It’s on the Syllabus: Creating Sacred Space

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[[This blog was originally posted on January 30, 2013]]

The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious,
and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.
–T S Eliot

Recently, I planned out my courses for spring. I wrote new syllabi for poetry and fiction workshops and revised my existing syllabi, too. And, this year I decided to include a new section.  After explaining to my students the Grades and Attendance and Formatting Your Work parts of my syllabus, I added a section called Creating Sacred Space.

This is new territory for me, and will be for most of my students, I think, and I’m curious to know what you think.

What I have noticed in the past couple of years is this. Students rarely take phone calls during class. Most of the time, they silence their phones, though a few times each semester (usually during an in class writing period, or when a student is reading an incredibly moving, incredibly personal poem aloud—aka The Worst Time), a phone will hum and buzz and there will be a frenzied patting down of a backpack or self, a litany of apologies, or, worst, weird silent ignoring while the buzzing or belling persists.  Once in a great while a student will take a call in class:  “I have to take this! It’s my mom!”


But last year, I noticed something truly deleterious, in my opinion, to the workshop itself. When we take our break halfway through the three hour workshop, many students get out their phones and text. Some of them text during the entire break. Often, I’ll see the little thumbs, the downward gaze, when we are in class, not on the break. Texting in class is okay, students believe, in a way that taking an actual phone call is not.  But, I think it’s very much NOT okay. So, this semester, I’m creating a new policy: Sacred Space.

We bring very personal work to class, and of course there has to be a boundary of reverence around our discussion. On Day One, we formally vow not to discuss the work of this class with outsiders, and not to share any drafts with others. I’m not worried that students’ text communications with those outside the workshop during the workshop is violating trust. Rather, I believe that texting during class, even during the break, is hurting our ability to be present with each other. I believe texting even on the break is hurting students’ ability to learn how to be connected with the depth of their inner lives, and the range of their imaginations. You might disagree.  But if you can’t disconnect from other people for three hours stretches, how are you going to write a poem or a short story?

When we are around a table, with work-in-progress spread out before us, there’s a lot that’s called for in terms of awareness, paying attention, thoughtfulness, and intuition. These skills are very similar to the ones we need when creating art.   For example, when we start break in class, I can look at Emily and see she is having a rough day. I can see how nervous she is—her story is up next. The break is not really a break from class; it’s a break from work, from concentration.  It’s a chance to stretch, to run to the restroom, to grab a snack. But we are still a class.  We’re still a group endeavoring to make meaning, give insightful feedback, hold and carry and nurture and tend to art and each other. If our attention is divided, if we are participating in conversations about dinner, about whatever, Mom found her car keys!—with folks who aren’t in our class, I feel we are not just missing out on opportunities to see each other with the full richness that is required for something as intimate and demanding as workshop, I think we are hurting our art. I think we’re damaging our process.

To make art, we have to be able to enter a complicated dance between knowing and not knowing, between what’s clear and what’s chaotic.  We have to be able to space out—slightly.   We have to capture those notions that come from the right brain.  A creative writing workshop is a complex system of interactions—we have to be off-line, here and deeply here.  We have to be paying attention to surprise, to nuance, to everything.

I am nervous about my new policy. I worry students will see it as draconian. Un-American. But you know what? Going to college means learning new ways to be in the world, honing one’s ability to work with others, and deepening one’s relationship with one’s inner self.  The ability to create sacred space—well, I think it might help my students create more productive, more rewarding writing practices.  And, I think it might be one tiny way to heal the world.

About the Author
Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.