A Not So Creative Approach to Teaching Composition

My cat got tired of the late nights toward the end of semester one of graduate school and protested by laying on my journal.

From the short year that I’ve been in an English department, I’ve come to discover that saying creative writing in relation to teaching composition is somewhat forbidden. We all, of course, acknowledge that our disciplines are not mutually exclusive, but secretly, maybe we wish it was? Like I said, I haven’t really been around long enough to know.

I do know that I’ll be flying solo as a teacher for the first time this fall and I do have a creative writing background and that scares composition people on occasion, but do not fear! I have no intention of teaching anyone how to write a short story this fall. If they want that, I’ll be happy to recommend some great classes they can look forward to later in their career and some good books they can read now.

In my class, however, I’m interested in analysis. I want to give my students practical tools and methods that they can use to analyze the things going on around them. I’m using a great text that offers several. The book emphasizes withholding judgement, of course, which- wait? Don’t storytellers do that? Anyway- It also emphasizes noticing things. In fact, one tool the book outlines for students is called notice and focus. Didn’t John Gardner give advice to writers that said “be someone on whom nothing is lost? These are the things I want to get my students into. Even Stephen King offers fantastic advice to writers of any genre (ex- The road to hell is paved with adverbs).

Basically, what I’m saying is I’m a beginner who is going to experiment with a creative writing model of teaching in the composition classroom. We’re not going to write short stories, creative nonfiction essays, or even poems, but we are going to write. We’re going to analyze the world around us, which honestly is what fiction does in a way? Right?

The biggest, practical change I’m going to try out is a full-fledged workshop, complete with author’s notes and beta notes prepared by workshop partners prior to the workshop. I think this could work, and I hope to report on progress, lessons that worked/failed, and the overall success or failure of this plan. I think my creative writing background has taught me how to talk about writing and I hope that as I move forward, I can use that background to re-energize my composition students. Here’s hoping!

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About michelleh7040

I'm a grad student studying creative writing and learning how to teach writing (of all sorts).
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4 Responses to A Not So Creative Approach to Teaching Composition

  1. I’m really excited to hear how your semester goes! I, too, have a creative writing background (though I’m studying composition and rhetoric in my master’s now), and I, too, get a little sick of the notion that creative writing and composition are so different. So much of my direct instruction in the composition process came from experiences in creative writing classrooms, and I try to draw on those experiences with my own teaching, as well. Good luck!

  2. I just want to take a quick moment to support your impulse. The conflict between composition and creative writing is artificial; just as journalists discovered decades ago, there’s no reason why we can’t do both–and every reason why we should. Integrating them simply makes for better writing; trying to segregate “composition” is kind of like cutting the corpus callosum that connects the bicameral brain.

    There’s good research behind integration; if you want, I could try to dig it up for you later this summer–I remember a few (young) people delivered papers on the subject at a recent comp/rhet conference I went to. Which is why I wanted to reply to your post: you are not alone! You are not nuts! You are not operating dangerously outside the box! Quite the opposite: you will be doing your students, and yourself, a huge favor (because trust me, the papers they will produce will be a WHOLE lot more readable). I don’t let my comp students write fiction, but I absolutely teach them to apply creative writing techniques like writing in-scene, with vivid sensory detail, putting people and dialog on the page, using the associative leverage of metaphor, and trusting whatever images their subconscious offers up.

    Gratuitous advice about the workshop model: the best thing students can give each other is support and encouragement, which is not necessarily what goes on in an MFA workshop (or a conventional comp peer-review group, for that matter). In my own workshops, I explicitly ban the notion of “critique”–because of the association with criticism–and orchestrate things so that students instead give each other feedback on what is working well, and on any places where they got confused or lost or wanted to know more as readers. Analysis is fine; you just want to separate that from judgment, which is burdensome for all concerned.

    Congratulations on making it to your own classroom–speaking as someone who’s been around a few of life’s blocks more than once, I want to encourage you to wade off into what may seem like tall grass by the side of the beaten path–the natural world is waiting for you, and I think you’re going to love it. Be creative–and fearless (or at least don’t let fear confine you to mediocrity).

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