When I was at AWP talking about my new textbook, A Writer’s Craft, several people reacted with a question which usually amounted to the following: how can you possibly teach 4 genres in one semester? This usually came from someone who was used to teaching a 1- or 2-genre course, and I can relate to that initial shock. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why 4 Genres?,” I started out teaching poetry and fiction together, and gradually added creative nonfiction and drama. In the beginning, I gave less time to those two step-children, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more even-handed.
There is no one right approach to teaching creative writing for everyone, so what I do may not be perfect for you, but I thought I would try to lay out how I have learned to go about teaching 4 genres in one semester in case that will help. I figure it will take more than one blog post to do that justice, so this is Part I.
This part will be primarily about how A Writer’s Craft is structured, and how that helps me cover the material more efficiently. Part II will be about some alternative workshop strategies that help me handle larger class sizes (when I’ve had them) and get through the material more quickly while still giving students time to talk about their writing. Part III, if there is one, will be about anything I haven’t covered in the first two parts. So let’s see how it goes.
One of the main things that makes teaching creative writing in 4 genres interesting, fun, and more efficient than teaching the genres individually, is that you can see how each genre relates to and informs the others. In teaching multiple genres at the intro level, there is greater efficiency. Certain early chapters automatically relate to any genre. When we talk about the writing process, the process of finding inspiration, finding form, and revising until you have a final product, it doesn’t matter whether we are writing story (fiction or nonfiction), essay, poem, or drama. When we talk about image or the way creative writers use language differently than they do when writing essays, letters, or grocery lists, the genre of creative writing doesn’t matter. In fact, talking about the way poets do this helps fiction writers, and thinking of dramatists or novelists helps poets.
It’s not just that we don’t have to repeat those opening chapters in each successive course (Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Poetry, etc.), but that seeing how different writers approach the same issues helps me cover all the genres in greater depth.
I didn’t come up with this approach on my own, of course. It was one of the qualities I most admired about The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley, the first textbook I used, and it was a quality I looked for in every textbook I used or considered thereafter, though I never found one that was quite as even-handed and truly cross-genre as theirs (though it didn’t include drama).
In A Writer’s Craft, I’ve tried to make it more cross-genre, not less. The opening chapters on the writing process and working with language, image, memory, and the imagination are all very open to cross-genre work. At that point, I stress that writers often don’t know what form the final product will take, and maybe they shouldn’t try to decide too early, since a predetermined form can get in the way of an idea, especially when we’re not fully comfortable with that form. With practice, form can actually lead to new ideas, but that usually works better when we know the form inside and out and can use it as a generative device, not when we’re learning the form and trying to come up with an idea at the same time.
This approach carries over into the first chapters on finding form. When discussing character and point of view, I try to apply the concepts to all genres, not just fiction. Poetry has a dramatic moment and a speaker of the poem. A creative essay has a character, even if that is only the narrator’s voice. Drama considers point of view in how it’s presented, though it doesn’t usually have a narrator. Considering point of view from these angles, for instance, helps students make sense of an abstract concept and apply it to fiction better, too. I try not to leave any of the genres out of the discussion in the opening chapters, in other words, and this helps me to find new ways to think about and explain these issues of form.
Because I am concentrating on a cross-genre approach, this also helps me introduce some topics specific to one genre in the early chapters. For instance, in the chapter about language, I introduce the concept of rhyme and rhythm. I say we’ll bring this up again when we get to poetry, so I don’t talk in terms of rhyme schemes or meter, only in terms of how writers pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their language. This helps me when I get to poetry because I don’t have to fight as many battles about end-rhyme. We can talk about what it is and compare it to internal rhyme, but it isn’t the thing that defines poetry. Meter is easier to discuss if writers have started to notice the rhythms of stress in their sentences before they have to memorize technical terms.
Similarly, talking about dialogue in general terms when discussing character and voice, helps me when I get to the chapters on fiction and drama, where we cover some of the more technical ways of dealing with it, like how to print it on the page. Discussing the persona of a poem, helps when talking about the narrative voice in a personal essay later.
Even in the chapters on specific genres, I always include a section on what the genre can teach writers of other genres. What do fiction writers learn from poets or playwrights, what do poets or fiction writers learn from memoir or essay? In this way, these chapters build on one another, reinforce lessons learned in a previous chapter, and challenge writers to try new techniques learned from another genre.
Rather than viewing the four genres as separate beasts or even the only options for creative writers, I try to see how they are interrelated, and how they can be remixed and reconfigured in new, hybrid forms like the prose poem, flash fiction, kinetic poetry, or hypertext fiction, the mapped essay, creative gaming, etc. Genres are choices, and as you begin to make those choices, it affects the final form of what you write, but there are great advantages to knowing and learning from the forms of other genres, even if they aren’t the forms you gravitate to. Studying them together makes for a richer and more efficient discussion of them all, and that’s one way I’m able to teach all four in one semester.