Guiness is Goodx

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.

[The delightfully dark Ms. Vowell.]
[The delightfully dark Ms. Sarah Vowell.]

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 alsoBetween Self and Story.”]


  • shirleyhs says:

    You must be an amazing teacher, Richard. Wish I could take your classes. For some reason this post reminded me on Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction.

    For years I included this quote at the top of my Expository Writing Syllabus:

    “In my experience, the best teaching that goes on in a college writing class is done by members of the class, upon one another. But it is not automatic, and the teacher is not unimportant. His job is to manage the environment, which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate.”

    Do you find that students teach each other craft? And does art result?

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Shirley. I have been involving students more since I gave up the burden and ego gratification of trying to be the smartest person in the room. A lot of that straining comes from the teacher’s performance aspect, but it can result in the students agreeing that everything IS your responsibility. They seem to pitch in more when their peers are up there; maybe they’re trying to help out. I think in workshops they do try to help each other with craft, and I think to a degree they do. In fact, in this class I don’t see their long memoirs until they’ve peer-workshopped them. Then I feel I can help them take their essay to the next level—I know more and see more, and I should, right?—but I think they’ve been helped before they got to me. More important, they think they’ve been helped, so they have.

  • Sigrun says:

    “While talent is common, the higher levels of craft are not, so craft is our appropriate focus.” I must admit – this statement almost knocked me off my chair this morning, but the more I thought about it, the more true it sounded.
    And it also made me think … (kind of nice experience) … putting talent in center makes life into a pure chance scenario, focusing on craft is empowering.

    Thank you!
    (made a short note on this on my own blog today, hope it’s ok)

  • Dear Richard, Though I took creative writing classes in poetry and playwrighting and only sat in on one on fiction, your recounting of what work you put into your creative non-fiction course makes me long for the halcyon days when I had a ready audience of my peers whom I could talk with face to face (even given that some of the comments from other students were either opaque or less than generous, while others were sometimes unhelpfully full of undeserved praise). I’m not in a situation now in which I could take a writer’s workshop or I would, just for the feedback. But I would think that you would be a very good director of a summer workshop at your school, should opportunity arise (there I go, filling up already precious time for you!).

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Victoria. I think undergraduate writing workshops can be more helpful to students than graduate ones! (Most undergrads have never seen what other students are writing, good, bad, or indifferent.) Then the kind of summer workshops you mention outshine either—serious and generous fellow writers.

  • Richard, I’m excited to meet and share with your (new) flock. Seems to me there’s some wonderful parallels between Shepherd and the class who, given the right attention and cultivated grounds, will produce. Bravo. TL

  • Ron D. White says:

    The scene of nursing students studying creative nonfiction is quite striking. Let us all stand and cheer their commitment to improving their basic skills.

    Working my way through recovery from a stroke that damaged my cognitive capacity introduced me to the literature on the problematic communication between patients and members of the medical profession. It is real and enduring.

    As an old professor, if “the largest single cohort this year is nursing students” then it would be very productive to see student reactions to the essay by Chekhov (Ward No. 6) and as a new textbook Ann Jurecic’s “Illness as Narrative.” Thomas Larson’s “The Sanctuary of Illness” which you recently introduced here is also potentially instructive.

    University medical schools have come to see the need to improve communication. The extent to which they move toward defining the problem from the perspective of the patient is not so clear.

    • Richard says:

      I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment, Ron. Just read a great essay in the new Harper’s on how awful talking to doctors is. Could’ve written it myself. Women resist the mantle of medical school better, so I favor women doctors or assistants—and surely the chance of remaining human goes double for nurses. Yet I sometimes think fondly of my last doctor, a real beast, angry and dominating, with whom I worked out a truce. He was a great diagnostician and a fierce advocate for his patents against insurance companies, which cowed so many of his colleagues.

  • Olga says:

    Richard, the very first paragraph of this post sounds provocative for me—“writing talent is common”—are you serious? I always thought it was precious and rare. Of course, talent itself means little without craft, and one can produce a decent piece of art with certain craft even without talent. But then, define talent. Didn’t your students question that statement?

    And there is one more question I would ask if I were your student. It is about Lee Martin’s memoir “Such a Life.” I read it several months ago following you “Favorite CNF” list (unfortunately, the link from the list is broken, but search by name brought me to the review/interview post). I agree that the essays “linger in the mind,” but, to tell you the truth, I liked your review more than the memoir itself. Why? I quote Lee Martin as answering your question about what he is looking for when he reads memoir: “As a reader, I’m looking for an emotional and intellectual connection to the material. As a writer, I’m hoping to be stunned, swept away, to the point that I say, ‘Damn, I wish I’d written this.’”

    I was definitely not “swept away” —I did not write down any quotes as I usually do, neither did I try to translate some passages—well, it could be just a matter of personal preferences. As for “emotional connection,” now, long after I’ve returned the book to the library, I still remember feeling embarrassed by what I define as lack of credibility. Here are a couple of examples. Martin explicitly insists on trying to be honest; more than once he stops himself to say he would like this or that to be true, but it wasn’t. Doesn’t he realize how elusive and deceiving memory is, or is he just showing off? The decision of not having children was a tough one, but repeatedly saying that it was his wife’s solely responsibility was unfair—in the family, both spouses are equally responsible for major decisions; to deny this is self-deception, to say the least.

    I totally agree with you that the book is well structured and is worth reading, I’m just concerned about this bitter aftertaste. Is it a part of craft that I didn’t get?

    • Richard Gilbert says:

      It’s good to hear from you, Olga. Such a thoughtful response.

      On the “writing talent is common,” I didn’t tell them that, though I’ve thought of it. I do believe, based on my teaching and some experience of contest judging, however, that talent is common. Genius may not be, and may be what you refer to. But partly what I mean is that it does not predict success, either in a writing class or in a person’s life or career. Perseverance and craft mastery are unusual, and what success and publication require, beyond a certain basic talent. I could pick out one or two students, maybe three, out of twenty and say their talent is special. But to me that would be misleading, because down the road a student could blossom whose work now seems crude. And, anyway, he will be the one who becomes the writer if he sticks with it. An acting teacher told me years ago at a famous Method school in New York that the most talented students seldom became successful actors, because they were too sensitive. So by his estimation, we are watching the less talented up there on the big screen. I suppose by my reckoning, we are reading the less talented. But perseverance is part of talent . . .

      I don’t agree with you about Martin’s occasional waffling, his use of the wondering or confused or second-guessing retrospective narrator. I think it is part of his mastery of using personas. But I have been thinking about how he comes off where he writes about his wife and their not having children because a couple other women have mentioned it to me. He does seem to blame her, and may come off poorly for some readers. Ultimately so much of our estimation of literature, or at least of nonfiction, comes down to what we think of the author. I read past this; I concede it may be a human lapse; he is being honest, or appears to be, about the way he feels; if it is a blind spot in him, well, art is a handmade, human thing and is going to have some mistakes or reflections of a person’s humanity. That particular example would be masked in fiction—just part of the fictional narrator’s fascinating character!

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