From Teaching Writing

What’s the Difference Between a Beginner and an Expert?

This semester, for the first time ever, I won’t be teaching a 101-level class of creative writing. I’ll have moved up to teach the big boys, teaching fiction at the 200-level (and the college’s system means this is pretty high up in the skill levels). I’ve yet to start teaching the class, but I’m already wondering what will be different. And these differences, I realized, are all about the differences in skill we all hope to see in ourselves as our writing progresses.

Things work.
There are a surprising number of mistakes that beginners have to make in order to learn about themselves. Some of these things are about the simple effects of language. For example, beginners will mix metaphors. They will forget to describe what a character looks like, his gender, or what time period we’re in. Beginners have to learn all the necessary steps of orientation that we require when we enter a story for the first time.

So on a basic level at least, the writing of advanced writers will “just work.” We’ll know where and when we are; we’ll know a little about a character; we’ll see some effective description of the world around us that doesn’t fail to capture what we’re looking at.

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How to Choose the Right Subject

I’m currently teaching an introductory creative writing class with students who are very new to the writing game. They are definitely picking up on the techniques I’m discussing in class, from vivid adjective choices to strong verbs, but there’s one thing they continue to struggle with. It’s something I find very difficult to teach; in fact, it’s something that might not be teachable at all. It’s the skill (or inborn talent, perhaps) of choosing the right subject.

It’s funny, but no matter how many times I tell my students that stories need conflict and some sort of drama, I still get stories about vacations, trips to the beach, or other perfectly pleasant situations. While the writing in these stories can often be quite sharp, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through that not all subjects and scenes are created equal. Not every premise is equally capable of becoming an engaging story; some are just too trouble-free. The easiest way to get the ball rolling in a story is to present us with some sort of problem, but it continues to be tempting (and not just to my students) to write about safety and normalcy. Why?

The dangerous power of the writer

My theory is that writers, particularly young writers, are very aware of the power of words. They know that words once said or written can do damage; they can break hearts, hurt feelings, start wars. Words and the power of imagination behind them can be very dangerous. When we’re creating something, we don’t want to presume that we’re worthy of describing large, dramatic events; putting a fictional character in danger is almost as bad as putting a real one there. Perhaps our impulse is to apologize for ourselves, and to write small and humbly. We’re left futzing with familiar, tame scenes, attracted by the security of them.

After the jump: how to choose the right subject.

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The Importance of Point of View

 Two people may see the same scene
with completely different eyes.

Here at Writerly Life I’ve talked a few times about the importance of point of view as an element of the story. It’s always true that two people may see the same moment or situation with completely different eyes; so here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re choosing what point of view to stick with in your story.

Who has access to the real conflict?

The first question to ask yourself is whether your character has the correct amount of access. Stories are about conflict — so have you chosen the character who actually is able to see the conflict and comment on it? To see a political conflict from the perspective of the politician’s four-year-old son, for example, won’t capture the sophisticated power struggles at play. On the other hand, writing from the point of view of the parent who is never home won’t work if all the drama is happening at home. You must choose a character who is able to see everything that the reader must see in the course of the story.

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Respect and Criticism in Workshop

Now that I’m starting to teach a new workshop, it’s time for me to go through some of the important rules when workshopping someone else’s writing or having your own writing workshopped. It can be a very tense time for budding writers; this may be the first time they’ve received criticism, and this can feel like quite the shock to the system. That’s why it’s so important to remember our twin guiding principles of respect and sensitivity. For those who take their work very seriously, a workshop can feel like as vulnerable a place as a group therapy session, so it’s important to keep that vulnerability in mind. At the same time, everyone’s time will be wasted if we hold back and don’t say what we really think about the work. Here a few rules of thumb to keep in mind if you’ve been asked to comment on someone else’s work, or if you’re on the chopping block yourself.

1. Know your editing notes

First, it’s very useful to have a universal editing language that everyone in the workshop can agree on. It can save time if you don’t have to write “I don’t think this is the right word for this description” every time, but can instead just put “wc.” Here are a few editing shorthand notes that many writers use when workshopping.

WC: “Word choice” — a general comment that this isn’t the right word and the writer should try a different word
AWK: “Awkward” — if the phrase just isn’t hitting right, sounds too wordy or just clumsy, and the writer should rephrase
Squiggly underline: general disapproval. The squiggly line can highlight anything that isn’t working and can be accompanied by further elaboration on why it isn’t working.
Straight underline: great! Underline the things that are working well.
STET: ignore. If the editor makes a comment but then changes his mind, STET tells the writer to ignore any markups there.

If you are being workshopped

Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are up to be workshopped.

No talking — while some teachers vary on how strictly this is enforced, you should not really be talking while you are being workshopped. Your work should speak for itself, and there’s no need for you to defend the piece. Now is your time to be listening and taking notes.
Don’t get personal — remember that your work, not you, is being criticized.
Stay calm and take in what you can. The influx of feedback can be overwhelming, but it’s best to act as a sponge and take everything in. Sort out conflicting opinions later, when you are calm and ready to begin revising.

After the jump: how to workshop.

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Group Vs. Individual: What’s More Important?

In the American Stories class I’m teaching, I’ve discussed the importance of group versus individual dynamics in American literature and culture. The thing that makes America stand out from, say, European literature (historically) has often been the emphasis on the individual. American writers are willing to make outcasts, misfits, and oddballs the heroes of their fiction. The solution to problems is often to stop thinking about people as members of a group, whether racial or economic, and to think about people as single units. That emphasis on the individual human spirit has pushed the envelope in fiction and it’s something I love about reading American writers.

At the same time, Americans have a sort of obsession with group movements and the dynamics of people that move on a massive scale, almost in the same way that countries like China do. Take a look at the work of a fave author of mine, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was particularly fascinated by our dual nature as Americans, our potential for both iconoclasm and startling moments of national unity. He writes:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land…I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart…this is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one…this is the beginning — from “I” to “we.”

Here, Steinbeck shows that the seeds of revolution, one of our most prized ideals, are not in the seeds of individualism. They are, instead, when we begin to work together, when we unite for a common goal. This, too, is powerful and valuable, an important moment to study in an American story. And here, too, Steinbeck is talking about “collective action” over individual striving:

This you may say of man — when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.

It’s Man the monolith Steinbeck is talking about here, and how Man the group is linked to progress. Does progress only happen when people become a little less than individuals, and become instead a massive movement, a many-headed creature? As a staunch individualist, no matter how much I love Steinbeck, I’m inclined to disagree. But the power of his ideas can’t be denied, and neither can their strong place in the American ethos.

So who wins in your story: the collective or the group? What do you think?

What Makes an American Story?

This semester I’m teaching a class called “American stories.” I’m trying to explore the question of what makes a story uniquely American, and why so many genres that we are familiar with today, such as the noir story, the Western, the rags-to-riches tale, and others, seem to have formulated in America. It’s an exciting class to teach, and even as I teach it, I’m finding myself discovering new things about the way we tell stories and how being American has affected our expectations of a good yarn.

American Semiotics

Before we started exploring actual texts, we broke down a few lists of the images, symbols, and ideas that go into our notion of an American story. We need to have a firm grasp on the tropes writers rely on in America before we can study how they are critiqued, after all. To begin with, I showed students a Levi’s commercial from a few years back that I found absolutely fascinating. It’s here:

Like all jeans commercials, this one is showing a lot of young, pretty people running around with their shirts off. But it’s also quite innovative, and almost approximates art. For one, Levi’s is using Walt Whitman himself as the narrator; they are relying on a very old wax cyllinder recording of Whitman reading his own poem about America. The words themselves are deeply moving. On top of that, Levi’s is capturing some of the images that we have powerful emotional associations with, such as fireworks, children, fields of corn, tough urban landscapes, lovers, night skies. It has the word “America” flickering and half-sunken in a gritty dark lake, capturing a national anxiety about the current, troubled state of our country and the ideals we hold dear. It’s quite an extraordinary commercial, as commercials go, and it seems almost a call to arms to America’s youth, to stand up and make something of themselves.

After the jump: what all this means for our own stories.

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Mailbag: What Poems Can Teach Us

I’m so glad to see the enthusiastic response on my post about teaching poetry, What Poems Can Teach Us. I’d like to highlight several of the comments so other readers can get inspired about what poems to read and teach.

Ashok wrote:

Thanks for the link – have bookmarked the blog, will definitely be back.

I dunno what you can use for the class. The thing is, there are lots of people that read a ton who don’t really care for any poetry at all. When explaining poetry, I always start from New Criticism – every work of literature is a self-contained world, one is trying to find and explain the dynamic between an internal speaker and internal audience…The contemporary poet I really like is Katia Kapovich. “Apartment 75″ and “Painting a Room” are incredible.

Thanks, Ashok. I’m definitely finding in my class that students are more reluctant to talk about poetry even if they like it, just because they don’t feel equipped with the tools to discuss it. I’m beginning most poetry discussions with a little talk about what is technically at work in the poem, whether it’s about the rhythm, meter, or specific devices. That’s one way to make young writers more comfortable in the world of poetry.

katyusha wrote:

I don’t know all that much about poetry, because I don’t read so much of it– not the modern stuff, anyway. I do like Louise Bogan, however. Her poems are fairly short (one is two lines).
first link
second link
“The Dragonfly” is good (2nd link), and “Medusa”, but I think my favourite is “Night” (also 2nd link).
Also, as crazy as it may sound, Shel Silverstein is still one of my favourite poets of all time. Kids’ poetry that it may be, some of it’s pretty profound. And the lighter stuff is great too– I’ve never taught, but based on classes I’ve taken I’ve always gotten more from the ones that broke up the heavy stuff a bit.

Thanks, Katyusha. I’ll definitely check out those poems. And I’m glad you mentioned Shel Silverstein. Most of us were first introduced to him as a children’s poet, but his playful spirit with language continues to charm me (and he has several adult poems that are more mature, as well).

After the jump: more thoughts on what poems can teach us.

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How to Follow Your Pen

For writers who are just starting out, the idea of writing an entire story or poem can be very daunting. How am I supposed to write something with such mysterious and complex structure, a beginner might think, when I feel like I don’t know how to write at all? The answer is just to begin.

An Exercise To Follow Your Pen

When teaching creative writing, I like to get students doing a writing exercise on the very first day. It makes it very clear what this class will be about, and what I expect of my students. One exercise I use is a very open-ended one, but that can have very good results. I have students write words on scraps of paper — any words at all. Words they love, words that sound weird, words that they hate — anything goes. Then I shuffle up the papers and have students randomly draw some words from the pile. For five minutes, they must write inspired by the first word they have drawn. Then for another five minutes, they must continue the piece, writing about the next word, and so on. It’s an immediate way to simply follow your pen the way Toucan Sam tells you to follow your nose. It takes worry and planning out of the equation and makes writing your primary purpose.

How To Trust Your Pen

Writing in this immediate way is a crucial part of the creative process, particularly if you’re feeling paralyzed. What a lot of writers are fighting a constant battle with is insecurity and self-doubt. You don’t trust yourself to produce good writing, so you write nothing. The way to combat this self-doubt is to temporarily take yourself out of the equation. Instead, trust your pen.

Think of it this way: your pen is capable of producing hundreds of pages of great writing. It has all the potential in the world wrapped up inside it. All you have to do is let it get started. Stop being an obstacle between your pen and the paper; just let it get writing. Start with a prompt like the exercise I mentioned, and get writing. Let the words come as they will. Don’t think beyond the next sentence. Don’t doubt. Trust.

Now Refine Your Words

What will come out of this exercise may not be Shakespeare. It will necessarily be rough. But that’s what first drafts are supposed to be like. Now’s the time when you can look back at your work and refine it. Pick the part that has the most potential and write a new work beginning where you started. This exercise will give you beginnings — but more importantly, it will give you the confidence to trust yourself and your own writing. After all, it was you holding that pen the whole time.

Getting a Discussion About Writing Started

If you’re a regular reader of Writerly Life, you know that I’ll be teaching a semester of introductory creative writing to a class of undergraduates this fall. It’s an exciting prospect, and also a daunting one. Because it is an introductory class, I may get a wide range of skills and also interest levels, so it will take some work on my part to keep the class engaged. One thing I do want this class to have is lively discussion about both the student work and the stories we’ll be reading from the syllabus I’ve designed. But that has me wondering: how do I get kids talking about writing?

As the students get to know each other, I can imagine them getting more comfortable with talking, but at first it will be slow going. I’ve started planning an opening talk with a few notes about what I want to say, but mostly I’m keeping my lesson plans loose; if someone has a comment, I want to be able to drop things and let the discussion go in interesting directions, rather than clinging to my notes. That means I have to cultivate a strong go with the flow attitude, even if the discussion isn’t going exactly where I planned.

To break the ice, I have planned a few simple writing exercises to force shy young writers to put pen to paper in the very first class. They’re tried and true writing exercises that I’ve written about before here on the site. If you’re beginning your own creative writing group, it’s a great idea to limber up muscles and break barriers of shyness by getting the group writing together and sharing their efforts. Establish a group leader that can rotate each week, and have that group leader keep things on track. As the teacher in my class, I want writing to be unstructured and relaxed, but it will be my responsibility to keep students focused and thinking about writing. As a student who only graduated a year ago, I know how tough it can be to think about writing in the midst of a hectic college schedule. But that’s precisely why this introductory creative writing course is so valuable: it’s a time when the only thing that is expected of you is writing and thinking about writing.

What Poems Can Teach Us

If you’re a regular reader of Writerly Life, you’ve heard that this fall I’ll be teaching an undergrad creative writing class. It’s kept me busy, thinking about what reading materials will be most helpful to a roomful of budding writers, or perhaps a roomful of people who fear writing and are only here for a requirement (I hope I get a roomful of the former). Because the class must be half-composed of poetry discussions, I’m a little afraid of launching myself into that murky jungle. As a fiction writer, I often feel overwhelmed by poetry; I enjoy reading it, but I’m poorly equipped with the tools needed to discuss and analyze it. That’s why I want to hear from you.

What can poems teach us? And which poems are the best to learn from?

The first question to ask when assembling a reading list is, What do I want the readings to teach? For the poetry section of the syllabus, I want the chosen poems to teaching my students about voice, mystery, and detail, among other things. I’ve chosen a very wide range so far, from selections from Walt Whitman to excerpts from Rumi. For contemporary poetry, I’m a little more out of the loop. Some of my favorite poems that I’m including are Billy Collins’ “Workshop”, selected odes to ordinary household objects from Sharon Olds, and Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?” These contemporary poems are memorable and teachable to me because they ask questions or capture singular, complex moments in modern life, including our love of workshop language, our regret at missing every opportunity for a realization, and our dependence on simple, ordinary objects. They’re good for teaching because their structures can be replicated, but filled with students’ original ideas.

But what do you think? Poetry lovers, give me poem suggestions to teach and tell me what you think they can teach new writers. I’ll certainly check ’em out. That leads me to that question of what poems can teach us. Why do we read a poem in a creative writing class? More than anything, I think the poem can teach us how the personal makes something universal. The more vague and cliched an idea is in a story or poem, strangely, the less universal it feels: it becomes alien from us, feeling unreal, something made up for a glossy magazine or a television commercial. If you rely on the personal details and experiences of your own life, however, it begins to feel as if everyone could identify and sympathy with it. Art lives in personal experience, and there’s no art form more personal than poetry.

What do you think poetry can teach us, and what poems will best show that lesson? Share your thoughts, and keep the poetry discussion going.