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2018

Today's featured guest blogger is Bill Leach Liberal Arts Program Chair and Assistant Professor of English at Florida Institute of Technology

 

 

What do alien abductions, cops chasing robbers, and binge drinking zombies have in common? They’ve all been subjects of one-act plays written by student groups in my introduction to literature classes over the years.

 

I’ve always been a fan of introducing creative writing opportunities to students as a method of reinforcing the elements of short fiction, poetry, and drama.  Many of my ideas are not really mine at all. Our university uses The Bedford Introduction to Literature, edited by Michael Meyer, and there are gems of writing ideas embedded in the text just waiting to be mined. These ‘Creative Responses” are sprinkled throughout, such as writing your own 55 word short story or writing a three minute phone call or email conversation between two characters based on the brief play Reprimand. These ideas can be incorporated as journal entries, test questions, and group activities.

 

I introduce group work early in the semester, which allows group members to get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and provide a sense of commitment to the group for completing the tasks assigned. Toward the end of the semester, I introduce the groups to the project of writing a script for their own one-act plays. Years ago, I started this activity by asking the groups to write an alternate ending to the play Am I Blue by Beth Henley, which deals with many issues young adults face today. This activity also works in writing an alternate ending to Death of a Salesman. Studying original plays and writing in groups takes up a good chunk of classroom time, so I searched for shorter activities because of the premium associated with classroom time.

 

That's when I stumbled across the website 10-Minute-Plays.com. The site not only provides multiple examples of short plays, but it also provides students easy to follow directions on how to compose their play, which reinforces the concepts of plot structure.  Here’s an example of directions from the site:

 

Page 1:  Set up the world of your main characters (exposition)

Page 2:  Something happens to throw your characters’ world out of balance

Page 3-4:  Your characters struggle to restore order

Page 5:  Just when your characters are about to restore order, something happens to complicate matters    

Page 6:  Your characters either succeed or fail to restore order

 

The brevity of the 10 minute play allows students to work with the structure of drama, introducing conflict and providing a resolution just as longer, traditional plays do. In addition, the shortened format saves on group and classroom time, allowing for more in-depth discussions of other genres such as short fiction and poetry.

 

The students really enjoy the activity and work well together writing the scripts and even acting out the parts. It is a fun way to end the semester, and student feedback shows it to be something they learn from and remember.

 

As a caution, though, instructors need to be involved in the brainstorming part of the process, guiding students toward appropriate topics. If not, you may find yourself in the middle of many dramatic renderings describing drunken zombies fighting aliens!

Ann Charters is the author of The Story and Its Writer.

 

I’ve been a Kerouac fan since 1958, when I read his just-published novel The Dharma Bums.  In the 1950s, the overwhelming majority of Beat Generation authors were men who rarely wrote about women as independent, equally talented individuals or even as equal partners.  Ironically, in the next generation, the discovery of the freedom of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose style helped some of the women who read his books gain the confidence to become experimental writers themselves.

 

The tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer includes Kerouac’s experimental prose narrative “October in the Railroad Earth,” his story about his daily life in California in the autumn of 1952. It is considered the best short example of what Kerouac called “Spontaneous Prose.” He wrote the story in San Francisco while he lived in a skid row hotel and worked as a brakeman-in-training for the Southern Pacific Railroad.  In his commentary “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (also included in the tenth edition of The Story and Its Writer), he described his highly personal method of writing.  In his approach, Kerouac tried to write his mind into a text as directly, honestly, and completely as possible, hoping to capture the free, spontaneous flow of his thoughts and feelings at the moment of putting words down on paper.  

 

Kerouac composed “October in the Railroad Earth” eighteen months after he created his most famous novel On the Road during an inspired three weeks in April 1951, though he’d tried unsuccessfully for years to write it.  His novel, now considered an American classic, took nearly seven years to be published in 1957, but only after it had been first rejected and then completely revised into conventional prose by his editors.  The 1951 original so-called “scroll manuscript” of On the Road, unpublished for a half-century until 2007, reads much more like spontaneous prose. As Kerouac once told an interviewer, “I agree with Joyce, as Joyce said to Ezra Pound in the 1920s, ‘Don’t bother me with politics, the only thing that interests me is style.’”

 

Kerouac knew what he was doing. At the time he wrote to his friend Allen Ginsberg that he was “originating. . . a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts.” Later the English critic Michael Horowitz understood that at midcentury Kerouac’s style –“That ingenuous art of spilling the beans – all that’s remembered laced with all that chimes in from the senses at the instant of writing, emptying consciousness as per action painter and jazzman’s delivery” – was to change the direction of American prose.

 

The woman author I have in mind who was influenced by Kerouac’s writing is the novelist and biographer Chris Kraus.  In 1997 she published her second novel I Love Dick, which elicited heated controversy at the time though recently it has become the basis of a successful American television series released on Amazon Video.  Like Kerouac, Kraus used what was happening in her own life as the basis for her fiction.  As a critic noted on the back jacket of I Love Dick, by “tearing away the veil that separates fiction from reality and privacy from self-expression . . . Kraus forged a manifesto for a new kind of feminism that isn’t afraid to burn through itself to embrace the whole world.”

 

I Love Dick is full of references to Beat-era writers, not only Kerouac but also less famous figures such as Lew Welch, John Wieners, Ron Padgett and Paul Blackburn —all males.  As Kraus writes in I Love Dick about the married painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning, the 1950s was a period “that believed in the utter worthlessness of Women.” [sic]  It was a time when the commercial success of women authors, even extremely talented writers like Flannery O’Connor who wrote in a conventional prose style, was the exception, not the rule.  The example of Kerouac’s courage creating his autobiographical, spontaneous prose method and following it despite the repeated rejection of his writing by established publishers, inspired Kraus to find her own voice as a writer.  Kerouac’s story encouraged her to create highly original autobiographical fiction in which she too expressed herself as openly, honestly, and freely as she could.

 

Today's featured guest blogger is Shane Bradley, Administrative Dean, Writing Program Director, and Assistant Professor of English at Erskine College.

 

A student in my Composition and Literature course told me that she had trouble relating to Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” She just “didn’t get” the story.

 

“She’s an old woman from a weird family. And she killed somebody.”

 

“Is Emily Grierson really that far removed from the average person?” I asked. “To somebody, each of us is old. And if we really think about it, aren’t most of our families weird in some way?”

 

A collective murmur of agreement engulfed the classroom.

 

“Okay, I may be old to my little brother,” she conceded, “and you’re right about odd families. Mine is definitely strange. But I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a villain.”

 

“But have you ever been angry enough, hurt enough to at least think about killing another person?”

 

The tendency to expect our students to regurgitate what we tell them about the literature, instead of helping students make personal connections, abounds in education. While this approach to the literature is not completely without merit, demanding broad acquiescence to our ideas and beliefs is one way we rob students of their ability to relate to the literature on their unique terms.

 

Of course this method does not mean students have free reign to interpret works any old way. No, “A Rose for Emily” is not a happy love story. Emily Grierson’s life is not one held in high regard for our emulation; her life, however, does represent elements of humanity that most of us face, problems with which we find ourselves wrestling, on a regular basis. Don’t we, after all, want to teach the literature in a more personalized way?

 

When I was 18 or 19, relating to the death of an old woman who had been sleeping with the corpse of the lover she murdered was a stretch of my imagination. The same applies to our students now until we allow them to struggle with their own lives and experiences in terms of the broader human condition: everybody ages, most of us fall in love, we hurt when we’re betrayed, we seek some form of revenge.

 

Our students experience an inherent longing for acceptance and validation, and it’s that same longing that compels Miss Emily to take Homer’s life. Is she a bad person? No worse than the rest of us. Does she give in to her momentary desire for some aberrant sense of retribution? Yes, but we’ve all probably at least considered doing the same thing.

 

Each person who reads the story can relate to the struggle to overcome momentary urges that, while at the time may seem perfectly acceptable considering a vulnerable emotional state, ultimately carry with them legal or moral repercussions that will result in a far greater struggle in the long run. That’s a key lesson our students should know.

           

As we provide students the freedom to relate to characters, not only the protagonists,  but the antagonists, too, in ways that make those universal struggles relevant, we empower students to move beyond a read-the-story-and-answer-the-questions mentality that permeates our profession. Sure, students may answer the assigned questions that accompany the readings, but do they actually care about how they’ve responded? Or, do they simply do the work in order to meet the requirements of the assignment? That’s really the core of our struggle as educators – creating relevance.

           

In the end, more students have something in common with Emily Grierson than they do Homer Barron. Homer may be the one who gets the poison, but Emily, like all of us, struggles with and succumbs to her desire to become whole after her fall. Once we give our students the autonomy to relate to the villain in the same ways we encourage them to find common ground with the characters we deem morally or ethically “good,” we help them realize that each of us has the potential to be the villain and commit a crime as egregious as murder. From Emily Grierson’s mistakes, though, we can all learn how to better manage our urges and begin to recognize each other’s basic humanity.

Today's featured guest blogger is Tammy Powley, Professor at Indian River State College. 

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the first day of your creative writing course started with an inspirational talk given by a famous author like Amy Tan? That and similar questions came to mind when I received department approval to develop my college’s first  creative writing course. This began my web journey as I looked for video resources to help supplement and inspire my creative writing students, and now Amy Tan greets my students during their first week of class. Throughout the semester they also hear from Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, and many other authors.

 

Amy Tan arrives thanks to TED.com, which it a site best known for commenting on technology, education, and design, but in “Where Does Creativity Hide?” Tan examines how she personally creates, where her ideas might originate, and how life events affected her writing. Tan is a wonderful presenter. She is funny and easy to understand. My students watch this 22 minute video, and then I ask them to reflect, to examine their own approach to creativity. This is one of the earliest writing assignments in the course, a very simple response, but it starts them thinking and writing. This site also offers videos by some entertaining and thought-provoking poets, for example What Teachers Make” by Taylor Mali and “The Danger of Silence” by Clint Smith. So, while TED.com is full of presentations from technology gurus, there is also plenty to glean from this site for creative writers and liberal arts studies. An added plus to this site is the inclusion of a transcript for each TED talk, and I have found the hyperlinks I use in my  course shell are also accurate and not prone to change, an issue that can come up whenever using free  content.

 

YouTube is more popular with Internet readers than TED.com and full of possible content. It requires a different approach when researching for curriculum, but I feel it worth considering since many educational institutions and similar organizations have free resources through this site. A few videos I have discovered useful over there for my writing students include “Write What You Know” presented by Nathan Englander and “Revising, Rewriting, and Overcoming Obstacles” by Sinead Moriarty. Writing instructors, however, should be prepared to spend more time culling through content on YouTube because there is the added task of determining if the person who posted the video is actually the owner of the content. Additionally, if the channel owner changes something (and it has been my experience that this occasionally happens) then links could be disabled at some point. Therefore, it is important to check links regularly for a course to ensure they still work.

 

Finally, one of my favorite video sources is  but not necessarily available to everyone on the World Wide Web. It is a database called Films on Demand, and many colleges and universities subscribe to it. The information available through this database seems to be endless, and I especially like that I am able to combine content from it with a book or e-text. For example, in one assignment I ask students to examine the basic ideas concerning plot and structure, and I bring in Edgar Allan Poe as an example. We look at his story “The Cask of Amontillado” and watch one of the film versions of the story provided through Films on Demand. This brings in more writing opportunities as I ask students to answer another response question: Did you feel the tension building, and were you surprised at the end? Then, they are given an opportunity to rewrite the story and bring it into the twenty-first century but keep the original sequence of events.

 

By combining videos with traditional curriculum sources such as handouts and textbooks, I am able to layer my learning strategies and provide a method for visual learners to engage in what may seem like abstract ideas to many of them. TED.com, YouTube, and Films on Demand are three resources that can help writing instructors create an engaging and encouraging environment, whether a course is taught  or in a traditional face-to-face setting.