If I ever teach creative writing…

If I ever teach creative writing, this is what my first lesson will be.

I will make the students put away books and laptops and desks, leaving only one table in the middle of the room. I will put a chess set, a monopoly set, and a deck of cards on the table. I will ask everyone if they know how to play. Presumably, most students will know the basic rules of chess, monopoly, and at least one card game. We will turn to the game they know best and talk about the feel individual games of that game can take. Think of chess: it can play out as a long set-up with a careless move as a sudden turning point, or maybe as a careful vying for position followed by a series of calculated trades that slowly shifts the gravitational center of the board this way and that. A chess game can be a slow choking as one player forces the other into choices between two unpleasant moves, or a violent crashing as two bloodthirsty players go at each other.

Then I will ask my students to think of a single rule we could change. What if the game ended with the capture of the queen instead of the king? What if, instead of moving a piece, each player were permitted to make one of his pieces explode, taking out every adjacent piece, friend or foe? What if the object were to lose?

I hope they will see that changing a rule can change everything, that a good game-maker becomes familiar with the structure of the game and gets good at imagining how different rules changes will change the overall dynamic.

Then I will ask them to come back the next week with their own alternative game using the available equipment. They will need to explain what the rules differences are, what the new game is called, and what the feel of play might be like.

Why start with games instead of texts? Because I believe that beneath all considerations of genre and purpose and language and originality, writing is about taking what we’ve got and spinning it a little. Writing is about learning to see words not as a way to record our thoughts, but as living interactions in space and time.

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11 Responses to If I ever teach creative writing…

  1. Jayme says:

    And I would absolutely take your class.

  2. Ciel says:

    I second that.

  3. Mark Brown says:

    I like the idea. It’s a nice object lesson that might help them to comprehend the idea. The thing I struggle with in the classes I teach is that a lot of the students aren’t even aware that there are things like generic conventions or cliches for them to put a spin on. They write in cliches because it’s all they’ve ever read (or watched – I’m confident at least some of my students get all their literary ideas from torture-porn movies and Seth Rogan.) I wonder if the board game idea would help them to understand that there are rules (or expectations or conventions, etc.) and something exciting happens only when those rules are broken, modified, altered, ignored, riffed upon, etc.

    • Katya says:

      I wonder if the board game idea would help them to understand that there are rules (or expectations or conventions, etc.) and something exciting happens only when those rules are broken, modified, altered, ignored, riffed upon, etc.

      I could make the opposite argument, that a good game has rules that keep the tension high by not giving one player an unfair advantage over the other. (E.g., if you played a version of chess where the player who went second could have one of their pawns automatically promoted to queen, the game would become uninteresting because the second player would have a huge advantage.)

      Which is not to say that I am uniformly opposed to rule breaking, but sometimes the “rules” come about because they make for solid storytelling.

  4. James Goldberg says:

    Three students! Hooray!

  5. Mark Brown says:

    Of course, some narrative rules have to stay in place. You’re right. I was thinking more along the lines of cliches and tropes that my students apparently love more than life itself and will use ’til the cows come home. (Heh.) I require them to read widely and assign smaller, more unexpected stories and poems in order to help them see the possibilities but many of them persist in running toward rather than away from cliche.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    I sure did.

  7. Pingback: Now That I’m Going to Teach Creative Writing…. | Dawning of a Brighter Day

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