Mailbag: Teaching Creative Writing

This week I’m responding to thoughts and comments on my post about Teaching a Creative Writing Class. That’s right — in the fall, I’ll be loosed upon the unsuspecting student population as a teacher. And I wanted my readers to speak up about what they would want in a writing teacher. Many readers had suggestions. Susie said:

As a teacher myself (and granted, I teach the little guys), I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed, especially if you are given a literal whole world of resources to choose from! Decide what your Big Ideas are first, what you want the students to know, and choose your literature around those goals. Then you can bring in a selection of different pieces to illustrate each Big Idea, and you’re not tied into a particular author, time period, or genre. I’m excited for you–best of luck!

Thanks, Susie! This did end being the way I decided to structure my syllabus — rather than moving in a linear way through short stories and their history, I grouped readings around certain things at work in different stories. I have weeks based around voice, plot structure, or dialogue, then I just picked stories that put these things to use in different ways. Hopefully it will keep the kids guessing about what they’re going to read next.

Felicia said:

As an avid reader who was left cold by some of the classics I was told to read in school, I would have the students explore more than one genre….I find that art suffers a great deal from narrowly defining what is ‘art’ to a single style or genre. Pop art might not be ‘classic’ but it is art. It takes talent, hard work and skill to create and someone out there thinks it is moving and lovely.

Well put, Felicia! I, too, think universities often force students to slog through the perceived heavyweights of the English canon, with not enough emphasis on contemporary fiction or short stories that are more immediate or moving to contemporary students. I’ve taken care not to include stories just because they’re the thing to read; I’m having students read stories that I loved myself.

After the jump: more suggestions and comments on what a good creative writing teacher needs.

Kathy said:

If I signed up for a creative writing course which I am considering in the near future, I would want to focus on writing not reading, classics or otherwise. I’d structure the course around writing outputs by students and let them select the genre, etc. This should spark creatively and thinking on teh students part. It is not a literature course.

Great point, Kathy! That’s why I’m pleased to be teaching a creative writing course and not a literature course. The class is designed to be half discussion and half workshop, so every week the students will be expected to be doing their own writing, handing in stories and poems, or workshopping the work of their peers. Definitely, the best way to get excited about writing is to try it out yourself!

Finally, ken bechtel said:

Probably the ideal creative writing teacher would be one who can show students that they all have stories within themselves and that their individual perspectives are what make those stories unique and worthwhile. The instructor should strive to help students discover that kernel of a tale, that perhaps the student has overlooked or dismissed, and give them the tools/knowledge to make it grow.

Thank you, ken — I do think that should be the goal of many different kinds of teacher, but most particularly a creative writing teacher. I want to show these students that they all have stories to tell and that every one could become a great story with the right care and attention.

Next week, I’ll tackle a few more comments about teaching, as well as comments about How to Write Surrealism!


  1. I think the most important thing about a creative writing class is to encourage constructive criticism, rather than an environment of head-patting.

    In my experience taking several creative writing classes, too many aspiring authors are afraid to give (and receive) criticism of their work. I think it leads to a lot of vapid, directionless, and flawed assignment writing that just gets passed over as quickly as possible in reads, as opposed to a situation where the student actually COULD learn something if some of his or her peers got up the nerve to note that part of the story didn’t work, and gave suggestions on how to fix it.

    Don’t support your class too much. Make them talk to each other as literary peers, make them discuss the stories. It’s important that they learn to be part of a *writing community*, not just learn to write.

  2. The previous commenter makes an excellent point about the importance of constructive criticism.

    Blair, I’d love to see you do a post on critical reading/commenting on other’s work — it’s an art in itself.

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