Sunday, March 30, 2014

Creative writing elective

Last night, some family and I sat around a table listening to Dad tell stories about growing up without much money or many worldly possessions but with lots of love and happy memories. He told story after story of hardship and adventure, and we all chimed in telling stories of our own. Every tale was complete, engaging, and relatable. No need for training in storytelling. No need for a course on dialog, plotting, or voice.

This term, I'm trying to teach my students that they're already storytellers, that they constantly communicate in story form, just like we did around the table. The first challenge for them, for anyone really, is taking a story from the lively atmosphere of the kitchen table or the imagination and making it just as alive on the page. The second is knowing what to include, what not to include, and how to get from the beginning to the end.

The challenge for me is that this is an elective course. Though these eighteen students have to learn some technique, read and analyze strong examples, and write stories or parts of stories, the majority are not in it to strengthen their beloved novels: they're in it to get their elective credits. That means they've got every right to not love the topic like I do. In spite of that reality, the loveliest surprise has been all the beautiful, thoughtful pieces I've gotten so far. For the first time in a long time, I actually enjoy grading papers.

Plus, the class is teaching me everything about technique that I wish I'd been taught in grad school. I had a great grad school experience, but the classes I took focused more on critique groups and research than technique. So I'm not just teaching the basics of how to make a story work, I'm learning the basics in a straightforward way after spending years stumbling my way through drafts, learning by doing. In other words, more of the fog (that is the mystery of great written storytelling) is clearing.

More on that soon. For now, we're halfway through the term, and I'm loving the challenge. Since I don't know when this class will come back around again, I'm teaching like it's the only time I'll ever get the chance. When it's over, I can only hope a few of my students will have gotten the itch to keep writing after the final bell rings.