My thoughts on teaching beginning creative writing. Can also apply to reviewing writing.
| A Note to Readers: I am not a teacher of creative writing. This essay was written as part of the application process to graduate school in Creative Writing. I was asked, quite simply, to write about my views on teaching the subject.
Creative Writing is a tricky subject to teach. In my three undergraduate workshops I’ve witnessed some excellent and some not-so-excellent teaching techniques. Through these experiences, and my work as a reviewer on Writing.Com I’ve developed a few principles.
Before a teacher can discuss flaws in a story, they must first dismember the idea that creative writing has no guidelines. Somewhere someone spawned the theory that rules have no place hindering creativity, and there followed an explosion of stories without a single capital letter, paragraph break, or state of being verb. And more subversively there grew the belief that the basics of grammar and sentence construction aren’t necessary to successful story-writing.
I believe they are, and I use the word “basics” very deliberately. I am a product of the “whole language” movement. I have never diagramed a sentence, and words like ‘clause’ and ‘infinitive’ mean more to learning Spanish than to English. However, that hasn’t stopped me from remembering how to use apostrophes, and that tense shouldn’t change in the middle of a sentence. Before anyone can creatively write well , they must be able to basically write well.
Once the basics have been covered, I feel the intricacies of short story writing are best discussed via example. Reading fabulous, famous stories is useful, but reading flawed stories is also necessary. The majority of stories in an undergraduate workshop are going to have plenty of flaws. Therefore it must be required that every student read and comment on every story presented to the class. Everyone benefits from this practice: writers receive substantial comments, and reviewers learn to recognize what hinders a story. Editing issues must be discussed in conjunction with issues of story-telling, such as character development, pace and tone. It is the teacher’s job to point out the problems in a story, and then extend them to writing in general. Phrases such as, “I see this a lot in beginning writers,” or “I struggle with this problem myself” are particularly useful. This must be done carefully, because if a student feels they are being picked on, or worse: humiliated, they will disregard everything. There is always a tactful, kind way to discuss even the worst story.
Some students are likely to ignore advice no matter how it’s delivered. Ego is rampant among writers, even from the beginning. Therefore a teacher cannot just stand at the front of the classroom and state, “you need to rephrase the line ‘Juan was the kind of man who might be seen eyeing his children with a kind of sadness.’” They must explain why that line needs to be changed: because it is filled with ambiguities that create a psychic distance at odds with the intimate approach in the rest of the story. Students must be given reasons, or else they’ll dismiss useful critiques as difference of opinion, or style.
Teachers must not be afraid to say what needs to be said. Similarly they must not be afraid to learn from their students, or to admit that their opinions are not the only ones. There are certain rules that should never be broken. ‘There’ will never be interchangeable with ‘their’ and students must be told that basic mistakes make an author appear ignorant and will not be tolerated by educated readers.