Behind the Scenes
Creative Writing 101: All’s Well That Ends Well
I am writing this late on Thursday night, having just gotten back from my ~2 hour commute from Rutgers. I’ve got my shoes off and have poured myself a big fat Jim & Ginger, a solitary if not precisely lonely celebration of the end of my teaching semester, my first one as an instructor of college-level creative writing. If this were an MFA program, I probably would have insisted we adjourn our session to a bar, but since about 3/4 of the students can’t (or can’t legally) drink in a bar, I brought a box of Oreos to class.
Some of those who had been following the CRW101 threads expressed disappointment when they stopped appearing, about a month ago. As I think I explained at the time, that was because we switched from close-reading literature-discussion mode into workshopping-student-work mode, and since I made a commitment at the outset of this series not to identify individual students or subject them to public scrutiny, that didn’t leave me with a whole lot to talk about.
The workshopping carried us most of the way through the end of the semester, and I feel like it was largely a success. Given the time-constraints and our class size, we were forced to workshop a maximum of 5 pages per student, and looked at anywhere from three to five students’ work per session. This was not ideal. As such, I decided that the focus should be on introducing the students to workshop etiquette–most of them had never participated in one before–and on pinpointing aspects of their writing that seemed to be working best, identifying successes, and opportunities for increased future success. Not that there wasn’t plenty of constructive criticism and suggestion for revision–there was–but I felt that given the situational constraints, and the fact that students hadn’t come into the class expecting to be subject to any sort of peer review, this was not the appropriate time or place for the kind of aggressive, even pugilistic back and forth that is so often a feature of writing workshops. Which is NOT to say I’m against that stuff–anyone who has been in a workshop with me (or argued with me on this blog) knows that I don’t shy away from what I’ll self-servingly (albeit earnestly) call “tough love.” I’m not shy of confrontation, and I love nothing more than getting as good as I give. Most of my favorite memories of my own workshops involve some version of me getting my ass kicked around the room. But that’s a highly specialized kind of desire–to give and to get in these particular ways–and if there are students in my class this term who go on to take more advanced writing workshops, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to receive and pay that kind of attention to their peers. I did not feel like those skills needed to be developed at this level, I thought it was more important at this stage of the game to instill an unambiguous enthusiasm for reading closely and writing with passion and dedication, and so we went out of our way to be kind to each other.
A few stray things we did read and discuss along the way- selections from Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm, paired with some of Mathias Svalina’s childrens’ games from the current issue of PEN America. This was a very funny day. The class seemed to enjoy both sets of pieces, but for some reason seemed to conflate the two authors into one, a “she” they talked about as if Matheather Chrivalina had written some poems and also some games. This amused me so much I quit trying to correct them. Both poems and games went over very well–the games especially yielded some fascinating conversation, though for some reason they balked when I tried to get them to produce their own games as a writing exercise. I don’t know why they didn’t want to, but it felt like there was going to be open revolt if I pressed the issue, and so we didn’t do it.
The class on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I expected that attendance would be off by about 50%, and indeed it was. So for the dozen students who did show up, I thought we should do something a little different, something that might not work as well with the full group of 23. So I brought in a handout that a fellow instructor had given me, entitled “Donald Barthelme’s Perfect Sentence Assignment.” This is a really marvelous handout, ostensibly written by The Man Himself (speaking as a DB enthusiast, it seems pretty authentic) about the nature of a sentence: how it might sound, ways it should mean, etc. It’s a very wonderful take on sentence writing, different from but perhaps not incompatible with some of the Lishier theories I’ve written about elsewhere. One of these days I will get around to scanning this in and posting it, but for right now it is suffice I hope to say that I read them DB’s ~3 page statement on the nature of the sentence, followed by selected example sentences he had chosen from various books. Then I gave them five minutes to each try and write the perfect sentence. When each student had a sentence written (I wrote one too) I explained part two of our experiment, which was basically an exquisite corpse. Using our perfect sentences as opening lines, I had each student pass their paper to the next one down, and we all had two minutes to add as much as we wished to whatever it was we found in front of us. We did this until I got back the same paper I had started with, then we took turns reading the collaborative prose pieces aloud.
The same week I was to teach the one-day Lish seminar at New School, I decided to teach GL’s short story “Guilt” to the undergrads, both as a kind of prep for myself for discussing it with the MFA students, and because I was honestly curious to see what my 101’s would make of it. I had hoped it would prove to be a divisive, contentious choice. Instead, they mostly loved it. We had a pretty solid discussion about the technical aspects of the story–minimalism, repetition, obsession, compulsive speech; and the major themes–memory, story-telling, the loss of innocence. I told them a little about GL but not too much. I mentioned that he had been Christine Schutt’s teacher (we read a short story of hers much earlier in the semester) and they were pretty surprised, since the stories read so very differently. So we talked about what they might have in common, and why we might not have noticed right away.
The last story I assigned was “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy. This was another wonderful instance of the class bringing out the best not only in itself, but in me. I had photocopied “Alyosha” nearly a month back, but hedged on giving it to them because it seemed like ugh, just another story by a dead guy. Or something. Anyway, I’d been carrying it around in my bag like a spare tire or a bunker full of canned food, in case of who knows what. So last Thursday I gave them the choice between reading the Tolstoy or doing some sort of in-class thing that I’d make up. They voted for Tolstoy. As it happened, Tuesday’s discussion was one of the best we had the whole term. “Alyosha the Pot” is one of those stories that seems inexhaustible, discussing it only ever opens up new vistas for more discussion. We talked a lot about the depiction of Alyosha, his happiness–whether it was real or a put-on, whether his life seemed like a good one or a bad one, whether the story itself seemed happy or sad. We eventually determined that the story is operating at both ends of the spectrum at once–enormous, excessive sadness hopelessly commingled with enormous, almost scandalous joy. One student drew out the connection between the character and his nickname, and pointed out that the image of a pot seemed fitting, but that he couldn’t tell whether Alyosha was completely empty or completely full. What, exactly, was the risk posed by the cook-girl, her love, their potential pairing? Was she threatening his perfect self-containment and thereby threatening to damage (or empty) him out–or was she rather the opportunity to break out of the prison of his inwardness, and was she presenting an opportunity for fulfillment, for being “full” for the first time? It was both things at once, we decided. When we got tired of talking about all the human emotions and concerns, we then began to investigate the theological symbolism in the story, how Alyosha is depicted as a Christ-figure, from his weeping after hearing the decree of his father against his marriage (think Gesthemane) to the injury he suffers (during Lent, no less) and the three days he lays abed before asking for a drink of water and then giving up the ghost.
That was Tuesday. For our last class, today, I told them there would be no agenda other than a kind of open mic. They all had their final projects to turn in, and I wanted them to have the chance to share their work with the group without worrying about critique or judgment of any kind. We listened and when we were done listening we clapped, and we did that until everyone who wanted to share had gotten to do so. Then I asked them for their thoughts about how the class had gone, if they had favorite readings or wished anything had gone differently. One girl said she wished we’d read something by Edgar Allan Poe. Fair enough, I guess. Several people said David Berman had been their favorite. My evangelical Christian rapper said his favorite was the Christine Schutt–this statement itself being among the purest pieces of evidence of God’s abundant grace that I’ve ever encountered. There was one decisive vote for Lorrie Moore’s “Two Boys,” and this from the girl who had requested on day 1 that I teach William S. Burroughs (a request I honored, btw). A few people brought up Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story.” The aspiring playwright said the Tolstoy had been his favorite. I asked them if they had final comments or thoughts about the class–anything they wished for me to take away from the experience. One girl raised her hand but instead asked me to turn the question on myself, and share some sort of parting words with them.
I told them that I thought the class had gone extremely well. I told them it had been a pleasure to know them and to work with them, and that it had been fun for me to come to class every week and see them. “That’s not as stupid as it sounds,” I said. I said that teachers are people, too–some things are more fun than others. Some things we look forward to, and others not so much. This had been a “look forward to very much” experience, and that that was a nice way to feel. Many of them have jobs or have had jobs, so they know what it means to go to a job that you don’t enjoy, surrounded by colleagues you don’t like. We sit around a square table with a big hole in the middle. I pointed at the hole in the middle. “That is where the class happens,” I said. A class like this, you can’t write it out on the blackboard and wait for it to be copied down. You can’t deliver it as a lecture. The class itself is the exchanges between the teacher and the students, the students and the teacher, and the students with one another. That’s the experience and those are the lessons.
I told them that there were a few things I wished had gone a bit differently. Though I did teach as much nonfiction and poetry and drama as I was supposed to, I had let short fiction dominate the proceedings, in part because it seemed to capture their interest, in part because it is most closely alligned with my own. I told them it would have been nice to teach at least one complete book of poetry, instead of selections, and it would have been nice to do a novel. The decisions not to do these things were a function of my late acquisition of the class–because it was a last-minute pickup for me I hadn’t wanted to assign anything I wasn’t sure the students would be able (or willing) to purchase on relatively short notice.
I told them that the main thing I wanted them to take away from this class is that literature is not this weird thing that lives over there. I told them I hoped I had shown them some poems and stories they enjoyed, and inspired them to seek more of these things out on their own. I said I hoped I had shown them that their own instincts and taste, coupled with a willingness to read deeply and with passion and attention, was all that they needed to be “good at” reading, and that they should think about using those skills and tastes to occasionally go to the store and buy something nobody had assigned them. I told them I wasn’t sure if they had come in with pre-conceptions about about whether literature was supposed to be difficult or obtuse, or just for “other” people than themselves, but that if they had come in with any notions like that, I hoped I had put those lying notions to rest. I told them, if you got nothing out of this class other than the names of one or two authors you’d never heard of before, but really liked, then I feel like this was successful, and worth both of our time. I made a little joke, “twelve weeks of bullshit, but at least you discovered Christine Schutt, right? Because how else were you ever going to know she exists?” They all laughed, but one girl–the girl, in fact, who had prompted me to give this little homily in the first place–piped up. “Christine Schutt is famous though,” she said. “She’s in the Barnes & Noble.” Words fail me here, attempting to describe the penetrating thrill, the wild and massive pleasure, that swept over and through me when I heard this remark. Because it meant that she had already been down to the store to look.
Tags: Creative Writing 101