(My) Pedagogy of Creative Writing

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I agree with Clay Reynolds when he says, “Those who do, many literature professors will aver, probably should not teach. Or at least, they probably shouldn’t teach what they do.” While I wholeheartedly respect teachers, I have confidence in my talent and ability to write but not (yet) to teach. Someday that may change but I still have much to learn about doing, let alone teaching.

My pedagogy of creative writing, which I will attempt to show through screen play below, is that, much like teachers need a certain level of confidence to teach, writers and writing students need a certain level of confidence to write. The writing workshop should be a place to build this confidence and nurture the self-worth of those involved. Outside the workshop, writers need practice—space and time to write and revise. But inside the workshop, they should be challenged and nurtured, but not critically compared to one another or traditionally graded (if they must be graded, then I agree with Katherine Haake when she says “if it were up to us, creative writing classes would all be pass or fail… as not to privilege any one writing over another.” Success should be based on participation rather than perceived talent or skill level considering (we and) our works are works-in-progress and therefore impossible to judge in (our and) their current states. Writers should not be held captive inside of a bubble (because in this case the bubble only protects the people existing outside of it and because this type of bubble by definition is silencing to the student writer). And, perhaps most importantly, writers and writing students should be inspired and empowered in the classroom to find, develop, use and share their gifts.

THE SCREENPLAY

INT. CREATIVE WRITING CLASSROOM – DAY

A TEACHER finishes up a creative writing workshop class and asks a NEW STUDENT in the program to stay behind to discuss the student’s progress and feelings about the experience.

TEACHER: How are you liking the workshop?

NEW STUDENT: It’s OK.

TEACHER: You seem a tad unsure.

NEW STUDENT: It’s just not quite what I expected.

TEACHER: How so?

NEW STUDENT: I came into this thinking it would be a great opportunity to share my work and strengthen my skills but I’m not sure this type of workshop is the right place for me. Maybe I need to learn more before I can be here, if that makes sense.

TEACHER: But the purpose of being here is to learn. Look, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed you’ve been holding back.

NEW STUDENT: Yeah. I’m not usually like that. But honestly I’ve been feeling a little intimidated here. Everyone’s so advanced… and so, well, talented.

TEACHER: You’re talented, too. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.

NEW STUDENT: It’s not that I think I have nothing to contribute but I’m new to this. I was hoping to get my feet wet but instead I feel like I’m drowning.

TEACHER: You just need to relax and open up and let the class help you.

NEW STUDENT: That’s easy for you to say.

TEACHER: I like to think of my classroom as a safe place where everyone is equal.

NEW STUDENT: That sounds great. But I’m not sure you and I have the same perspective.

TEACHER: That’s fair. But I want you to know that I’m interested in your perspective. I want my class to work for everyone in it and I think you can help me achieve that. So why don’t you help me come up with a better solution?

NEW STUDENT: Really?

TEACHER: Yes, really. If you feel this way, chances are others do too. Maybe they’re even too intimidated to say so. Why don’t you go home and come up with an alternate solution, come back and present it to me and the class.

NEW STUDENT: You want me to present it to the class? Weren’t you listening when I said I was intimidated?

TEACHER: Of course I was listening. I obviously need your help. And this wouldn’t just help me. It would also help you, the rest of the class and potentially future creative writing students, as well. Your perspective could change the status quo for the better. But I understand your reluctance so how about if I make it a class discussion instead? It won’t just be you up there alone. It will be a class project. You can lead the discussion but everyone will get to participate. What do you say?

NEW STUDENT: You’re not grading me on this, are you?

TEACHER: No. And if anything, it’ll be more like you and the rest of the class are grading me.

NEW STUDENT: OK, since you put it that way. I’ll give it a shot.

INT. TEACHER’S LOUNGE – LATER THAT DAY

Teacher sends out email to the class explaining the project.

INT. LIBRARY – THROUGHOUT THE WEEK – MONTAGE

New Student feverishly researches for the discussion. CLASSMATES prepare, as well.

INT. CREATIVE WRITING CLASSROOM – A WEEK LATER

TEACHER: Alright, class, as I mentioned in my email, we’re going to do something different today. One of the best things about workshops is they are a place for you, as writers, to get together and discuss learning. This is going to be an exercise in that.

Teacher steps aside and offers NEW STUDENT the floor.

NEW STUDENT: Hello, everyone. I’ve been trying to figure out how I should start this discussion and I think the best way is to get to the point: I’ve been having trouble in class. I’m at the point where I dread sharing my work. I’m trying to improve my writing but the more feedback I receive here, it seems, the more confused I get. In fact, I’m starting to question myself as a writer.

CLASSMATE #1: Believe me, we’ve all been there! Wendy Bishop says “confusion can result in self-doubt” and “students who enroll in creative writing classes for the first time may have to overcome an overwhelming sense of unworthiness.”

NEW STUDENT: I want to grow as a writer, but half the time I don’t even understand what any of you are saying. Other times I know what you’re saying but I’m having trouble learning anything from it because I’m too busy trying not to break down and cry.

CLASSMATE #2: Some say the purpose of these workshops is to thicken the skin.

NEW STUDENT: But is that necessarily a good thing? The feedback I received during week one made me run right home and edit to reflect all of the comments.

CLASSMATE #2: Francois Camoin says “all writing is rewriting.”

NEW STUDENT: Sure, I’d agree that there’s an element of truth in that statement. But if I make every edit that someone suggests, when is my writing no longer my own?

CLASSMATE #2: Like Steven King says, we need to write to our “ideal reader” and not to the critics.

NEW STUDENT: No offense but none of you is exactly my ideal reader. That may have come out wrong. What I mean is I’m the least skilled writer in the workshop. My natural reaction is to try to please and impress you. My ideal reader, if such a person exists, would be able to take that into consideration when critiquing me.

CLASSMATE #2: Don’t think of it as critiquing. We all need to take in the constructive criticism offered in the workshop and learn from it… let it challenge you.

CLASSMATE #3: That’s easier said than done. Constructive criticism is subjective. Something may seem constructive to you but heartbreaking to someone else.

NEW STUDENT: And exhausting…

CLASSMATE #3: Exhausting? How so?

NEW STUDENT: Well, after running home to make those changes I mentioned earlier, I then resubmitted the revisions the following week and got totally different feedback. So then I ran home again to make more changes, even changing some things back to their original form. Now I have so many versions of the same story that I’m starting to get my characters confused and I’m starting to question my future as a writer. Lynn Domina says, “By the end of a typical workshop, too many students taste something fetid at the back of their mouths which won’t dissolve no matter how many times they spit.” I’m starting to taste it. Is that really normal in these workshops?

CLASSMATE #1: Domina also says “the primary task of the student writer is to learn trust and acceptance of the self.” I’ve been taking these workshops for a while now and what I’ve learned is to avoid the urge to knee-jerk edit. You have to absorb everything and take time to digest it. You have to trust that no one here is trying to hurt you and you also have to trust your own instincts. We’re all students. Even the teacher is a student of sorts. We are all learning and trying to help each other. No one is right or wrong.

CLASSMATE #3: And you shouldn’t let your experience in the workshop or anything you read or hear destroy your passion for writing. It’s not just new students who feel the way you feel. After reading Moby Dick, Katherine Haake said, “Now, under the spell of Melville’s prose and genius, my future, stark as destiny, seemed clear to me. I was neither smart nor talented enough to be, as I had dreamed, a writer.” See, we all have our own insecurities. The ones you have are pretty common.

NEW STUDENT: Well then there should be a way to fix them. If it’s not just me feeling this way, how many other new writers may have given up altogether because of a negative experience in a workshop? Perhaps these workshops should be divided by experience or skill level so we can truly be amongst our peers? That would help. If you’re more advanced than me, I might be holding you back or giving you feedback you feel is beneath you while you’re going to spend most of your time criticizing my skills rather than my potential.

CLASSMATE #2: That’s a good idea. But that may not be feasible in every situation, for example there may not be enough students in a program for separate workshops at varying levels each semester. In that case, perhaps a rule should be established where students do not verbally criticize structure, technique and skill of the student in the bubble. Perhaps those types of things would be better saved as margin notes on the actual paper.

CLASSMATE #1: That would certainly keep the oral focus of the feedback on the creative writing itself, rather than things like misspellings and grammatical errors which seem inconsequential by comparison and which can potentially embarrass a young writer.

CLASSMATE #3: And, specifically for the young writers, maybe we should establish some sort of rule or classroom condition discouraging students from making knee-jerk changes based on feedback. Maybe it’s something as simple as saying all edited submissions need to be saved for the last class? That way, students would be forced to process feedback before they acted reflexively based on a comment given but never fully digested in the bubble.

NEW STUDENT: That works for me. And while we’re on the topic of the bubble, can I just say how weird it feels to have someone talking at me like that without being able to respond, explain or defend my work?

CLASSMATE #3: I think that’s the point.

NEW STUDENT: Yeah, but it makes me feel like a prisoner.

CLASSMATE #1: A prisoner?

NEW STUDENT: I feel that way because I’m exposed and, yet, I have no rights. I am sharing myself with you but you have all of the control in the situation. You can say whatever you want to say but I can’t even respond without first asking permission. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling for me. It’s not very empowering… well, except maybe for the critic.

CLASSMATE #1: I never thought of it that way.

NEW STUDENT: The bubble is counterproductive because it shuts the writer up. I keep hearing how important it is for me to share and avoid being silenced but then I’m locked up in a bubble of silence. What if the reader misinterpreted something? Or what if I need to ask a question or explain further in order to understand where I went wrong? Besides, in real life, there are no such bubbles. People are going to speak when they want to speak.

CLASSMATE #2: Francois Camoin says, “I walk into a workshop and deal with living writers who are full of as many intentions as anyone can stand, and then some. The Law of the Workshop, which does not allow them to speak, is both necessary and terrible.”

NEW STUDENT: But is it really “necessary?”

CLASSMATE #2: Well the whole point is to encourage the writer to listen without being defensive.

NEW STUDENT: I don’t know about you but just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean I’m not feeling defensive. I may not be interrupting but am I really absorbing the feedback? I think we should give it a shot without the bubble and see how it works.

CLASSMATE #3: The bubble doesn’t really bother me, but I think if it bothers you and other students this much, then yeah, I’m all for trying it without the bubble to see what happens. The bubble was set up with good intentions but it does seem to value the critic more than the writer. This isn’t a Critiquing Workshop; it’s a Creative Writing Workshop.

TEACHER: OK, now we’re making progress! Keep going. You’re doing great.

NEW STUDENT: OK, if you don’t have an issue with bursting the bubble, how would you feel about eliminating grading altogether?

TEACHER: You want to eliminate grades?

NEW STUDENT: Hear me out… Stephanie Vanderslice says, “Rubric has become a distasteful word, hasn’t it? Rubrics might work in program assessment, but narrative response is much more effective for individual evaluation. We shouldn’t lean too much on rubrics in creative writing (music to many readers’ ears!), in part because they can be overly faultfinding, which doesn’t help writers at any level. The writers who are doing well don’t really find out why and even what they, individually, could be doing better, and the writers who are having problems don’t get those individual problems addressed.”

CLASSMATE #1: If we eliminate grading, then how will we know how we did?

NEW STUDENT: Can’t we leave the grades for the skills classes? Workshops should be pass/fail. By removing the elements of competition (for a grade and among classmates) students will take more risks and the class will work more like a team. Students won’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing the wrong way or thinking too far outside the box because their GPA is no longer riding on their words and actions. They can simply work together toward the mutual goal of becoming better writers.

CLASSMATE #2: That actually makes a lot of sense when you take into consideration different levels of skill and different types of talent. How exactly do you grade talent? Is it fair to grade one writer against another or even against himself? Steven King says, “It is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

CLASSMATE #3: That’s a rather pretentious statement, don’t you think? I may not be a great writer yet but I intend to be. Isn’t that why we’re here? If writing was an Olympic sport, it would be foolish to believe that work and determination couldn’t win someone the gold. But if King’s right, then grading is futile in a creative writing workshop. You might as well give out a bunch of As and Fs on the first day of class unless, of course, the grading is based strictly on one’s own growth. On the other hand, if competency and talent level are solely based on the work reviewed in class and our grades were riding on it, would we only ever submit our best work and ignore the opportunity to improve the rest?

NEW STUDENT: Exactly. And how can you really tell how much a writer has grown and improved until you read more of their writing? In fact, one might say you’d have to read the final product to really determine the overall quality and growth. A poor letter grade could even silence a writer or cause them to toss a project. Is a letter grade worth that?

TEACHER: So, to recap, we’re changing the methodology behind constructive criticism and feedback, we’re discouraging knee-jerk revisions, we’re emphasizing teamwork and empowerment, and we’re eliminating the bubble and traditional grading altogether? OK, I’m game if you are. Everyone in agreement, say “Aye.”

CLASS: AYE!

TEACHER: All opposed say “Nay.”

No one replies.

TEACHER (CON’T.): Looks like the ayes have it. Nice job, everyone. Let’s get started with the new rules next week. We’ll see how it goes.

NEW STUDENT: You’re really going to change the class because of this discussion?

TEACHER: Sure, why not? Clay Reynolds says, “Creative writing doesn’t conform to any particular norm. Some workshops work as regular courses, with thick reading lists and imaginatively evolved assignments in response; some operate as extended critique sessions, wherein the entire focus is on students’ original work; criticism, rewriting, and revision are emphasized. Others take more individualized approaches.” If there are no norms, then we have the freedom to get creative. Anyway, isn’t that the whole point?

Students applaud and talk amongst themselves.

As students leave class, the teacher pulls the new student aside.

TEACHER: You did a fantastic job with this. Not only did you add a critical POV to the discussion, but you inspired the class to think about creativity and how it works—an important aspect of being a creative writing student. In fact, I think you’d make a good teacher.

NEW STUDENT: Thanks. I’m glad I did this. I’m really glad I was able to help. And you were right—this helped me, too. I truly feel empowered and inspired by the experience, and I can’t wait till next week. But, in regards to being a teacher, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

TEACHER: (laughs) OK. See you in class.

WORKS CITED

Bishop, Wendy. “Crossing the Lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing.” Colors of a Different Horse. Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. National University. 181-197

Camoin, Francois. “The Workshop and Its Discontents.” Colors of a Different Horse. Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. National University. 3-7.

Day, Cathy, Leahy, Anna and Vanderslice, Stephanie. “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 2)”

Domina, Lynn. “The Body of My Work Is Not Just a Metaphor.” Colors of a Different Horse. Bishop, Wendy and Ostrom, Hans. National University. 27-34

Haake, Katherine. What Our Speech Disrupts. National University.

King, Steven On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft.

Reynolds, Clay. “Does the Workshop Work? (Or How Much Work Could a Workshop Work if a Workshop Workshopped Work?)” The Vocabula Review. November 2010, Vol. 12, No. 11

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