Taking the Fun out of Creative Writing

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.

Also, I want to make them into just the most pretentious people

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.

Exactly how I picture writing
Do you know how dirty their shoes get from all those shoe posts on Instagram?

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.

Like a more deranged version of that horrible paperclip MS Word used to have

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.”

14 Replies to “Taking the Fun out of Creative Writing”

  1. It sounds like you are a way better teacher than the whimsical no-shoes guy. And if your students really want to be great writers, having fun isn’t enough. They have to learn the craft too, and I think your way of teaching really facilitates that.

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    1. Glad you liked it! I think I’m also glad the puppy stuck around. Though I did write series of short stories where each began with “Somewhere in the world, a dog died,” so doggy tragedy isn’t outside the realm of possibility

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  2. You hit me where I live with this: “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.”
    That’s me right there. I could just say, “We had trouble replacing our demented microwave” or “I keep scorching coffee” — but it’s way more fun to give a frame-by-frame retelling of the train wrecks that happen in our kitchen.
    Thanks for your visit, and I enjoyed this post of yours.

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  3. I agree and disagree with you. One must learn the craft, but too often Universities teach a fashionable curriculum rather than any real useful advice. I learned this for myself when I became an art major at eighteen. Two years later I dropped out and went to an art school instead. I fear the same may be true for creative writing. Having written two novels recently, I decided to audit a creative writing class at my local university to see for myself. It’s worth noting that many of our great authors either never went to college or dropped out. Just as some painters are just that-professional painters and not artists, some writers are just professional writers and not artists with the written word. Having said all this, I’ve spent 21/2 years editing and revising my first novel. But I did it without some professor’s voice knocking around in my head.

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    1. I like to tell my students that I try to teach them based on what works for me but in a way that they can adapt to what works for them. Being super analytical just won’t work for some students, but I also want to show them that it’s an option, or that there are more ways to be inspired than with a sudden whim. I definitely agree that school or a degree doesn’t mean someone will be a great author, and there are amazing ones who never saw a creative writing class, but I’m a teacher in one of those creative writing classes, so if I think my voice in their head can help out even a little bit, then I’m going to give it to them if they ask for it.

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    1. Of course it can 🙂 I just don’t think of myself as the person who can teach some of the more subjective aspects of writing like making it fun and magical. I do make sure to tell my students that the feeling that writing is kind of mysterious and special is still valid, and they can use it, but I prefer going the analytical route in my class because it relates to a lot of things they’ll have to do in the future

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