May Novel Writing Plan Prt. 2

It’s almost May! Time for things to grow. Time for me to start another writing plan!

This past semester’s been a heck of a ride. Some good things: I did several poetry readings at LIterati, at University of Illinois Chicago, at AWP, and the Hannan House in Detroit. I also put together a panel at AWP entitled “Who Are We in the Creative Writing Classroom?: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight,” and was really inspired by the discussion. I hope to have the panel grow into a longer project soon. My first poetry book, Autoplay, got some good reviews. Here at American Microreviews, at Best American Poetry (yay!), and coming out in the next print issue of Zone 3.

I went to NIA once a week at the fabulous Ann Arbor Yoga Studio. I’m trying to get at least 30 minutes of yoga or meditation/day (I often screw this up, but life is a daily practice, right?) thanks to this amazing yoga streaming website I found.

My son continually amazes me. He’s now a brown belt in taekwondo, has mad math skills that he certainly didn’t inherit from me,  wants to be a video game designer, and just performed in an aftercare musical play as Jack in the Beanstalk. He’s been taking electric guitar lessons through the Ann Arbor Music Center, which is a pretty brilliant place to learn music. Rather than starting kids off with drills and scales, they taught him how to play a simple version of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring the first night! Something I love about life and teaching writing is how much we already understand and can do if we are given the right opportunities and guidance.

The bad news, mostly, is that though many students enjoy my courses and often tell me they’re transformational, that despite the fact that I have many students now who have begun to graduate and do great things and come back and want to visit with me, talk, and share their significant work, the administration doesn’t agree with my teaching practice. It’s disappointing, really, given that I am teaching my students the same skills they want me to teach, but in a much more holistic way that privileges the real writing moment and genre over transferrable skill sets. Critical analysis–yes. Academic argumentation–yes. But I embed these skills into a larger writing practice based on scientific method. My teaching is a recursive practice where students have opportunities to carefully observe, to ask questions, and to do genuine research and analysis to answer those questions. I have seen this practice help students in their other courses and in their life. It profoundly disappoints me when boxes, grids, and boundaries unnecessarily limit what a student may learn at a given time. I’m thinking back to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that talks about how profound the teaching of writing would be if we approached it like yoga teachers. Rather than stopping the student from doing, for instance, a vinyasa flow, the teacher outlines the practice, allows the student to move through it, and makes a few carefully selected corrections that best help the student move to a new level. At that new level, the student still moves through vinyasa, and the teacher makes more carefully selected corrections to deepen the process.

I guess the purpose of this blog entry is to take stock, to hold things in acknowledgement so I can also figure out how to put them down. Sometimes I fantasize what it would be like if I didn’t have to carry sole responsibility for parenting, teaching, writing, and fulfillment. Then I remind myself that my son, my students, my writing ideas, and my magnolia tree have lives of their own.

To May. To holding. To putting down. To 25,000 words over the twenty days Ambrose is in school. That works out to 1,250/working day. This is my first time going back to the novel since August. I’m at  35,800 words, so roughly the halfway point. For the past few days I have been drawing on the scientific method to try and figure out what it is I want to observe as I come back to this novel, what larger question it poses, and what needs to happen for me to explore that question. I don’t have it quite yet, but just a few days ago, one of my writing partners, Jennifer Solheim, sent me this as madcap inspiration:

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Why Creative Writing Students Should Make Chapbooks!

Hello after yet another long blog hiatus! This is a two-part piece. Today, I’m writing about the pedagogical value of having creative writing students make their own chapbooks at the end of the semester, and tomorrow I’m writing about a few technical things I learned that might be helpful to other people wanting to incorporate chapbook making into their own teaching.

I just finished the last teaching day of an intro. creative writing class. It’s been too many years since I had the chance to teach creative writing, and I was really interested in how my years of teaching other courses would affect the way I approached this one.

For several years now, I’ve been interested in helping students form their own authentic questions and explorations in assignments. Engaged reflection is an important part of this. When I say “engaged reflection” I mean reflection that’s done to make something new rather than something that’s done to merely summarize a past experience. For instance, my creative writing students wrote writing reflections after both their poetry and fiction workshops that asked them to articulate their experience of the workshop in two ways:

  1. How did the writing and workshop experience influence their ideas about revising the particular piece
  2. What techniques, topics, questions surfaced during their writing and workshop experience they’d like to explore in the future?

My teaching is very invested in process-based instruction, and so the second question was posed to help students locate genuine moments of interest to keep them writing. I wasn’t interested in having the students circling over a couple pieces until they were “polished.” Rather, I was interested in helping them locate where their writing is coming from.

The most sustained, engaged reflection students did was to make chapbooks of their own work at the end of the semester. I wanted them to make something where they had the responsibility of locating a recurring theme, sensibility or style in their own writing that moved across the poetry and fiction they’d written over the semester and to design and arrange a book accordingly. In preparation, they wrote chapbook proposals and met with me for individual conferences. During this time I saw the same things that I see from students in my other courses:

  1. Students are typically skeptical at the beginning of any assignment that asks them to synthesize concepts relevant to their writing.
  2. After confronting and getting over this skepticism, students make incredibly exciting and surprising things that draw not only on the work from my course, but also from other parts of their life that they begin to see in relationship to their current work.

Here’s a photo of what happened:

Creative Writing Student Chapbooks

Teaching and Tunneling

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories (P.S.)Kevin Wilson’s short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth charmed me when it first came out two years ago, and now I am in the middle of teaching it for the first time in two introductory writing courses at University of Michigan. The decision of what texts to introduce college students to is one that has become more complicated over the years, primarily because university English departments have shifted focus from reading and responding to literature to exercises that privilege the student’s ability to situate herself/himself in the center of the writing experience, moving assigned texts to the peripheries of the class. A colleague recently recapped an argument/discussion that summarizes this well:

The question (posed by an administrator to an instructor teaching Shakespeare): Who is the most important person in the course?

The teacher’s answer: Shakespeare.

The response: No. The students.

I mention this, not to take sides, but rather to illustrate the differences in how writing and literature courses are currently taught and to think about how best to approach this shift. When I started teaching over ten years ago, both my colleagues and I assigned roughly eight or nine different literary texts in the semester. One of the great benefits of this is that the students got to explore very diverse pieces of writing, writing sustained and complicated over the course of entire books rather than just small excerpts. There was also a sense of apprenticeship, a sense that the authors were there to teach us, that they were experts and that we were enriched by their expertise, even if, eventually, after much careful reading and discussion, we disagreed with some of their points. Of course the danger in teaching this way is that some of the students deferred any engagement with the text and wrote papers that merely restated their course notes. In addition, there were certainly students who skipped entire readings when they knew they wouldn’t be held accountable for specific response.

Ideally, the shift from author to student centered writing instruction offers a wonderful opportunity for students to be more creative and sustained with their engagement and it instills a sense of ownership and pride in their own writing and ideas. However, this shift has its own losses as well. If the majority of class time is devoted to student drafts, assigned texts are pushed to the periphery of the classroom experience, and there is no longer time to sufficiently introduce the students to multiple books. In my own experience, which is quite typical from colleague syllabi I have seen, this means assigning one or two books over the course of the semester rather than eight or nine. Teachers can select an anthology or course packet for their one text in an attempt to achieve some diversity, but then the sustained experience of reading that I privilege is lost. In short, the past few years I have been faced with the question, what is the one book I will be assigning? What criteria should determine my choice?

In such situations, I am choosing literature that values experience over message, literature that poses more questions than it answers, literature that imagines over literature that reports. As a teacher in student-centered classrooms, these qualities become the way to keep reconnecting student writing back to the book, or at least the idea of the book. In this way, students can see the author modeling a complicated sense of experience that resists the fill-in-the-blank sentence: This is a book about x. In this way, students can defer overly simplistic thesis and arguments in their own writing. They can understand the magic (and truth) of contradictions and can participate in the struggle for meaning.

I chose Kevin Wilson’s collection for these reasons. In the great title story, a trio of recent college graduates decide to go into the narrator’s backyard and start tunneling. They start by digging a straight hole down, but then, as the months progress, create intricate tunnel systems that become a whole underground world. Eventually, they surface again and go separate ways to begin their lives above ground.

If Wilson wrote this as a straight realist story, the plot would probably go something like this: a trio of recent college graduates don’t know what to do with their lives after graduation. They hang out together at the narrator’s house for several months and then his two friends leave.

Both of these plots provoke two important questions for readers and writers: Why are the graduates finding life after graduation so difficult to adjust to? What makes them finally adjust or attempt to adjust to mainstream life?

The questions end there, however, for the straight realist story, and the answers to the two questions will mostly be the same. This, then, creates a situation student-centered classrooms were trying to avoid. If there are only a few questions and a few answers, the students do not have the opportunity to be creative and sustained in their engagement with the text. They still do not have any real sense of ownership of it, and, even worse, that was the only book they read for the course!

Luckily, writers like Kevin Wilson create a space for many more questions, ones that are much more difficult to be answered definitively. In “Tunneling,” the version that Kevin Wilson thankfully wrote, more questions abound: Why tunnels? What is the difference between above ground and underground? Are we set up to see the act of tunneling as a meaningless waste of time or as something creative and productive? What is the relationship between tunneling and college? Between tunneling and “real life”?

Not only are there more questions, but there are also more possible approaches to the answers. If part of the reason we still read is to imitate, then students reading literature that is not straight realism have a chance to imitate real exploration, the kind that goes beyond a standardized test, to embrace what they don’t know but want to struggle to understand. Near the end of the story, the narrator is recapping his conversations with a psychiatrist who his parents arranged for him to see after he emerged from the underground:

“He said that I had been postponing my life, that hiding in the tunnels had been a way to avoid the responsibilities of the real world. And yes, that is true. I knew that the minute we started digging. But it was more than that. I don’t know what it was, but I know it was more than that.” 

Here, the reader is invited to join in the quest for explanation and to understand that the trials and tribulations of the quest, not the end of the quest itself, are what make it human and life-affirming. The psychiatrist’s answer is so soulless and uninteresting. It’s an answer that everyone, including the readers and the narrator himself, already know. It’s also an answer that is insufficient.