My contribution to Roxane Gay’s season of guest posts on the teaching of creative writing is up on HTML Giant. In the essay, I argue that creative writing pedagogy needs to focus its attentions if it wants to teach more effectively. The free-for-all nature of most workshops means that teachers and students have to teach / learn every writing skill simultaneously. I hand in a story, and get advice on its ending, dialogue, sentence construction, exposition and so on. Such an approach doesn’t accord with much of the research into how human beings learn. We learn faster, it seems, when we are able to focus on a particular skill, get advice, and try the task again, working until we get it.
Once you become aware of this principle, you start to notice it in all sort of books about writing and writers—only you don’t see it in actual creative writing workshops.
This “one skill at a time” principle appears everywhere in the best books on the craft of writing. Art Matters, Robert Paul Lamb’s study of Hemingway’s short stories, shows how the young Hemingway used the writing of every vignette and story to build up his grasp of point of view, symbolism, dialogue; how he sought advice from Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein and others, and how he pushed himself to achieve new effects in every novel, until problems outside of his writing overwhelmed him. In A New Rhetoric, Francis and Bonniejean Christensen guide readers to try out one kind of cumulative sentence after another, going from simple exercises to more difficult, showing how Katherine Anne Porter used a cumulative sentence to describe a hand, how Ellison used one to describe a smile. In the textbook What If? Painter and Bernays begin with the simplest things—”Write an intriguing first sentence. Write ten of them. Now write a second sentence that sends the story in a new direction. Write ten of those.” This approach, the repeated practice of the fundamentals, accumulating skills through sequenced tasks, is how people learn to play the flute, paint with oils, aim a rifle, or speak Chinese.
This is not how we teach creative writing in our classrooms.
The whole essay: Teaching Creative Writing One Skill at a Time.
Thank you to Roxane for creating the series.
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