teach creative writing, I was invited, as part of a CETA Arts program, to run a poetry workshop in a facility for women who had temporarily lost custody of their children for physical abuse.

The moment I started the workshop was the first moment I met the two PhD's in pyschology in charge of this program. We had no previous discussions about what I would do or how creative writing could be of use with these women.

I did an exercise where I had each woman summon, if they could, the emotion of happiness into their body. I then had them tie the emotion to an incident of happiness. I had them visualize where they were, what the place looked like, and who was with them. After, that, I had them write the incident.

Emotions got really stirred up. Some wrote about happiness. But some wrote where the happiness moved to anger.

Afterwards, the two PhD's told me they thought writing was entertainment and I would provide the group with a little rest moment in their therapy. Despite core curriculums in universities, I am amazed at the ignorance of other fields of study among the supposedly educated. I had a friend who lived on Faulkner street who was a PhD and did not know who William Faulkner was. I have read some Freud, Jung, Maslow, Piaget, and others. I know a little about pyschology.

Much more pre-preparation goes into creative writing workshops in unusual settings these days. I worked in women's and men's prisons teaching creative writing workshops cold. I just showed up the days I was supposed to and did my thing.

Yea Workshops, Part One

Well. one hopes by now the students have done sufficient reading of models of good creative writing. One hopes they have learned certain principles from exercises done in class and lectures.  I've held "studios" in my class where they work in class on their stories, using criteria sheets on story writing, and I visit with them.

NOW WE START THE WORKSHOPS.  Our rule is that we must accept the underlying philosophy of each student in his or her story.  If someone writes an atheist story, then our job is not to get into an argument about religion but to help the person make it the best story they can.

We want to say positive, supportive things, to give praise where praise is due, but we also want to give constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is where one not only tells what is wrong, but offers advice on how to fix it.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Forbidding Certain Kinds of Fiction from your Students

Yeah, well, this semester, I was a little more open minded.  I only told them I would not accept: (1) romantic fantasies (they could write on lived romantic experiences,  (2) G.I. Joe stories (they could write on lived war experiences), (3) stories that end in the suicide of the main character.

I get far more romantic fantasies than G.I. Joe stories.  The romantic fantasies, so far, have only been written by women, and usually involve a house in Houston or Dallas. 

These fantasies read like one of the upper levels of hell in Dante's Inferno to me.

I've concluded that some in this college generation of women keep themselves motivated through the stresses of college by romantic fantasy.

Far be it  from me to crush their dreams.  I just don't want to read them as short stories. Despite all my talking, they write them without conflict.  Ha!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lessons in Creative Nonfiction

Jean Braithwaithe, the former director of the MFA program at UT/Pan American who is the creative nonfiction person there, did a presentation on creative nonfiction to my beginning CW class this Friday. With two new books of creative nonfiction coming out early next year, "Saving Sebastian," and "The One True Cat: a Memoir with Cats," I was very happy to learn new things about this umbrella term and the various subgenres that fit under it. Did you know that the script of a documentary film is considered creative nonfiction? I learned was that creative nonfiction outsells literary fiction and poetry combined.

I also learned that rather than lie, you can say, "I don't remember if this happened on the same day for sure or not, but in my mind it did." You can even signal you're going to write a fictional scenario within the creative nonfiction piece, or a fantasy scenario. David Sederis does this.

Jean read from her upcoming book, "Fat," and detailed the motives of a young woman who would turn to throwing up to keep her weight down.  In the part of her memoir published in Sy Syfranky's Sun Magazine, she heartbreakingly detailed the taunting she got as a child for being overweight from both girls and boys.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

You Should Be Afraid

The forgotten French philosopher Sartre--that existentialist dude--claimed what made travel interesting was the element of FEAR.

So it is with the travel of teaching. You go into class never totally in control. You cannot predict 100% what will be the outcome of what you do, unless you decide to play the total crowd pleaser, and, say, take them outside so that can not pay attention all period.

Fear.  And fear is most exciting when you're going into class to try out something new.  How will the attention deficit generation respond this time?

Have you ever written a short story back to front, when you start out knowing what the ending is? I never have. Story writing is a journey of discovery and only the story can generate the ending. I've never been able to impose one out on it before I write, but then my process begins with a feeling and general idea, not with anything more.

But what if you started at the end?  What if you could come up with a super bang up ending, as in Viramontes "The Moths," where the 14 year old holds her dead grandmother like a child in the bathtub while moths fly out of her mouth.  Or like the ending of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find"?

So I am going into class with some super endings for short stories, some that I've made up that may not be very good, and some famous ones like those above.  I am going to have them try writing endings first.

They may hate it.  They idea may not work at all.  That's where the small element of fear comes in. This is a totally untested exercise on my part. Maybe it lives somewhere in a creative writing text I've never read.  If I have time I'll check the indexes of a few when I am at work.

To keep the job interesting, you have to take risks. And what the heck? So what if it doesn't work.

We don't necessarily have to fear fear itself.

A lot of new recipies get thrown in the trash.  Someday soon, the state may require a standardized test at the end of each college course.  Better get your risk taking in soon.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Recipe Way of Teaching

I came to it by way of my scientific parents, the idea to set up criteria for grading, and so providing criteria to students comes naturally to me.  I didn't read about it in any teaching theory. I thought it up on my own.

Two problems present themselves with this system. (1) You can't possibly list all criteria.  You have to tell them you are not listing things they were supposed to learn in high school, and (2) You have to let them know that just doing the things on the criteria list is not enough. There are levels of performance.

It's a recipe way of teaching, but at least they have some idea what you want and you can focus on teaching certain skills with each writing assignment in creative writing, or whatever writing class you are teaching.

Yes, you do sometimes get a good piece of work that doesn't meet any or all of the criteria.  What do you you then?  Me, I tend to forget about the criteria, and give the paper the grade it deserves.  I never had a student complain that I gave too high a grade for not meeting the criteria.

Criteria sheets. You get better work, I think, and you don't dread grading so much. Some may argue that it does not belong in "creative writing," but I've found that those students don't really know what creative writing is.  They think of it as "free writing" and have no idea that creative writing is what leads to movies, novels, plays, etc.

I'm lucky to end up with one of those students remain in my class, if I begin the first day by defining what creative writing is. I have had one pretty good writer who resented criteria and made a big point of it in class. He was voted down by all the rest of the class, who like criteria.  I was able to work with him individually in my office.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

We work hard.

I've just spent most of Sunday grading papers for my three creative writing classes that meet for a little under five hours on Monday.

I wanted to go to the KEOS public radio volunteer jam featuring Ray Wylie Hubbard tonight, but no, I had to read a huge batch of papers handed to me on Friday and read a bunch of short stories from the 2009 O'Henry Prize Stories.

I know I am lucky to have a job. I know I am lucky to have a job that I enjoy. My students generally write well, work hard, and have perceptive things to say.

But don't let anyone kid you. It's hard work being a teacher.

Don't let anyone tell you we get long summer vacations either. Those are periods when we are off salary, unemployed. My political science teacher sold suits in the summer. A creative writing teacher I know works in a dime store in southern Colorado. Another has worked as a driver for a slightly inebriated plumber.

A lot of folks go into administration to get a twelve month salary.

Friday, September 24, 2010

They love Stephen King

With three exceptions, the rest--47 students--outdid themselves in long reader reactions in praise of Stephen King's "The Man in the Black Coat".

I was struck on how much Stephen King's "The Man in the Black Coat" was like the "Cyclops" episode from Homer we'd read earlier in the semester:

1.  Good guy vs. bad guy/ good vs. evil
Homer: Odyseeus vs. Cyclops
King:  kid gone fishin' vs. the devil

2.  Situation of great danger for fishin' boy and Odyseeus, engendering suspense and possible fear not only in the character but the reader

3. Cyclops and the devil having supernatural powers

4. escape of fishin' boy and Odyseeus, defeat of supernatural and the bad

Maybe four thousand years of history from Homer to King, but the same loved fictional pattern.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Like Running Rapids

Too many variables.

Will your class be in a large room or a small room?  Room size, I've found, greatly influences students' abilities to concentrate.  They're much better able to listen closely and write down what you have to say in a large room where there's some space between each student.

In a small room, the heat builds up, the smells build up.  It's like being on a crowded elevator. They get nervous and antsy. I'll shop at a quiet grocery store over the lower priced crowded one, just because  crowds get to me.

Then the personality of each class is different, and the students themselves change from year to year. What worked in the past no longer works with the new crop.

You have to change to best reach the new kind of student you have in front of you.  Today, generally speaking, the student has a shorter attention span, due to the multitasking on electric devices like cell phones and Ipods. They are often people who are used to teachers teaching to the standardized high school exams they have to take (TASP, TAKS).  They like to be told exactly what they have to do to get the grade. They like to be given samples of past work, which is a bit hard because you want to respect the privacy of past students.

Teaching is therefore an adventure. I like to be in control, but you're not completely in control in the classroom. Each time you walk into a class room, there can be surprises. A certain amount of improvisation is called for. What do you do with the one student who is totally different from everyone else is the classroom?

It's a bit like canoeing down a river you've never been down before. You don't know what rapids are up ahead.  You just run them the best you can.  I even get, in college, the trickster who asks a series of stupid, rapid fire questions to slow the advancement of the class.  An old high school trick.  I usually just call them on it right off. I laugh with them at what they're doing. Everyone knows the game they're playing, and many in college in the class don't appreciate it.

Teaching, it's an adventure each class.  That's what keeps me interested and coming back. Every day I get surprised. Something that once worked beautifully now flops. Something new is a big success. A lot of times, the new class I'm teaching is the best class I teach on that subject. The material is fresh for me and I'm closer to their level.  We're on a journey of discovery together.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Born Again! Creative Writing as Conversion

Had a great talk with another teacher of creative writing yesterday.

She tells her creative writing students that communication verbally and by the written word are crucial skills that can carry you far in life. She tells her students that the ability to tell a good story can impress and be persuasive. It might even convince a job interviewer to give you a job.

I liked that.

What makes me uneasy is when English teachers of all stripes are trying to increase the number of English majors so the department has a lot of majors and all the classes are filled. Or to increase the number of creative writing track students.

That is putting the needs of the department before the needs of students.

We know that few of our student creative writers will end up making a living as creative writers (I do have a few).  We know that the path of creative writing is a challenging path, and other goals-- besides raking in a lot of money--should be crucial to a student if s/he goes down this path.

Creative writing teaches useful survival skills. It also assists in self-understanding.

I won't make a religion out of it, however, and try to gain converts for the church institution of the English department.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Make Your Students Teach

I am the only one who likes doing oral reports in creative writing classes?

I have them do them in groups on a poet, and their job is to use the poet to teach the class something about writing.  This is hard for them to do, and makes them think independently. I don't let them repeat anything I've already taught them in class.

The writer ain't a lone cowhand no more. Working in groups teaches them get-along skills, so maybe they can get along with agents and publishers better than I have!  Writers make sometimes more money doing readings than from royalties, so they need to get used to performing in front of a group.

I tell them that if they aren't doing the best of jobs, I will challenge them and ask questions, hopefully to get them to think on their feet and do better with the oral report.  My students--many of them--have trouble with that kind of pressure. A former high school football player did well yesterday with my questions. Last year, one student ran out of the room.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From the Head, from the Heart?

Do you write from the head, or write from the heart?  Rouseau claimed "thinking never proved anything."

I write from the heart, although of course what I write must pass through and use the head. Yet the impetus comes from the heart.  I write from emotion.

That influences how I teach creative writing. I am a bit of an anti-intellectual intellectual. I've worked a lot of blue collar jobs. I've studied Zen and know its distrust of words.

This semester, however, I have an award winning Latin American novelist from the Hispanic Studies department in my creative writing class. Judging from what I've seen of his work so far, he writes more out of the head, with some heart. I see a Borges' influence. I also have a philosopher in the class, and he approaches creative writing to a large degree up in the head.

I am excited to have these students in an advanced class. This semester I may learn as much from these students as I give them, or more. Two students in the class already have published books, and a couple more have published in journals.  One student has an MFA.

This class is a bit intimidating, but I enjoy the fear. 

What a mix of people! Many have never taken any creative writing.  Only the MFA student could explain to the class what the term, "the arc of the story," meant. It's possible for a graduate student to enroll in this class with no previous creative writing experiences or class.  I hope the beginners don't get too intimidated and enjoy the ride.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Did I make the grade?

     I'm working from my own subjective observations, but it does seem with each passing year students become more and more grade obsessed in creative writing.   It used to be that the students who took creative writing did so because they wanted to, and they were more into learning.  Now some students take the course to avoid taking technical writing. That's OK. They may discover by accident a genuine love.

    I didn't think they could become more grade obsessed, and then they surprise me by doing so. Cart before the horse. Symbols more important than reality. Etc.

    I now have students coming to my office to have me read their assignments. I tell them to read it out loud to me.  I offer suggestions.  Before they leave, they will ask me if the paper is an A.  This, in spite of a large sign I have posted near them that reads basically: I can't give you a grade in my office. I have to see your work in the context of the rest of the class.

     Some students send me their papers as attachments in an email the night before an assignment is due.  Sorry Charlie.

    Sorry for all the bitchin'.  Grades do seem to be effective in motivating students. That's good. Maybe tomorow I'll go in and write on the blackboard, "Where's the love?" 
    See what they have to say.

     Any suggestions? How is it where you are at?

     Years ago, in an experimental era, I assigned no grades, and had interviews with each student, with their papers in front of me, to decide what grade they should get.  Some of the hardest working and best performing students would humbly and honesty say they deserved a C, while sometimes a student who'd done little all semester but was good at the gab, would say s/he deserved an A.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Put Half Your Class to Sleep

I don’t talk about ‘how to publish’ unless people start asking my questions after class.  If I get 2-3 people asking, I decide to spend some time on it in class. I can use it for a fill-in when I don’t get much time to prepare, or when I finish up earlier than I expected.

Writing on the blackboard, talking to the class--a lot of this generation gets quickly sleepy or restless when you do that.

I had put a line down the blackboard, and talked about submitting manuscripts the old way, using Writer’s Market and snail mail, and the electronic way, going to magazine websites and perhaps  using a submission’s manager.

Maybe I should have dropped down the screen in front and gotten on the web to show them some magazine sites, but my password hasn’t been working lately, and I haven’t gotten around to finding out why.

Maybe I should have made it exercise where they use their hands, had them bring envelopes and a manuscript. I could have had them write a cover letter in class.

What do you do? Any ideas, or should one not get into it at all in a beginning CW class. They're not, the vast majority of them, ready. They will only get rejections.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Starting a Story

How do we get students to write good story starts.  I start with the old comic strip Peanuts.

"It was a dark and stormy night," wrote Snoopy on his manual typer, atop his doghouse.

I point out that Snoopy's line is not a bad beginning, actually. It sets up drama and potential conflict through weather. Unfortunately it has become a comic cliche, thanks to Charles Shultz, and to others before him.  Most of my students still know who Snoopy is, probably because of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

Perhaps one could even use it to signal the beginning of a comic story.  Perhaps this story would have comic cliches scattered throughout. "It was a dark and stormy night, and also the best of times and the worst of times."

Poet, short story writer, novellaist, and novelist Mick White gives this example to his class to explain when a story starts:

You get up in the morning.  (story hasn't started)
You go to the bathroom and take a shower. (no story yet)
Coming back from the shower, a towel around your waste, you notice a dead woman in your bed. (now the story has started, although the opening line would need to be rewritten from what we have here).

A great opening story start sentence isn't absolutely necessary for a good story, but it can help. Here are a few from the 2009 O'Henry Prize Short Stories:

"I'm going to ask the Queen. I'm going to tell her what I know and ask her what is true, and if she winks at me, well, there will be trouble." (Graham Joyce)

"Years later, Ann saw one of her daughters." (L.E. Miller)

"Caches of old papers are like graves; you shouldn't open them." (Nadine Gordimer)

I have the students go through the short stories in the textbook, before they have read many, and look at the story openings.  We talk a while about which ones really grab our attention and draw us into the story, and which don't.

Then I have them write good openers that can be good story starts, openers hopefully that impell them as writers forward into their own story.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beware the Power

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beware the Power

Once, in my early 30;s, when I had just begun to teach creative writing, I was invited, as part of a CETA Arts program, to run a poetry workshop in a facility for women who had temporarily lost custody of their children for physical abuse.

The moment I started the workshop was the first moment I met the two PhD's in pyschology in charge of this program. We had no previous discussions about what I would do or how creative writing could be of use to these women.

I did an exercise where I had each woman summon, if they could, the emotion of happiness into their body. I then had them tie the emotion to an incident of happiness. I had them visualize where they were, what the place looked like, and who was with them. After, that, I had them write the incident.

Emotions got really stirred up. Some wrote about happiness. But some wrote where the happiness moved on to anger. Some real fire was released!

Afterwards, the two PhD's told me they thought writing was entertainment and I would provide the group with a little rest moment in their therapy. Despite core curriculums in universities, I am amazed at the ignorance of other fields of study among the supposedly educated. I had a friend who lived on Faulkner street who was a PhD and did not know who William Faulkner was.

Much more pre-preparation goes into creative writing workshops in unusual settings these days. I worked in women's and men's prisons teaching creative writing workshops cold. I just showed up the days I was supposed to and did my thing.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Imagination and Fantasy

Today we did in creative writing this exercise to stimulate the image making capacity of the brain and to play with non-realistic modes of writing. I kept referencing Harry Potter.

Because my exercise is an adaptation of a meditation technique and borrows some Hindu notions, I got a few strange looks. 

One class really got into it.  The other class was rather suspicious.  I'm always a bit surprised since meditation techniques are used by football teams to get ready for games.

It would take too many pages to explain the technique here, but many students did generate some very arresting lines using it.

I use the old 19th century faculty psychology early in the semester to talk about creative writing--will, memory, imagination, emotion, the senses.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Hypocrisy of Teaching

Man, I hate to be a role model. What a chain of mail to put on anybody. You'd think, once they got to college, they'd be through with thinking of teachers--not so much as role models actually--but as people who lead dull and conventional lives.

I got a friend who comes in to class and says, "I am the one your mother and father warned you against. I drink and hang out in bars, I smoke and I...."

I feel like stealing his line. Of course, I knew the line before I heard that he was using it, but I don't steal the line. He got to it first.

The only thing I can do is try to think as teaching as a form of acting, where I am playing a certain role. It's a role one can get into and enjoy.

Joyce Carol Oates husband died not too long ago. She writes of her grief, and how one way she gets through her days is going to play the role of creative writing teacher. None of the students have read any of her stuff. They know nothing about her personally. Playing the role--which is part of her--has helped her continue with life.

Part of the role is to be a little flamboyant, to be a little crazy sometimes. To use the stereotype--and stereotypes have always been used in theater--to your advantage to keep that chain of mail off your body.  I'll leave it to presidents and politicians to pretend they're the perfection the electorate so dearly needs to put on them. 

I don't mind comforting students. I don't mind offering my  two cents of advice if they ask for it. But role model?  Do you let them put that on you?

Monday, September 6, 2010


At times I feel like I'm letting my students down by not talking more about money and writing.

Then I think, if it's money you want, go into real estate, or finance. It will be a lot easier that way to make money. Why stay cooped up in a room for a year writing a novel on the gamble it will get published, become a best seller, and make you big bucks?

These days, there's less money, I guess, in finance and real estate, but I bet it's still a better gamble than writing.

If I were to become rich from writing, I couldn't in good conscience live the life of a Southern gentleman raising horses, a la John Grisham.  If I had a lot of money, I'd have to be in Haiti, running a refugee camp along with Sean Penn, whose not a writer but a actor, I know.

In the beginning CW classes the emphasis should be learning how to write welll. In later classes, more time can be spent on getting published, writing book proposals, finding an agent, and making money.
Those are my thoughts. I tell students their chances of becoming rich as a writer are about the same as their chances of going to Hollywood and becoming a big star.

Am I being too negative? What do you think?  I fell asleep writing this blog last night, after a three hour class. I can't recall actually falling asleep while in the midst of a sentence before.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Secret

Write what your students write.  When they are doing an exercise that you have asked them to do, the teacher can do the exercise also. This will give you a feel for how long the exercise will take, remind you of how easy or difficult it is, and give you things to point out when everyone is done.

ALSO.  Save those exercises. They might turn into something good.  What if, as an exercise, you had them write a first page of a novel.  What if you brought in some first pages from some excellent contemporary novels and passed them around and talked about them?  Who knows?  You might get a novel out of it!        (If you can ever find the time)

I had my students, in a 3 hour graduate class, write microfictions.  It's hard to fill up a three hour class when they have not read any textbook assignments. Of course the great thing about creative writing is you can vary lecture, discussion, writing exercises, reading out loud (their exercises or an assignment), and workshop.  One thing I had them do was write a microfiction.  What I created doing the exercise myself, I wasn't sure if it was a prose poem or a microfiction.  If I couldn't be sure that I was making what I'd asked them to make for the first time, then I decided I should tell them not to worry about what they came up with. 

I went back to the office, and over the course of the week, played around with my exercise, and I think came up with a half-decent microfiction after all.  One poet I know admitted that she gets many poems from the exercises she does in her own classes.  Some exercises are designed to focus on one thing specific, like dialogue.  Maybe that exercise will not lead to anything for you, but maybe sometimes you write stories that are almost all dialogue. I do.

It's a bit of a dirty secret, that a mere exercise could lead to a published poem, or story, or essay. But why not?  We really don't get much time to write with our jobs, so use your exercises, for yourself and for your students. Don't let them get lost.  I did a haiku up on the board about kids staring delighted at neons in a fish tank in a department store.  It wasn't bad, but I erased it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Forgotten Syllable

It sure is good to get your students to hang around a word for a while, to lovingly and slowly sound out the syllables, to notice where the accents fall.  One student claimed that where she came from--Orange County, California--"different" was pronounced in three syllables. I told the class that I had an office mate from East Texas who pronounced the word "poetry" in two syllables.

I like teaching syllabic verse when we write our first pome (my preferred spelling) in creative writing. There's challenge there, but not too much to scare them away on a first assignment.  It gets them revising, looking through the Theasaurus for synonyms they don't often use that have more or fewer syllables, like "lovely" for "beautiful"--and it gets them playing around the the way sentences are put together, trying out some slighly uncommon sentence structures to give the poetry a touch of "strangeness."

Don't just write haiku. Have them write eight syllable lines, ten syllable lines, foruteeners maybe. Give 'em a workhout. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

If it's bad, it's good.

A paradox young writers get to discover. Bad things that happened to you can sometimes be used to write a good story.  For the writer, the bad over time becomes good, and the formula for comedy is tragedy, plus time, equals comedy.

I tell my students not to go out and make a train wreck of their lives. No reason to run with the bulls. The bulls will find you.

The bad will come along to test you, to make you a strong person with character, plenty on its own.  It also will not end up being completely bad if you can use what you learned, or the experience itself, in your writing.

This gets close to the notion of felix culpa, the fortunate fall, found, I was taught, in Milton's Paradise Lost.

What boring people Adam and Eve would have been if they had remained in the Garden of Eden.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Going Mystical on Ya'

I work at a state institution, and in the US we have separation of church and state. I like that. Putting church and state together creates one institution with too much power, a theocracy as in Iran.

Still, no question there is a spiritual dimension to creative writing. There is a spritiual dimension to everything, even feeding the cat.

Pirsig, the other of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, seemed to argue, if I remember right, that striving for quality, the good, is a striving for God.  Attempting to do anything the best you can is a spiritual exercise.  So work on that poem. Work on that story. Strive toward greatness. It's a spiritual thing. You may be carrying on a converstation with energies above the human, with the ground of being, the mysterium--whatever you wish to call it.  In indirect ways I try to imply that striving for good work is good for them, my students, without bringing in too much of the spiritual stuff.

I don't see writing as a career primarily, or as a means to make money, although I'm glad to make money.  I encourage my students to write in order to understand themselves better, to explore their emotions, and when they share their work with others, they could be helping others and doing spiritual work.

I see writing as a calling.  How many of your students do you see called to it?  More than we might know. Even a student not planning to publish may continue to write and put out good energy into the universe by that writing. The student can continue to develop and become a better person through the practice of writing.

What's in a Name?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

True, yet, but I'm talking about names for characers in narrative poems, stories, novels, and screenplays.

Higginbottom is a famous name in Texas, but I'd have a negative attitude toward any character with such a name in a text. Comic negative. It sounds like a name out of Charles Dickens.

So where to get names?  You can look in the phone book. You can buy a baby book bought at a bookstore, or you can use the web.  I wanted an African-American female name with one syllable. I was able to limit my search in a web name book to find such a name.  The site told me the popularity of my one syllable name--curently low--and its origin.

Do I repeat myself?  Very well then I repeat myself.  Maybe I did a post on this before.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sitting in a Bar, Sharing Stories

I sometimes tell my  students that creative writing class is like sitting in a writer's bar swapping stories.

I tell them they can be the most interesting person at a party if they can tell good stories. I paraphrase Muriel Ruykerser that the world is not made of atoms. It is made of stories.

I tell them, during our class writer's bar story telling, that the story belongs to the teller, but you can ask them if they plan to use it, and if they don't, you can ask them if you can use it.

Swapping oral stories, getting ready to write stories on paper--there are lots of exercises for that, and of course they need to know that a good oral story may not make a good written story.

But oh how lovely for the class to discover each other's souls, to touch each other's humanity, and not get wrapped up, say, in debates about immigration.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Boy Scout Code

Reading my students poems used to give me stomach pains. I would have explained to them what abstractions were. I'd have made them take abstractions, say like "evil," and then write the abstraction concrete, such as "selling tickets to a rape." (Ugh!)

Then I'd get their poems, and even though I told them I'd take five points off for each abstract word beyond one, there would be four or five in a short poem--honor, truth, faith, trustworthy, loyal friendly--sorta like the Boyscout code.

There's that famous Nabakov line: Caress the detail, the divine detail.
I'd tell 'em the heavy use of abstractions was a sign of lazy writing. I'd have them visualize.

But they just wouldn't quit. I still got stomach aches.  So I made them write narrative poems, put in scene and character, and plot, and that got rid of most of it. I suppose the narrartive poem ain't cool these days, but I gave up worrying about cool back in high school.  The narrative poem is good practice--a lead in--to the short story, but I get GOOD ONES, good poems.

Maybe you're more tolerant toward abstraction. It seems a large part of the rhyme in hip-hop poetry. How do you justify them, or how do you chase them away? Tell us.


Going Into Class Totally Unprepared

Sometimes I student comes into your office with a problem needing discussing and that time you were going to use to get ready for class gets used up.  Helping a student with a serious problem is, sometimes, more important than preparing for class, in my book.

I know teachers who have an open discussion day.  I also read about a teacher who had an open discussion day, and the students wanted to  talk about sex. At the end of the semester he got fired.  This would not happen at my university, I don't think. He worked as a telegraph clerk and finally in a couple of years found another job. This was in a freshman English class.

What do you do when you're totally unpreparred?  (1) read some of your own writing and talk about your writing process (2) put chairs in a circle and go around the room and have everyone tell what they thought was good, or bad, technically, about the reading assignment for the day, (3) go around the room and have everyone tell why they want to write (if they didn't take CW to avoid technical writing), and what kind of writing they hope to do.  (I've only done #2 of my list)

I carry maybe a 100 exercises in my head. What do you do? Any ideas? Please share them. Of course, we're all for being prepared.  It's rather nerve wracking to go to class unprepared, but with time you learn that sometimes it can't be helped, and you deal with it. The students enjoy the sudden change of pace and often remember these classes the best.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Lying and Creative Nonfiction

Ok, maybe I put some stretchers in there when I write creative nonfiction. Maybe I conflate two days into one day. Just yesterday, I realized I had the wrong location down for an event, and I was able to use google maps to make the correction.

That's one problem with teaching creative nonfiction.  You tell the students to be truthful to how they remember things, but they know that to make it a good story and get an 'A,' they may need to fictionalize a lot.

Some students--not all--view a teacher like a traffic cop who has pulled one over and is writing a ticket. Any lie to get out of the ticket is OK.  Any trick in the book to get an 'A' is OK.

I seem to recall viewing grades as existentially absurd when I was an undergraduate. Oddly, though, I was more interested in the knowledge than the grade, and often was so lazy I wouldn't find out what my previous semester's grades were until half way through the next semester.

But back to teaching creative nonfiction. They don't know what it is.  You have to provide plenty of reading examples and talk about the genre at length to begin to give them a feel for the genre in the short form. CNF is rather an umbrella term for a lot of things. It's a challenge to fit the form in when teaching a multi-genre course.

Plus, they don't have the mask of fiction to hide behind, and that makes workshoppng CN a greater challenge.  And you may have a student or two who wants to confess a deep, dark secret, and is interested in collective sympathy rather than in making the CNF piece the best possible it can be.  That's understandable, but then the teacher finds her/himself moving into the providing therapy zone, something we've not been trained to do.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Swearing up a Blue Streak

How do you feel about the use of swear words in your students' creative writing?

Actually, this one is a red herring for me, a no brainer.  People talk that way. Your writing has to be honest to the way people are.  You have to be truthful to your characters and material.

But I teach at a conservative university, and my students are always asking if it is OK to put swear words in their writing.

We talk about the power of these taboo words.  I tell them stories of sweet old ladies in nursing homes with alzheimers swearing up blue streaks.  These words seem to dwell in a different part of the brain and are the last to be forgotten.

What do I do for those who object to hearing swear words if a poem or story is read out loud in class?

Well, I play it conservatively at a conservative university. I make it the student's responsibility to tell the class before they read something, and I give the students the option of leaving the room.

You know how students love to skip class.  Well, I've never had one student get up and leave for fear of a taboo word.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creative Writing Classes Should be Large!

You teach creative writing, or you have taken creative writing. 

How many students did you see in the introductory class?

I think the junior colleges in our area have smaller classes that my university. Many of the junior colleges have an office for creative writing, at least part time staff help, and produce a journal of student writings. We don't have any of that, nor are we likely to in the near future, with the economy suffering.

My intro creative writing classes have on average, except for a few years, 25/26 students.

What is the size of the class you teach, or you took?

What's the effect on learning with a class size of 25? When I took creative writing, we had 15 students. At all the other universities I have taught at--and it is many--classes were set with an enrollment at 15.

Writers Can't Write Titles

Writers can't write good titles for their work because they are too close to it, that's what I suggest to my students. Of course, for every rule there are exceptions, yet if you have a person who critiques your work, ask them to suggest some alterternate titles--titles for a long work, a poem, or a short story, screenplay, whatever.

They just might come up with a better title. 

It's always worked for me.  You can do this as part of a peer review in class.

Titles are like "an approach" on a house or building--the first thing seen, the first impression. Titles need attention.  The first goal of a title is to grab the reader's attention. They are almost a form of advertisting.

My titles for the posts have gotten a little better, and I'm getting more responses.  Thanks to everyone, and please disagree with me.  Let's help each other out.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I recall teaching with no syllabus

Yeah, I used to teach without a syllabus. Every day was an adventure, a jazz improvisation.

Now the enlightened state of Texas requires the syllabus posted on the web a couple of weeks before class starts, at this time.  Maybe even earlier next time.

We won't be passing out hard copies anymore in class. We'll just call the thing up on the big screen, spend a day going through it, and have them sign a statement they have now read and understood the syllabus (the latter not required by the state).

Maybe you can change a test or other due date, if you move it forwards so they have more time, but you're really not supposed to change anything once it's up on the web.

My syllabus now reads a bit like a credit card application. It's a contract.  Any guesses how many will drop after the first day?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

How Isolated Should a Writer Be?

Do you tell your creative writing students that writing is a lonely activity, the writer in a room all alone with a laptop?

My favorite places to write are the kitchen and coffee shops. I like people around when I work. I'm of the rock and roll generation and have raised, off and on, five kids, so noise does not disturb me usually. Dead silence and isolation do.

Likewise, get your students to go hear other writers read their work.

Slough Press, the literary press I founded, will be having a reading in Austin, Texas, tomorrow at 4:00 (8/21/10) at the Barnes and Nobel at 5601 Brodie Lane.  Listening to these writers will give you ideas for your own writing, and you'll be meeting people who are as enthusiastic about writing as you are.

Ken Jones, Mick White, Hedwig Gorski, and I (Chuck Taylor) will be reading.

Do They Know What Creative Writing Is?

   I asked three creative writing classes last semester what was creative writing. Only one student in one class ventured an answer, "Writing outside the boundaries."
    It was the first day, and a lot of students were shy. I think some of the 75 students I faced that day knew the answer.
   Yet, research shows that students sign up for classes primarily based on the time it is offered. Many are working jobs 20 or more hours a week to pay the high tuition. Many never bother to read the college catalogue.
    I read the college catalogue out loud to them--I had a rare hard copy--and I wrote a definition of CW up on the black board.  It's not fun, or it's at least disconcerting, to take a class and have your expectations blasted.
    About 8 out of the 25 dropped. Of course, 8 new people added the next time, and some of them didn't know what creative writing was either.  I repeated the definition in the second class.
    I told the class that CW could involve genre busting--creating new boundaries--but as an intro class we'd be writing inside some boundaries, such as the form of the short story.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Creative Writing and Philosphy

I like to read philosphy and theology. I read both because I enjoy them. Do they benefit a creative writer's work or damage it?

Are you, as a result, liable to end up preaching too much, as sometimes happens in a DH Lawrence novel? I get philosophy majors at times in creative writing classes who can't make the switch. Some seem to see creative writing as a place to write philosophy without having to submit to the intellectual rigor demanded by the academic discipline.

I personally think that all reading--especially reading in science, history, and pyschology--can inform a creative writer's work and make it better.

What do you think?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Travel as a Stimulus to Writing

In Taos, at the Fonda Hotel, I went into a locked room, a curtain was pulled back, and I got to see twelve of DH Larwences's forbidden paintings, with a very knowledgeable guide, all for three dollars. These were part of the paintings seized shortly after the opening of his show in London by Scotland Yard, after a successful showing in Italy. The naked women all seem to have the face of Frieda, his wife, and the men, Lawrence's face.

This is a long lead into the topic of travel and creative writing. Lawrence was a citizen of the world. He wrote Kangaroo in Australia. The Plumed Serpent in Mexico. He had a ranch outside Taos, given to him by Mabel Dodge Lujan, and he wrote about the Pueblo ceremonies.  According to my guide, he gave her the royalties to Sons and Lovers in return.  Lawrence supported himself often by writing wonderful travel pieces, especially of Italy.  Graham Greene was another great adventureer: "Our Man in Havana." and a novel on Vietnam in the late fifties predicting American failure there which got him banned from travel in the US.

No question about it. Put your body in a new landscape, in a new culture, and the creative juices begin to flow. Travel was a great trope for the beat writers. In Zen there is a great deal of talk of seeing the divine in the ordinary ans everyday, and Throeau talked about travelling well in Concord (while taking trips to Maine and Minnesota).  That's good too, Nothing wrong with that.  But hit the road also , Jack. Make a new plan, Bertrand. Get yourself free.

Travel can unsettle you, get you to question your basic assumptions.  Sartre said something to the effect that the great thing about travel is that it engenders fear.  Fear always gets the gears of the brain turning.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

'Description, don't knock it,' says Patricia Hampl

We're told not to put much description in our books because people already carry huge image files in their heads. No need to describe the White House or Statue of Liberty.  Hampl argues that in desciption the author's sensibility meets objects, and that is mainly what style is.  From the description of her mother's Czech teacup from World War II, came not only her mother's heartbreak but all of Europe's.  Description leads to a story, and is as important as character and plot and all the rest.  She quotes Nabakov, "Caress the detail, the divine detail." in her essay "The Dark Art of Description," reprinted in 2009 The Best American Essays.

Tom Swifians and Tom Swift

The term "Tom Swifians" of course means putting an adverb in the dialgoue tag. "I like you," Tom said swiftly.  We are told in creative writing to get the emotion into the dialgoue, and to not stick it woodenly into the dialogue tag, "Tom said sadly."  

The Tom Swift novels hare said to be full of Tom Swiftians.  Hence the term.  There are a lot of these novels. They are still being produced. You might call them Nancy Drew for boys. It's a bit of a franchise as are the James Bond films. The series, are they masculist, as the Nancy Drew books are feminist, role models for future men active in the world and not chained to corporate desks? I see a dissertation here, if it hasn't already been written.

I have never read a Tom Swift novel to see if any or all of the novels, written by different people under pseudonyms, indeed do overuse the dialogue tag plus adverb. It could be, once the word got out, that the later writers cut back on their Ton Swiftians while keeping some as a signature for the long running series.  See Wikipedia article below:

Tom Swift (in some versions Tom Swift, Jr.) is the name of the central character in five series, totaling over 100 volumes, of juvenile science fiction and adventure novels that emphasize science, invention, and technology. The character was created by Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging firm. His adventures have been written by a number of different ghostwriters over the years. Most of the books are published under the collective pseudonym Victor Appleton. The 33 volumes of the second series use the pseudonym Victor Appleton II.
The character first appeared in 1910. New titles have been published as recently as 2007. Most of the various series focus on Tom’s inventions, a number of which have anticipated actual inventions. The character has been presented in different ways over the years. In general, the books portray science and technology as wholly beneficial in their effects, and the role of the inventor in society has been treated as admirable and heroic.
Translated into a number of languages, the books have sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Tom Swift has also been the subject of a board game and a television show. Development of a feature film based on the series was announced in 2008.
A number of prominent figures, including Steve Wozniak and Isaac Asimov, have cited "Tom Swift" as an inspiration. Several inventions, including the taser, have been directly inspired by the fictional inventions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Do or Don't of Tom Swiftians

Do you write Tom Swiftians, he swiftly asked? 

I hear from students of being required in high school to write an entire research paper of ten pages without a form of the "to be" verb in the paper. I suppose, as a method to get the point across on the lack of color and strength in this verb, the requirement may be useful, but I'm a moderate guy who tends to avoid extremes.

A Tom Swiftian, once and a while, he said reasonably, doesn't give me a heart attack when it appears in a story, or a poem containing dialogue.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Life Into Literature

What goes from your life into your writing? What advice do you give to students, if any, about using life in fiction, or in poems, or essays, or screenplays?  I am fascinated by people's work, and am glad to live in an era when those not of the leisure class find time to write about work.   I have students make a list of jobs as a source for inspiration. Here they get to share a unique world with readers.  After one of my students wrote a story about working making donut, and I found out how donuts are made--basically fried floating in hot grease--I gave up donuts. An idependent study graduate student has been writing a story that involves work in an old fashioned candy factory. Finding out how candy used to be made, and is still made, makes the story in part interesting. I enjoy reading about the processing of doing things in a story that has characters who spend time at work.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Character Names

I needed an African-American female name of one syllable for a syllabic verse poem. As you can guess, there are not too many, but thanks to the web's "baby name" books, I was able to go through a long list of female African American names. It gives the origin of the name, countries used, and popularity of the name. I chose "Star" --a play on Stella or Estella--because it met my criteria, was not popular (thus unique), and fit the theme of the work. 

It's good to get your students to think about character names.  If they have laptops, or if you can connect to the internet and get the internet up on a screen, you can spend some time on this in class.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Teaching Dialogue

I bumped into R, a former graduate student and good FB friend at Hastings, and he was out to rent a movie, and then show a few scenes from the movie, as a way to teach dialogue to his creative writing students. That seemed a cool idea, and I immediately thought of my favorite movie that no one has ever seen, OFF THE MAP.  I suspect one reason the dialogue is so good in the movie is that it was originally a play. My prejudice for the word over the image (in film) is showing here, but I must praise the film also for the way each frame is used, and how multiple actions can go on in a frame during the film that do not confuse.

I send my students out into the world to listen in and record dialogue, and then ask them to explain why the dialogue they recorded would not make good dialogue in a story, although it may give them some insights into language and some ideas for a story or a character.

Any thoughts, you writers, if you're out there?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Writing Around a Character

This is where you imagine and write down what kind of motel your character would stay at, what brand of clothes the character wears, what type of wind the character buys, what kind of car driven, what church attended, etc. etc.  You don't put all that stuff in your fiction but it's supposed to help give a character depth and life.

Personally, it's always seemed a waste of time to me. 

Anybody feel differently?  Why?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dealing with the Disturbed

Where I work teaching creative writing, the school is mostly business, science, and engineering students. I like these students because they enjoy using another part of their brains and because they don't know that to be a writer you are supposed to be disturbed. They have not bought into the romantic myth. Still, I do get maybe a student every semester who has emotional problems. I do tell my class I am not a therapist, not trained to deal with emotional problems. I tell them that writing about their struggles could get the emotions out, or could just get them more stirred up.  When I feel it appropriate I will make comments to the effect, "If this story is true, I feel for you and am sorry you went through it." I have walked students over a number of times to the counseling office and stayed until they saw someone. I have asked students, out in the hall if possible, "Are you OK?", and they have appreciated it.  Some female students will write venting poems, usually about a failed romance, and come to my office during office hours and read them. I keep the door open and have my desk between myself and students. The poems aren't very good, but they are a start, and it seems to calm them down a bit.  At other universities I've had more students who believe they are artists because they are disturbed.  After one class, a gay male poet and a gay female student got into a short fist fight before I broke it up. He was a famous San Francisco renaissance poet visiting the class. That was pretty exciting.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What's Great About Teaching Creative Writing?

Keeping up with the souls of the nation, getting a feel for the trials and tribulations and joys of young people. You do in a way have a finger on their pulses. It's a priviledge. They deserve our kindness and respect.

teaching fantasy writing

Has anyone tried teaching fantasy writing, since students, post Harry Potter, are really into fantasy writing?  I do teach a Stephen King story that has the devil appear in it but if I call that fantasy writing then a certain segment of the class feels their religion has been insulted. My argument against fantasy writing is that we only have time for short fiction in a creative writing class with 23 students, and they are not skillfull enough to set up a fantasy world in a short story without the setup overwhelming the story.  What are your thoughts?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Teaching Short Stories Difficult

I grew up reading sort stories in places like Emily Post and Playboy, but this generation has read few short stories, outside of "safe' things like Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown." How to teach the short story--in preparation for your students someday writing a novel--when they have read very few? You need to introduce them to the concept of the indeterminate ending and get them to appreciate the aesthetic where everything is not tied up into a bow, as life rarely is, and as a short story lacks the space to do.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

All Time Favorite Exercise

Perhaps my student's favorite exercise--the one they feel they get the most out of--is the one I do first in the semester. It's called the five senses exercise and most of you are probably familiar with it. I use with with intense observation, and they either do it outside, or in the classroom, depending on the weather. They are to observe an object (sometimes the room) and write about it using as many senses as possible. I give them the talk about how most humans go through life half asleep, not paying attention to what is around them, and it's part of the writer's job to wake people up. Using your senses can create vivid writing, and if you're stuck, you can run through the five senses to get the writing rolling again. Where are you weakest? No smells in your writing? No colors?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Textbook for Beginning Creative Writing

What have you found to be the best multi-genre textbook for beginning college creative writing?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

the music of language

Does anyone have any good quotations, or exercises, to teach the music of language (not the rhyhm) without talking about alliteration and assonance?

Teaching Creative Writing: a Blog: Teaching Poetry Writing

Teaching Creative Writing: a Blog: Teaching Poetry Writing

If you teach a general CW course, what percentage of your class wants mainly to write poetry, what percentage wants to write prose, and what percentage wants to write both?

For my classes, I'd say that:

75% wants to write prose, SF or fantasy novels mostly
15% wants to write poetry
20% wants to write both

That's over 100%, because a small group from the fiction group, and from the poetry group, have some desire to write in many genre.

Teaching Poetry Writing

I teach at a large university famous for petroleum engineering, agriculture, and business. Our English department is highly ranked and offers an MA and PhD.  A graduate student can write a creative MA or PhD, with a critical introduction.

At my school, most of my students are not fond of poetry. Many reasons exist for this. One is the way poetry is taught in high school. Another is that poetry makes many of them feel stupid. They lack, many of them, the cultural references and the reading comprehension skills to understand it. What many of them consider poems are those inspirational statements you find on the internet, print out, and put on the fridge with a magnet.

How do I teach such students to write poetry? I've found that they tune out and completely ignore any statements I make about what makes good poetry, and just go ahead and write how they feel at the moment. So, to save myself a bad stomach ache and a batch of low grades, I make them do certain things and then take off points for not doing it.  I get very structured. The must write on a childhood experience, the must use a reminiscent narrator and tell a story, they must write in haiku stanzas, etc.

I get much better poems this way. I enjoy what they write and can give them some (not all) specific reasons why they got points taken off.  This is what a generation rasied on standardized tests can handle.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Teaching Creative Writing: A Blog

Howdy Fellow Creative Writing Teachers! Here's a place where we can share tips about teaching creative writing. Why not begin with the oldest of the oldest: creative writing can't be taught.

My response: writing is a skill, like playing baseball.  A coach can make a player a better player. A coach can teach techniques and strategies for the game, among other things. Can a coach take a player and make him into a Yankee? Or even make him into a Cub?  No, that's all a matter of inborn talent.

It's lengthy, but I use a sport metaphor to explain what a creative writer can do.