Lessons learned teaching creative nonfiction to non-majors.
This is the second Spring I’ve taught “Writing Life Stories,” which is creative nonfiction for non-majors, college juniors and seniors. As always, this class underscores for me writing’s good news/bad news situation: writing talent is common. Among about 20 students, one is a writing major, and several others are avowed artists—of ceramics, music, theatre—but the largest single cohort this year is nursing students, who are doing impressive work. The most advanced writers, as always, are readers and journal-keepers, or who were in childhood, whether they’ve ever taken a creative writing class or not.
The first night I drew on the chalkboard a huge circle with an arrow from it to an equation: C + C = A. The circle is the vast self (which to me includes the collective unconscious of our species, though I don’t go into all that). The first C is in a rectangle and represents what the self is given to work with, which is content—the self’s encounter with the world. Both the circle and the first C are black-box mysteries, as far as teaching is concerned.
The second C is craft, and the line that flows onward from it goes to A: art.
“Craft is what releases art,” I told the kids that first night. “And art announces itself in form.”
While talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not, so craft is our appropriate focus. If I’m wrong, at least I’m clear. And let’s face it, clarity is rare in this world too. Looking back, I’ve made mistakes in teaching—just as I’ve lamented some of my shoot-from-the-hip posts here—but an instructor’s passion counts for a lot, as in blogging, even if he later views his ideas as half-baked or his execution as inept.
I’m sure I’ve gotten much better at teaching craft, though. I thought I did a good job last year but feel so much more successful this time. In part this is because of their work and in part because the class feels more successful simply because I’ve gotten the kids to better discuss readings. I did that by assigning two or three students to lead our reading discussions each session. As well, like last time, I have two or three read aloud four-page versions of their essays. Another hour is consumed by a writing prompt, group work, or individual conferences.
The class, however, is kicking my butt, which partly explains my recent difficulty in posting on schedule here. I’m halfway through my sixth year of blogging, and for most of that time have posted every five days. Lately I’ve struggled to meet my more modest goal of once a week. As an example of the class’s role in this, I just read, edited, graded, and commented on about 200 pages of student memoir essays. I did this electronically, using Word’s markup function, which requires much more time and precision than does reading hard copy but which results in a clearer and more permanent edited copy for students. Plus it saves me writer’s cramp.
“Writing Life Stories” is a hybrid class, meaning we meet partly on line and once each week in person. The reading discussions begin each Sunday on line, followed by uploads of essays for oral readings, comments on others’ opinions about readings, and mass uploads if a major essay is due. By Tuesday morning, I start really boring in on my preparations for Wednesday night’s class, a hard day-and-a-half process of planning the class and roughing out the following week’s (the latter necessary because of the need to have their homework assignment ready). I presume the students begin kicking it on Tuesday as well, since whatever else is happening on line, they owe me hard copies of their Reading Journal and Writing Journal, which totals three and a half to four pages from each of them.
Our “textbooks” so far, three essay collections, are pretty generally hits: Lee Martin’s Such a Life; Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth; and Sarah Vowell’s Take the Cannoli. Martin is a master at invoking the wiser retrospective narrator even in the midst of compelling or dramatic scenes; he’s the most balanced writer, technique-wise, and I’ve pushed his work hard. Beard writes almost purely in scene and loves the powerful and satisfying braided structure, as in her famous essay collected in this book, “The Fourth State of Matter.” Vowell is funny and expository, a cultural critic or journalistic commentator as often as she’s writing memoir—she’s a great personal essayist, using the self to inquire into the world. Finally we’ll read a cohesive book-length narrative I’ve never taught, Michael Perry’s Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. I figured these small-town Ohio kids will find it, as they say, “relatable.”
I also have them read essays by Jill Christman, Thomas Larson, Dinty W. Moore, and others. Stand-alone essays from my files, especially flash and innovative forms, are how I nudge undergraduate students beyond their fondest desire: a strong story (meaning one driven by event sequence, ideally dramatic) and a protagonist they can identify with.
As I mentioned recently, my overarching focus this year is the triumvirate of persona, scene, and structure. It’s thrilling as a teacher to see students directly apply the tool’s you’ve handed them. So yes, Virginia, writing can be taught! Talent can’t—but as I say, talent is common. There’s no telling who’ll become a Writer, of course, but that has more to do with desire and perseverance (which, I concede, talent may fuel).
Some of my students are almost giddy to discover that this genre called creative nonfiction exists. “You can do anything you want,” I tell them, “as long as it works.” How many teachers have told them that? Anyway, for now they are as pleased as I am that, as we march into Spring, which slowly but surely is returning once again, they’re using their experiences to make art.
[See also “Between Self and Story.”]