Let's Help Each Other Out!

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

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.