Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’

How A Writer’s Craft Came to Be.

img_0354Today, I received copies of my introductory 4-genre creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft, hot off the presses in both hardback and paperback. So it seemed like a good time to reflect back on how I got to this point.

When I began the project, I wasn’t planning on publishing a textbook; in fact, the initial writing that eventually became the book were the notes I created for my creative writing class. First, I wrote notes to fill in the gaps in the textbooks I was using or to complement, and at times even argue with, the way that information was presented in each book.

Eventually, after using three or four different texts and finding none that really met my need, and after thinking about how much material of my own I brought to the table, I decided it was time to leave a textbook behind and work from my own notes. Still, I wanted to give students something: something to read before class so they would be prepared, something to study from for their tests, something to take with them after the class was over. I realized I didn’t want to abandon a textbook altogether; I wanted to create my own. But I wasn’t seriously thinking about publishing one. Maybe in the back of my mind, I thought it could happen, if it turned out to be useful.

So I sat down with my notes and thought about the order that I really wanted to present my material in. I thought about the things from different textbooks that weren’t in the one I was using. I thought about the things in my notes that I had added over the years, some of which I wasn’t able to cover with the book I had just been using, some of which I had found a way to slip in. I thought about what I wouldn’t want to do that these authors did.

And then I started writing, trying as much as possible to take my own path and not to be too heavily influenced by others. If one textbook used a term that no one else did, I tried to avoid it. Naturally, standard literary terms like simile or point of view weren’t at issue, but I tried to give my own take on all the material presented, then I cross-checked to make sure I wasn’t borrowing from others.

These notes, I posted in the online course shell (first in Blackboard and then in Canvas) for my class in a few formats: pdf, epub, mobi, and as part of the discussion area. Students began using them (I’m not sure which format was most popular, though I suspect pdf was, since everyone has Adobe Reader), and the class went pretty well.

Because it wasn’t a flop — not too much of a surprise, since I’ve been teaching for over 20 years — and because I often hear people complaining about textbooks, especially the cost, I sent a copy of the finished notes to a couple of friends to teach creative writing with one question: do you think there would be a demand for a book like this? Their answer was a resounding yes. Of course, they are friends, but I did feel they would have told me if they thought it wouldn’t be well received.

So the next time I taught the course, I revised my notes based on the previous year’s experiences. I took my students’ comments into consideration and tried to add more on creative nonfiction and drama, for instance, and I fixed a few things that didn’t work as well as I wanted them to. Then, at AWP I approached a friend of a friend who edits a series of books on creative writing pedagogy. I didn’t think he would be able to publish a textbook, but I thought he might have some ideas. He agreed to read the manuscript, and ultimately recommended it to Palgrave.

There were a few missed connections along the way — emails that went astray, queries about whether there had been a response, copies of the manuscript that disappeared into the ether (not my only copy, just ones I sent out), but eventually Palgrave said they were interested in seeing a full book proposal, and since they had already reviewed the manuscript, it wouldn’t be necessary to resubmit it.

I had already filled out some book proposals for a couple of other textbook publishers (who didn’t bite), so I already had some ideas on the market for intro creative writing textbooks and how mine was different. It didn’t take too long to put everything in Palgrave’s format and fill in the gaps where they asked for information I hadn’t thought of already.

Pretty soon, they accepted the proposal and then sent the manuscript out for peer review. Their reviewers gave comments, I responded, and we negotiated how much revision would be necessary for the final draft. Essentially it boiled down to making the manuscript more accessible for an international market (since Palgrave is based in the UK and also markets to Australia) and adding in a few fairly minor things. I also proposed adding another chapter and an appendix to account for a few issues that were raised. They sent me a contract. I signed it, and then had about 3 months to write the revisions.

That was intense, but I managed to do it, adding things like the glossary and list of references, and preparing to add an index once the actual pages were ready. The final draft went to a company in India for proofreading and final editing, so the next 3-4 months were spent responding to their suggested changes, negotiating punctuation (English or American rules, and how to apply them), and working some on the design once we got to the stage of doing final proofs on the pdfs.

One issue that came up was how to format the writing exercises at the end of each chapter. We settled on using a numbered list to make it clear where one exercise begins and ends, and also to make them easier to assign for instructors. I had the idea to use the nib image from the cover, miniaturized and in black, as a marker at the beginning of the exercise sections. It was a nice way to pull that detail in and tie the book together, and it separated the text of each chapter from the end matter. Palgrave did a great job of implementing that idea — and the cover design, which one of their artists hand sketched, is gorgeous. I also love the way they brought that design onto the back cover.

back coverSince then, I’ve been waiting for my books to arrive, working on the companion website, and trying to generate some interest.

As I look back on it, I realize it took a ton of work to get to this point — mine, friends’ (thank you for reading and giving me comments!), Palgrave’s, and the production company’s. It hardly seems possible from this vantage point, yet over the four years since I started this project, I’ve taken it one step at a time, and each step didn’t seem so daunting as I did it. Of course, in the meantime, I also published a book of poems, kept busy starting a low-residency MFA program, and taught my other classes at Mississippi University for Women! It’s been a wild ride, and I’m happy to start the next phase with books in hand.

10 Strategies to Unblock Writer’s Block

A conversation in the Creative Writing Pedagogy Facebook group got me thinking about this issue again. That conversation was initiated by Julianna Baggot’s blog post Is Writer’s Block a Form of Self-Protection.

First, let me just say that I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I do believe there are many reasons why we don’t write, and that some people call these reasons writer’s block. I believe it’s a concept; I just don’t believe the concept is helpful.

I face what some people would call writer’s block constantly. Starting a new poem, deciding what to write next, trying to decide whether the project I’m working on is a book or a bunch of words that I’ve arranged to look like poems, deciding whether I’m a writer or someone who wastes time with words, fighting to make time to write when there are a million other pressing concerns: all these could be considered aspects of writer’s block. But naming them that doesn’t help me find solutions to those problems. Instead, considering those as part of the writing process — an unavoidable part, perhaps, but also a part of the process that every writer must face — does help.

So here are a few strategies I’ve found that can be helpful in overcoming what some people call writer’s block and I prefer to think of as a stage of pre-writing. It is a stage that can feel like a block when we allow it (or even encourage it) to go on too long and consume our energies, rather than allowing it to lead to productive writing.

  1. Rumination. Sometimes what we think of as writer’s block is simply the necessary phase of dormancy. Instead of actively writing, we are searching for the next thing to write. Our minds aren’t ready to put words on paper, and we don’t have a direction to write in. Calling this phase writer’s block makes it sound like a problem, something to be overcome, when in fact it may be a quiet period that the writer needs to embrace. Thinking that you’re ‘blocked’ leads to stress. Enjoy this time to refuel, and don’t push too hard to get a new project started. To keep from getting stuck in this phase, though, you can begin writing without purpose just to see what might come out. Free writing is a good tactic in this phase. The point of free writing is not to create something good, but simply to explore and see what happens.
  2. Finding Direction. After rumination or maybe as part of that process, writers often are searching for a new direction to write. After completing a novel or even a book or cycle of poems, writers often report casting about, looking for the next big project. Writing prompts and exercises can often help in this stage. The goal is not to complete the exercise and get a great piece of writing. The goal of the exercise or prompt is to distract you. The stress of needing to start something often gets in the way of writing. Because we want it to be a poem, a story, an essay, or heaven forbid, the next novel, we don’t know how to start that. Writing an exercise lets us write without worrying about what we’re starting (other than to follow the prompt). As we do that, often something completely unrelated comes out. After writing several exercises, those unrelated elements may start to add up. The exercises didn’t give you the content that will become your next project, but they did keep you distracted from the need to have a project, so you were able to write about those things and then recognize the project in them. Distraction is often the best way to combat what many think of as writers’ block.
  3. Finding Time. Another thing that gets in the way of writing, especially when we are between projects, is the fact that most of us are incredibly busy. If you don’t have a pressing deadline for a writing project or aren’t energized by being in the midst of a project, then it’s easy to let those work projects or house projects that have piled up take over every spare moment of your life. On the one hand, those are also necessary, and completing those tasks can free you to write later. They can also be a vital part of the process of rumination — keeping busy while you think about writing. But ultimately, if you’re going to get back to writing, you need to make time for it. Taking time away to focus entirely on writing by attending a writing retreat can seem like a luxury. But even if you can’t do that, you can schedule time for writing every day or several times a week. In those scheduled times, make sure you have something to write. Doing prompts or free writing can be a great way to get warmed up. Keep your expectations low: plan to write a list or write a paragraph or write random words; don’t plan to write a poem or a story until you know you have an idea for one. Just write. Doing that, and allowing yourself to write drivel is often the only way to get back to writing something you care about. Usually there is something of value in what you write, though you may not recognize it until much later. But even if none of what you write can be salvaged, it is still worthwhile if it eventually gets you to something you do care to write about.
  4. Journaling. One way to keep writing is to keep a journal. A journal is not meant to be published or even publishable work. It is a free space for writing ideas, observations, lists, rough embarrassing drafts, etc. Sometimes, what causes ‘writer’s block’ is a subject that we need to write about but we don’t know how to make it public. It may be an issue that so consumes us that we can’t write about anything else, but we’re not sure we want anyone else to read (or that we think no one else will be interested in). My advice is to write about it anyway, but write it first in a private journal. Write your way through a difficult subject, and eventually you will be able write about other subjects, too. You may well find that there are portions of the journal that can be made into a public document. Write it first in all its raw honesty, and then cull out the parts that you aren’t willing to share and keep the parts you can share with the world. Or change the names and disguise the circumstances so that you can create enough distance between you and that subject. When writing, know that it never has to be public. When revising, choose what to keep and how you want to make it public.
  5. Banish Your Inner Censor. There is a time in the writing process when we make value judgments, but in the early stages of any project, we really need to keep our inner censor at bay. If we worry too much at the outset whether something will be good enough, we will never write it, so how will we find out? If we have too many preconceived notions about the form or the ending of a piece, we are not free to explore wherever it might lead. If we worry what others will think, we can’t be honest with ourselves. So learning to write without expectations can be extremely valuable. The draft of a poem I write isn’t a poem, but it is a draft that I can refine and rewrite until I’m happy with it. The first draft of a story may be clunky and ill-conceived, but as long has there is something of interest in it for me as the writer, I can revise until that something is apparent to the reader. Writer’s block often happens when we worry too much about the final product and don’t allow ourselves the messy early stages of writing. If we expect the first draft to look like the final product, then we will be continually dissatisfied. If we allow for the fact that all good writing goes through multiple revisions until the final product is distilled from the rough beginnings, then we give ourselves license to begin.
  6. Follow a Form. Often contradictory advice can be useful, and though this tactic contradicts the absolute freedom I’ve been advocating, it can be helpful. A form is essentially a writing prompt. If I try to write a sonnet, I will write something to fit that form. If I decide to write a modern epic or follow any other recognizable pattern, I will find content to fit the pattern. The value of the form is that it forces you to write content that you didn’t intend. To meet the demands of form, you have stretch yourself beyond your limits. Form can lead to valuable surprises. Be willing to reconsider the form at a later stage of the process, but try using a form to generate unexpected content.
  7. Write Different. Sometimes the best way to get out of a pattern of not writing is to try something completely different. The fiction writer who turns to nonfiction or the poet who turns to drama can often stimulate their creativity in the unfamiliar territory. If you’ve been successful at writing in one form, the demands of continuing that success may get in your way, so try a different form where you aren’t the expert. This may give you more freedom to write in ways your inner censor would normally block. Consider blogging or writing creatively on social media or another platform that you’re not comfortable with. Give yourself limitations — novelists might try flash fiction; free verse poets might try haiku. Or break your limits: poets might try prose or longer lines; short story writers or essayists might try longer forms. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone to find the creative tensions that come with new forms.
  8. Set Attainable Goals. Giving yourself a goal or deadline can be helpful in getting back to writing or remaining productive. But keep the goal attainable. It is probably not the best idea to have as your goal that you will write a novel by a specific date (unless you have a contract with a publisher and need to have it finished!). Rather, it is more productive to set goals like writing a certain number of words every day or sitting down to write and actually writing something, regardless of its merit. Once you’ve started writing, then your goals can become clearer. Maybe you’ll realize those words are part of a novel or an essay, and you’ll keep working on that project. Maybe those poems will begin to take shape as a series of poems. Maybe you’ll find the content that you want to keep returning to: whether that is a character and plot or a time and place in your memory or a subject you decide to research for your next project. Set goals that work for the stage you are at in your writing process, and be willing to modify those goals as the project evolves.
  9. Collaborate. Working with others can be the best incentive to keep writing. If your writing partner is looking for your next installment of a shared project, you don’t want to let that person down. Hopefully you collaborate with someone you trust, so that when you send them something you aren’t 100% sure of, they will take what you’ve written and run with it. Another form of collaboration is translation. If you find you don’t have a lot of ideas coming, then work with someone else’s ideas in another language or in another form. If you don’t speak another language, adapt a work from an earlier era to the present. Once you get working with it, allow your own ideas to infuse the work. Listen to music, go to an art museum, go to a reading or read other writers. These are all forms of collaboration that can lead to ideas. If those are specifically about the work of art, then you may have ekphrastic writing. If the other artist leads you to ideas that are mostly your own, then you are simply taking part in the great conversation of art. Often at a reading, ideas for a poem or a character will come that have nothing to do with what the writer is reading: the sound of their words may have called up a memory or a thought, but it isn’t directly related to the other writer’s content. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, in other words, go in search of it.
  10. Let Others Read Your Writing. Often what we call writers block isn’t really an inability to write. Don’t we all write emails, memos, texts, grocery list, and other practical things every day? We are able to put words on paper. We simply think that none of our writing has merit or is creative. This is the perfect time to give it to someone else. Don’t tell them what they should find in it; listen to what they say they did find that was valuable. Often we are surprised that someone else responds to work we think isn’t good enough. That doesn’t mean we can’t still revise and make it better, but the voice of encouragement from someone we trust can be exactly what we need to embark upon that journey.

The main situation where I encounter writer’s block in others is in the creative writing classroom. There we have a built-in incentive to get over it: a grade. Yet this can also put an incredible amount of stress on the writer. This is why I emphasize the writing process and the reality that no writing is good enough in a first draft. The goal of a class is not to make the writing perfect, but it is to make it better. I value improvement and growth as a writer over perfection. And students in a class have the support system of the class—other students and the instructor, who want them to succeed. Of course, there are also aspects of form that we’ve studied that I want the writer to pay attention to in their finished work. Value is part of my final grade determination, but it shouldn’t be an issue in the beginning, and it shouldn’t be the final arbiter for the grade. I have found that with some encouragement and with some combination of these strategies, writer’s block can be overcome. Sometimes writer’s block is an excuse or a crutch that a student uses to rationalize why they haven’t written. Treating it as a real issue, but not as an insurmountable obstacle, helps the writer start writing. When I’ve faced my own incredibly busy schedules or the lack of direction between major projects (or when yI’ve been stalled on a project), I’ve tried many of these strategies myself. Sometimes have been easier than others, but I’m still writing so they must work.

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.