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At some point while he was running, the kid’s batting helmet must have fallen off, because you can see his light blond hair—still short from the disastrous haircut his father gave him before his First Communion—practically glowing under the California sun.  He’s in the second grade and his t-ball team is the Reds.  Inexplicably, their t-shirt (the only “uniform” t-ballers get) is orange.  He is sliding, kicking up dirt, but he has already passed home plate.  Afraid that he’ll wind up short, he always waits until he has already tagged up to begin his slide.  Sliding is his favorite part of the game—that, and the free snow cones they get after they play.


Obviously, this young athlete is me, and this is my wife’s favorite picture of me when I was a kid.   I loved to play t-ball, though I obviously wasn’t very good at it.  In t-ball—at least in our league—there were no strike outs, probably because swinging at and missing a stationary ball mounted on a tee wasn’t the sort of thing that tended to happen.  It did to me, though.  All the time.  I would approach the tee confidently, bring my bat back, and then twist my entire body into that swing, to the point that my eye left the ball long before the bat in my hand woooooshed right over it.  The grown-ups would let me do it over.  Eventually, I’d wind up on a base.


I wasn’t an athletic kid—and I’m not a big sports guy now—but looking at this photo reminds me of why I loved playing (mostly, it was about being with my friends), and how important that game was to me.  We take pictures of the stuff that matters, after all, and my father apparently had the presence of mind to realize that this was an experience I’d want to look back on.


Each semester, as an exercise in writing memoir, I ask my students to look at a photograph that has a special significance for them and to write “the story of the photo.”  I encourage them to avoid family portraits or landscape shots (unless there’s something really unexpected lurking behind the smiles in the portrait or beyond the scene captured in the landscape), and instead focus on those photos that capture a moment that someone realized was worth holding onto.  Maybe it’s a photo from the junior prom, or graduation.  Maybe it’s a picture from the last big party before the old gang had to pack up and move away to college, promising to keep in touch even while knowing that something important was coming to an end.  Maybe it’s the picture of a little kid, carving a pumpkin while her dad—out of frame except for his hands—guides her efforts with the knife.  The photo itself isn’t what’s significant—it’s the memory that the photo represents that we’re after.  As I said, we photograph that which we decide is important enough to capture forever; we write memoir for the same reason.


I’ve mentioned before that the most common challenge for the creative nonfiction instructor is disabusing students of the belief that “there’s nothing interesting about me—nothing worth writing about.”  Students often think that nothing short of climbing the world’s tallest mountain while battling cancer will qualify them to become memoirists.  This exercise is designed to emphasize the idea that the point of this type of writing isn’t to write about an experience that’s fascinating on its own, but rather to write about an experience so well that it becomes fascinating for the reader.  As V.S. Pritchett has written, “It’s all in the art.  You get no credit for living.”


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on April 17, 2012.]] 

Dramatic texts are one part writing, one part performed experience.  In other words, a script must be judged not just by the quality of the writing, but by how well it works on stage. This concept is difficult for beginning playwrights to grasp. Textbooks try various ways to explain. For example, some call the script a “blueprint” for performance—a means to an end, rather than an end itself.  Additionally, some instructors discuss the magic of “theatricality”—that je ne sais quoi that separates dramatic writing from the other genres.


Because “theatricality” is inconceivable apart from action—apart from the act of doing that constitutes performance—the teaching of playwriting requires performance as part of classroom activities. The concept of performance as pre-eminent should undergird all course structures. For example, when possible, written assignments should be shared aloud in class: hearing texts with an audience is preferable to at-home silent reading because the former better approximates how scripts are meant to be experienced.


Dramatic writers must learn to see themselves as performers. They do not need to be good performers, but they need to be willing. They need to be able to play roles well enough that they can hear in their minds the characters’ voices as they commit words to paper. It is not the same skill as that of the actor, who hears primarily one voice at a time, but is more like that of the stage director who understands the interplay of multiple voices. Most playwrights, I believe, mutter to themselves. And, while a little murmuring is probably common to all creative writers, I would guess that playwrights spend an inordinate amount of time muttering speeches and singing songs to themselves. This skill—necessary as a “trying out” of characters—can be nurtured in students by having them perform.


To teach theatricality at its most basic, I suggest “The Play without Words” exercise, which I do with beginning playwrights at the start of each semester. For this exercise, students write a one-page play with a plot, in which no one speaks. Students must convey that plot through performance, using only materials readily available—the classroom, items from home, and three random classmates. This challenging exercise goes a long way toward illuminating both the limitations and benefits of the stage.  Students typically try to do too much:  for example, one young woman once tried to show a couple saying their last loving good-byes before they jumped from a collapsing World Trade Center. While interesting, the premise is inscrutable without additional trappings—words or set—as explanation.  On the other hand, students have learned how marvelously engaging it is to have a swordfight or an actor pretending to be an animal:  these actions seem hokey on the page, but are magic in performance. By having students perform early on, they internalize the “theatricality” that separates playwriting from the other genres, thereby laying the groundwork to become better dramatists.


How do you get student writers to incorporate theatricality in their dramatic works? How much does performance figure into your teaching? What are your favorite classroom exercises?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 19, 2011.]] 

Today, we welcome guest blogger Annalise Mabe!  


Annalise Mabe was a student in the creative writing pedagogy practicum I teach at the University of South Florida. She assisted with the revision of The Practice of Creative Writing.  She is currently a graduate student in the MFA program at USF, finishing her thesis. She teaches creative writing, composition, and is coordinator for the university's Writing Studio.  Her work has been featured many places, including Brevity, The Rumpus, and The Offing.  - Heather Sellers


How do we teach our students, and ourselves, how to write something new and compelling? We know there is no formula or simple-step process to follow to get the output we desire: the fresh take, the perfect hook, the narrative that many will want to read.


            But we can and must look closely at what others are doing. When I began writing more intensively in my college courses, I remember staring at the blank white document page on my laptop computer, the vertical bar blinking at me, waiting for me to type something brilliant, a knock-it-out-of-the-park piece, the envy of Oliver Sacks, Diane Ackerman, and John McPhee combined. And the more I stared, the more the pressure mounted. The more I sat idly, the more I felt like I couldn’t write anything well, or anything at all, and so I often closed my laptop and took to reading in bed.


            Then, when I was in graduate school, I read “Swimming,” by Joel Peckham, a braided essay that pivoted and turned quickly, using section breakers between parts to weave research and personal narratives. I realized that if I wanted to learn to write like that, I had to try the form on in my own style.


            At first I felt like this wasn’t allowed, the trying on of another writer’s style, but I realized that sometimes the only way to learn how to do something new is by imitating. Sometimes, imitating is the only way we can see what the writer was thinking, what they were seeing from their place on the page as they wrote and drafted their work. I broke down “Swimming,” annotating the essay, inking up the margins in red. I identified the variances in syntax: short and choppy? Or long-winded and ranting? I noticed when Peckham used statistics, when he used a personal story, and when he wove both together. How could he do it so seamlessly? How could I do it too? And importantly, how could I teach my students to do it?


            In the Introductory Creative Writing course I taught last spring at the University of South Florida, I assigned my students the short essay “After the Hysterectomy,” by Ira Sukrungruang. Their homework was to read the piece once for enjoyment, starring or underlining their favorite parts along the way, and then to read the piece again, this time reading slowly through the piece and looking more closely at their favorite parts in order to investigate what tools were working well. I asked my students to look at the items they had marked and ask themselves explicitly: Why did I like this part? If the answer was “it was poignant,” or “it was just really good,” I asked them to examine what the writer was doing more closely. What point of view is the writer using? Is he using commands in the piece? Are certain phrases or lines repeated? What sensory details can you detect, make you feel as though you are there? I wanted them to identify the tools (litany, second-person point of view, and lyrical language). Then they got to practice.


            Because Sukrungruang’s piece was strictly second person, addressing a “you” throughout the piece, I asked my students to do the same in 750 words or less. I allowed them to stick with the same topic (relationships that end) or to take it somewhere entirely new; the choice was up to them as long as they adhered to the previous guidelines. And what followed was a collection of classroom essays so vivid in detail, so compelling in their litanies of lost loves, of waning light, I was surprised the work had come from mere freshmen and sophomores. However, there were a few students with essays that hit too closely to our model to be called their own, which was fine for practice but not for publishing. When teaching my students to identify and break down the work of others before emulating it themselves, I tell them that if their modeled work is too similar, they must employ an after” which lets readers know the idea or form did not come from the student but from the author of inspiration. Another option is to cite, possibly with an asterisk, that explains where some of the material originated. As writers, we have the option to pay homage with an “after” to our inspirations, which means under the title we can write “After Joan Didion,” (usually in italics) to signify that something has been borrowed from the original author—nothing quotable, but maybe the style or the form, maybe your product or your student’s product was inspired by her. We can cite our sources, or we can take on another’s form purely for practice, but we must never plagiarize.


            Through these imitations, my students have learned to play on the page, eliminating the pressure of getting the word down perfectly because they are in the space, the mindset, of following another person, another writer who has been there before. There is something about watching a coach or an older sibling run the drill first. There is safety in the teacher’s instruction and in the guidelines and parameters set out for students by the author’s piece and the assignment details that let them discover, on their own, new ways to write. Under the assignments instructions, students are able to replicate the new moves, empowering themselves while keeping the play in practice. Watching my students read and imitate work by current professional writers and come away with new sets of tools and writing techniques has empowered me as an instructor in seeing their progress, and has opened them up to the constant conversation these writers are having in the real world through their work.

Heather Sellers

Teaching in Tens

Posted by Heather Sellers Expert Aug 1, 2016

Preparing to teach a class is a lot like preparing dinner for friends. Slightly nerve-wracking, more time-consuming than you expect, and each time, there are surprises, sometimes great, sometimes terrible. Always, you learn new things.  You can wing it and end up with a wonderful success.  Or, you can spend weeks preparing and still run into disaster. Is there a secret to planning?


In observing new graduate students teach creative writing classes, sometimes I see amazing instruction and other times I see a class period evaporate as student attention wanders. I’ve seen lessons that looked great on paper miss their mark completely and shy awkward teachers create terrific impromptu classroom experiences for grumpster teens at eight in the morning. 


These new teachers are spending a lot of time prepping their classes and sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t.  So, how do we make the most of lesson planning?


First, consider the three things that typically cause a lesson to go off the rails:

  1.  Busy. The lesson is about too many things. Too much material and/or not well-organized in teachable, learnable steps.
  2. Vague. The content that the teacher wants students to deliver isn’t completely clear in her own mind. It seems clear—she wants to teach characterization, and we’ve all read a short story, and we’re discussing it—but she doesn’t have a way to teach how to do characterization down cold yet. Her lecture is loose, rambling, unfocused. Student comments are all over the place. Mission creep.
  3. Static.  There’s simply not enough happening in the class. Students are passive. No lightbulb moments. We’re lost in dim light.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is we can do to prepare a foolproof lesson. And I offer this recipe, based on years of designing and teaching my own creative writing classes and watching others prepare and teach.

  1. Big picture. Read your class goals and learning objectives. What is it you are actually trying to teach students this semester?  Take a step back from the text and focus on exactly what it is you want them to learn, overall, and then learn specifically, today.
  2. Goal and objective. Come up with some words for what it is the students are going to know at the end of this hour that they didn’t know before they came into the class. Goal: What will they have learned? Objective: What will they now be able to do? Check in: is this goal and objective something that is possible to learn in an hour? Is it clear? Super clear?
  3. Vocabulary.  Make a list of the new terms they will learn--a helpful way to keep your lesson on track.


Now that you have a sense of how your hour fits into the flow of your overall course, and a specific objective for today, and an outline for your content, it’s time to think about the structure of the hour—the courses you’ll serve your guest.


You probably use some or all of the following approaches in your classroom—lecture, discussion, guided close reading, peer group response, workshop, quizzing, and in class writing. Instead of staying locked in a usual pattern, take a moment to step back and figure out the best way for students to learn this new concept you are bringing them today.  For example, if you are going over a short story in the textbook, hoping to teach characterization, and you typically start with “discussion”, consider what it is you really want students to learn.  Four ways of rendering character? How dialogue reveals character? How to create a composite character? Or are you really teaching close reading: how to read and understand subtleties of character?


    4. Chunk.  Think in terms of 20 minute chunks. Break your class into 20 minute sections—that’s about how long students can productively focus on one thing, processing, memorizing, learning. When you look at your goal for this lesson, how could you break it into two 20 minute chunks?  For a lesson on characterization, for the first twenty minutes, you could show them the three most important aspects of the technique, in the story assigned for that day, and then have them, in discussion, find more examples. Or, after you show them the technique in 10 minutes, they could write examples of their own in ten minutes.  For your second 20 minute chunk, you’ll need to build on this in a logical way. Maybe they’re revising a story from last week in class, incorporating the three new techniques.  If you teach a fifty minute class, this gives you ten minutes to sum up, review, and assign the next lesson’s homework.


Those four strategies—big picture, clear goal for the lesson, new vocabulary, and chunking—give you one model for planning class. There are lots of ways to design a wonderful class; these are just some principles. Take what’s useful.


One last thought. Recently, I took a screenwriting workshop with storied Robert McKee (it was life-changing!) and I was struck by how much planning a class has in common with writing a screenplay. In a screenplay, every ten minutes, something needs to happen. I’ve been breaking my class prep down into ten minute sections and noting in the margins of my lesson plan what the take-home is for those ten minutes. That gives me an at-a-glance “menu” for the hour, and I write that menu on the board, reinforcing the teachings and also keeping me and my students on track.