Creative Writing Classroom
This paper begins by pointing out the tendency to undervalue creative writing courses, and explores the reasons why some believe that creative writing courses are a waste of time. It asks the question "How do creative writing teachers benefit students?" and offers several answers. It also presents several central questions that creative writing teachers should ask in order to create an effective classroom for creative writing students. A discussion of effective methods for teaching creative writing, and an exploration of the mindset and habits that most expert writers have in common are also presented.
Keywords: Atelier Approach; Creativity; Critical Phase; Inspiration Approach; Generative Phase; Techniques Approach; Timed Writing; Workshop Approach
The Challenges of Creative Writing Teaching
In the last few decades, higher education in America has increasingly focused on concepts such as accountability and, along with that, a demand for objectively quantifying or measuring results or outcomes in education. Of course this is an important concept that educators must consider when designing courses and assignments, but the recent concentration on outcomes or results can be quite difficult to handle when it comes to courses where creativity is a central point of focus. Additionally, if measurable outcomes become the primary basis on which all classes and courses are assessed, then courses that demand student creativity may become undervalued in education. As Johnston (2009), a creative writing at Harvard, observes, some stakeholders in education — including administrators, parents, politicians and teachers — may feel that courses such as creative writing have no commercial or fiscal relation to the real world; thus such courses lack any inherent value to society. He bluntly poses the question on behalf of those holding this viewpoint, why should teachers "muck up students' brains and semesters with fluffy, timewasting classes?" (p. 4). Students' time could be better invested into, for example, a business or hotel management course. Johnston concludes by saying that, "commercially speaking, such classes [business or hotel management courses] are surer bets, but when did education get reduced to a pesky hoop through which students must jump just to land in a job?" (p. 4).
In essence, James (2008) points out this same argument by noting that "creative writing has been the ugly stepsister in the English discipline for years." He argues that
…literature scholars carry the torch for pure language, and, on the other side, the composition and rhetoric theorists approach writing like a science. Somewhere off in a dark corner, the creative writing staff loiters, getting paid to do nothing more than say what they think about student writing (James, 2008, p. 79).
Perhaps this viewpoint is also founded on the premise that creative writing teachers do not really teach anything since creativity is something some people have and others don't. But is this true, and if it isn't true, then how do creative writing teachers help students make gains in their classrooms? How do they teach anything of value to the students in their classrooms? Vakil (2008) points out the subtleties and intricacies of teaching students to write creatively:
Leaving aside where it comes from, or even what it is, any sane discussion about teaching creative writing has to begin with the admission that making a great story (credible voice, living characters, universal significance), depends on an ineffable quality — call it timing, a good ear, empathy or determination — that cannot be taught in the way that a skill like riding a bicycle, wiring a plug, frying an egg or laying a brick can be (p. 157).
Watts asks, "how do we teach our students to master the complexities, the intricacies, of plot, setting, characters, point of view, voice, back story, and scenes?" (2007, p. 28). This question and other important questions — particularly questions of method/technique, assignments, and assessment — must be asked and adequately answered if a creative writing teacher is to succeed in giving students a valuable experience in the classroom. Also, in asking those questions, many aspects of creative writing courses become clearer. The answers seem to overlap in the areas that are essential to an effective creative writing classroom.
How Do Creative Writing Courses Benefit Students?
Watts points out that, in the hopes of mastering the art of writing, many struggling writers have sought tutelage with experienced mentors; this arrangement has a long historical precedent, and certainly many of the world's greatest writers had their particular mentors. Watts writes "my teaching experiences, which range from work in kindergarten classrooms to graduate level coursework, confirm this. Writers gain inspiration from those who have met the same problems and vanquished them" (2007, p. 20). Blythe and Sweet (2008) call this the "Atelier Model," which some teachers use when they teach writing (p. 305). Roebuck (2007) points out that most writing teachers also understand "there are at least two different parts of any creative act (the unconscious or generative phase and the conscious, critical phase that edits and revises) that can have a conflicting relationship" (p. 11). A good writing teacher can show students how to allow these two processes to complement each other rather than hinder each other. This is what Watts means when he writes about balancing the two main elements, creative imagination and the knowledge or understanding of how to write with good technique:
As always, I begin with the intentions and experiences of my students, balancing those with what I believe are the hallmarks of well-crafted fiction. Sometimes this means stretching writers beyond what they know, beyond their growing knowledge of the world, beyond their youthful understanding of the way we tell stories. I teach craft, yet I respect the imaginary worlds they create, worlds based on experience, filtered through feelings and the scrim of memory (2007, p. 29).
Those two elements are also relevant to how creative writing teachers run their classes. As Caldwell (2007) notes, there are two distinct processes in the art of writing that must be focused upon during class: "1) The inspiration or drafting of raw material; 2) The redrafting and perfecting of this material" (p. 7). This echoes the ideas of Roebuck as well as Watts. Like them, Caldwell would also argue that a good writing teacher knows how to get students focused and more adept in those two areas.
Vakil (2008) points out yet another way writing teachers benefit their students, arguing that teaching writing "is a way of lessening the static authority of the teacher: the idea that there is an answer and the teacher knows it" (p. 165). Writing is an important part of education because it teaches students that in life there are sometimes many "correct answers" for any given problem. Writing courses teach students a model of thinking in which, as Vakil puts it, "neat rules and fixed interpretations" are at times exposed as inadequate (p. 165).
Additionally, creative writing is particularly demanding of objectivity when applying the second phase of writing: revision and editing. During this phase, the ideal is to become completely the objective reader rather than the subjective writer. As Morgan (2006) points out, "young writers are less likely to have developed that detachment, and this is where tactful intervention by the teacher is crucial: tactful, because it shouldn't overwhelm the student with either the impersonal authority of elders-and-betters or impose the teacher's personal authority and taste" (p. 31). A good writing teacher can use his or her expertise and "pedagogical judgment," to decide "what feedback on what aspects of the piece will be most helpful at this stage of the work's and the writer's development" (p. 31). In short, there are many ways that a teacher can help a student to become a better writer. Many of these ways directly relate to the teacher's techniques and assignments in the classroom.
What Are Effective Methods for Teaching Creative Writing?
A good creative writing teacher should possess a wealth of helpful knowledge from reading, study and experience. This is why Watts has slowly gathered "writer quotes, interviews, and other materials from various sources, and grouped them by writing processes/categories" (2007, p. 21). By having such a file on hand, the teacher can produce thought provoking and helpful information on any given writing problem that a student faces in the classroom. Caldwell (2007) offers a simple tip for creative writing students by looking at a famous writer's habits to help students become better writers:
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway talks about writing in the morning until he couldn't keep writing (from fatigue or other commitments). "I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day" (p. 8).
The Workshop Approach
However, a more central consideration is the overall structure and design of the course. There are various ways to structure a creative writing course, the most popular is to create a "writer's workshop." Blythe and Sweet (2008) extensively researched and examined the possibilities for structuring a course, and identified six different approaches. They...
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