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10 Posts authored by: Heather Sellers Expert

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.

How do we meet our writing goals and help our students meet writing goals in the midst of other demands?

 

My favorite recent book on this topic is Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s a portable encyclopedia of the daily schedules of artists, psychologists, theologians, and authors.

 

Toni Morrison (single mother of two with a full time job as an editor at Random House) explains that “it does seem hectic,” but she doesn’t do “anything else.” She avoids cocktail parties and evening events because that is when she works. And, “When I sit down to write I never brood….. I can’t afford it.”  She makes it clear that there’s really not likely going to be, for most of us, a regular time to write. She grabbed weekends, evenings, predawn time.

 

Haruki Murakami wakes at 4 am and writes until 9 am or 10 am. He also turns down invitations.

 

What I notice, reading Currey’s charming, delicious compendium, is that creating a writing life is actually less about a cushy life filled with luxurious writing hours and more about saying no to almost everything else.

 

And, reading the lives of artists while thinking about students as our semesters get underway, I see that it’s more than a bit challenging to be 20 years old and newly free in in the world, and then, if one would like to become a writer, tasked with saying no to all of your friends, parties, weekend getaways, football games, laying out in the sun.

 

I asked three of my colleagues, graduate students in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, to address the question: how do you get your writing done while teaching? Annalise Mabe said she writes best when she has a deadline for class. Carmella Guiol recently got rid of the internet at home, and for her, hours and hours of writing time opened up.  Chelsea Dingman, prolific writer and mother of two boys, gets up monstrously early, and writes in any spare hour during the day.

 

These three writers get their creative work done by saying no to a lot and they can do that because they love the work and they have been rewarded by long hours of practice with visible, measurable proof of improvement. 

 

Can we help our students experience more deeply how rewarding practice is? (The recent film Seymour provides a terrific discussion of the delicious rewards of pure practice.) I’m not sure. I know when they are required to spend more time on a piece (writing a sonnet, for example), they learn more as writers, produce better work, and they are often surprised at the correlation between time spent on writing and the success of the piece.

 

This semester, I’m working on creating assignment sequences that are meaningful and challenging. I’m trying to do a better job of explaining to my students why we’re doing this work, and what they’ll be able to do at the end of the semester, and showing them, along the way, exactly what is happening in terms of skill development and knowledge acquisition. 

 

I’m modeling a working writing life for them by sharing my triumphs and failures I’ve met my new year’s writing goals four days out of 24 so far this year, but at least I’m aware of what I want and where I am.

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 sellersh@usf.edu.

This post first appeared on May 4, 2015.

 

When I was finishing my PhD in creative writing, my boyfriend was a rhetorician.  He was a bit older, and a professor (not mine). I was very influenced by him. He taught me how to close-read, how to make Stromboli, how to play tennis, and how to interact properly with a cat.  All new to me.  I was enthralled. Except for one thing. Instead of “grading papers” he always said “responding to student work.”

 

As we were both teaching full course loads, we talked about teaching every day, at every meal, and in the evenings on our walks. So, I said “grading” a lot and he said, all the time, “responding,” and it irritated me.  Obviously, by “grading” I meant reading, writing comments, reflecting, and then assigning a grade. His term seemed tedious, and perjorative, and complicating unnecessarily a simple thing. Grading.

 

Ultimately, we became collaborators instead of romantic partners, and ultimately, I stopped using the word “grading.” He’d written many articles and a terrific book on all the different ways teachers comment on student work—and when we began analyzing the comments creative writing teachers make on student work (with everyone’s permission), I slowly but profoundly came to see our collective endeavor as So Much More Than Grading.

 

Response.  The word means answer or reply and I found that when I wrote comments on my students’ writing, I was much more focused on a relational and empathic conversation with them than I was on an evaluation. I spent my comments playing back what they had written, and suggesting places where they could go further, write deeper, say more. I mentioned exactly what I wanted to know more about. I absolutely said what I felt the strengths were and listed the two or three areas they’d want to focus on. In revising that particular piece, yes, but more importantly, what to focus on as a developing writer.  These “assessments” required a lot of discernment and I liked that process, a lot.  It sure wasn’t “grading.” I was in conversation with my students; we were on the page together.

 

So, as I read more deeply into the pedagogical literature on teaching writing and response (Rick Straub, Wendy Bishop, Patrick Bizarro, Andrea Lunsford), and worked on the project analyzing what we say to our students in the creative writing classroom, I gradually changed my language.

 

“Do you have a lot of grading to do?” I’m asked frequently this time of year. Well, no. Kind of. The grading—figuring out which letter grade to assign the students based on how well their work displayed what we set out to learn this semester—isn’t what takes up my time. It’s reading and responding meaningfully to their pages. Maybe the distinction seems picayune. But what used to irritate me has become a profoundly important distinction.

 

In this age of STEM, with rapidly declining enrollments in the Humanities, it’s more important than ever that we articulate what it is we do, why it’s necessary, and exactly how it matters. (I highly recommend Peter Meinke’s article, “Double Major.”)

 

Our students will likely have jobs where giving and receiving responses to work in progress is a crucial part of success. Not grading. In fact, delaying evaluation and judgment in order to learn how to build rapport, work in a group, and think more creatively is essential. At the end of the term, we’re not grading. We’re discerning, with empathy, and I call that response.

This post originally appeared on March 10, 2015.

 

About four weeks into the semester, I write these words on the board, inside a pyramid:

 

Proofing and Grammar

Editing

Revision

 

Then, I explain the pyramid to my students, but in a very careful way.

 

I learned a lot about how to teach from being a step-parent and in the classroom, as on the step-homefront, I don’t tell them what to do, I share what I do. I teach from the side. I even act slightly puzzled, just slightly disinterested—probably this wouldn’t work for you slides my tone. Nothing to see here. But I’m also very engaged—with my own process: I act like I’m sharing a secret, too—step inside my studio, if you want to. I don’t let everyone in. This is not the standard curriculum. This is a writing class. We are co-alchemists and my job as teacher is to be sly and stealthy.

 

Here’s what I want to get across to my students in my revision lesson sneak attack. Revision is writing.  But I don’t want to say that sentence. Not ever. Because I have a feeling this sentence makes little sense to a new writer, a young writer, a college student/writer. “Revision is writing” certainly made no sense to me as a student: it sounded to my nineteen year old ears as something teachers say to sound teachery when they are trying to make something boring and time-wasting sound helpful, like broccoli. But the truth is every single working writer I know creates a draft, a piece, and then she begins to work. And it’s the act of “revision”—re-seeing—on which we spend most of our time as writers.  I don’t think students are lazy; I really believe they want to improve as writers. I think students simply don’t know how to spend the time on a piece of writing. They don’t know what to sit down and do for hours, all the hours it takes to craft something potentially substantial and significant.

 

So, I show them exactly what I do.

 

I draw the pyramid. I tell the truth: about 80% of my time is spent doing what I call re-seeing the piece.  After I writing out the images and scenes, I read the piece aloud and see what I have. I read to stabilize the narrative in place and time, layer in the dialogue, and clarify confusion. I print, read the piece it aloud again, and adjust, cutting and adding, sharpening and tuning, over and over. I will do this for as long as I have time (depending on the deadline). For a poem to take to my writing group, I will do ten or twenty rounds of this seeing and re-seeing on the page, in the course of a week. I read the work aloud to my writing partner, aloud to myself, aloud to a close friend who happens to be an editor, catching, each time, parts that aren’t clear, parts I need to see more fully.

 

Editing—making the sentences more artful, fact-checking, formatting, etc., takes about 15% perfect of my writing time for any given piece and proofreading for typos, spell checking and grammar checking—5%.

 

When I gave this lesson last week in my introductory poetry class, Aaron sat up, took his feet off his skateboard-cum-footstool, and he said, “This is the most helpful thing so far.”   “Like ever.” Natalie took a cell phone photograph of the board, and several others followed suit. Yuni got out a Hello Kitty notebook for the first time this semester, and drew the pyramid, which now had the percentages written by it and she said, “Could you say this one more time?”

 

“Why does no one tell us these things?” Danica said.

 

“Do other people do this?” Chantelle asked, holding her hand in the air as she spoke.

 

I nodded solemnly. My friends who are writers, they do this. We have talked about it, I say. And I make sure to always say each one of us has to find the way that works best, our own way. It’s very individual.

 

Then, I pull out from a folder one of my poems in progress—a thick packet of pages. I  make it seem like I just happen to have this with me. I say I don’t usually share my work in progress or talk about my process with my students. In this case, I pulled out a poem about meeting my 80 year old aunt in St. Augustine, very near the Fountain of Youth, as it happened.  I held up the first draft, which was written on the inside cover of an issue of Poetry while I was in the car. I hold up the printed out typed versions with all my many notations, all my re-seeing. I show them the drawing I did after struggling to get the opening of this poem clear, a quick sketch of the fountain at Columbia House with my aunt and her partner and my friend and his hat. Then I show them the copies my writing partners have written on, and I hold up the printouts of the emails I got back with notes on various versions of the from Dylan, Elaine, Norman, and Stephanie. Elaine’s—with track changes and many, many more words of commentary than are in the poem—draws a gasp.

 

“How freaking long does this take?” Joe asks. I’m dying for Joe to spend more than five minutes on anything, ever. I look him dead in the eye and say “The whole thing? From start to finish?” I hold all the pages in my palms as though I’m weighing time itself. Long dramatic pause. “Probably 25 hours?”

 

“For one poem?” Ken says. “Shit.”

 

I nod.

 

“Shit,” Coral says. “I need to spend more time.”

 

“I’m editing,” Danica says. “I thought I was a great reviser. I’m editing.”

 

“You’re a great editor.”

 

I don’t ask the students to track their time or do anything with the revision pyramid. Most semesters they ask about it again, later in the course. I see their work improve, week by week. I think learning how to spend more time on a piece of writing takes time.  For my introductory courses, presenting the pyramid and a cold hard sausage-being-made look into one writer’s folder of drafts is enough.

Heather Sellers

Grading Vows

Posted by Heather Sellers Expert Sep 21, 2015

This blog was originally posted on November 25, 2014.

 

I have many writing students, and I assign each one of them writing—a lot of writing, both critical and creative pieces—for each class. So, I read a lot of student work.  And this time of the semester all my vows are tested. My vow to keep my daily writing practice going. My vow to sleep and eat well and exercise daily—that’s pretty much over now that it’s late November. My vow to be present for my students, to be a good colleague. My vow to live a life centered around kindness, awareness, and meaning.

 

I have three strategies—which may or may not work for you—to keep from feeling overly stressed about reading so much student work, especially towards the end of the term, when getting behind, getting off track with other projects and neglecting the fun and fulfilling parts of life is most likely.

 

Strategy 1

 

I read 1/3 of the papers that come in the day they come in.  I stay in my office after each class period and spend at least an hour reading for each class. I get home late, but I get home free. I don’t carry student work around with me. I feel like a pile of student writing, left untended, mushrooms into something larger. [Full disclosure: I am teaching creative writing. I feel very, very lucky to have the job I have. I get to choose the assignments, their length, and schedule the due dates. Most people aren’t in that position, so I want to be careful here.  However, I taught comp for many, many years and always I try to associate, deeply, reading student work with pleasurable things.] I read in my office, and I have made that space beautiful by making sure I always have in my space

 

  1. Fresh flowers
  2. A diffuser spewing lavender oil molecules into the air
  3. Soft light
  4. Soft music.
  5. Access to hot tea.

 

Strategy 2

 

I schedule, in my calendar, blocks of time for doing the rest of the reading and then I don’t talk about grading papers before, during, or after those scheduled blocks of time. Ever. Not one word. Not ever. I simply refuse to talk about this part of my life.  I talk about what my students are up to that’s surprising to me. I talk about what we are reading in class, and what I am learning as a writer from the readings, or from my students. If I talk about grading, I feel like I’m complaining and then I also feel like I am spending time in a negative place—like I’m stretching out the task to be a huge part of my life.  It’s time consuming, and important, but it’s not the center of my life. I like to hear other people’s creative strategies for improving teaching so I try to steer conversations about the tedious parts of teaching toward interesting elements, creative solutions, and, hopefully, humor.

 

Strategy 3

 

I made friends outside of academia and I hang out with them during my social time. People outside of academia have great strategies for managing workload, increasing efficiency, and approaching the parts of the job that are most challenging and I love to listen to how they talk about work. They are so not interested in my grading woes that, once again, I’m not spending my time in that slough.  I learned a different way of relating to work conversations by listening to those in other fields and it gave me a fresh perspective that I really needed.

 

At first, when I made my vow to not talk about grading papers, I felt a little weird and lonely. I worried my colleagues would think I was lazy or unfocused. When there’d be a gripe session in the halls  and I didn’t join in, at first I felt like I wasn’t really being part of the team.

 

It seems like it would be super annoying to enter the conversation, rubrics in hand, smiling, papers all graded and scores neatly entered in the gradebook.  So, I restrain myself.  But if you want to talk about teaching, and response strategies to creative writing, and what we’re learning from researchers about what happens in peer response groups, my door is open. Please come in. Even during this busy time of year, I’d love to talk!

 

My office is pretty. I did yoga this morning.  End of the semester, and hanging in!  Do come by.

This post originally appeared on September 23, 2014.

 

Tomorrow is the first day of the new semester.

 

My syllabi are printed on bright shiny goldenrod paper. Stapled. Neatly stacked. Books are by the door, and my water bottle, glasses, glasses lanyard, and power bars are in my satchel.  My nerves are jangly, in a good way. I’ve got new periwinkle blue notebooks for my classes. I’ve examined the rosters, and am happy to see names that are familiar to me. Qaadir. Renee. Sarah D.

 

Faces pop up now in our online course management tool but their faces will never be familiar: I suffer from profound prosopagnosia or face blindness.  And I’ll open class with that news, asking my students to help me identify them each time we encounter each other.

 

The first time I did this in front of a class of puzzled undergraduates, years ago, I was shaking so hard, I wasn’t sure I’d make it through my spiel.  But I saw the looks on the students’ faces that day: awe, curiosity, kindness, compassion.  I was stunned.  They leaned in—literally. Before leaning in was a metaphor, they physically leaned in, and peppered me with questions for 45 minutes. It was one of the most moving, meaningful hours I spent in a classroom.

 

And I quickly learned how to boundary that conversation so the first hour wasn’t “Heather’s Medical Mystery Hour.”  But I start every single class with this request: will you help me? And they do. I allow ten minutes for questions (what do you see? can you recognize your own face? how will you know if someone slips in and takes our place?) (what you see, no, and I won’t.)  And then it’s their turn to tell me who they are.

 

I’ve found that this necessary but deeply personal intimate disclosure on my part engenders an authenticity in our introductory conversation.  I always hated those dry, canned “Tell us a little about yourself, where you are from, what you are majoring in” openers. I hated them because they’re all surface and no news, no depth. And, worse, students unconsciously match their answers to fit what’s come before. It’s an exercise in conformity, not creativity.  Since I’m teaching creative writing, and asking my students to learn how to go in deep to find valuable, complex, interesting stories to tell, I want to set up a first-day introductory activity that pre-figures the work we will do during the course of the semester.  I don’t want un-boundaried self-disclosure—“tell us something no one knows about you.” That may or may not be the best route to a good introduction or a good piece of writing.

 

Tomorrow I’m going to try a new prompt for the introductions.  Tell us your name, what you want to be called, and what you are fired up about.  I got the prompt from a friend’s luncheon this past summer; she got it from a life coach who runs “Women on Fire.” I will have them write down their response so they have a better shot at staying true to their own internal wisdom.

 

I will use the introduction process as a way to launch my first lecture: how to engage the reader.

 

I’ll let you know how it goes.  Meanwhile, I ‘d love to hear how you structure introductions—what works for you, what doesn’t, and why.

[[This blog was originally posted on January 30, 2013]]

 

The bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious,
and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.
–T S Eliot

Recently, I planned out my courses for spring. I wrote new syllabi for poetry and fiction workshops and revised my existing syllabi, too. And, this year I decided to include a new section.  After explaining to my students the Grades and Attendance and Formatting Your Work parts of my syllabus, I added a section called Creating Sacred Space.

 

This is new territory for me, and will be for most of my students, I think, and I’m curious to know what you think.

 

What I have noticed in the past couple of years is this. Students rarely take phone calls during class. Most of the time, they silence their phones, though a few times each semester (usually during an in class writing period, or when a student is reading an incredibly moving, incredibly personal poem aloud—aka The Worst Time), a phone will hum and buzz and there will be a frenzied patting down of a backpack or self, a litany of apologies, or, worst, weird silent ignoring while the buzzing or belling persists.  Once in a great while a student will take a call in class:  “I have to take this! It’s my mom!”

 

Ugh.

 

But last year, I noticed something truly deleterious, in my opinion, to the workshop itself. When we take our break halfway through the three hour workshop, many students get out their phones and text. Some of them text during the entire break. Often, I’ll see the little thumbs, the downward gaze, when we are in class, not on the break. Texting in class is okay, students believe, in a way that taking an actual phone call is not.  But, I think it’s very much NOT okay. So, this semester, I’m creating a new policy: Sacred Space.

 

We bring very personal work to class, and of course there has to be a boundary of reverence around our discussion. On Day One, we formally vow not to discuss the work of this class with outsiders, and not to share any drafts with others. I’m not worried that students’ text communications with those outside the workshop during the workshop is violating trust. Rather, I believe that texting during class, even during the break, is hurting our ability to be present with each other. I believe texting even on the break is hurting students’ ability to learn how to be connected with the depth of their inner lives, and the range of their imaginations. You might disagree.  But if you can’t disconnect from other people for three hours stretches, how are you going to write a poem or a short story?

 

When we are around a table, with work-in-progress spread out before us, there’s a lot that’s called for in terms of awareness, paying attention, thoughtfulness, and intuition. These skills are very similar to the ones we need when creating art.   For example, when we start break in class, I can look at Emily and see she is having a rough day. I can see how nervous she is—her story is up next. The break is not really a break from class; it’s a break from work, from concentration.  It’s a chance to stretch, to run to the restroom, to grab a snack. But we are still a class.  We’re still a group endeavoring to make meaning, give insightful feedback, hold and carry and nurture and tend to art and each other. If our attention is divided, if we are participating in conversations about dinner, about whatever, Mom found her car keys!—with folks who aren’t in our class, I feel we are not just missing out on opportunities to see each other with the full richness that is required for something as intimate and demanding as workshop, I think we are hurting our art. I think we’re damaging our process.

 

To make art, we have to be able to enter a complicated dance between knowing and not knowing, between what’s clear and what’s chaotic.  We have to be able to space out—slightly.   We have to capture those notions that come from the right brain.  A creative writing workshop is a complex system of interactions—we have to be off-line, here and deeply here.  We have to be paying attention to surprise, to nuance, to everything.

 

I am nervous about my new policy. I worry students will see it as draconian. Un-American. But you know what? Going to college means learning new ways to be in the world, honing one’s ability to work with others, and deepening one’s relationship with one’s inner self.  The ability to create sacred space—well, I think it might help my students create more productive, more rewarding writing practices.  And, I think it might be one tiny way to heal the world.

This blog was originally posted on January 18, 2013.

 

Recently, I did a webinar for Bedford/St. Martin’s (which you can find here). During my lecture (which I pretended was a kind of little TED talk—I did so many rehearsals!!), I talked about the top three concerns students have when it comes to revision:

 

1. It takes a ton of TIME

The most frustrating aspect of revision is the time it demands.  –Morgan

2. Losing my voice: AUTHENTICITY

I write from inspiration deep down, and pre-Junior year I believed that deviating from that inspiration was untrue to myself as a writer. Now I know: the stuff that spits out onto the page at 1 AM isn’t necessarily what should be published in a book.  –Becca


3. FEELING DUMB

The most frustrating aspect of revision is having to do it and making stupid mistakes, not getting everything right the first time…. –Victoria

 

I started off my talk by naming and addressing these common student concerns.  The fear that we will spend forever revising and not really get anywhere, or, worse, revising but not knowing if we have improved (or destroyed) our vision.  The fear that trying to please readers and the teacher will ruin our original voice. And, the most important aspect of revision is right there inside of Victoria’s fear: you have to be okay with feeling dumb in order to be an artist.  You have to befriend mistakes!  You have to tend and befriend a very vulnerable part of your self.  It’s hard work!

 

I think we—writing teachers—also have similar concerns as writers! We worry so much about our failures and the time it takes to be a serious, committed writer.  As we progress in our professions, it gets harder and harder to let ourselves “feel dumb” and start again.

However, I’m very much wanting to keep my pedagogy crisply in line with what I actually do as a writer in my own studio.  So, I’ve been looking closely at how I talk about revision to my students.

In my opinion:

 

  • “Revision” is a problematic concept.
  • Revision is a vague and useless umbrella term: We say revision when we mean composing, editing, experimenting, planning, re-seeing.
  • Misleading concept: revision is actually writing; it’s not separate from writing.
  • Writing and revising are the same act of mind.

 

I have come up with my own New Goals for Teaching Revision. I want to create revision instruction that helps students:

 

  • Focus more deeply.
  • Spend more time on their writing because it becomes more likeplay (not necessarily light and fun but engaging—just hard enough).
  • See results: strategies produce better work.

 

If you like, check out my webinar on this topic and tell me what you think. I would love to hear about your experiences as a writer or as a teacher when it comes to revision.