Let's Help Each Other Out!

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


     We've had considerable debate about workshops on the FB Poets site. One problem is the word stands for such a variety of practices. When we discuss on FB we don't know if we're talking about the same thing.
       Here's my take on the typical academic workshop in creative writing classes where the students come to class having already read the sample packet by one member of the class. I have the student to be workshopped make up questions to ask the group. This has worked great for me until last semester, when my classes suddenly decided that they should be able to leave once the five questions brought by the workshopped person were discussed.  Another slight sea change in college attitudes.
     The students are good to one another. They are helpful and generally offer good advice. Workshops fit they way they are--interactive, used to playing video games and texting one another. Workshops are a bit like a party.
     So where does the negative come in?  At the product end.  The work I see coming out of MFA programs--and there are many exceptions--often seems technically competant but lacking in any interesting themes or emotional energy.
     That's why I see workshops as good for beginners, but for more advanced writers, they tend to destroy individuality and make writers all sound the same--but of course, there are exceptions, and many MFA students are aware themselves of the limitations of workshops and just grunt through them to get their degree.
     Good luck finding a job in this economy!  Trucking school might serve you better!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How Nice Not to Be Teaching

Y'all know that teachers don't get long vacations. They get longish periods of unemployment. I have a 9 1/2 month salary. So far I've been lucky and have been able to pick up a summer school class, at a lower salary rate, for one month, but provisions get skimpy those months without pay, and you do have to plan ahead.

Still, it's great not to be teaching, to be able to devote long hours every day to your own writing.  I'm not reading anyone but myself now, as I get into serious rewriting of longer texts I had no time to play and work on during the fall and spring semesters. I treat the summers in Texas as I used to treat the winters in the north. Both are times to go deep within oneself, to cacoon at home and work.  It's great, and I'm glad I don't have money to travel or to eat out much.

After a couple of months, however, I do begin to miss the faces of students. I am a little resentful the first few days of classes, as I make the transition.  But in a few days I am happy. You return to class with a big glow at your back, a sense of hard work done, and some major writing accomplishment. You are a writer, afterall, and you have a right to be standing in front of this class.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mick White, novelist and short story writer, has an answer

This semester, many high school sports stories that attempt to retell heroically the play by play of some game, even though I told them not to do that. I wish they'd at least invent their own game, like, say, kangaroo races, or male mud wresting at a gentlemen's club for women.
I used to be a plot guy.  I talk about external and internal conflict, but I think Mick has the answer:
    • Lowell Mick White I have seen this phenom also--we just have to keep emphasizing that they need to be writing about people, not events....

Saturday, March 26, 2011

More than Once, They've Admitted they're the ADD generation

   And by ADD generation, I don't mean they need to go on medication, but that they often lack the ability to concentrate on anything for more than three minures. It's as if their minds are channel surfing.
    I am talking about my current crop of students. They've informed me that Texas A&M is a top tier research institution, so apparently these are the best minds of their generation.
    Last Thursday I told two students whose work had been workshoped to wait for a few minutes. The class had gotten out early (This is a new phenomenon; workshops finishing up before class time is over). I needed to explain to them what to do next, but I also needed to talk quickly to a few other students.
    Did those two students wait? Well, yes they did, for about three minutes. Then they split, even though class time was not officially over. I turned around and they were gone. I looked out the window for them. Nope.
    Well, it was a beautiful spring day. I wanted to tell one student that he'd have to take a zero or rewrite his story, because he wrote a journalism piece, a feature article on a sport. I didn't want to make him feel bad telling him during the workshop that he'd apparently zoned out on all the discussion of what a short story was, and that he hadn't consulted the handouts I'd given him.
    Creative writing is a very interactive class. I change up what we're doing about every twenty minutes. In workshop, different students are speaking, and different questions are being addressed.
    I don't know if I can change the topic every three to five mnutes to satisfy the short attention spans of the ADD generation.  Now there's a challenge!  But it's a challenge I don't wish to meet. I'd like to help them learn to concentrate on one thing for, say, at least ten minutes.
     Hey, but it's only creative writing.  I walked through the architecture school Friday and watched hard concentration over long periods of time by students designing buildings on their laptops. Maybe drawing concentration is easier for this generation than word concentration.
    Still, I am impressed with the time and energy my students put into reading their fellow students' writings, marking them up, and then making usually quite perceptive verbal comments in class.  They put a lot of time into it, and they are often dead on with what the problems were in a poem or story. Most of them have a strong desire to help each other.
    Perhaps they do the reading and marking in their dorm rooms, while emailing, texting, watching TV, eating supper, and talking to their roomies.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Your Writing and Your Teaching

     I used to worry that I'd talk my ideas out in my creative writing classes, but I've found that to be a false fear.  Working materials up for class actually gives me the chance to come up with new ideas that I might then apply to my writing.
     I got interested in emails as a form for fiction. We tried it out in class.  I ended up writing a story based on an email exchange--way back in the early 1990's.
     When you take on a new project in writing, as I did in writing my memoir Saving Sebastian, the new things I learned by writing the book, by taking a workshop, and by reading up on memoirs, I could then pass on to my students.  You ought to order and read Saving Sebastian if you have been attracted to the memoir form but as yet have not tried it out. It will give you good ideas on book design, subject section, and form--plus you will get to enjoy a heart rending but ultimately happy ending book.
    Saving Sebastian should give you some good ideas about teaching memoir in class. Everyday life is often dull.  You can't fictionalize in a memoir to make the book exciting. So how do you make memoir writing dramatic? My book will give you, and perhaps your students if you let them read it, some ideas.
    I still won't teach memoir, in either short or long forms, in a beginning creative writing class of undergraduates of about 19 years old.  Because a memoir is true, and they know everyone will be reading and commenting on their memoir pieces during workshops, I know many of them will be blocked and won't want to or won't be able to find dramatic material to write about.  The young ones, they need the cover of fiction--to claim, whether it is true of not--that what their classmates are reading is "made up."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Do you ever get asked questions?

   We've come a long way since the late sixties and seventies when students would actually drop by your office, at times, to talk about the subject they were studying with you in class.
    It may just be the southern university where I work, but I hardly ever get a question related to anything except the grade. I feel there are a few out there who would like to ask questions, but they are intimidated by the grade obssessed.
     I don't think, in my generation, any but those who were determined, for whatever reasons, to go to college ever studied in high school. I wanted to escape a dysfunctional family and get out of suburbia, so I worked two jobs and studied. I couldn't get sports because you were working hard without pay.
    I have watched however my daughter through school and now into college in this era of big test taking as the major measure of knowledge. One can ask, who is testing the tests?  To get a good grade on a test online that allow 15 to 30 minutes, by daughter uses the index to her textbook. She doesn't read it.
    Which brings me to what I see as the decline in reading skills and writing abilities. Also, I see a decline in the ability to think--or is it they are afraid to think? I keep telling them just think and provide reasons. There is no wrong or right answer here. Still, they refuse to do it.
     If you don't read, if you have limited writing skills, and if you can't think and can only repeat what your church or nation state have told you--how can you be a writer?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Depicting characters of the opposite sex

I was taught to never write from the opposite sex's point of view. Being stubborn, I took this as a challenge and wrote a story from a female point of view, and failed miserably, according to the one female I asked (my wife).

I often think with the billions of people in the world, it's impossible to make generalizations about people male or female.  The kind of female I depicted might indeed exist out there in the world.

Here is something I just posted on facebook:
I tell my female creative writing students, when they dip inside the heads of men in their short stories using the omniscient narrator, that they make their male characters more thoughtful than men are. I asked a woman student my age what she thought. Her reply: there are a small fraction thoughtful men out there, well trained by their mothers.