The Best of the AWP Pedagogy Papers 2008 The Association of

The Best of the AWP Pedagogy Papers 2008
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs
Pedagogy Team
Mary Biddinger, The University of Akron & NEOMFA
Catherine Carson, University of Central Florida
Gary Leising, Utica College
Joshua Weber, Oregon State University
The 2008 Pedagogy Team is pleased to present the following collection of essays, The Best of the
AWP Pedagogy Papers 2008. As we observe the 40th anniversary of AWP, we recognize that the
strength and vitality of the institution springs, in no small part, from the diversity and creativity
of its members. We feel that this collection, in which longtime practitioners of creative writing
pedagogy appear alongside the newest members of the teaching community, who are learning to
instruct while receiving instruction themselves, reflects that same strength. Adding to this richness
is the variety seen in the papers’ subject matter and approach, from the exploration of scent in
“Bloodhound Poetry: Using Smell to Trigger New Material,” to the discussion of “Creative Writing
as Social Action.”
While each paper and participant in our roundtable discussions defines and fuels the Pedagogy
Forum, the selections in this volume represent some of the finest meditations on the craft and
the most useful classroom exercises submitted for consideration this year. Though the task of
selecting just a few papers to publish was daunting, we are confident that the following papers will
appeal to and enlighten all who peruse these pages. Our thanks go to everyone who has supported
and participated in the Pedagogy Forum in the past, and we welcome those who are new to the
forum. Please join us next year in Chicago, where the collegial spirit and lively discussions will
Elizabeth Ansfield, “Imagining the Past: Invention as an Act of (Re)Vision in Memoir”
The Ohio State University, Multiple Levels, Nonfiction and Fiction
Amanda C. Bauch, “The Space Between ‘Creative’ and ‘Nonfiction’: Establishing
Emotional Truth” Liberty University, Multiple Levels, Nonfiction
Kim Brauer, “The Puzzling Image: A Free-write Exercise”
The Ohio State University, Multiple Levels, Fiction
Lawrence Coates, “The Novel Writing Workshop—First Assignment”
Bowling Green State University, Undergraduate, Fiction
Emari DiGiorgio, “Bloodhound Poetry: Using Smell to Trigger New Material”
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Alternative, Poetry
Peter Grimes, “Dipping Beneath Words: Revealing a Character’s Dark Side”
The University of Cincinnati, Undergraduate, Fiction
Kelle Groom, “‘Everything Asks Me to Sing’: Teaching the Ode to Undergraduates”
University of Central Florida, Undergraduate, Poetry
Joseph Harrington, “‘Nature Writing’ as the Nature of Writing”
The University of Kansas, Undergraduate, Multi-Genre
Douglas Haynes, “Allowing the Point to Surface: Writing a Cross-Cultural Personal Essay”
New England College, Multiple Levels, Nonfiction
Julie Kane, “Jump-Starting the CNF Semester with the Radio Essay”
Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Multiple Levels, Nonfiction
Michael Levan, “Finding the First Line: On Learning and ‘Borrowing’ from Those We Admire”
Western Michigan University, Undergraduate, Multi-Genre
Katie Manning, “A Voice of One’s Own: The Narrative Research Essay”
University of Missouri, Kansas City, Undergraduate, Nonfiction
Erin Murphy, “‘Entering the House’ of Creative Nonfiction”
Penn State Altoona, Undergraduate, Nonfiction
Steven Ostrowski, “Granting Undergraduate Fiction Writers Permission to Explore the Uncanny
and the Strange”
Central Connecticut State University, Undergraduate, Fiction
Anne Panning, “The ABCs of the Segmented Essay”
SUNY Brockport, Multiple Levels, Nonfiction
Marvyn Petrucci, “A Playwright’s Politics in Deadly Political Times”
Auburn University, Undergraduate, Drama
Todd James Pierce, “The Heat Sheet: Constructing Story Middles”
Cal Poly University, Undergraduate, Fiction
Ron Paul Salutsky, “The Accidental Poem”
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Multiple Levels, Poetry
Terry Ann Thaxton, “Creative Writing as Social Action”
University of Central Florida, Multiple Levels, Multi-Genre
Jerry Williams, “The Brick and the Formation of Metaphor: A Classroom Writing Exercise”
Marymount Manhattan College, Undergraduate, Poetry
Elizabeth Ansfield • The Ohio State University • Multiple Levels • Nonfiction and Fiction
Imagining the Past: Invention as an Act of (Re)Vision in Memoir
Too often, writers hear and take advice from the faulty quip “write what you know.” When a writer is
investigating his family in his writing, the first step in the memoir-writing process is to consider what he holds
in his arsenal of memory, wisdom, and anecdotes. But in order to access his past, the author must also, as
Michael Pearson suggests in his essay “Researching Your Own Life,” conduct research to assemble a “historical
reality . . . [which] provides a shape and substance that would otherwise not be there.” Pearson suggests that the
writer pore over letters buried in dusty bureaus, visit places once considered “home,” reread books that appealed
to him as a youngster, and eventually request that friends and family members “audit the facts.”
The writer will inevitably come upon gaps or fissures in the flow of personal memory, family memory,
and access to nuances in his family’s history. The writer will often ignore these gaps, considering them to
be unsolvable mysteries or dead ends. Quite the contrary, when the writing student encounters moments in
his family history that he cannot truly comprehend, recreate, or empathize with, he is still left with a story
he is somehow connected to, a story that is akin to a memory. The writer must internalize or adopt these
unfathomable memories, which are part of his family’s history, as his own. Thus, he carries memories of a
“vicarious past,” to which he must draw connections from his own family experience. This is where the act of
(re)vision, or reconstructing the past from bits of memory and vicarious memory, must begin.
Class Discussion: Students should read Maxine Hong Kingston’s short piece, “No Name Woman,” as a
successful example of inventing as an act of (re)vision. Kingston invents the life of her dead aunt, about whom
the author knows very little. Students should take note of how Kingston is able to skirt the line between fiction
and nonfiction, constructing the legend of her aunt, which informs and is informed by her own experience with
her parents and culture. Students should find connections between Kingston’s drive to write what she doesn’t
know and her desire to “figure out how the invisible world the emigrants built around our childhoods fits in
solid America.”
Discussion questions: •
Maxine Hong Kingston takes liberties to do a great deal of inventing in her “memoir” about her aunt. In terms of Kingston’s memoir, do you “accept” the imaginary world that she creates for her
aunt? How much invention do you think is allowed in memoir when the information we need is
not available?
How does Kingston signal to her readers which of her stories in The Woman Warrior are invented
and which are faithful to the truth? Why is this important?
Writing Activity: Students should consider a family legend (or family member) about which (or whom)
only myths remain. The student should invent the story of that legend or relative, being careful to recognize and
incorporate family nuances that inform and are informed by the myths. The student might also choose to explore
a family secret about which he has always wanted to know more. The student should consider reflecting on why
it might be a secret, who knows the truth, etc. In his investigation, the student should research the confirmed
—that is, historical—context that surrounds the myth. As he incorporates his research into his story, the student
should experiment with various methods to signal to their reader moments of invention and moments of truth.
Amanda C. Bauch • Liberty University • Multiple Levels • Nonfiction
The Space Between “Creative” and “Nonfiction”: Establishing Emotional Truth
For creative nonfiction more than any genre, the question of what is true becomes difficult to answer.
The word “nonfiction” leads us to believe that what we are reading is factually accurate. But the word “creative”
leads us down a less clear path, as the word ‘create’ tells us that something is being brought into existence
from someone’s memory and imagination. We wonder: Where does the boundary between “creative” and
“nonfiction” exist?
Although creative nonfiction writers must make every effort to be honest and factual in their writing,
facts can only take us so far. Fortunately, the “creative” aspect of the genre provides freedom of form and
exploration. And establishing emotional truth, which occupies the space between “creative” and “nonfiction,” is
the most fruitful destination.
How, then, does the creative nonfiction writer transform “just the facts, ma’am,” into something of
literary and artistic value? Here are five suggestions (examples of each of these techniques should be shared
with the students):
Change Your Perspective. View the narrative through another character’s eyes, and use the conditional.
Switch from the first person to the third person, using such phrases as She must have realized, Maybe he
thought, My grandmother must have felt, and so forth.
• Use Speculation. Unless they were present, your readers would not know whether your mother wore a
black or red dress to your father’s funeral. While consciously lying about that detail would mislead the
reader, at best, you can speculate about which dress you think she wore and why.
• Incorporate Clues. Numerous words and phrases will alert the reader that a creative nonfiction writer
is intentionally shifting to the more “creative” side. Some examples are I imagine, I would like to
believe, I would like to remember, I imagine, and perhaps.
• Acknowledge Your Limitations. Tell the reader when you do not remember. Use phrases such as I
don’t remember exactly but, I only know that, Nobody knows why, and I haven’t been told all of this story
• Incorporate Fantasy. Dreams, daydreams, legends, and folklore can provide a unique perspective into
the nature and psyche of the narrator, and other characters, or provide a cultural context for the narrative.
• Use False Memories. The “did-it-or-didn’t-it-happen?” dilemma often arises in creative nonfiction.
However, even if you are unsure if something happened, write about the event first, then confirm or
refute the facts later.
If we, as creative nonfiction writers, are not allowing ourselves to explore the creative side of the genre,
we may be left making vapid statements such as “I don’t know what we were wearing.” But once we open the
door to contemplation, we can use the types of concrete details that make our writing fresh and interesting.
Writing Exercise (can be completed in-class or as homework):
Students will write one scene from their lives, using a “just the facts, ma’am” narrative style. Of most
benefit for this exercise will be writing about something they have avoided, because some of the details are
After they complete the scene, they will use and incorporate some of the “speculative tools” to rewrite
the scene. Once finished, students can volunteer to share their before and after scenes with the class.
Kim Brauer • Ohio State University • Multiple Levels • Fiction
The Puzzling Image: A Free-write Exercise
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott discusses the one-inch picture frame she keeps on her desk to remind
herself that she doesn’t need to capture the whole world each time she sits down to write, but only one inch of
it. Making the metaphorical one inch of life literal is an exercise that works well in introductory fiction classes
at both the university and high school levels.
To try this, collect images from newspapers, magazines, the Internet, etc. They should be large enough
that you can cut three or more smaller ‘excerpts’ (from one-inch up to three- or four-inch squares) from each
of the large images. Without calling them excerpts or mentioning they are part of larger images, give these
small squares to students in class and ask them to write descriptively about what they see during a timed freewrite. Once they’ve finished this writing time, show the class the larger images and, as the students piece their
excerpts back into the whole, ask them to read the descriptive passages they’ve written.
Choosing appropriate images and then locating which details to crop in the cutouts is important. The
most interesting outcome of this exercise in a recent course resulted from taking inch-square details from a
large New York Times image of a soldier in Iraq. While the image as a whole clearly depicted war, not all of
the individual cutouts did, so that segments of writing involving descriptions of artillery and aggression were
interspersed with lyrical descriptions of the desert landscape and witty depictions of the children at the side
of the road watching something unfold. When these segments were combined, forming a single if somewhat
fractured narrative, that wit and lyricism added an unexpected poignancy and gravitas to the scene of violence,
details that a single writer could easily overlook in approaching the image as a whole. Crowd scenes also yield
interesting results, particularly when some of the cutouts don’t reveal the purpose of the assembly as a whole.
Students will often explore the thoughts of one person within their cut-out who looks intriguing, slipping into
first person narration or inner monologue, and these moments of interiority often end up profitably at odds with
the overarching purpose of the demonstration or gathering which the rest of the image quickly fills in for us.
This exercise provides a tangible example for students of the necessity of slowing down when writing
fiction, inhabiting the whole of each scene they render, and noticing the details that a more cursory examination
of character, scene and setting may overlook. These are often details that enhance the believability of the scene,
give it greater resonance, or provide dissonant counterpoints that enhance the complexity of the writing’s
emotional impact.
A variation of this “Puzzling Image” exercise is to move in the opposite direction—layering the visual
information in the writing prompt rather than suppressing access to it—by asking each student to create a 3-4”
square mini-collage to bring to class. Because each student may have had a narrative in mind when they created
the collage, have the students exchange these collages in class and free-write based on the new collage they’ve
just received.
Lawrence Coates • Bowling Green State University • Undergraduate • Fiction
The Novel Writing Workshop – First Assignment
The project of writing a novel for the first time is daunting for all. Giving students the opportunity
to envision a book-length work and write the first chapter in a semester can be very empowering. For
undergraduates especially, it is probably best to break this into manageable steps that can be discussed. Hence,
the first assignment for a novel writing workshop follows.
An editor from W.W. Norton, speaking with a young writer once, wanted him to define for her what
the novel was about. Specifically, she wanted him to write down in one sentence who the main character is,
what s/he does, and why we (the reader) should care. In Publisher’s Weekly, it’s possible to find descriptions
of forthcoming novels that more or less follow this same format. Frequently, they will have a separate section
dedicated to first-time novelists. Some examples from the past include the following:
Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kirin Desai. A confused young Indian man climbs a tree in search
of peaceful contemplation and becomes unexpectedly famous as a holy man.
Gold by the Inch by Lawrence Chua. A New Yorker returns to his native Thailand and becomes obsessed
with a beautiful male prostitute.
The Farm She Was by Ann Mohin. An elderly woman struggles to save her farm in this story of a
vanishing era.
The student’s first assignment is made up of several tasks, although their goal is to define their project
in a single sentence. First, for three weeks, they must keep a journal and write in it every day (or at least six
days a week). This is to get them in the practice of writing regularly, and they are encouraged to set up a writing
schedule for themselves, so that they know that at a certain hour of each day, they should be sitting down to
What they write in this journal will be aimed at getting them to define for themselves what the book is
about. During the first days, they are asked to concentrate on character. Who is(are) the main character(s)? They
must begin with typical details like name, age, job, region, race, social class, religion, relationship status, family
situation, etc. In following days, they begin to concentrate on their situation. In this stage, the students may need
to reflect on and write about other characters that are somehow in conflict with the main character.
As they continue, they should be able to define what is at stake. If the character is not risking anything,
then they may lose the reader. Something very concrete may be at stake. Or something more subtle and spiritual
may be at stake. Frequently, in the best novels, something is at stake in the outside world, and something is also
at stake in a character’s heart and soul.
They are encouraged to define the ‘season’ of the novel. According to this notion, a novel perforce takes
a certain span of a character’s life and defines it as a season of significance, during which events happen that are
unique, unrepeatable, and irreversible.
Finally, they must boil down the character and situation into one sentence. The complete journals are
turned in to the instructor, and the class discusses only the sentence. In subsequent weeks, discussions of two
or three recently published novels (Ian McEwan’s Atonement has worked well) alternate with two workshop
phases in which the drafts of first chapters are discussed.
Emari DiGiorgio • The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey • Alternative • Poetry
Bloodhound Poetry: Using Smell to Trigger New Material
One of the most challenging aspects of being a poet-in-the-schools or teaching workshops in the
community involves creating prompts for students and workshop participants. Visiting teachers often spend less
time with their students than those who teach in conventional classroom settings and may know little to nothing
about their students before the workshop begins. Thus, visiting teachers hope to design assignments that their
audience can identify with, but not be so broad that participants’ work will be predictable and cliché. What will
encourage aspiring writers, young and old, to write more imaginatively, to move beyond the ordinary topics of
their poems, and to take risks? Their noses.
The strongest and most vivid sense for long-term memory, smell, can lead your students to new material
and imaginative freedom.
Assignment: Fill six to eight small boxes (such as the miniature take-out boxes available at your local
craft store) with scented articles, such as the following: potting soil, fresh basil, a dryer sheet, incense, a
chocolate bar, a peeled Clementine, herbal teabags, and coffee beans.
Distribute the boxes to your students and ask them to sniff deeply and then write down whatever the
smell reminds them of, not what the smell is. After students have taken a whiff of each box, allow them to
choose the one that produced the most intense or interesting memory. Workshop participants will surprise
themselves with the sensual connections they’ve made. The scent of a fresh grapefruit reminded one middleschool girl of her grandmother in the summertime; incense brought a forty year old back to riding in her
mother’s ’64 Buick. These memories are often unexpected and excite the writer.
To help the students present their memory, offer them some guiding questions:
• How old are you? What do you look like? Who is with you?
• What season is it? What is the weather of the place (inside or outside)?
• What time of day is it? What is the lighting like?
• What do you hear around you (close and in the distance)?
• What was most important to you in this memory? What is most important to you now?
• What three things might you have been wishing for in this moment?
• Is the moment a metaphor for something larger?
Another option would be for students to create a montage of all the memories associated with one object or
explore the connections between the different memories. One writer realized that all of her scented memories
had to do with her father.
This assignment avoids isolating or intimidating new writers and is ideal for visiting teachers who
know little of their workshop participants. Not only does it help students of all ages and levels generate new,
interesting material, it is also a fun and innovative way to make a creative writing lesson more interactive.
Students relish the surprise of each box: the scent and the memory that lingers.
Peter Grimes • University of Cincinnati • Undergraduate • Fiction
Dipping Beneath Words: Revealing a Character’s Dark Side
As young writers will learn over time, creating a realistic character takes more than a list of superficial
attributes. “Edna must always pick her scabs; she fears sirens; she wants to marry John.” Floating, independent
facts like these are not enough to make a vivid character. Vivid characters must be dynamic, their attributes at
war with one another. Indeed, many believe that the hallmark of literary fiction is the convincing portrayal of a
character developing through tribulation.
In many beginning fiction efforts, characters portrayed in third person are those most likely to resemble
such an innocuous list of ingredients. Perhaps the reason for this tendency is the palpable distance new writers
feel between themselves and their third-person protagonists. Students are more comfortable claiming to know
themselves (even their first-person narrator “selves”) than to know others. Yet, as Dorrit Cohn points out in
Transparent Minds, fiction’s most pronounced difference from drama or film is the access the audience has to a
character’s mind. Every lover of fiction can recognize the gratification of knowing a character top to bottom, as
we can never know a person in real life. Further, as Cohn explains, a third-person (heterodiegetic) narration in
particular puts a writer in this omniscient position, more so than deceptively simple first-person. A third-person
narrator is able to step in and articulate what a character cannot. He or she can even say what resides entirely in
a character’s subconscious.
As a writing exercise, ask students to divide a sheet of paper with a vertical line and list to the left as
many of a character’s core desires and beliefs as they can. Stipulate, however, that for every conscious desire or
belief on the left, they must add to the right an inhibited desire or doubt related to the left-hand desire or belief.
Once they’ve listed half a dozen traits on each side, have them write a third-person paragraph describing their
characters only in terms of two or three left-hand (conscious) traits. Suggest that they begin with one sentence
or phrase of physical description so they can establish a maximal distance between narrator and protagonist: “A
pudgy and ruddy-faced government employee, _____ wanted more than anything in life. . . .” The paragraph
should read like a nutshell description that the character, if asked, would condone.
Students should begin the next paragraph, “What _____ did not know or was not able to say about him/
herself was. . .” or with an equivalent introductory phrase in the distant style and tense of the first paragraph.
This second paragraph should be structured as a mirror-image of the first in that the unconscious or ineffable
(to the character) traits are introduced following the order of their opposites. Suggest that a few sentences in the
second paragraph begin with references to the first, as in, “Although ______ had every intention of asking his
girlfriend to marry him, he couldn’t admit to himself that. . . .” Two paragraphs tightly ordered in this manner
will give each student a dynamic character sketch from which they can build a dramatic scene. In addition, the
exercise’s successful completion will decrease the students’ natural hesitance in the future to assume a thirdperson narrator’s generic omnipotence.
Kelle Groom • University of Central Florida • Undergraduate • Poetry
“Everything Asks Me to Sing”: Teaching the Ode to Undergraduates
In his introduction to Horace, The Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets, J.D. McClatchy
said, “The classroom ruins Horace.” As example, McClatchy offers Mr. King, the Latin master in Rudyard
Kipling’s story, “Regulus,” and the classroom scene in which Horace’s “thrilling fable and a vivid poem are all
reduced to sawdust in the mouth.” How then does one teach the ode in a way that allows the thrilling nature of
the ode to live in the classroom?
The following class session on the ode could take place in a poetic forms or an introductory creative
writing course. When we read and write poetry, we engage in a conversation with the past. So naturally, this
session begins with a brief overview of the ode to place it in its historical context, followed by the reading of
three or four odes and discussion. In the praising odes of Pindar and Horace, the ecstatic odes of the Romantics,
Neruda’s praise of common things, and the often playful contemporary odes of Kenneth Koch and Barbara
Hamby’s “American Odes,” we see the historical thread that connects the writer of the ode in 5th century BC to
others and to students as they write their own odes.
The brief lecture and readings will give students some familiarity with the evolution of the ode and
its various elements: praise, celebration, ecstatic participation, humor, loss, and a tone that may be elevated,
playful, and/or conversational. Next, hand out copies of Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks,” and ask students to
think, as the read the poem, about how Neruda uses image, line, and metaphor in this poem. Neruda elevates the
ordinary—for this poet, the mundane is always fantastic. “Ode to My Socks” is seriously, fun to read, so invite
a student to read it aloud. This illustrates James von Geldern’s notion explored in the Slavic Review of the ode
as a performative genre that is impoverished when approached exclusively as written text (Winter 927). It also
allows students to spend more time with Neruda’s playful word choice and inventive metaphors (his feet are
“two cannons”), and to consider how they might use language in unexpected ways in their own odes.
Then, ask students to think, as Neruda did with his socks, of a beloved piece of clothing—a piece of
clothing they could not do without or wish they (still) had. Using the Neruda ode as a model in terms of tone
and form, ask students to draft their own “Ode to (an Article of Clothing)” in class. This is followed by a
voluntary reading of these rough drafts, again emphasizing the ode’s performative nature. This initial session on
the ode, including brief overview, discussion, writing exercise, and performative aspect can be followed with
a packet of odes for students to read as homework, to further illustrate the range of the ode. The elements of
this session on the ode help to create an experimental, playful classroom atmosphere in which Neruda’s words
continue to thrill: “what can I do,/everything asks me/to speak,/everything asks me/to sing, sing forever.”
Joseph Harrington • The University of Kansas • Undergraduate • Multi-Genre
“Nature Writing” as the Nature of Writing
When we tell students “to show,” what are we asking them to do? And what if we asked them to explore
that question? Part of the challenge and fun of writing anything is in exploring the gap between the word and the
world (posited) beyond the word. A human-made thing can try to imitate or represent a natural thing, sometimes
as a way to contain it, intellectually or physically: “locust oil in stone locusts,” to cite an extreme instance (from
Marianne Moore’s “The Jerboa”). Or, the human maker can be inspired by the form of a natural thing to make
a new form, or “an addition to nature,” as William Carlos Williams puts it in Spring and All (ideas in things,
not of things). In the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant asks us to regard a work of nature as though it were
a work of art, and a work of art as though it were a work of nature. This prescription acknowledges the blurry
boundary between things re-presented by words and words as things (ink, air, paint, pixels). In any event, these
are issues, at once theoretical and practical, that all writers (not just “nature” writers) must contend with; being
face-to-face with the non-human Other brings that fact home.
So this exercise requires getting outdoors, specifically to a spot where a number of non-human species
are present—which is just about everywhere, really. I use Potter Lake, a stagnant pond choked with duckweed
and algae (other plants, bottles, candy wrappers, the occasional coot, etc.), but it might be even more useful in
a vacant lot containing weeds and bugs, with horns and car alarms for background. I’ve done this exercise with
both poetry workshops and a literature class, “American Nature Writing”; it would be appropriate for nonfiction
writers as well.
First, find a species that has no name—that is, one that you don’t know already. Describe it in the
minutest detail possible, but in any form of writing you wish—verse, prose, dialogue; first, second, or third
person; impressionistic or scientific. Switch from one to another, as necessary. You can wander anywhere you
want (there are lawns, a small grove, and parking lots nearby), but wherever you are, keep the pen moving:
write like mad and don’t look back. But do look out. After you have described this species, give it a name.
Meet back at the spillway in thirty minutes. Then everyone, including the instructor, reads what she has, with no
Some of the descriptions are worthy of Darwin, and some of the names are descriptive (on either
western or indigenous models). Some are whimsical or arbitrary. Some of the writing begins with a particular
plant or animal, but then expands­—either spatially, to take in the surroundings, or associatively, from one shape,
texture, smell or sound to others. Some of the names are parodies: mine was called “sticky pickweed,” because I
liked the sound. And some are, in good naturalist (and human-centered) tradition, named after the “discoverer.”
Are you Adam and Eve, or Lewis and Clark?
This is obviously a lesson in the way that language mediates between us and the rest of nature, as well
as in our participation in, and as, nature. It’s an experiment in nature writing, but it is also an experiment in the
nature of writing. In any event, there is more than one way to skin a sticky pickweed, as the saying goes, and
there is more than one way to describe or to name. This exercise makes those facts abundantly clear, and I don’t
even have to say it.
Douglas Haynes • New England College • Multiple Levels • Nonfiction
Allowing the Point to Surface: Writing a Cross-Cultural Personal Essay
Despite increasing popular and critical attention to travel writing in recent years, there has been
relatively little scholarly concentration on how travel narratives can be used as tools for teaching personal essay
writing. By studying the theory and practice of travel narratives—and narratives of cross-cultural encounters, in
particular—aspiring personal essayists can better grasp the genre’s essential dance between the particular and
the universal. They can also begin to use the genre as a way to link their personal stories with crucial public
conversations about issues that involve cross-cultural perception and communication such as immigration,
tourism, and globalization. As scholar Eileen Groom observes in Methods for Teaching Travel Literature and
Writing, travel writing allows students to “see how the use of ‘I’ in writing, which so many have been told not to
use, does not have to drown a point but rather may allow it to surface” (9).
Journeys that involve cross-cultural encounters are central to many classic and contemporary travel
narratives. Having internalized the journey as a metaphor in popular film and television, young writers relate
easily to the idea that journeys promote understanding of the self in relation to the world. Therefore, reading
travel narratives that involve cross-cultural encounters provides students with accessible models for creating
personal essays that draw on their experiences with an increasingly multicultural and mobile society. Such
models might include George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Edith Wharton’s “In Morocco,” Jamaica
Kincaid’s A Small Place, and selections from Luis Urrea’s Across the Wire, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and
Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu.
After discussing the ways such authors confront cultural otherness and use these confrontations to
address larger issues, assign students some variation of the following prompt:
Write a first-person account of a cross-cultural encounter that you have had. This may have
involved travel or moving to a different place. It may simply have involved a friendship or
interaction with someone from a different culture. For the sake of this essay, culture is loosely
defined. Consider language, behavior, values, nonverbal communication, perception, and
worldview in determining whether substantive cultural differences are involved. Your essay
should then show these differences and how you and your other characters approached them.
Once you have decided on an encounter to depict, make sure your essay tells a story. That is,
that it includes characters who encounter each other in a series of events. This story need not
be chronological. Consider experimenting with narrative structure to heighten the insights or
questions raised by the story or braiding the essay into expository and narrative strands. Finally,
think about the following questions to expand the reach of your narrative: Does the encounter
show successful or unsuccessful cross-cultural communication? What makes it successful
or unsuccessful? Does the encounter reveal something about broader public issues such as
globalization, immigration, or tourism?
This assignment is especially effective in conjunction with field trips, service-learning activities, or
study abroad. It does not need to involve off-campus travel, however, as students can rely on memory or even
on-campus excursions and encounters to write essays rooted in their experiences that also transcend their own
lives and cultural identities.
Julie Kane • Northwestern State U. of LA • Multiple Levels • Nonfiction
Jump-Starting the CNF Semester with the Radio Essay
Getting started for the semester in any creative writing workshop can be a logistical challenge. Students
often lack textbooks for the first week or two of classes, while waiting for delivery of online orders or delayed
financial aid vouchers. Until they get a sense of the other personalities in the class, they may be hesitant to
voice what they really think in a critique session. The class size may still be in flux, resulting in too few copies
of student work to go around the room—or too many, and resentment at the waste of precious dollars spent. In
addition to these hazards common to all creative writing class “start-ups,” creative nonfiction writing students—
with little exposure to the genre in their previous literature classes—may have to come up to speed on what
CNF is before they can begin to write it.
The “Radio Essay” assignment is a foolproof way to circumvent all of these problems and jump-start
the CNF semester. If possible, for background information, have students read pages 109 to 111 (“Writing Out
Loud—A New Genre”) of Philip Gerard’s Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life.
Next, direct them to one or more websites where they can download and listen to audio files of actual radio
essays. The National Public Radio (NPR) site is an excellent resource. In particular, NPR’s “This I Believe”
feature has a wide range of short essays clustered in one location,
php?storyId=4538138. On the New Orleans NPR station site,, within the “Katrina Ya-Ya”
section of the audio archives, listen to regional writers celebrating what they loved best about their hurricanedevastated city. Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” site,,
has memorable essays by Ira Glass, with some essays free to download and others costing ninety-five cents.
Commercially available CDs of NPR essays by writers such as Andrei Codrescu or Reynolds Price can also be
obtained ahead of time and played in the classroom, to supplement or replace students’ online research.
After listening to a range of essays, students should write their own. Rather than a word count, assign
a time limit, when read aloud, of two to three minutes maximum. Remind students that real sounds can be
incorporated into the essay—a doorbell, an ambulance siren, a trumpet blast—and encourage them to use their
imaginations and bring noisemaking props or tape-recorded sound clips to class.
In the actual workshop, the essays should be delivered orally, with no paper copy as backup. Some
will be humorous, some lyrical, some dramatic, some journalistic: students will gain exposure to the range of
possibilities inherent in CNF, to the crucial importance of “voice” within the genre, and to the individual voices
of their classmates—breaking the ice for future workshops in which they will work with hardcopies and get
more specific with their feedback. Peer responses to radio essays tend to be both holistic and appreciative.
Wendy Bishop always stressed that students working toward a class publication project possess an extra
source of motivation to write (Released Into Language 58-60). Given the availability of open-source audiorecording software and an inexpensive plug-in microphone, students may even choose to record their essays and
upload them to a common Web site. If the students in my National Writing Project summer teachers’ institute
could do it—as new to “podcasting” as they were to the genre of CNF—then so could yours.
Michael Levan • Western Michigan University • Undergraduate • Multi-Genre
Finding the First Line: On Learning and “Borrowing” from Those We Admire
Undergraduate creative writing students too often fail to appreciate the need for an engaging opening.
As they read published works, they neglect to consider just where the author they have been reading “hooked”
them, which is disappointing since the emotional or dramatic foundation for a piece regularly is established
in the first sentence. The best and most gifted authors are able to grab their reader’s attention from the very
beginning, refusing to let go for the entire short story, memoir, or essay.
Developing an appreciation for the skill involved in crafting a provocative first line is a necessity for
any beginning fiction or nonfiction class. This is especially important for students who continue their writing
careers in intermediate and advanced workshops and begin to submit to literary journals, where screeners or
assistant editors don’t always have the time to read each and every short story or essay they are given all the
way through. Instead, they judge whether the submission deserves a closer look by the first paragraph or, if the
writer is lucky enough, the first page. With the pressure to begin their prose pieces with such intrigue, mystery,
or just straight-forward, beautiful writing, students should be aware of the ways writers before them have
handled these demands.
First, hand out a lengthy list of the best first lines from novels, memoirs, or other nonfiction selections (100
is a good number to shoot for). Examples that have worked in past classes include the following:
• “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street” (Markson 7).
• “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is woman”
(Johnson 1).
• “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” (Hartley 1).
• “Jim Gallien had driven four miles out of Fairbanks when he spotted the hitchhiker standing in the snow
beside the road, thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn” (Krakauer 1).
• “‘You must not tell anyone,’ my mother said, ‘what I am about to tell you’” (Kingston 3).
The longer the list, the better, because once the students have the handout, give them five minutes to read
through the entire list and, based on their first impressions, note the five examples which stand out. Once time
is up, have them fast-write for another five minutes on each sentence they chose, discussing the opening’s tone,
what drew them in and why, what they think the story/memoir will be about, the diction, or any other stylistic
choice the author made which they find intriguing. Discuss the results. This assignment can also be extended to
a take-home exercise where each student chooses one first line and “continues” the story, imitating the original
author’s style or responding to the sentence in whatever way they see fit.
By acknowledging how their first impressions shape their reading choices and then closely examining the
tonal and linguistic subtleties within each sentence, students can see how important it is to grab their readers’
attentions from the outset of a story, memoir, or essay.
Katie Manning • University of Missouri, Kansas City • Undergraduate •Nonfiction
A Voice of One’s Own: The Narrative Research Essay
By the time most students enter college, they have been told by at least one English teachers that they
need to leave their research process out of their research paper. One student might desire to include anecdotes
about her encounter with a word-slurring librarian who smelled strongly of rum; another student might want to
share his story of accidentally accessing a porn site during an online search right before his mother walked into
the room. This narrative impulse is stifled too often in favor of “objective” research-based writing, but it doesn’t
need to be.
For those who teach creative writing and composition, the narrative research essay serves as a boundarycrossing assignment. Students conduct research on a topic, and they keep notes on both their findings and their
experiences. When they write, they write to entertain with their creative nonfiction narrative, but they also write
to make an argument; thesis and creativity coexist.
A useful way to begin this assignment is to have students read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own
in excerpts or in its entirety. They can discuss how Woolf’s writing combines research with narrative, how she
makes a point and makes us laugh. They might also discuss their dislike of stream-of-consciousness writing
or their struggle with her language. They need to identify what works well in Woolf’s essay, what aspects are
weak, and why; then they can use Woolf’s writing as a model and as a point of departure in their own papers.
After their reading and discussion of A Room of One’s Own, give the students their narrative research
assignment. One option is to assign them the task of bringing Woolf’s essay up-to-date: What do women need in
order to write today? The students might further narrow this to a specific genre or to a specific location.
This assignment allows students to be creative in their approaches to research as well as in their writing.
They will conduct formal interviews and talk to other people informally more than they usually would for a
research paper. In addition to scholarly books and articles, they might seek out female authors’ blogs and web
pages to find answers to this research question. They might find a female writer and shadow her for an entire
day. They will definitely surprise you with their innovative ways of gathering information, which will be more
fun for them as writers and for you as the responder and grader of their writing.
Other topic options are plentiful for this assignment and might be more relevant to your class than an
updated version of A Room of One’s Own. The important thing with a narrative research essay is to allow the
students to use their own narrative voice in their writing. Their experiences of researching are often humorous,
and sometimes these experiences can be just as telling as the actual findings of their research.
When students are allowed to put themselves into their research essays and write to entertain while they
inform, they are much more engaged in the writing process. Creative writing students will learn the value of
research to inform their writing in any genre, and all writing students will discover that their narrative impulse
is, in fact, a valid way to transmit even the most well-researched, scholarly arguments.
Erin Murphy • Penn State Altoona • Undergraduate • Nonfiction
‘Entering the House’ of Creative Nonfiction
“Boys enter the house” is the refrain throughout Rick Moody’s “Boys,” a five-page short story that
follows the lives of twin boys from birth to adulthood. “Boys” has elements of creative nonfiction. It covers
a span of more than twenty years, and while traditional features of fiction are present in subtle form (tension,
conflict, emotional resonance), several are absent (character names, dialogue, paragraph breaks). The distancing
of the personal and the compression of time result in a narrative that highlights revelatory concrete images. The
story is a prime example of “show–don’t tell,” the common mantra among creative writing instructors. Creative
nonfiction students are frequently tempted to luxuriate in their own feelings in the first person pronoun; “Boys,”
in contrast, offers students a model for mining their pasts without becoming mired in sentimentality. This
exercise uses “Boys” as a springboard for writing objectively about personal experience, thereby encouraging
students to “enter the house” of creative nonfiction.
1) Have students read “Boys” aloud. Ask students what personal experiences they can relate to the
story. Several will mention their own youthful antics, citing the boys’ concoction of lighter fluid,
vanilla pudding, calamine lotion, tacks, etc. Others will remember hiding their report cards, fighting
with siblings, and composing their own “manifestos.” Still others may recall the illness or death of a
close family member. This discussion will help them recognize that even though the experiences in
the story are specific to the characters, the experiences become universal because we can visualize
them. This helps students differentiate between universality and generality.
2) Now ask students why an author would tell twenty-plus years of these boys’ lives in four pages. Why
not a novel, or at least a novella? If they are stumped, phrase it this way: “Why would the author tell
this story in such a rush? What else rushes by?” Typically, it will click for them then: “Life!”
3) Have students brainstorm a list of experiences of their own that occurred repeatedly in their own
lives. Perhaps grandparents visited them regularly. Perhaps they grew up riding the bus with the
same group of kids. Perhaps a medical condition required periodic visits to the same specialist.
Perhaps they frequented a certain corner store in their neighborhood over the years.
4) Each student should choose from the brainstorming list one of these experiences as the basis for the
exercise. Ideally, it should be an experience that shows changes over time in the writer and/or in the
5) Now instruct students to write a refrain along the lines of “Boys enter the house.” For instance, if a
student is writing about carpooling with her girlfriends through secondary school, the refrain may be
“Girls enter the car.”
A student writing about his experiences with his school drama club may use the refrain “The curtain
6) Students should now enter the house of creative nonfiction and begin writing their essays. If all goes
well, they will enter the house, enter the house, enter the house…
This exercise will work with nearly any short story or poem in which both the narrative and the narrator/
speaker are implied through a catalog of sensory and concrete imagery. Additional examples include T.C.
Boyle’s story “The Hit Man,” nearly all of Michael Martone’s “Contributor’s Note” stories (from Michael
Martone), and the poem “Index” by Paul Violi.
Steven Ostrowski • Central Connecticut State University • Undergraduate • Fiction
Granting Undergraduate Fiction Writers Permission to Explore the Uncanny and the Strange
Many undergraduate fiction writers are prone to writing stories that are predictable, trite, and clichéridden. This happens for a variety of reasons, including the limited scope of their reading, the influence that
popular TV shows and movies have on their sense of what constitutes a story, and their fear of risk-taking. In
contrast, one of the hallmarks of great literary works, according to literary critic Harold Bloom, is that such
works are not merely original but possess the quality of being in some sense “uncanny.” Russian critic Viktor
Shklovsky’s concept of “enstrangement” or “defamiliarization” describes the writer’s attempt to take characters,
objects and actions that may be familiar and render them “strange.” The writer accomplishes this, for example,
by describing things as if they’d never been seen or experienced before, by employing unusual points of view,
and by taking things out of their usual contexts and putting them in unfamiliar ones.
While perhaps too complex in their entirety to help the majority of undergraduate fiction writers,
Bloom’s and Shklovsky’s ideas nevertheless can aid instructors as they begin to show their students how to
infuse their writing with the uncanny and the strange, which in turn can make the work less predictable and
more compelling. Students would do well, of course, to become familiar with the work of writers like Kafka,
Allende, Marquez and Morrison, to name just a few; their sense of the uncanny and strange in fiction will
certainly be expanded. In addition, exercises such as the following offer students “permission” to explore the
uncanny in their own work—to “enstrange” it.
1) Brainstorm a list of things that you occasionally think about that you’re pretty certain other people, if
they could read your mind, would consider weird. Put those thoughts into the head of a character who,
in most other ways, is nothing like you. Put the character into a setting of your choice and write a few
pages to see what happens to her/him. How have those weird thoughts affected your sense of who this
character is? Is a plot related to those thoughts emerging? A theme?
2) Taking a dream you remember vividly, write a scene as if it were not a dream but an actual event (or
series of events). Try especially to capture the atmosphere and mood of the dream in the scene.
3) Write a simple scene in which a couple, sitting together on a park bench, is in the process of breaking
up. Write the scene from the point of view of a crow in the branch overhead, or of the cigarette one of
the people is smoking, or of the ex-priest sitting on another bench a few feet away.
4) Write a scene that takes place on a crowded American city street in which a character suddenly can no
longer comprehend what anyone around him is saying.
Through these and a host of similar exercises, instructors can help their undergraduate fiction writers
begin to understand that what many readers find most compelling in a literary work is indeed that the piece is,
either subtly or overtly, infused with the uncanny, the strange.
Anne Panning • SUNY-Brockport • Multiple Levels • Nonfiction
The ABCs of the Segmented Essay
When being taught how to use segmentation when writing creative nonfiction, students have a hard time
grasping how segmentation can derive its energy from juxtaposition. It seems students only half-heartedly and
fearfully use segmentation, mostly breaking white space to indicate a very slight leap forward in time; they
often stick with one topic, presented chronologically, and therefore dilute the true power of segmentation.
One exercise to help alleviate this problem utilizes the alphabet. To start, write the entire alphabet on
the board. Then, ask students to pick one letter and make a list of all the things that start with that letter (They
need not be actual “things” but can be ideas, concepts, emotions, etc.). Next, ask them to choose one of the
words from their lists and write a brief paragraph about it. One student, for example, chose “S,” then selected
“sarcasm” from his list, and then went on to write a very powerful paragraph about how his father’s sarcasm
eventually ruined his parents’ marriage.
Repeat the previous steps: choose another letter, make a list of words that begin with that letter, select
one word from the list, then write a brief paragraph about it. The same student who chose sarcasm chose “T”
this time, then selected “trumpet” from his list, then went on to write a scathing paragraph against high school
marching bands. (You may repeat this process as many times as may fit into your class plan; three times works
very nicely.) At this point it is helpful to mention Bill Holm’s book, Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China
Essays, in which he structures an entire collection by using every letter of the alphabet to begin each chapter.
The next step, of course, is to get students to realize that although their two-to-three alphabet paragraphs
may not, at first glance, seem to “go” together, with the right rearrangement and proper juxtaposition, they often
can and do work together—quite naturally. The student who selected “sarcasm” and “trumpet” realized that his
rant against high school marching bands was every bit as sarcastic as the similar tone his father often used with
his mother. Bingo: a segmented essay by juxtaposition was born.
This exercise also works well with other categories: colors (one thinks of Judith Kitchen’s book
Distance & Direction, which contains essays titled “Blue,” “Green,” “Yellow,” “White,” “Black,” and “Red”);
cities, states or countries; seasons; numbers—pretty much any classification category will work.
Robert L. Root Jr.’s essay, “Collage, Montage, Mosaic, Vignette, Episode, Segment,” found in The
Fourth Genre works as a great reading assignment for the same day you do the ABC segmenting exercise.
Marvyn Petrucci • Auburn University • Undergraduate • Drama
A Playwright’s Politics in Deadly Political Times
When Shakespeare penned “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,”
(Hamlet, II, ii, 633), he underscored the possibility that art—here, specifically playwriting—both reflects and
inflects social responsibility. But what accounts for most of our contemporary playwriting workshops? Love
interests gone awry? Coming-of-age conflicts in upper-class America? Or even lower-class America? What
are our students writing about, and do we have a responsibility to help shape the political stage? Interestingly,
Wynn Rousuck, in the article “Americans Making Mark in Artistic Genre that Foreign Writers Have Long
Employed” (The Baltimore Sun, February 26, 2006), argues that “American political plays have traditionally
been domestic dramas. The politics are couched in a family setting.” Only recently, she writes, “has there
been a spate of political dramas . . . an even rarer phenomenon in this sub-genre, which has always been more
popular abroad” (Rousuck).
Playwriting instructors should take such information to heart and then take it to the classroom. In this
time of political turmoil in Iraq, drama workshops have the opportunity to critique and even fashion answers, of
sorts, to war’s bloody fallout. And one way to engage such politically based pedagogy is through the process of
genre-translation. In poetry workshops, for example, many instructors use stories, news articles, or even novels
to provide a basis on which to create condensed poetic versions of their prose counterparts. For the playwrights
who plow the field of politics, let news stories and even poetry serve as the point of translation. Consider,
for example, using Brian Turner’s collection of poetry Here, Bullet as the impetus for a series of dramatic
monologues—each written by a playwriting student as a response to or an extension of a poem. Or consider
using the poems variously as a contemporary Greek chorus. Regardless of the exercise, let the stage be a space
for change. Let us frame and reframe the horror or even the glory of our involvement in politics and war, an
involvement that begins at the point of creative writing pedagogy.
While Brian Turner, poet and Iraq war veteran, holds a powerful insight to how we might discuss war
politics in creative writing, there are numerous other resources—the daily newspaper among them—with
which we may begin such important discussions with our students. Pro-war or Anti-war, the power of the
play is indispensable. Motti Lerner, a playwright who teaches political playwriting at Tel Aviv University,
is interviewed in Wynn Rousuck’s article on the coming generation of both Israeli and American political
playwrights. In a key commentary on form and process, Lerner highlights the importance of metaphor and
experimentation required for the political play. He notes, “we have to keep searching for a theatrical style that
will allow us to deal with the horrors of the 20th and 21st century” (qtd. by Rousuck). Undoubtedly, it is a search
that we must bear in mind as we enter our own drama workshops. If, indeed, “the play’s the thing,” imagine
all that we might “catch” and all that we might learn. Wynn Rousuck aptly closes her article with notable
instruction from American playwright Zelda Fichandler who reminds us, “Since playwriting is a natural form
of speaking truth to power, this is a good time to do that.” Look at the power in place. Let us ask our students
what truth to speak.
Todd James Pierce • Cal Poly University • Undergraduate • Fiction
The Heat Sheet: Constructing Story Middles
After years of teaching fiction technique, I’ve found that undergraduates generally understand how stories begin
and end. Middles are the hardest part.
Class Structure
In the early weeks of a fiction workshop, I review elements of fiction generally found in the first few pages
of a story: (1) development of the protagonist, both in terms of personality and specific past, (2) development
of secondary characters, (3) establishing the setting, including its social rules, and (4) the beginning of a plot,
which often is an dramatic event that pushes, however slightly, the protagonist into unfamiliar territory.
The Set Up
Around the second or third week of class, after we have analyzed many stories in our class textbook, I ask
students to write a story beginning, paying close attention to those elements listed above. Four to five pages
typed, no more than two scenes.
The Reading
On the day students bring their story beginnings to class, I arrange the class in a traditional workshop circle.
Each student will read his or her beginning aloud. Before a student reads, I assign three students, at random,
the jobs of analyzing character (what this beginning reveals about the protagonist, either through statement or
suggestion), plot (what this beginning suggests about the direction of its storyline), and setting (the limitations
and opportunities, in terms of finances, class, education, etc., that exist for the protagonist). The student then
reads, and we, as a class, discuss its elements.
The Heat Sheet
The Heat Sheet is the heart of this exercise. I explain to students that, in general, stories turn up the heat,
little by little, as a way of gradually escalating tension. After the story beginning has been discussed, I ask all
students to write out one scene that will extend the story just read by the student author. The new scene won’t
end the story; rather it will develop the tension in—or suggested by—the beginning. Additionally, if the story
beginning is simmering at 250 degrees, the next scene won’t ratchet the heat up to 400 degrees, rather increase
it only a little, to about 275 degrees. Furthermore, students can’t contribute an abstract idea for tension (such
as “problems escalate between the boy and his father”) rather the contribution must describe a specific event, a
scene that if the story were a movie could be viewed as action on screen. We discuss the merits of many Heat
Sheet scenes. Once finished, we move on to the next student’s story beginning.
I’ve found that this in-class exercise helps students understand how plots are gradually developed over many
pages, while at the same time reinforcing the concept that fiction, for the most part, is developed in scenes, not
in summary narration.
Ron Paul Salutsky • University of Nevada, Las Vegas • Multiple Levels • Poetry
The Accidental Poem
How many of us have marveled at the imaginative energy and rhetorical passion in a student’s email
begging clemency for an unexcused absence? How many times have we entreated our students to give in class
the same effort they devote to missing class and designing excuses, only to be met with an indignant, “But it’s
the truth!”?
One of my most fruitful creative writing exercises came from that source: an email from a student who
claimed she’d gotten lost in a garbage dump and couldn’t make it to class. She’d been crossing a vacant lot to
take a picture of the sunrise, she claimed, when she encountered a landfill. Her email contained vivid details
about the sunrise—she had to convince me of the worthy cause—and details about the strange objects she
met on her journey—she had to convince me she’d really been there. In her description she seemed suddenly
to have intuited Williams’s mantra, “No ideas but in things.” The email concluded, “I raised the lens, but the
clouds moved and my view was lost.”
This same student had been stocking her poetry with hyperbolic figures, phantasmagoric images, and
forced conclusions, and it seemed impossible for her to relax and let the poetry into her poems. So I replied,
told her the absence would be excused if she’d do one thing: break the account of her trek through the dump
into poetic lines by reading it aloud very slowly, and listening to her breath as a guide for line breaks. Just hit
‘return,’ I told her, every time you take a breath. If you take a really deep breath, hit ‘return’ twice.
The arrangement she brought next class eventually won a prize in an undergraduate poetry contest.
While accepting the award she said with her head bowed slightly, “I wrote it on accident.”
So The Accidental Poem became my justification for teaching. The assignment? Go to the dump. Then,
take a picture, write what happened . . . but you have to ditch class in order to do it.
Because students are assigned to take a photograph, they’re more observant of their surroundings, more
attentive to visual details, which makes for concrete imagery. And in the accounts of their missions, they don’t
know they’re writing a poem, so they approach the page without an agenda, without preconceived notions of
what a poem should be or do, without the pressure to WRITE A POEM. As such, their poetry is allowed to do
what poetry often should do: make the ordinary extraordinary, even if by accident.
Terry Ann Thaxton • University of Central Florida • Multiple Levels • Multi-Genre
Creative Writing as Social Action
What is the value of creative writing in our society? How will a degree in creative writing impact
communities? Does a degree in creative writing matter to anyone other than the writer herself? By integrating
field work (Service-Learning) into our workshops, we can show students how creative writing can affect their
communities, and thereby, their world.
One effective way to show them the value of creative writing is to require students in workshops to lead
creative writing classes at shelters, public schools, drug treatment facilities, and prisons. They go in groups,
but they may go alone. Sometimes, they might simply spend an hour with a child each week, reading poetry or
stories to them, or listening to stories, or helping the child write his/her own poem or story.
Structured reflection requires students to synthesize their Field Work with their own writing. They don’t
need to create poems or short stories about their experience, though perhaps one day these experiences will lead
toward writings about the inequities in public education or the injustices in our society. What the experience
will teach immediately is the value of creative writing in the community. Students will understand their writing
as part of a larger, social act.
Provide each student with his/her own Discussion Topic in Blackboard, or in any group blog system
online. In this way, students can peek into each others’ notebooks. Students are encouraged to use the notebook
to record their weekly experiences, but they are required to respond to guided prompts that the teacher poses
each week. One prompt might be to talk about the first time they experienced the thrill of writing and to relate
that to their field work. Here are a few responses from students this past year:
“Last week, I was treated to an experience that I have never encountered before. I was a witness to the birth of a
love for writing in a child . . . I was moved by her desire to write despite the obstacles. I understand her love of
writing because I share that love.”
“[Poetry is] the ability to dream your own dreams and form a world within those dreams. Your paper is your
planet and you are master of its universe. Poetry is a reflection of what’s already there, but lying just beneath the
“Knowing how to write in any form, whether poetry, journalism, or fiction, gives people a voice in society . . .
More importantly, though, is for everyone to know how to properly express themselves so their voice is heard
by as many people as possible. There’s no doubt that people have strong opinions in our society, they just need
the education in writing to evoke those feelings in a concrete fashion that will get more attention.”
The purpose of Service-Learning is not charity, but citizenship. The purpose is also to provide real-life
situations that will lead our students toward authentication in their own writing. In creative writing workshops,
it provides for more engaging poems and stories and essays, topical discussions, and expansive viewpoints.
After a semester of field work, of seeing how their talents and interests can be of “service,” students
have changed career paths, and joined the Peace Corps, sought to teach at inner-city schools, or gone into nonprofit management. Creative writing, for these students, is social action.
Jerry Williams • Marymount Manhattan College • Undergraduate • Poetry
The Brick and the Formation of Metaphor: A Classroom Writing Exercise
For the purpose of this in-class writing exercise, the professor should bring an actual brick to class, and
after the initial shock dies down, she should pass the brick around the room. Each student holds it in his or her
hand for however long it takes to call out a word to describe the brick. Students ought to remain as literal and
hard-boiled as possible. Here, the emphasis is on pure, sensory depiction: Hard. Heavy. Chipped. Red. Dry.
Silent. Musty. These are the kinds of words the students articulate. No metaphors. The brick goes around the
room three or four times or until complete exhaustion sets in. Concurrently, the professor writes every word on
the chalkboard. The results are certainly rewarding. Students always come up with an impressively complete
list of words. Through this activity they learn descriptive writing techniques. They get to see how some of
their classmates think out loud, especially if the exercise occurs early in the semester. In addition, they ease
into the process of working towards a group goal. The assignment is tactile and playful, and a sense of real
accomplishment fills the room.
At this point, the professor should set the brick on a desk in front of the class and ask the students to
take out a slice of paper or open a notebook. The next directive is rather tricky. The professor asks the students
to write a lineated poem or a short prose vignette of a hundred words or so, again, describing the brick—but
without using any of the words on the board. The title of the piece could be, of course, “Brick”; however, the
word “brick” should never appear in the text. The emphasis now becomes freewriting, spontaneity, figurative
language, and even storytelling. When the students conclude this segment of the exercise, the professor
invites individuals to read aloud what they have written, and the finished product is often sublime. Students
have utilized the denotative function of the brain, and then they pull back on the stick suddenly and let the
connotative function take over. A blast of metaphor issues forth. Everyone sees how descriptive language and
figurative language naturally go hand in hand.
A short explication of metaphor, finding likeness in things that are basically dissimilar, fits perfectly with
this assignment. I.A. Richards argued that a word with no concreteness of its own can borrow the concreteness
of another word. The abstract word that needs concreteness in order to be more fully understood is called the
“tenor.” The word from which the tenor borrows such characteristics as size, shape, sound, and texture is called
the “vehicle.” In the Beatles’ well-known phrase “happiness is a warm gun,” “happiness” is the tenor and
“warm gun” is the vehicle. Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” and Richard Wilbur’s “Shame,” both excellent examples of
extended metaphor, will help the students better understand these two elements and delineate the physical and
mental pathways to figurative language.