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.