The Challenge of Teaching Creative Writing

The Challenge of Teaching Creative Writing
The mere act of teaching creative writing presupposes a leap of faith: that teachers can stimulate, motivate, and guide students to write creatively. This is a huge task. Tom Robbins once wrote that ?to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought.? That is our job in a nutshell: to get students to think and write the unthinkable. Many teachers believe that they can, at a minimum, help students learn where to dig for ideas, challenge students to mine originality, and model habits for students that lead to creative possibilities.
There are those among us, however, who would argue against this premise. They claim that creativity is an innate gift and that teachers are misguided if they think they play any part in the creative act. There will always be naysayers. But those naysayers must also argue that music instruction cannot lead to creativity in music, or that art classes cannot help students become better painters or sculptors. They must argue that acting classes will not help actors be more creative in their approaches. No doubt there is a hint of truth in these observations, but there is also truth in the belief that practice, stimulation, and encouragement can often lead to discovery. As the University of Michigan English professor Eric Rabkin says, ?Creativity can be taught, but it can?t be taught equally effectively to everyone? (qtd. in Barr 32).

If we assume, and we do, that all people own a creative vein, then we assume responsibility for tapping into that vein as teachers. Guiding students becomes a major task in creative writing courses. Teachers steer students toward areas ripe for creativity. Of course, not all students will hold up their end of the bargain. We can?t force any person to be creative. But we can point students toward greener pastures for harvesting.

Most writers agree that writing involves a combination of craft and imagination. The balance of the two is debatable. A student may have a rich imagination, but not enough knowledge and practice in writing to harness it. Or a student may have the technical language skills, but not the instinct or confidence to use those skills creatively. A creative writing class must focus on craft, the tools of the writer. But the class must also focus on imaginative exploration. Through guidance and encouragement, a creative writing teacher can help students see which ideas are worth pursuing and which are not. This task places a burden on teachers?they must be well-read, insightful, and open-minded. Teachers can lead students only so far up the mountain. As Richard Hugo used to say to every creative writing class he taught:

You?ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say
today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but
it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting
or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn
to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don?t teach you how to
write but how to teach yourself how to write. (3)

A creative writing teacher must challenge students, usually through readings and assignments. By stimulating students through prompts, the teacher helps new writers discover the depths of their creativity. Sometimes students, like all of us, stumble upon unique images, language, and ideas by force. In-class writing prompts are attempts to rouse the creative, unconscious mind. Sometimes these prompts force students to break past habits and tread into new territory for ideas. A short in-class prompt like Rita Dove?s ?Ten-Minute Spill? can generate images and phrases that might never naturally fly off the pens of students (13). I am routinely amazed at what students create given assignments such as invent an imaginary game, write a dream, place a famous dead character in a contemporary setting, tell the real story behind a childhood fable or legend or nursery rhyme.

Teachers also challenge students in the form of critiquing?making suggestions to rewrite a cliched ending, to hook the reader better, to consider deleting a weak stanza, to find stronger verbs. This advice, which we know may be ignored, forces young writers to reassess and question, and that process involves a deeper mining for new and original answers. The experience of the helping circle and feedback from colleagues in that public group setting can also spark creativity.

The idea of the teacher as a model is an old and venerable one in educational literature. Certainly the teacher?s attitude toward writing and teaching can inspire and motivate many. Deserved and well-placed encouragement is an underused tactic. Testimonials on how, in practice, the teacher writes can help students understand different methods. Descriptions on what inspires people, stories about how and when the creative spirit took control, and excerpts from writers discussing creativity all complement more directive instruction.

Probably the most influential task of the teacher is to establish a class environment that invites creativity, celebrates creativity, and honors creativity. This classroom must be non-threatening and flexible. Often, it is full of humor and laughter. It is always full of excellent examples, read with heart and gusto. It must be a safe haven for experimentation.

As teachers, we must take that Kierkegaardian leap of faith off the edge of an abyss, trusting that in the darkness below, we?ll land on the ledge of creativity. This is, in fact, exactly what we do when we write: we trust that the imagination will take us somewhere. Our task is to gather our students around us and leap in unison. We?ll all land in different places, some not jumping far enough, some leaping yards beyond the others. The limitless possibilities of creativity open up in the act of leaping itself.

Learning how to land on our feet comes with practice, time, grace, and experience.

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