This is a guest post on teaching creative writing from Andres O’Hara Plotnik, discussing his experiences in prisons and creative writing classrooms. He and I got talking about HTML Giant’s recent series on creative writing pedagogy, and he was kind enough to let me post his thoughts on the subject. I will now step aside. Here is Andres:
Workshops and First Drafts
I took Intro to Creative Writing in my senior year of college, and on the first day of class I was told that the stories we submitted for our workshops must be new. Nothing previously written. I wrote a story, signed up for a time slot, and listened to the students and instructor discuss my characters, my setting, my dialogue. I wrote notes in the margins and ran lines through sentences that I was told to cut. I assumed that I had a framework for my revising process, but every time I tried to revise my story, I was uncertain on how to proceed. I couldn’t see how my story would progress. My workshop had supplied me with many comments on a story that I was determined to finish, but few strategies on writing. I had become more invested in finishing my story than in learning writing.
My revisions continued to falter; I’d kill off one character and add two more, change the ending again and again. I’d start one story after another and abandon them after three patchy scenes. I stayed in touch with my creative writing professor after the class had ended, dropping into her office to ask about writing mechanics and talk about my revisions. She loaned me some helpful books on fiction writing, and after reading them I felt that I could dispense some advice about writing short stories.
I had that opportunity when my professor asked me to work with her on a creative writing class that she was teaching an hour north of campus, at a prison. Each Monday night, a prison guard escorted us through two steel gates past a concrete yard surrounded by forty foot walls, into the classrooms. The class was wonderful, the students were engaging and passionate about reading and writing; but I doubt how much I helped them write. The structure of the workshops narrowed my focus onto their stories, often times blocking out larger lessons on writing.
We arranged the class into smaller groups for the workshop, and I would lead one group’s workshop each week. I felt that I had provided constructive feedback, pointing out clichéd statements, vague descriptions, and unfocused sentences. I was confronted with the effects of my advice when one student, who wrote an absorbing story about a drug addict whose body was slowly disintegrating, lobotomized his story, taking out all the rich detail after I had spoken about writing economically.
Some of the excitement from our reading discussions and writing exercises, mining for technique and meaning, were lost during the workshops. My critiques were sometimes challenged. A student would tell me that he thought the passage was just fine the way it was, and several others agreed. I gave long, defensive explanations on my critiques, but I felt that I was simply justifying myself. What did revisions mean to me? All my advice was a form of expand and contract, elaborate here and cut there. Why did I assume that this was the best way to guide the writing of these students?
I don’t object to the workshop as a way of refining a story, but it does not have to be the focus of an introductory writing class. One way to encourage student writing is to get students writing. If I were to lead another writing workshop, I would not ask students to submit a new, completed, story, because the very idea of a new, completed story may mislead their revisions. I would ask for a short selection, a paragraph or half a page, and the group assignment would be close reading and rewriting.
I’d ask one student to rewrite it in third person, one to rewrite it in simple sentences, one to rewrite it in dialogue. One to focus on setting, one on paragraphs, and one on syllables. How better to learn these techniques then to face them head on in a writing exercise? I think more can be gained by participating than by critiquing.
The idea came from John Gardner, who wrote in The Art of Fiction:
When the beginning writer deals with some particular, small problem, such as description of a setting, description of a character, or brief dialogue that has some definite purpose, the quality of the work approaches the professional…it’s a common experience in writing classes that when the writer works with some sharply defined problem in technique, focusing on that alone, he produces such good work that he surprises himself….the writer’s relative indifference to his material can be an advantage.
First drafts are mushy. They contain uncertainties, loose scenes, and underdevelopment. Yet workshops assume that these are the solid foundations that can support revisions. First drafts can also be very personal. An introductory creative writing class may be the first time a student presents his or her writing to anyone else. Yet the rest of the class is assigned to critically evaluate these submissions. The student author may be unclear of which critiques to integrate into her story, and how.
Writing is a solitary process, and this approach encourages a longer, and perhaps less certain, path to revision and completion. It can teach students a different way of approaching their stories. Instead of the binary positive or negative feedback for each segment of a story, a class rewriting exercise can reveal that any segment of a story can be presented in multiple perspectives.
Perhaps I’m just drawing on my own experiences teaching, where there were no office hours, no emails, no contact or feedback whatsoever except for in class and on paper. A class exercise that could show a student his own story re-written several different ways could be a much more constructive experience than one where his story, set in stone, is critiqued and appraised. The latter evaluates the limitations of writing, while the former unveils its possibilities.