Let's Help Each Other Out!

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

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.