Now That I’m Going to Teach Creative Writing….

In June, I wrote a post called “If I ever teach creative writing…

Through a strange and fortunate twist of fate, I find myself in exactly that position this fall. So now I’m in the process of trying to use my syllabus as a sort of Dreamcatcher that transforms my deep, semi-conscious feelings about writing into actual lesson plans. With you permission (which you will grant by clicking the “Continue reading” link), I’d like to bounce my current ideas off you and get feedback. If you write, does this sound like a class you’d want to take? If you’ve taught before, does this sound like a class I can pull off?
Here’s the plan:

Instead of structuring the class in units defined by genre (i.e. short story, poetry, essay–this is a BYU 218 class), I plan to structure it around four principles, which I believe apply to all writing genres. Here’s how I describe the four in my current syllabus draft:

1) Rules: all creative writing, I think, involves understanding and manipulating rules and conventions. Knowing the standard ways certain things are done is important, because the standard way will typically be easiest for the audience to follow. Figuring out how to twist, break, or just play with rules is important because that’s part of what keeps writing interesting. Think of a Lego set: you should know how to follow the directions in the box, and how to change them to make the creation your own.

2) Space: normal people don’t go around thinking of stories and sounds as having shapes. If you were to ask them what shape their favorite book is, they’d probably tell you it’s a rectangle. Normal people also think car engines are rectangles, and manage to drive just fine. If you want to make an engine work, though, you need to understand it as interconnected elements operating in space and time. You have to know what sorts of space gasoline takes up before and after you set it on fire, and how to guide it through space in a way that makes the car go. If you can learn to see stories and poems as shapes, you’ll be well on your way to making ones good enough to take us somewhere.

3) Insight: we don’t read just to escape the world. The best books teach us something new and exciting about the world, or help us feel the world a different way. Creative writing is not just about making good sentences and stringing them into paragraphs and pages: it’s also about developing a compelling way of seeing, of having some genuine content to wrap in form. If you want to write well, it may be best to start by rediscovering the whole world.

4) Audience: if you write only for yourself, drop this class. We’re going to assume your writing is for other people to read, interact with, and be moved by. And we’re going to take time to explore how that happens. Is it really possible for you to put pieces of your brain/heart/soul on paper and have them keep well enough for someone else to pick them back off and get something worthwhile out of the experience? How is that done?

I’m going to use discussion of these principles to fill most class sessions. The class will be one hour long on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday. I’m saving Fridays for workshop and discussion of student free reading. Most Mondays and Wednesdays we’ll have a discussion and writing assignment that work with each of the four in succession, so that we cycle through all four in two weeks. For instance: the first unit will focus on games as a metaphor for writing. We’ll start with the activity I described in June for “Rules” on the first day, we’ll spend the second day talking about different ways to think of how games like chess and monopoly are “shaped” (like: chess starts fairly full of pieces and is designed to narrows across time towards greater emptiness; monopoly is a circle where the stakes of risk and opportunity are raised with each new lap) and try to write a creative piece that secretly mimics the shape of a favorite game. After taking a break to workshop those pieces on the third class day, we’ll use the fourth to talk about “Insight” by starting with the different “implicit philosophies” expressed in chess, monopoly and say, the card game “war,” then revise the game-shaped pieces to strengthen their engagement with idea. On the fifth class day, we’ll tackle the concept of “Audience” by asking ourselves why people play chess, monopoly, and war and why some people choose to read as well or instead.

Subsequent units will drop the game metaphor and use the principles of rules, space, insight, and audience to raise various issues. We’ll talk about how W. Shakespeare and G. Burton use the same basic sonnet “rules” to significantly different ends. We’ll talk briefly about how Aristotle recommended managing space and shape concerns in epic poetry and drama. We’ll develop insights as we discuss questions like “what is love and why do people keep falling in it?” We’ll try to figure out how audiences respond to culturally-specific content, exploring how writing can invite intracultural debate in some cases and facilitate cultural tourism in others. And so on.

Throughout, I’ll use readings that connect to the ideas we discuss. The committee that supervises Intro to Creative Writing classes at BYU strongly encourages the use of “literary” works for reading, but I did successfully beg for special permission to use some Eric James Stone material as well, since I think it’s excellent in terms of highlighting the four principles I see as core.

I’m thinking I’ll base 40% or so of students’ grades on a final project they submit a proposal for by the end of October and turn in on the last day of class. The project can be a short story, essay, or collection of poems (I think I’ll use the Mayhew guidelines for ease). I’m also planning to accept a first chapter of a novel with a query letter, a short play (the class isn’t playwriting, but I know the form well) or screenplay, an online project (I did my thesis on those) or other English-language form of manageable length students can come up with. I have no intention to set any rules against projects with the possibility of making money in the future, as some teachers like to do. I may not be entirely qualified to teach sci-fi, fantasy, or, for that matter, vampire melo-romance, but I’m confident concerns of rules/conventions, space/shape, insight, and audience will apply to them, too and I can evaluate based on that.

I’ll also give students points for at-home writing exercise completion, workshop participation, reading, etc.

Your thoughts?

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11 Responses to Now That I’m Going to Teach Creative Writing….

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I can’t give you any feedback on the course design as such, since I only ever took one creative writing class (focusing on science fiction and fantasy) and have never taught creative writing. It sounds, though, like you’ll be doing interesting things to get your students’ brains engaged in ways they might not have considered before, which (aside from simply getting students to write, and then reacting to their writing) is probably the most one can hope for in a creative writing class.

    FYI, I particularly like your comment: “Creative writing is not just about making good sentences and stringing them into paragraphs and pages: it’s also about developing a compelling way of seeing, of having some genuine content to wrap in form. If you want to write well, it may be best to start by rediscovering the whole world.” That’s no less true for fantasy and science fiction than it is for other genres.

    So why the focus on literary works in the intro to creative writing course? And why would some teachers want to exclude “projects with the possibility of making money in the future”? Both sound like barricades put in place to privilege a particular kind of writing, and to discourage those who are interested in pursuing more popular/genre-related forms. It’s a pity.

  2. James Goldberg says:

    Yep. It’s a definitely a pity. Especially since you can’t teach someone to “master” creative writing anyway: might as well leave all the doors open.

  3. Katya says:

    I like that you’re approaching this from a different perspective than the traditional “break things down by genres” approach, but if my undergrad self had seen this syllabus, she would have been very confused about what you were talking about and what you wanted in the way of assignments. For the sake of students who may find these topics confusing, I would recommend giving very concrete examples to go along with all the principles you plan to cover. (E.g., this is an example of following strict rules in poetry, this is an example of breaking conventional rules in poetry. This is an essay by Brandon Sanderson on rules in fantasy writing, etc.)

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m with Katya. This seems more like stuff you’d give to graduate level students of creative writing than to beginners, who mostly just want to see if they can string sentences together well enough to please an academic. I’m certainly not recommending that you abandon these ideas. They are intriguing. But they may be too ethereal for many beginning writers. I worry that students will drop the class early on because they don’t know what you’re talking about and feel stupid. Milk before meat.

    So maybe keep it in your syllabus as your personal view on writing, but don’t make it sound like they must master these concepts in order to achieve a good grade. And then teach it along the way anyway. It’d feel less threatening for the kid whose young brain isn’t ready to think of how chess is a shape if these four points are listed in your personal philosophy section of your syllabus. Then he doesn’t have to adopt them, but can, with ease, listen, stretch and learn.

    Many of your students may be only 20, or younger. Some will dig on this, but others will balk. Just as you keep your class open to all genres, you probably want to keep open to those who are more concrete in their thinking abilities. I really hope I haven’t discouraged you from teaching these concepts because I do like them. I’ll be thinking about them all week, to be honest. I just have this strong feeling it may be too abstract for some early writers of promise. In the end, follow your gut, not what any of us say. You have the clearest idea of where you will go and how to get there.

  5. C. M. Malm says:

    I agree with Lisa. This kind of “out of the box” thinking would be wonderful for an advanced creative writing class. But I’m not sure what the results will be with a group of relative novices. I hope you will report to us on how this class goes, because I am very intrigued to know whether this will work or not.

  6. Julie Nichols says:

    (Writing as one who’s taught cw for a long, long time…) In her excellent beginning creative writing text “Imaginative Writing,” Janet Burroway presents 5 basic principles, not quite as lofty or abstract as yours (which I like, btw–I think you might have a nifty little text in the making here yourself): imagery; voice; character; setting; and story. Then she has a chapter each on the four genres. In every chapter she offers a number of provocative short readings as well as many prompts for practicing the principles (sorry about the alliteration, couldn’t help it). Part of me just wants to recommend this text because there are good reasons it’s probably the most-used intro-to-cw text in the nation, but part of me also wants to say, you’ve got the idea–basic principles, then practical application. I especially like the “insight” thing. Robert Olen Butler’s “From Where You Dream” is a spectacular example of how this might be taught–he has a chapter on “yearning” that you’d love, and his “anecdote exercise” is absolutely killer. But note that he’s teaching graduate students. Check him out! I have no doubt you can teach it all wonderfully. Ditto Katya and Lisa–these are beginners, and the more concretely you help them to work, the better for their writing, now and in the future. Good luck with it! We’ll look for progress reports–and maybe drafts of that textbook you have roiling around in your head.

  7. Pingback: A list of brief updates

  8. Nancy Fulda says:

    (visiting via Eric James Stone’s LiveJournal)

    I’m going to go out on a limb and disagree with Lisa and C.M. Yes, this is advanced stuff. And yes, as Katya pointed out, concrete examples would be a helpful addition. But this is exactly the sort of stuff that would have appealed to me when I took Creative Writing at BYU.

    Sometimes, I think we coddle new writers too much. We concentrate so heavily on structure and technique that we forget to give them the tools that will really set them free. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether a writer uses few or many adjectives, or whether they understand basic plot structure. What matters is whether they know how to reach deep into their subconscious, snatch out some soul-stuff, and mold it into a emotionally satisfying shape. This course sounds like it may have the potential to do exactly that.

    All of that said, I think that as a sales pitch, the proposed syllabus lacks focus and isn’t very specific about what students will be expected to do and which criteria will be used when grading papers. (That may just be because you’re still in the outlining stages, though.)

    I’ll be watching with interest to see how the class goes.

  9. Darlene says:

    I wanna take this class.

  10. James Goldberg says:

    Thank you!

    I’m going over the syllabus now looking for the most concrete ways to do things within this abstract frame. I’m also going to try to structure the grading in a way that reassures people that they’ll be able to get good grades (lots of points just for doing writing exercises, etc.) so that the grading panic won’t be an issue.

    And yes, I’ll post again on how the course goes.

  11. James Goldberg says:

    A thought on Jonathan’s initial comment: maybe the literary vs. genre tensions come partly from the desire to stick to the basics and teach in very concrete terms at the introductory level. If you’re trying to teach specific techniques, after all, it’s hard not to work within the conventions and assumptions those techniques work under. There’s very little overlap, for example, in how Brandon Sanderson and Kim Johnson create settings.

    If you want to escape the tensions between genres and teach creative writing as a core act, you pretty much have to abstract.

    Disadvantage: I might totally lose my class.

    Advantage: If I don’t lose them, they’ll be able to see the shared core between different traditions of technique.

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