Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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 I

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.

Cross-Genre Teaching

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.

Concrete Poetry

I always have a little fear and trepidation introducing concrete poetry to a class of creative writers, as I did today. On the one hand, I’m afraid I may get a lot of texts written in a shape that don’t have much poetry to them; on the other hand, I am convinced that the visual side of poetry is at least worth considering. Concrete poetry can lead to abuse or innovation, in other words, so it helps to show some examples.

What I like about concrete poems is that they can develop their own, visual sense of grammar. There is a syntax to the spatial arrangement of words on the page that works counter to sentence syntax. Indeed, often there is no sentence and the ‘words’ may not even be pronounceable. I like getting students to think outside the box and to think of poems as something other than prose. But I don’t like to give the idea that concrete poetry is static.

Far from it. The best concrete poetry challenges our linguistic norms, including challenging our habit of making language sense from left to right and top to bottom. So I show them a poem written in different lines that curve and bend in different directions, even one circular line. There is no logical place to begin the poem. If you start with one sentence and end with another, you might get a completely different sense of the poem than if you did it the other way around, or another way. There are multiple readings of the same text, depending on your entry point.

Writing a poem like this may take more technical prowess with typography than your average undergraduate can muster, but being exposed to the poem (and to other concrete poems) might allow them to think of poetry as not being (completely) linear. If they begin to look for connections around and within a poem, and not just in the straight line of prose, then they may pay more attention to other ways of creating meaning in a poem. Some of those may be more visual than auditory.

New Semester

It’s always nice to see a new batch of students in your classes at the beginning of a new semester, along with a few returning faces. This semester, it looks like I have a good group. Classes are reasonably sized, but not too huge. I’m excited about using my new textbook in creative writing with another group of 12. It’s one I’ve been writing and publishing as an e-book for my students. So this semester, I can test it on another group of creative writers.

Besides Creative Writing, I’ll be teaching two sections of Late World Lit — one online and the other in the classroom — and one section of Modern Poetry, which is always a lot of fun. My class sizes are not too big and not too small, so I’m happy with the numbers, too. I wouldn’t mind a few more in my face-to-face sections, but there are enough in each to have good discussions. Should be fun!

Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates

It was nice recently to receive a contributor’s copy of a book that I’m in (briefly). I contributed a 3-page response to questions about Chapter 4, “Facilitating the Writer’s Workshop: Helping Students Become Good Critics (Of Themselves and Others).” I’ll leave it to others to weigh the value of my remarks, but I was intrigued to see the book in print and have a chance to see the contributions of authors Stephanie Vanderslice and Kelly Ritter, as well as the thoughts of other creative writing teachers who responded to the chapters.

I haven’t had a chance to read it cover to cover yet, but I am looking forward to it. What I have read is thoughtful and useful. I won’t say I agree with every point, though I haven’t found myself strongly disagreeing either, but the book is thought-provoking. It is aimed at the new creative writing teacher, often a graduate student or recent MFA graduate, who suddenly finds him or herself in an undergraduate classroom on the other side of the desk. It is full of practical advice — in the early chapters often focusing on the differences between graduate school and undergraduate creative writing classes, later giving advice on textbooks, terminology, and so forth. As such, it seems valuable to anyone who is new to teaching, and it earns its subtitle: ‘A Practical Guide and Sourcebook.’ New teachers will need to weigh the experiences of the authors and other contributors against their own experience and come to their own conclusions, but this thin volume will help them find many valuable issues to consider and point out avenues to explore those issues further.

Though I am not its primary audience (having taught creative writing for nearly two decades), I fell there is much that the seasoned professional can gain from the book. It furthers a conversation that is perhaps too rare in creative writing circles, at least in the United States. It argues that creative writing can be taught, and it makes its case for how this can be done.