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Emily Isaacson

And now we dance

Posted by Emily Isaacson Expert Oct 27, 2015

In my survey of British Literature course, I assigned a contexts section from our anthology that talked primarily -- though not exclusively -- about leisured entertainments in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  I always like taking a look at sections about non-literary culture in my literature courses, because it gives us the opportunity to think about the relationship of the author and the world she or he lived in.  I work to impress upon my students the idea that this is not simply about “background” vaguely understood, but that it’s about understanding the interaction of art and ideas.  As a guiding principle, we talk a bit about M. H. Abrams’ classification of literary theories based on the concepts of the text, the world, the audience, and the author.


It’s also a good opportunity to have students think materially about the world that the authors lived in.  While on this particular day I did spend a good bit of time talking about tobacco (and looking at anti-tobacco broadsides) and time talking about the non-theatrical entertainments that a person might find in the suburbs of London, I also introduced the students to a fairly basic but important courtly dance: the pavane.


The dance itself is one I learned in a workshop at the 2013 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America.  Up until this particular class I hadn’t had opportunity (or courage) to introduce my students to a dance.  However, because the steps are simple and the tempo is slow, it’s one that I can do fairly easily -- and I told my students, many of whom looked a bit weary, that if I was the one teaching it, they would certainly be able to do it, as I am famously clumsy.


So I sent them outside and lined everyone up with a partner.  And we danced.  At least, we tried to dance.  We were able to discuss how this dance could inform social customs, and I’m trying, in turn, to show the students how those things should inform our understanding of the literature we’re reading.  At the very least, my students will remember that the study of literature is something that we do.  Even if it means doing something that feels a little silly.


Link for the pavane (it’s a download):

I’ve titled the new course I’m running this fall boldly: The Art and Craft of Teaching Creative Writing.


I’ve been preparing the course over the past year. I’ve read pedagogical theory. I’ve spoken with a wonderful professor in the Education Department about how to best structure such a class.  I’ve talked with my colleagues who teach the course in our department and I’ve pored over their syllabi.  I’ve gone back to the classes I took in the education department myself, and I’ve wondered, a lot, what do I know about teaching creative writing and how did I learn what I know?


Some of the material is familiar ground for me. I’ve written a textbook on the topic, The Practice of Creative Writing, and an instructor’s manual that goes with the book, and certainly I’m using that material in my course, to some extent. But teaching teachers is to stand in a different place from writing instruction for students. And standing in this new place, thinking about how to teach a class just for teachers of writing, all of whom are in our MFA program, I keep noticing a singular feature of the landscape; I keep coming back to one idea.


Teaching well is the same as writing well.


A good writing class session is so very like a good story or well formed poem. There’s a purpose. Things are clear. Mysterious, perhaps, frustrating, perhaps, but the work to figure it all out is possible, and rewarding. It’s pleasurable to experience more than one time. Humor is good, but not required.  What’s required is depth and truth and a kind of vulnerability and strong yearning to say yes, this matters.  This is important.  There are some surprises in the session/story and there’s heart, dialogue, drama, and a satisfying close that makes you want to come back in again.


Designing a semester-long course is, for me, like designing a novel. There’s a main story line and my work is to get all the characters and plot points (or, in the case of class, lessons and readings) formed into satisfying, interesting chapters (Tuesdays and Thursdays).


There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than design these experiences.


So, unsurprisingly, the two things that have most improved my teaching have been the very same two things that have most improved my writing. 


  1. Devotion to clarity.  When I first started writing, I wanted to try to express something of my inner life in language. The things that worried me came out in a tumble. There was a lot of energy on my early pages, but not a lot of clarity. Where are we? Why are we here? Similarly, my early syllabi meant well.  But I was prone to getting off track, off topic, revising mid semester, even mid class period because I could see something so much better once I was in the midst of teaching it.  Students, like readers, want things to be clear and to be fair.                                     
  2. Attempting to be honest, authentic, vulnerable and sincere in my speech and action in real life has translated to the page for me as a writer. When I stopped trying to be artful and clever, when I let go of thought-experiments and intensive language play, I was able to work more on the very hard good work of creating a meaningful experience for the reader.  The work became less about me and my life and more an attempt to be in conversation with my fellow humans.  In the classroom, instead of trying to be Miss PhD Professor Really Does Know or, as I got older, Your Fun Young Professory Friend, instead of trying to be anything in the classroom other than myself—a person who studies the art and craft of writing—I tried to be more myself.


The two endeavors—a devotion to clarity and a moment-by-moment attempt to be honest and thoughtful—are extremely challenging pursuits, at least for me.  Some practices off the page have supported me: cultivating friendships and mentorships with master craftsman, a meditation practice, and reading.


This semester, I want to support my students in becoming the kinds of teachers they most want to be. I want to help them write about teaching in ways that are clear and meaningful. I want everything we do this semester to help us in the classroom, but also on the page.


I think the art and craft of teaching and the art and craft of creating literature are twins. I would love to hear what you think. I’m at

This post originally appeared on February 21, 2014.


A while ago, a Joss Whedon quote was being passed around the Internet. He’d been telling an audience about his frustration with repeatedly being asked, “Why do you write these strong woman characters?” His response (now immortalized in a million Facebook posts): “Because you’re still asking me that question.”


There’s another frustrating question that’s made the rounds both in and out of academia for some time: “Why teach or study literature?” And its sister question: “Why teach or study creative writing?” In other words, what’s the point of a subject that doesn’t automatically provide its students with a clear, established path to financial security or career? We like answers to our problems: the next step in one’s career trajectory is X. The best school district in the area is Y. In order to heal the sore throat, take A, gargle B, drink C. It’s uncomfortable not having answers, and no one likes being uncomfortable.


So the key difficulty here—the key reason, I think, that the question gets asked—is that the point of studying creative writing isn’t to generate answers. It’s to generate questions. It’s to work continually to understand that the world is not a set of dichotomies—that most situations, to be understood fully, require a willingness to see nuance. To be a good writer, you must be willing to be uncomfortable, to empathize with both protagonist and antagonist, to write the poem that acknowledges the messy side of an experience.


Creative writing classes center around questions. Why might this author have used this point of view? What does this detail reveal about this character’s desire? What connotations are packed into this word? What does this syntax suggest about this speaker? What is he trying to prove? Why a train ride instead of a road trip? Why an elm instead of a pine? With whom do you sympathize? Why?


Asking these questions, we continually strengthen and deepen our craft. And these skills are transferable: if you can effectively structure a poem, then you can probably effectively structure a presentation, a work email, a letter to shareholders. But more importantly, if you can effectively structure a poem, then you have effectively structured a poem.


There are other benefits to studying creative writing, though, that transcend the classroom and the workspace and even the page. The study of creative writing is also the study of human nature—both others’ and our own. If you’re asking questions of your characters, your word choice, your writerly allegiances, then you’re probably also asking those questions of the world around you. Why might my mother have said this? Do I truly believe all people who are X are also Y? Can I champion this one ideal and simultaneously reject this one? What does this detail reveal about my desire? With whom do I sympathize? Why?


So why study creative writing? Because we need more people who understand that the world is made up of shadings and gradations, complex characters, and mysteries. Because we need more poems and stories and essays and novels and plays to guide us through those mysteries. Because someone out there is still asking that question. And anyone asking that question probably isn’t asking enough other ones.

This post first appeared on March 21, 2013.


Early on in my introductory poetry workshop, we discuss the difference between sentiment (emotion) and sentimentality (mawkishness, Hallmark cards, Lifetime holiday movies). First we talk about the ways in which sentimentality undercuts our ability to imbue our poems with real sentiment—it leads us toward cliché, it looks for the easy or more palatable way into an experience, it doesn’t require the level of intellectual and creative engagement we expect from good poems.


Then we start making fun of poets.


Okay, I say, imagine that you’re writing a parody of a poem and you want to make it wonderfully bad—full of clichés and cringe-worthy sentimentality. What are some key words you might use? “Heart,” someone always offers. We look for a little more specificity. “What should a heart not do in a poem?” I ask. “Skip a beat,” says one student. “Break,” says another. “End up in your throat,” offers someone else. Once we exhaust the heart possibilities, we move on, looking for the big offenders. What are some other words or tropes that might lead to sentimentality? I can usually get someone to come up with “soul,” which affords me an opportunity to write the word “soul” on the board, then draw a giant X through it—something I always like leaving on the board for the next class to see and fret over what sorts of things are being taught in creative writing classrooms. Usually someone mentions roses. Someone mentions the single tear. All of these go on the board (and I always offer the disclaimer that none of these rules is absolute—certainly, fantastic poems can be written using any number of potentially problematic words or images, provided the poet is savvy about how he or she uses them). Finally we move on to animals—butterflies as symbols of innocence, a bird as a vision of freedom. And, of course, there’s cuteness to be reckoned with—puppies, kittens, any three-legged quadruped. Sometimes I tell my students that they can only use a kitten in a poem if the kitten is dead.


I’ve found that letting students poke fun at hypothetical poems before writing their own helps them to a) stay attuned to the siren song of schlock so that they can better resist it and b) maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing so that when someone does write a poem featuring that single tear or an alarmingly mobile heart, we can talk about it without the writer feeling defensive. After all, the battle against sentimentality is one we’re all fighting.


Oh—and the dead kitten thing? A grad student took on that challenge, and wrote a beautiful, spare, weird poem that opened with a dead kitten in a shoebox. The poem surprised at every turn and was just accepted for publication. Of course a dead kitten could be even more sentimental than a live one, depending on how it’s rendered—the moral here, I think, is that if we as poets choose our words and our images with an eye toward circumventing the expected, we stand a much better chance of writing poems that are resonant, moving, and completely inappropriate for Hallmark.

I recently read Seven Habits for Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (a party to which I am admittedly 25 years late), and as I did, I noted several ideas that translate easily to writing (for instance: “private victories precede public victories”). But the one I was most surprised by was this: “love is a verb.”  In Covey’s self-help terms: “Proactive people make love a verb” (likely true, my loved ones will probably be grateful if I manage it).  But more importantly to the purposes of creating story, Covey adds, “Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self….”


            When, as a writer, you think of love as a verb, an action as opposed to a feeling, it becomes a lot easier to generate plot, one of the writing elements that I find hardest both to practice and to teach.


            Lots of people write about love—especially student writers, who tend to treat love as a feeling—which typically yields abstract and unemotional, or at least unconvincing, writing.  Reminding students of “show don’t tell” helps. Suggesting they embody emotions in the physical world helps (it also generates a lot of descriptions of tears). But asking, how does a human being act out their love, that yields plot.


            When Toni Morrison said she was writing a trilogy about love—(Beloved: family love; Jazz: romantic love; Paradise: love of God)—she didn’t mean she was writing three novels about feelings.  She was writing what people do in the name of love.  What happens when you love your baby so much you would rather kill her than allow her to grow up a slave.  What happens when you love your partner so much you would rather kill them then…. well, it turns out murder is involved in all three (to be fair, Morrison said she was writing about “excessive love”), but it doesn’t have to be that way.  The fruits of love can yield a wide variety of dramatic and/or subtle plots (and to my mind, plot is a tool in every genre of writing, not just fiction). 


One of the workhorses of the creative writing classroom is to ask: What does a character want and what do they do to try to get it?  Well, a good variation would be to ask: What does a character love and what do they do because of that love?


            It turns out lots of feelings can be looked at as verbs.  To haunt. To grieve. To hate. To enjoy. To fear.  It’s like a plot generator… turn emotions into actions--actions with consequences--and there you have it: plot.