Many of you read my hypothetical plan for a first lesson in a creative writing class, as well as the follow-up announcement that I would actually get a chance to use it. A brief update now that I have four class session under my (figurative) belt is, I think, in order:
The Rules Demonstration and Exercise
–was way fun. We talked about how two games of chess, war, or monopoly can be wildly different and original while following the same set of rules as always (just as two different creative works can feel completely original and fresh even while adhering two the same set of conventions), then talked about how changing rules can give old games new interest, the way that some creative works excite us by twisting or combining genres (ex: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog). Then we talked about how they might create their own game variant, complete with title, concept, and simple rules change.
The class discussion went particularly well since almost everyone agreed that Monopoly is way too long and often quite boring. Having isolated a problem, it was easier to talk about how different types of rules changes (changing the start point, the victory conditions, or a game-long rule) might help reduce the length and/or add interest. The group seemed eager to revise the classic game to fit their needs.
Their actual attempts to change rules and clothe them in new concepts exceeded my expectations. If you hate playing chess with opponents who take the game to seriously, you might try Space Chess, where you have three seconds to inhale after your opponent moves, and then have to move yourself before taking another breath or lose a piece of your choice to the vacuum of space. If you bemoan the lack of skill in war, you might try Dead Arm War, where your ability to inflict and absorb mild physical pain affects how long you and your opponent will be willing to stay in the game. And monopoly won’t be nearly as dull when you play Natural Disaster monopoly, where landing on Chance just might give you the opportunity to blow for ten seconds against a side of the board that has hotels you don’t like in the hopes they aren’t hurricane-insured.
The Space and Shape Demonstration and Exercise
–started off a bit rocky. After asking a few class members to share their game variants, I asked the whole class if they felt like the rule-changing exercise had made them better writers. Most weren’t too shy to say no.
So I talked about the disaster of Star Wars, Episode Two-you know, the one where an ultra-whiny Hayden Christensen launches one of the most obligatory-feeling “romances” in film history as some alien rhino frolics in the background?–and asked them to isolate the problem with the film, the same way they’d isolated the problem with Monopoly, and look for solutions. It wasn’t terribly difficult, of course, to isolate the main problem with that film. It’s also pretty easy to fix: instead of sticking the romance in a static, forced position at the beginning, why not let Anakin and Padme fall for each other in the thick of the action–when, after all, it’s easy to interpret one’s elevated heart rate as attraction and it’s easier to have little bits of one’s shirt “accidentally” torn off.
If fixing a multi-million dollar movie is as easy as fixing monopoly, I argued, shouldn’t they give themselves a little credit for having done the latter?
They seemed to agree so we went on to throw out ideas about how games can have a shape. One student said war reminded her of a teeter-totter–another later pointed out that The Princess Bride had a similar teeter-totter feel. I’d asked them to read “A Cask of Amontillado” because it reminded me of a checkmate, but a student said it reminded him of a corkscrew.
When I told them to choose another game–this time any game–and write a creative piece inspired by some aspect of that game’s shape, they all seemed excited.
This morning, I got to see some of those pieces. Cool stuff. A poem inspired by the game “Curses” did a good job putting an old woman right on the border between eccentricity and the early stages of Alzheimer’s, her thoughts running either just slightly dreamlike after a nap, or else dipping into schizophasia. A short story took the game “Jenga” as its structural inspiration: stability gradually disappearing beneath the protagonist.
I am teaching weird, abstract, theoretical stuff: but I think they’re getting it. These students seem to be approaching this early work with a strong sense of play and a growing ability to see writing not as creation ex nihilo, but as deliberate work with material that’s already there, in the world around us, just waiting to be articulated in someone’s own unique way.