01 October 2012
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom by David Wright
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Creative Writing Classroom
by David Wright
"I think of [teaching] as a provocation and a sequence of enthusiasms."
—Poet Dean Young [i]
1) I believe in an excursive approach to creative writing instruction. [ii]
Excursive writing contends that elements of craft are not an end in themselves but a means to equip writers to make the many complicated choices we encounter daily in our work. Poems, stories, and essays grow from excursions into our selves and into the world. Whether a visit to an art museum or approaching a daily ritual as a “sensuous excursion,” I want to encourage writers to develop habits of attending carefully to what they experience, to what they read, and to the worlds they inhabit. Once challenged to "come to terms" with their experiences, questions of genre and craft become all the more urgent. Poetic imagery, prose style or narrative structures become necessary tools then for writers as we make continual choices in language.
2) I believe in intuitive, unconscious choices in language made conscious for the purpose of making them informed, intuitive and unconscious again.
Much like learning to sing well or to play a sport, learning to write involves making us more conscious of our intuitive choices, an awkward process that can leave us mute or stumbling across the soccer field. This process also leads to revelation, but that requires student and instructor patience, an acknowledgement of how awkward such a process can feel, and a giving over of at least contingent trust to the instructor. My goal is to reward this trust by helping writers to name and to build on their various aptitudes, to identify and to develop new skills, and to see this process as recursive and necessary. Much like a musician or athlete's muscle memory, habits of attention and craft can develop and become, once again, unconscious and intuitive. And then we name them and start again.
3) I believe the practice of writing turns us into more receptive readers and better critical readers.
To read a sonnet after trying to make one can generate a reader's respect for the craft and can sharpen her critical engagement with a poem. My own reading and teaching of literature have been transformed by the experiences of teaching creative writing and by writing poems and essays.
4) I believe words carry with them the places where they've been. [iii]
No writer gets to own the language. No poet can ignore the connotative, allusive resonance that accumulates around her choices of diction. No novelist invents story as story. We inherit narrative forms and must do something in and against them. In other words, we begin somewhere. Far from being a paralyzing insight, I want writers to feel this recognition as hopeful. Think of it as improvisation. The blues or jazz musician knows the tradition, the chord progressions. Because he knows the changes, he can change the changes.[iv][v]
5) I believe in the "imagination's tongue."
"Art," writes Wendell Berry, "like sexual love, is of the body. Like sexual love, art is of the mind and spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses."[vi] Poems in particular can marry the activities of mind, spirit and body, what Denise Levertov calls "all that lives / to the imagination's tongue."[vii] For writers, this means discovering and including sensuous particulars in our poems; it means putting language in our mouths as well on a page; it means learning how lineation and poetic rhythm can be so intimate that they put the writer's breath into the body of another.[viii]
6) I believe in taking students seriously.
As novelist A. S. Byatt expresses it in Babel Tower, a teacher is "not a therapist, and her students are not sick. They are intelligent people who need to think hard and deep, and don't get the opportunity."[ix] Offering opportunity for sustained attention to the details of thinking and writing makes up the bulk of my work as a teacher. Practically, I read students' work in progress and tell them the truth about what I read; I listen to and answer their questions; I have as many individual conferences as I can fit into a semester; I give them books; I act as if everything they have written is offered up in seriousness, even if I suspect it isn't.
7) I believe in disorientation.
Once we establish trust and a general direction of hopefulness in a writing classroom, the best thing we can do is get a little lost. To be disoriented inside an excursion, reading, or draft is to be, quite possibly, on the edge of surprising oneself as a writer. It provides impetus to reach towards new technique, tradition or insight because what we have at our disposal proves inadequate. Poet G. C. Waldrep likes "to use Surrealist parlor games in the classroom" because they can " trick students into discovering, or at least suspicioning, that their 'authentic' selves lie deeper, and more strangely, than they had hitherto imagined, and that language, if employed within a critically conscious framework, can afford them access to these selves, if they will be adventurous."[x] I think he is right. I think I would trust him.
8) I believe I teach best when I am also writing.
I like to think of Robert Frost's comment: "Practice of an art is more salutary than talk about it. There is nothing more composing than composition."[xi] When I am generating new work and revising drafts of earlier material, I find myself both more sympathetic towards and tougher on my students. I also find that their work becomes generative for my own writing. Poet Scott Cairns argues that far from being the collecting of a finished experiences, the "poetic . . . is something else: it is an occasion of immediate and observed — which is to say, present — presence; it is an occasion of ongoing, generative agency." Teaching (like poetry) is most exciting when it is generative of new experience. Making new work along with students keeps my teaching and my writing from being an exercise in anecdotal transmission.
9) I believe I write and teach better when I am reading.
Returning to familiar, model poems that "teach well" tempts me often. I have a shtick about "My Papa's Waltz" or "The Fish" that never fails to explain imagery to beginning poets. However, re-reading Bishop, Whitman, Stevens, Roethke or Millay keeps me open to something more than a proof-texted lesson. Such engagement reminds me of all the ways poems mean, and how image never fully separates from form, sound, allusion, etc. And discovering Olena Kalytiak Davis, Terrance Hayes or Dean Young confirms that new work is possible:" You are in your pajamas / eating cold pizza / when you decide to make a coyote. / Now all you need is a pregnant coyote." [xii]
10) I believe imitation matters, but I believe sometimes you must tear up sunflowers.
Imitation forms one of the oldest traditions of artistic apprenticeship. Mimic the masters in the museum. Write a Shakespearian sonnet or copy out a passage from Fitzgerald. Imitate and perhaps you will have inside you the rhythms and understandings that led the master to make the masterpiece. I sometimes ask writers do poetic cross-dressing: write a T. S. Eliot poem in the voice of Gwendolyn Brooks or rewrite Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" in the style of Jorie Graham. The results often impress right away. I do these exercises myself when I am creatively stuck.
Ten years ago I told Marvin Bartel, a retired art professor, that my daughter's teachers had helped her paint a really good imitation of Van Gogh's sunflowers. I was going to have it framed. "That's bullshit," Marvin said. "Imitation is how people teach themselves. Her teachers should have taken her into a field of sunflowers, let her spit out sunflower seeds, tear apart petals, and, then, have her paint them. After a week or so, when they showed her Van Gogh she would've seen him as another artist trying to do what she was doing." For Marvin, imitation was too often a shortcut to product, a quick way to get frameable art from kids, and a pedagogical crutch for teachers. I have not abandoned imitation, but I try as often as possible to tear up sunflowers and write about them before we look at Van Gogh or O'Keefe.
11) I believe in community and in generous, attendant readers (but not so much in workshops).
Writers need one another. We can be one another's most helpful and difficult readers when we learn to attend to one another's work with care. So, I work to build a classroom vocabulary and a reciprocal atmosphere that allows for practical conversation and challenge between writers. We take a trip to the Art Institute together. We chat. We sometimes eat. We read work aloud and we exchange drafts via email or google docs. We fill out critique sheets. But I dislike and deemphasize the term workshop. It implies "fixing" a piece of writing—both in terms of repair and reification—and can easily turn into an exchange of formulae or tricks to make a poem "work." Instead, I want the class to be comprised of generous, attendant and honest readers who can name and describe what they see rather than offer "fixes." I think individual conferences, group critique, and master classes succeed best not merely when the writer leaves with suggestions but when she returns to her own work aware of a constellation of artistic and linguistic choices she had not before seen.
12) I believe in faithful writing.
To be a faithful writer is to contend with so many forces tugging on our fidelities. We can be faithful to experience, to language, to communities, to audiences, to the self, to forms, to traditions, to innovation, to family, to moral, political or spiritual convictions. But more often than we'd like, we cannot keep all these faiths at once. In the process, most writers reach serious moments of crisis and exhaustion, convinced that poetry or fiction is not only a challenge but also a waste of time. "After all," we might say, "It's only a poem." And we would be right.
But writing can also, I think, be its own faithful act, even an act of faith. At some point, as Christian Wiman writes, "[O]ne has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. This is true of poetry, too: I do not think you can spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality. At some point, you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them. You have to believe that poetry has some reach into reality itself, or you have to go silent." [xiii] Teaching writing offers a way to move faithfully past silence, in inadequate yet faithful forms.
13) I believe writing can be taught. I know this because I have learned to write and I am not a genius.
It's popular to assert that the proliferation of creative writing programs, conferences, or little journals forecasts a literary apocalypse, and that, as a creative writing teacher, I am part of the problem. Of course I have heard (and repeated) the apocryphal story about Flannery O'Connor. Once asked if creative writing workshops discouraged young writers, she is supposed to have said "Not enough of them
However, becoming a writer is not a zero-sum game. When a new writer begins to work, an older writer doesn't have to quit (or die). I wouldn't mind fewer poets competing for jobs and grants and publications, but the art of writing doesn't suffer because more writers want to take it seriously. Writing (and the teaching of it) is not primarily about being ushered into a profession. It is about being opened to the pleasures and difficulties of living faithfully in the world though language. As William Stafford puts it, in the end, writers do not need to be "special—sensitive or talented in any usual sense. They are simply engaged in sustained use of a language skill we all have. . . . [W]riting itself is one of the great, free human activities . . . Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more space than space and time can offer."[xiv] The classroom is an extension of that space, a season of that time.
David Wright teaches in the English department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Before teaching at UIUC, he taught for nine years at Wheaton College (Illinois). His poems have appeared in Image, Ecotone, Poetry East, and Artful Dodge, among many others. In 2003, he was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for poetry. His most recent poetry collection is A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia, 2003). He intermittently updates at sweatervestboy.tumblr.com