September 10th, 2009 / 10:12 am
Craft Notes

Creative Writing 101


This semester I’m teaching an undergraduate survey of creative writing at Rutgers. We’re two class meetings in, the students are all excited and smart and engaged. They’re making it a real pleasure to show up to class, which anyone who has ever taught before can tell you is not always the case. Because it’s a survey class, the idea is that we’ll look at the major forms of creative writing–fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Instead of doing “units” on each of these sections, my hope is to pair pieces from different forms, both oriented by a theme or element of craft, themselves relatable back to a writing exercise, and see what kind of glad serendipities result from the juxtapositions.

In our first class, we played 2 truths 1 lie. In our second, we discussed “A Very Short Story” by Ernest Hemingway and “Governors on Sominex” by David Berman. I’ve used that Hemingway piece in at least half a dozen non-CRW classes, to teach students about how to read for detail. For creative writers, who are usually already reading for detail, it’s more of a lesson about minimalism and also about how to use a bone-close 3rd person narrative. But either way, the story just never stops giving. My class went totally bonkers on it, and we wound up talking about the 1.5 page story for nearly an hour. This resulted in Berman getting a bit of short shrift, which was too bad, but what time we did spend discussing his poem was fascinating. I hadn’t really had a reason for bringing it in, other than it’s one of the best poems from one of my favorite books of poetry, and I thought that it would make a good test-case to see where the students’ tastes fell in relation to my own. One student advanced a well-developed theory that the two works’ having been paired because they share themes of movement and travel. I didn’t quite tell him this was news to me, I just told him it was a very good point, which it was.

Another student pointed out how contemporary the poem was, but also how rapidly the contemporary ages, and he wondered about the poet’s level of intention there. He cited “Through the lanes came virgins in tennis shoes / their hair shining like videotape,” and said of it- “this is an image that won’t make sense to our children. Which is almost certainly true, though one assumes that the Library of America edition of Actual Air that our children will read will have a footnote there. “Videotape, one of several now-archaic data-storage systems used prior to the invention of MIND LASERS, was a thin shiny black strip…” etc. Incidentally, this student’s comments touched upon the theme of another David Berman poem, “Piano and Scene,” which we weren’t going to read, but now maybe we will.

At the end of class, I handed out “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” by Junot Diaz; “My Dog is a Little Obese” by Ellen Kennedy; and “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. We didn’t have class Tuesday, so when we meet up today we’ll talk about these three pieces, each of which is a kind of direct address, though not all the same kind. Then we’ll do a writing exercise where the students write a piece in which they explain how to do something which is not usually explained (as in steal clif bars, or date girls of various skin-tones) or else in which they talk a person into doing something that the person they are talking to is feeling ambivalent about doing. Tonight’s reading assignment for next Tuesday will be “Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful” by Christine Schutt.

So that’s CRW101 so far. I think I’ll keep blogging our reading choices and exercises as we move along through the semester, so everyone should feel free to read along, and/or weigh in with thoughts and recommendations. I could happily talk about that Hemingway story for another howeverlong.

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