Before I started college, I imagined creative writing professors as these whimsical, fairy-type people who flit about without shoes and say things like “write what you feel!” while sipping tea from a gourd. My first creative writing teacher was exactly that person, but everyone after that has just been the kind of people who are good at talking, better at writing, and tend to spend more time at bars than I do. Apparently, teaching in bare feet is optional.
This semester marked a significant change in my teaching career because I had the chance to design my own curriculum. Confronted with this amazing opportunity, I started devising ways of inflicting all my favorite parts of writing on a new unsuspecting gaggle of youths. My professional interests represent the cross-section of the analytical, weirdly creative, and hyper-neurotic. Those traits translated to me wanting to me demanding my students be extremely analytical in the process of writing non-fiction essays. Like a semester-long deconstruction of a joke, I systematically took the fun out of creative writing by making my students rhetorically analyze the genre in which they want to write with the goal of essentially giving each student a formula that would allow them to fit into the community represented in the genre they were analyzing it. Also, I had them do all this through the lens of blogging because, weirdly, that’s something that is both academically and personally relevant to a lot of them.
By the end of the 4th week, I had a student tell me I was ruining creative writing by making it so analytical. I took that as a victory against the myth that creative writing is some soulful endeavor in which the author pulls from their juicy tragic heart the next Next Great Novel. A lot of my research these last few years has taught me about all the weird, mystical, near-Romantic ways people think of writing. I asked my students to tell me their thoughts, and a lot of them hit on the “tragic author isolated in a dark room composing the deep truth of their heart.” I remember thinking of writing that way, and of course there’s some truth there because writing is a deeply personal act, but just like I learned when my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Sanchez first gave me clay, there are arts and there are crafts. Writing can be either, but in my classroom, it is a craft, something to be practiced, perfected, and used. I started teaching creative writing not as something driven by inspiration or what my students were feeling, but as a way of fitting into a written social context. I didn’t want writing to be some passionate expulsion from the heart; I wanted it to be a process of intense analysis with a clear goal.
When I think about that first creative writing teacher–poetry, I think–sitting us all down in a circle of desks while she floated around the room, two things come to mind. 1) This person was very kind and entertaining, but I do not think I got any feedback beyond “Would it sound better if…” without any explanation as to why it might sound better and who it might sound better for. 2) Where the shit are your shoes? Who told you this was something that was alright to do? Don’t you know where students go? They don’t wash their shoes, and they have been stomping ALL over your floor, and you’ve probably got some kind of horrible parasite and it’s going to burrow up through your heel and then you will die and that must be why you left the school after the semester I had your class.
But my teacher’s weird shoe habits are beside the point. Mostly, I just don’t think I fit into what I or my students thought of when they heard they’d be writing creative non-fiction. I’m not really flighty, but I’m not that stern either, but I’m also not very relaxed. I’m not the author hardened by tragedy gazing morosely out a window. I’m just kind of weird, a little too enthusiastic about odd topics, and really into the internet. I don’t quite fit with my old idea of creative writing teachers or with the teachers I actually had.
The first time a student told me they couldn’t get an idea for a story they had to write, I was sympathetic. They said they didn’t feel like anything in their life was good enough to merit writing about, and I completely understand, but I have also written at length about being annoyed at people for mundane things so I know there is the possibility to make a fun piece out of nothing. Some of the most fun pieces I’ve written have been about virtually nothing. I think a lot of people who are just starting to write spend too much time thinking about if what they have is worth saying and not enough finding a way to frame it and a place to put it that will make it worth having been said.
After this semester, I can pretty confidently say some of the best writing I’ve done has been writing that belongs nowhere else except where it ended up, but I had to find or make the place for it to belong. And some of the best writing I’ve read has been that way too. Writing into the void and hoping the work is fantastic for every audience doesn’t really work. In any case, the author has to know who their audience is, what that audience wants, and how to make it just right for them.
I think I responded in this really analytical direction when I got the chance to teach creative writing because it’s what I’m used to. Teaching composition just involves teaching students how to form arguments, do research, just develop their thinking and giving them practice communicating those thoughts on a page. Creative writing has so much potential to be completely different from anything I had taught before. How do you even grade a story? Do I look at their stories of their childhood, say “Ah, Sasha, your childhood was sad, but it wasn’t quite tragic enough so I’m gonna go with a B. Revise so the puppy doesn’t survive.” I didn’t do that, and I know my job would really be to help them communicate their stories as they happened as effectively as they can, but there’s so much to that too. Analysis is safe because it gives a goal to the writing. I can evaluate how well my students appealed to an audience they analyzed. I can look at Sasha’s paper and instead say “I think your audience would really dig it if you played up the loss of your teddy bear to the out-of-control lawnmower.” But the cost of that analysis is that my students didn’t get either of the creative writing classes I had as an undergrad: the whimsical or the professional. They got me, neurotic, analytical, and obsessive.
My comfort is that I don’t think I could be any other kind of teacher. I can’t see myself as the intense figure standing at the window, and I don’t really see myself as the type to take off my shoes in class. My socks might be tasteful, but my shoe size is not information I want my students to have. I worry it would make its way to my course evals: “teacher took the fun out of creative writing and has a shoe size I did not suspect but am also not surprised by.”