Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over the protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer the proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a dactyl “OVer the” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial dactyl “OVer the | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. And if you wanted to scan it as a trochee followed by an anapest and then two iambs, there wouldn’t be much difference other than where you divide foot one from foot two.

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

Another Creative Writing Myth Debunked

Stories and Poems Were Written the Way We Read Them

This isn’t a myth we teach, which is one reason I didn’t included it with my previous post: 5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked. Instead, it is one I find a lot of students have when they come to my class. Maybe we all have it, but it’s one we constantly need to remind ourselves doesn’t have to be so.

Stories and poems usually aren’t written from the first sentence to the last in the order we read them. Yes, sometimes that happens, but often the first sentence of a story or the first line of a poem may be moved or discarded before a draft is finalized. The conclusion may be written first, or the first written paragraph may end up somewhere in the middle of the final piece.

Writers don’t sit down with a poem or a story in mind. We sit down to write. We write some things on the page, and we find the story or poem in it. Revision is about more than  ‘fixing the problems’ in a draft. It is about re-envisioning that draft and finding the best way to write what we discover.

It’s probably easier to write down a poem in the order you want it because it’s easier to carry a poem around with you in your head for awhile before you ever write a draft. Many poets work this way, and they may have a pretty good sense of the final poem before they ever commit it to paper. That doesn’t make that the best strategy! Sometimes it’s better to just write words on paper and not worry about how to start a poem. Many poets don’t even think about line breaks or stanzas in their first draft. They just write the words and worry about the form later.

Many times, writers block seems to come because people don’t know how to get started, but if you start in the middle or if you start before the beginning, then the pressure is off. Of course, we want a great opening line to a poem or first paragraph to a story! But the pressure to start with that great opening makes it nearly impossible to write. So just start writing, and worry about what the opening will be later.

In the same way, we want to keep writing until we get to the end of a piece. But often I talk to students who are stuck at a given point in a story, and I encourage them to take a scene they do think they know and write it. Don’t worry about how to get from point B to point G. Just write what you know you want to include and connect the dots later, if you need to.

A poem is the same way. It might be written in perfectly reasonable stanzas and lines, yet lack energy. Taking those lines, rearranging them, changing the line breaks, cutting out the dead wood, finding new connections between images or just allowing the images to resonate without any explanation, putting the poem through the blender, in other words, and then sorting out the pieces, all can lead to a better final draft.

But the myth comes from the fact that we tend to read finished stories and poems. We don’t see the messy process that led to the final product. We think that the writer had an idea, wrote it, then refined it, and ended up with the final draft. What often happens is that a writer has a vague idea of what he wants to write, stumbles towards it, gets lost, finds another path, discovers something worth pursuing, then comes back later and tries to make sense of all the mess. What we see when we read the final draft is the sense that was made. We don’t see the messy process that led the writer there. So when we sit down to write, we criticize ourselves for the mess we produce, rather than digging in, rearranging, sorting and sifting to find the meaning and the form that will reveal it, and obstinately stumbling forward to that final product.

5 Creative Writing Myths Debunked

We all do it. We perpetuate these myths, and often they can be good advice and even good teaching tools, yet just as often these five catch phrases can create stumbling blocks. They aren’t right for everyone in every situation.

Know Your Characters’ Motivation

This is the myth that started me thinking about writing this post. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with knowing your character’s motivation when writing a scene. In fact, it’s one piece of advice I give in the chapter on character in my textbook, A Writer’s Craft. It’s just that this advice often leads to the assumption that writers always have to psychoanalyze our characters. Sometimes you don’t have to understand why your character does what she does. It may be enough to know what and how she does it, and let yourself and your readers wonder why. Writers are keen observers. We watch what people do and how they act. We often wonder about what motivates people, but we don’t have to have all the right answers. Our characters don’t have to figure out all of their foibles and be perfect humans by the end of our stories. Sometimes the motivation is a mystery for the writer, the character, and the reader, but the mystery is precisely what is intriguing. I haven’t stopped handing out this advice, in other words, but I do it with the reservation that there are some things we just can’t know.

Write What You Know

Here’s another valuable piece of advice that I’d like to reexamine. It’s true that it can be easier and more comfortable to write what you already know. You are on more certain ground and are less likely to make mistakes that would lose the trust of your readers. But it can also be exciting to write about places you’ve never been or subjects that you are only just learning about. This can provide a level of mystery and exploration for the writer that can drive a piece of writing in ways and directions that writing about familiar terrain can never reach. So I prefer to rephrase this as “Know What You Write.” This may mean you know it already or it may mean that you need to do significant research, and probably this means experiential research — going out and doing the things you’re writing about or digging deep into the study of the subject you want to write about. Surface knowledge is rarely enough. You need to live and breathe what you write until it does become what you know. By the time you are finished writing, “Write What You Know” makes sense, in other words, but in the beginning, it could be that you decide to write about an unknown subject in order to explore it thoroughly and intimately in the process of writing.

Show Don’t Tell

This is one myth that I firmly believe — most of the time. I’m an advocate of the image, and I’m always trying to get student writers to show me more. But even as I do that, I am always a little uncomfortable treating it as a rule of law. There are plenty of times in writing that we do want to tell. A poem may have no images and still be a poem if it has form or if it experiments with language. A story may begin with a scene or it may begin with narration. I’ve known a few stories (and have even written one or two) that relied primarily on narration with very little scene. The flow of language in a prose paragraph can be just as inviting as an image, and the thought behind a story is sometimes best placed in the foreground. So I want images, sometimes I even demand them, but I also want to acknowledge the times and forms where showing might take a back seat to telling.

Write From Your Muse

We all want to be inspired. We all want to find the subjects or the material that make us eager to write. We long for the moments when writing comes natural and feels like it’s hardly any work at all. But we also can waste a lot of time and energy waiting for the muse to arrive or being frustrated that the writing feels more like a slog through the mud than a sprint to the finish. When inspiration becomes an unattainable muse, then we may feel like we aren’t writers or that we have writer’s block when the muse doesn’t show up very often. When we instead acknowledge that the inspired moment is the rare anomaly, or that inspiration comes more often when we put in the work than when we wait for it to happen, then we are moving down the path of the professional writer. Writing without purpose, not knowing if the work you are doing will be productive or not, but doing it anyway because it is writing: that’s the hard part. But writing for the sake of writing, trying out an idea even if you’re not sure if it’s ‘inspired,’ is often what’s needed to get you to the inspired moment you long to have. Without the first stumbling five lines or ten pages, the poem or story may never get started. Once you have a sense of where you’re going with a piece, you’re more likely to feel inspired about it, but getting there takes courage, dedication, or just pure obstinance. Worshipping a muse can make it seem unattainable; bringing it down to earth and thinking of writing as a process that sometimes takes effort can also make it seem more manageable.

Write Every Day

This is probably the best advice I’ve given, yet it is also advice that I’m rarely able to follow. To not sound like a hypocrite, the practical advice might be: write regularly and often, and try to do it more and more often. The problem with the advice to write every day is that we feel like a failure when we don’t. And who is able to really keep this up all the time? There may be periods when you can write every single day (or 5-6 days a week)  and there may be periods where writing a few times a week is a struggle. We have to learn to live our lives and still call ourselves writers, yet we also need to strive for good writing habits. The more regular your writing time is, the more likely you’ll be ready and able to write when it arrives. But professors have different daily schedules, so I often have some days when its easier to work in writing and other days when it’s more of a challenge. If I can write three days a week and find ways to work in some writing when I can on the other days, that’s pretty good. If I can build in some writing retreats or extended periods where I focus on nothing but writing, that’s even better. But the reality of most days is that writing competes with so many other obligations that maintaining a daily writing time is a challenge. Finding ways to cope with a challenging schedule and to keep the writing going helps, but sometimes it is also good to acknowledge that life happens and the goal of writing every day can be unattainable. Rather than beating ourselves up for failing at that goal, isn’t it much more productive to try to do the best we can to write as often and as regularly as possible?

These were the five myths I came up with when I sat down to write on this topic. There are probably more. What myths do you struggle with in your writing?

 

Creative Writing Final Exam

This is a follow-up post to my series on teaching a 4-genre introductory creative writing class: Why 4 Genres?How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part IIHow I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part III, and Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines. All have been written as worked on the proofreading for my multi-genre textbook, A Writer’s Craft, which has now gone through final proofing. Exam copies should be available soon!

This semester, I’ve tried to describe my process of teaching creative writing, and now that we reach the end of the semester and our Full Class Workshops are over, we are turning to the final exam.

When I first came to Mississippi University for Women, I was told we were required to have a final in every class — in part, this was due to meeting the contact hour requirements for a semester. When I started teaching creative writing, I initially chafed at the idea, thinking the final portfolio ought to be enough. However, since it was a requirement, I set about creating an exam that made sense for the class. One reason I didn’t mind, especially since I require hard copies of portfolios, is that it gave me one last chance to see my students and return their portfolios. It also allowed students some more time for reflection.

Over the years, I’ve given many different permutations of the exam, and I realize there’s no perfect one, but a few things have remained constant or at least been popular variations. One has been to include a writing exercise. I might bring in a number of objects or photographs and ask student to write about whatever they like related to the prompt. I’ve had some good work come out of this last exercise, and it relieves some of the stress of the exam.

Another question that I’ve used, which I’ve usually given in advance, is to write a self-assessment of their writing. I assign this after they turn in their portfolio, and I collect it after the portfolio is graded and as it is returned, so my comments don’t influence their self-assessment, and they know their comments won’t affect my grade. I find this a very valuable exercise for most writers.

I may ask questions about the genres that we’ve studied, but I try not to ask for the kind of detail I’ve quizzed them on earlier in the semester (I give them 4 tests in the early weeks of the semester, so they can show they understood the material as we covered it.) On the final exam, the questions are more open-ended and allow students to tell me what they know and to use some of the terms we’ve discussed, but not to have to define terms or recall specific ones. They can describe the topic in their own words, too.

I often ask a question about the workshop experience and about the comments from other students that were most influential to their revision or the comments they gave others that were most insightful (in their opinion). I want students to reflect on the workshop experience, and I often get their opinions of the small group workshops and the full class workshops at the beginning and end of the semester respectively.

I want students to review and reflect before they come to the final because that will help reinforce what they’ve learned. But I don’t want them to have to memorize or cram for the exam, since that would defeat the purpose.

I always enjoy grading these exams, and they give me valuable insights into what has worked well this semester and what I may want to try next semester.

Teaching Creative Writing with Literary Magazines

I’m a big fan of teaching creative writing with literary magazines, and have been doing it my whole my career. When I first started teaching Creative Writing, I used the textbook The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley. It is a thin little book with chapters on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, along with cross-genre introductory chapters, and it was very influential to me in the way that I teach. One of the things it doesn’t have is an anthology of readings in the book. I was happy with that.

Since I was guest-editing an issue of The Literary Review, I began by ordering back issues of it  for my class. I would order a box and sell them at cost to my students. Usually I broke about even, though collecting their $4 was sometimes a challenge. I never lost much on the deal, though, and I was supporting a good journal.

One challenge of doing it this was was that I usually got our sample back issues just a week or so before classes started, or sometimes even after they had begun. I would pick out stories and poems for the class to read, and I often didn’t have a chance to review them. Students knew that; we were all exploring brand-new work together. That was also part of the thrill. It made class a little unpredictable, though I always knew the quality of the work would be fantastic.

Eventually, I decided to move to different textbooks after The Creative Process began to feel a little dated for me. I tried a couple that had selections of readings in them, and it was always a little bit of a let down. It was nice to have the readings well in advance of teaching the class, when I ordered my exam copies, but it never felt as fresh as when I was using a lit mag.

So when I decided to write my own notes, which I’m now publishing as the textbook A Writer’s CraftI also opted not to include an anthology of readings. Instead, I’ve been having my students purchase a recent Pushcart anthology. This has the advantage of having more selections to choose from, and it’s not terribly expensive (though more than a magazine’s back issue). There is also an index of magazines consulted in the back, which is helpful for students who want to find more. But I do miss teaching with an actual magazine.

Another way I’ve always tried to introduce literary magazines in an intro to creative writing class is to have students write a magazine review. They have to find their own magazine, get a copy, and then write a short review of it. I have them focus on the kinds of things a writer would care about if deciding where to submit. What is the quality of the magazine, who publishes in it, what styles do they seem to prefer, etc. Finding a magazine can be a challenge if you aren’t in a city with a good independent bookstore. But there are libraries with magazines, and students can always order one if they start early enough. And I’ll allow an online journal if students can access a full issue. New Pages even has a magazine store, where you can buy sample copies online, which can help the students who plan ahead. I’ve learned about a lot of good journals through this assignment!

CLMP also has a lit magazine adoption program for use in the classroom. As I understand it, they are revamping and relaunching the program this year, and faculty will be able to let their students purchase subscriptions for use in their classes. When that is available again, I may go back to assigning a magazine for the readings for my class! It sounds more convenient than ordering a box of books and guessing the right number of students who will enroll.

 

How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part III

In the first parts of this series, I discussed why I teach 4 genres, how teaching 4 genres is more efficient, and how small group workshops help me juggle 4 genres in one class. That covers about the first 50-60% of a semester, but now I’d like to turn to what I do in the rest of the semester: the full-class workshop and the midterm and final portfolios.

Full-Class Workshops

Once we have worked our way through the four genres, I open the class up to workshopping with the full class. We can usually handle 2-3 texts in a 50-minute period. If there aren’t too many students in the class, I will schedule 2 people per day, but if necessary, I schedule 3 per day at least some of the time to allow everyone at least 2 times to bring their work.

Because we’ve already discussed genres individually, we can handle cross-genre workshop sessions, where one person may bring a poem and another may bring fiction, nonfiction, or a play script. I don’t limit students to bringing one short piece and one long piece, though I do sometimes allot a little more time to a longer text.

Because some of the students have already seen part of the text in their small group workshop, our discussion is often more efficient, yet students get the value of more perspectives on their writing, and they get to see how their classmates have revised and developed the work they saw previously. It’s great that this structure allows us to workshop a piece more than once in different stages of the writing, so we can really discuss the process of revision.

Discussion also goes better, thanks to the lessons students have learned in the small group workshops. They are more willing to make suggestions about each other’s work, and more willing to take those suggestions. I remind them at the outset that the best time to bring work to the workshop is when it is more than half-baked, but not completely finished. You should be far enough along in your drafting process that the class can give you useful feedback (not the obvious comments about an early draft you could have figured out on your own), but not so far along that you are finished with the piece — you should still be receptive to suggestions.

Because students are more comfortable making suggestions, I usually don’t have to lead the discussion too much. I will play devil’s advocate at times, making suggestions that the group isn’t considering, and I will raise issues that I think it would be good for the class as a whole to consider, but I try to save my own comments on the piece for an individual conference with the student.

In course evaluations and reflective exam questions about the workshop process, I have consistently noticed that students value the full-class workshops the most, but they also appreciate the small group workshops. And some have even come to realize that the freer discussions in Small Groups helped their discussions later.

I say the Small Groups are freer, even though I give them initial steps to consider and questions to discuss. Once they’ve done that part, their discussions can go wherever they want (and sometimes, I suspect they ignore my instructions and just talk about their work after awhile). In Small Groups, I allow the writer to respond to the group; in Full-Class workshops, I ask the writer to be silent after they have read from their work. They will have a chance to respond briefly at the end, but during our discussion I want us to ask our questions of the text and each other, and not to rely on the writer for answers. That can be difficult, and sometimes we break that rule, but it can be a good guideline to have (though not the only model for workshopping).

The Full-Class Workshops are where students take the work they’ve done already, choose the writing they are most interested in, and adapt it to the genres they want to write for their final portfolios. It makes sense to allow them to choose whatever work they want for workshop, since I try to place very few restrictions on their final portfolio.

Midterm and Final Portfolios

I always assign a midterm and a final portfolio. I’m an advocate for giving students some sense of their grades before they are done, and a midterm portfolio of work in progress is a way to let students know if they are generating enough material and taking it far enough by that point in the semester. The final portfolio contains their polished, finished work. Most of the work in the final portfolio will also have been in the midterm portfolio, though some new work may be included, and some work from the midterm portfolio may not be in the final portfolio.

I assign midterm and final portfolios in all of my undergraduate classes. In the the intro class, where we are working on 4 genres, I allow students to choose what genres they include in both portfolios. The midterm portfolio is usually due as we’re just starting to consider genre. And since we’ve already covered all 4 genres by the time we get to the final portfolio, I don’t feel I have to see finished work in all 4. I do require at least 1 story and 2 poems (or I might consider part of a play or essay to be a lyric form). The point is that I want to be sure they have a variety of finished work, and that they are working with narrative and lyric forms. But the scene of a play done for the drama workshop might be transformed into a scene for a short story. Or their essay might get turned into a poem. A lyric essay would qualify as a poem, as would a prose poem. A dramatic monologue or dialogue could qualify as a poem, too.

My goal in teaching 4 genres is to get students to explore different modes of writing and to discover a kind of writing they may not have thought they could do. It is also to see how all the genres inform each other, so I don’t mind it if students gravitate towards one or two genres. I want them to try something outside of their comfort zone, and I tell them that I will grade their strongest work first and the genre that isn’t their strong suite will be graded as the part of the portfolio where they were trying something new.

Still, I keep experimenting with ways to word the portfolio requirements so they don’t privilege fiction and poetry over nonfiction and drama. I like the idea that there are narrative forms and lyric forms. If I were to expand my requirements to more than 2, I would want to consider rhetorical or essay forms and performative forms. If I do add these in the future, I probably wouldn’t require that students submit at least 4 pieces, one in each form, but instead that their work reflect these 4 modes, but that they may be combined. A poem may be both lyrical and performative, in the same way that a play might (and might also have a narrative). A nonfiction piece might have narrative and lyric moments, and a story might have lyrical passages.

Those criteria would be a little harder to identify, and might require an artist’s statement that discusses how the different forms are reflected in the portfolio. I’m not quite ready to go there ye,t though I often include an exam question that asks students to be self-reflective about their writing.

For now, I’ll stick with a portfolio that includes some prose and some poetry, some narrative and some lyric. Teaching in 4 genres has been an evolutionary process. I have found it more rewarding and challenging the more even-handed I’ve become, and I expect that my methods will continue to evolve as long as I continue to teach.

How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part II

One question I get about my new textbook A Writer’s Craft is, how is it possible to teach poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and drama all in one semester? This post is a continuation of “How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part I,” where I talk about the efficiencies of teaching 4 genres at the intro level and “Why 4 Genres?” where I talk about the benefits of teaching all 4 genres together. Today, I want to talk about one strategy for managing a class with this much content, and sometimes with 20 students or more: the Small Group Workshop.

Juggling student work in an intro class is never easy, and the traditional workshop model that allows you to talk about pieces by 2, maybe 3, students per day can quickly bog down. When I started teaching creative writing, I soon moved to a model where I have students work in smaller groups, usually of 3-4 students per group, for some of our sessions, especially early in the semester. It was a way to get more student work before at least some of the class earlier in the semester, so everyone got some feedback on their early work.

This model may seem familiar from the peer editing sessions often used in a composition class, though I adapted it somewhat. In comp, I usually gave my students peer editing worksheets with questions to answer about the paper topic. In creative writing, it made more sense to give the groups instructions for what to do, and this evolved into a pedagogical approach that’s a little different. Awhile ago, after a presentation at AWP, I posted some examples of the kind of steps and questions from these early small group workshops on my website.

One of my early frustrations with students in a creative writing class was that they were uncomfortable giving constructive criticism to each other. Even though I gave them guidelines for workshop comments, they still inevitably praised each other’s work and suggested very few revisions. They did this, even though they often begged each other for more thorough comments — at least they told me this in course evaluations, though they may not have expressed it to other students. Small group workshops became a way to train students to comment on each other’s writing in a non-threatening environment. This seems to work better than starting with full-class workshops for a number of reasons.

First, the work they turn in for these workshops is usually based on an assignment I’ve given: write a character sketch, describe a public place, write a memory, etc. This means that the students aren’t as invested in what they’ve written as they would be if it were their latest great story or poem. Everyone is at an early draft stage, and they’re more willing to comment on each other’s work and receive those comments. I also believe that it’s easier for students to write comments on each other’s hand-written drafts than it is to comment on something typed and printed, which looks more final, even if it isn’t.

Second, because I tell them what to look for, students don’t feel intimidated about pointing those things out. I usually stick to positive judgements, such as finding the most evocative phrases or the clearest images. If I ask them to point out potential flaws, I try to be neutral in the way I describe it: I may ask them to underline three abstractions, for instance. I always have students make suggestions, and I remind them that they aren’t saying what should be in the piece, but rather what could be in it. They are also liberated in making these suggestions because I told them to, so it isn’t an implied criticism of the other writer.

Third, I always have everyone read everyone else’s writing. Initially, I have them bring their work to class and exchange with their group. We have 2-3 steps to the workshop so that everyone gets a chance to read everyone else’s exercise. Then there is time for the group to discuss each other’s work. everyone gets a response from two or three other writers, and they compare notes on what they found.

That is where I really hear productive discussions taking place. Yes, I’ve led them somewhat by asking questions in the first rounds, and by giving them a list of questions to consider in discussion. But I usually hear the groups talking about other aspects of the writing, and often they point out the things they really liked about each other’s work. One student may bring an exercise they feel is terrible, and the group may find some very promising potential in it. Another student may bring something they think is fabulous and the group is confused but can either help make it clearer or suggest other possibilities for how to develop the piece.

Of course, for these early workshops assignments, students aren’t required to continue working on them. My goal is that they learn something about the topic (language, character, point of view, etc.), not that their exercise turn into a finished piece, though often a character or an idea comes out of these workshop discussions that the writer decides to use in a more extended piece.

By the time we get to the chapters on specific genres, I change my strategy somewhat. Now that students are used to giving comments on each other’s work, I can create groups in our LMS (we use Canvas now, but have used Blackboard) where students can exchange files. This allows the students to read and comment on their group’s pieces before they come to class, so we can work with longer passages — maybe a couple of typed pages instead of one hand-written page.

We do one small group workshop on each genre, so students write something for each. However, they still aren’t required to make that exercise work as an essay, story, poem, or play. They could ditch that idea entirely, if they have enough other work for their portfolios, or they could adapt the writing they did in one genre workshop to another genre. We usually talk about how a nonfiction piece could be adapted as fiction or poetry, for instance, or how a drama scene would work differently if written as fiction, etc.

These small group workshops eventually give way to full class workshops in the latter 40% or so of the class, and ultimately will lead to a final portfolio of finished work, but that sounds like a topic for Part III of this series.

By the time we get to the full class workshop, everyone has already discussed several early pieces of writing with some of the class. Because I change up the groups, everyone has gotten some feedback from everyone else, and they’ve developed a sense of a writing community, and everyone has written some drafts in each genre that we cover.