Recently, a younger colleague preparing to teach creative writing for the first time asked me what I’d learned over the past thirty-one years in the classroom. I said something vaguely coherent, but I think the question deserves a fuller answer, and I’d like to offer the following suggestions to my colleague, and to anyone else just starting out:
Be kind. This is my “prime directive,” from the first day to the last. You cannot demonstrate too much compassion in a class in which students may be putting more of themselves on the line than they ever have in any other course. When in doubt, take a breath, then err on the side of generosity.
Listen. Granted, the instructor probably knows more about creative writing than the student, but students have taught me a great deal in every class I’ve ever offered. And you will never learn what your students don’t know unless you stop talking yourself. Try to put yourself in the student’s place as they encounter materials and ways of writing that may be unfamiliar and feel forbidding: where are they getting lost, and why?
Don’t assume everyone has had the same experiences—with literature, or life. While it’s essential that you try and imagine the world from your student’s perspective, know that you will never be able to completely accomplish that task. Race, gender, sexuality, mental and physical differences, economic and immigration status—our lives are varied, and there’s no sense in pretending that some haven’t had it easier than others. A teacher’s awareness of intersectionality must be honest and ongoing.
Nurture the classroom community. A class in which everyone is respectful of one another and working together to value and strengthen everyone else’s writing—is there any happier place on earth? Creating such an environment takes work, of course, and every class meeting requires reinvestment on everyone’s part and constant vigilance on the teacher’s behalf. Among the articles I have found most illuminating about community in the creative writing classroom are “We Need New Metaphors: Reimagining Power in the Creative Writing Workshop” by Rachelle Cruz, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s New York Times piece about the potential hostility of writers’ workshops, and Sabina Murray and Ocean Vuong’s conversation about making the workshop more hospitable to writers of color.
Learn from other writing teachers. If we have been lucky, our own writing teachers have gifted us with strategies to teach and inspire students. And of course, even unpleasant classroom experiences can motivate us—to do the opposite in our own classes. Fortunately, writers love to talk about writing, whether in person, online or in articles and books. Of the many resources available to teachers, I would especially recommend the remarkable page listing and linking to writers of color on craft compiled by the community at de-canon.
Don’t be afraid to teach the fundamentals. In high school creative writing units, English teachers may way well cheer on every effort, happy simply to have their students engaged in the writing process. That’s certainly a worthy accomplishment, but in a college-level class, students also benefit from an introduction to the basics of each genre being taught. How, for instance, can a poet ever improve their poetry if they remain unaware of the magic of metaphor? Or how will a young playwright contribute to, or challenge, the traditions of drama if they are simply copying the conventions of late-night comedy skits?
Insist that your students try to become better writers. If you are kind and listen to students, if you try and envision their experiences while also acknowledging the ultimate inadequacy of that effort, you may wonder if encouraging them to improve their work really matters. Isn’t it enough just to make sure they feel good about themselves when the semester is over? Honestly, I don’t think it is. Your efforts won’t be perfect: not everyone will write the way you want them to, and you may be culturally blind to some of the strengths your students possess. Nevertheless, a creative writing class in which the instructor does not push students to become the best writers they are capable of becoming at that particular moment in their lives is a missed opportunity for everyone.
Please look forward to the new edition (4e) of Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief coming out this upcoming summer of 2021!