Let's Help Each Other Out!

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

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.