Skip navigation
All Places > The English Community > LitBits > Blog
3 4 5 6 7 Previous Next


165 posts

This week's Technology Tuesday activity comes from Eric Reimer at the University of Montana.  He helps his students master associative thinking by using blogs "create conversations among the disparate writers and texts of the course."  After asking them to write and explore in the digital space, Professor Reimer asks students to use the "digital writing technologies [to] suggest possibilities for new aesthetic and argumentative arrangements in their print essay." 


To download Professor Reimer's great assignment, click here: Hetland Chapter 5 


To view other ways of applying technology in the literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's full resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology


Have a great week, everyone! 

Hi all, 


We're back with our next Technology Tuesday installment of Tim Hetland's great resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology.  This week, we're highlighting an activity from Rochelle Rodrigo at Old Dominion University, who has a helpful class activity for anyone teaching the literature survey course.  This flexible activity allows students to "contextualize literature" across literary periods and genres, using a wiki as the foundation.  


To download the full assignment, visit "Writing a Wiki Guide for a Literature Survey Course."


To see the entire Hetland digital writing resource, visit Teaching Literature with Digital Technology


Happy Tuesday! 

One day late, but I couldn't wait until next week to share!


This fantastic assignment by Angela Laflen (Marist College) is subtitled "Collaborative Learning in the Literature Classroom" and it delivers exactly what it promises: a chance for your students to approach literature as a conversation space through the power of wikis. For more great digital assignments for your literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's complete resourcehere.


Wiki Critical Editions: Collaborative Learning in the Literature Classroom

Annalise Mabe

What to Teach Now

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Mar 10, 2017

Recently at a reading, writer Ira Sukrungruang asked the audience: Wouldn’t it be nice to start every day with a poem?


Yes, I thought, and realized I should be reading more in general—a poem, a story, or an essay every morning; that there are so many classic titles and contemporary writers alike I need to re-read, and to teach my students.


Here are some recommendations—of new works as well as classics—that should be read, revisited, and taught now.


  1. Girl ” by Alexander Chee


In this essay first published in Guernica and reprinted in the Best American Essays 2016, Alexander Chee explores the power of makeup, his early fascination with it, and how wearing a mask can sometimes help you find yourself. Diving into his background, readers see that his investigation of self intersects with what it means to be a man, a woman, Asian American, and white, or “passing.”


“This beauty when I put on drag then,” Chee writes, “it is made up of these talisman of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I find I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful than any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve tried.”


He continues.


“This power I feel tonight, I understand now—this is what it means when we say ‘queen.’”


Alexander Chee is a contemporary fiction writer and poet who spent his growing up in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam, and Maine before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.



  1. Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Ray Bradbury and Tim Hamilton


Many high school students are tasked with reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 as part of their curriculum—a book about a 1953 dystopian future where books are banned and burned, where literature, where knowledge, is considered dangerous—but fewer people have read this stunning adaptation.


In this classic book turned graphic novel, thanks to the collaboration of Bradbury and Tim Hamilton, readers not only get to see Guy Montag’s destruction of beloved books in huge splash pages of orange and red fiery blooms (“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes then burn the ashes.”), but they are given a new introduction from Bradbury in which he writes:


“Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorize and protect from any censors or ‘firemen.’ And not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorize it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future.”


  1. Letter from a Region in My Mind” by James Baldwin


James Baldwin was a classic essayist in the nonfiction canon who wrote about the complexities of race, sexuality, and class in America.


In “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from The New Yorker’s November 17, 1962 issue, he writes:


“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.”


Baldwin writes vividly, conveying what it was like grow up in Harlem as a young black boy watching his peers change before him, watching how he, himself, changed too.


Important to note is that before his death in 1987, Baldwin was at work on a book titled Remember This House, which sought to memorialize the deaths of three of his close friends, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript was only thirty pages long at the time of his death, and has now become the inspiration for filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro, currently out in theaters. The documentary features interviews with Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s notes: “In America, I was free only in battle.”


  1. Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” by Kaveh Akbar


In “Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats,” the epistolary poem published in POETRY in November 2016, Kaveh Akbar writes to God:


Will his goodness roll

over to my tab and if yes, how



In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” published in issue 17 of The Adroit Journal, Akbar writes:



Akbar is quickly becoming a favorite contemporary with his wild images and sharp colloquialisms, and he’s being noted, also, for his stewardship of introducing new poets from the seven countries recently affected by Trump’s travel ban, some of whom include Khaled Mattawa (Libya), Ladan Osman (Somalia), Safia Elhillo (Sudan), and Majid Naficy (Iran).


Born in Tehran, Akbar has said “there is a part of Iran that is hardwired in me,” and this is evident in his rich poems that sprawl open on the page.



  1. How to Be a Real Indian” and “Fibonacci” by Kenzie Allen


“The first time someone asks you how Indian you are, lie.” Kenzie Allen writes in her poem, “How to Be a Real Indian” published in Narrative.


She continues:


Say you dream

in Oneida at night, show-and-tell them rose rock

and kachina, give them exactly what they ask for…”


In “Fibonacci,” she delivers cold and blunt lines:


“Remember when I loved you so much I would break things?

I don’t love you like that anymore so you don’t need to call the cops…”


Kenzie Allen is a poet, editor, and literary activist completing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an Advanced Opportunity Fellow and Chancellor’s Award recipient, and a Teaching Assistant in American Indian Studies.



  1. MAUS I, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman


Art Spiegelman delivers one of the most powerful graphic novels with MAUS I: My Father Bleeds History.


Spiegelman’s MAUS is a metanarrative that follows two storylines: one that investigates the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, as he visits frequently for interviews and one that follows Vladek’s incredible story of surviving the Holocaust where, in this story, Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats.


Readers can relate to the familial bonds and habits between parent and child and are shown a chilling inside story of what it was like to be a survivor of one of the most traumatic genocides the world has ever seen.


This account is an incredibly important and necessary story that depicts the unbelievable events of the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective.



  1. Ordinary Girls” by Jaquira Díaz


In this Best American 2016 essay first published by the Kenyon Review, Jaquira Díaz writes of what it was like to grow up as a teenage girl in Miami Beach, Florida:


“We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped. What our parents would do once we were gone. What Mr. Nuñez, the assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School, would say about us on the morning announcements, how many of our friends would cry right there on the spot. The songs they would dedicate to us on Power 96 so that all of Miami Beach could mourn us—Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” D.R.S.’s Gangsta Lean.” Who would go to our funerals—boys who’d broken our hearts, boys whose hearts we’d broken.”


It’s her early meditation on death, on being young in dangerous situations, that makes her essay so compelling.


“Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.”


Jaquira Díaz was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami Beach, and is the Kenyon Review fellow in Prose for the 2016-2018 year. She is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices molding the nonfiction landscape today.



While the list could go on and on, this is a useful starter pack for what to read and teach now—a brief list, at least, with which to start our mornings, and, possibly, on which to base our classes.

This great assignment from Jennifer Parrott at Clayton State University connects critically literary skills with the social media that surrounds us.  For more great digital assignments for your literature classroom, see Tim Hetland's complete resource here.


Writing on the Wall: Using Facebook's Timeline for Literary Analysis

Tim Hetland's fantastic professional resource, Teaching Literature with Digital Technology, gets at that all-important question of how to bring technology into the literature classroom in a way that feels authentic to the material and engaging for students.


In our new Technology Tuesday posts, we're going to highlight some of these great activities and, we hope, start some great conversations about how they can be personalized for your own classroom.


Today, we're looking at "Shaking the Magic 8 Ball: Social Media for Readers and Writers" by Laura Madeline Wiseman and Adam Wagler.  Their assignment centers around following authors on social media to help students understand how the world of modern literature interacts daily with the world of modern technology. 


You can access this great activity through the link above, or find it attached below.  To access the entire collection of digital writing assignments, see Tim Hetland's complete resource here.

I often find myself weighing the degree to which the workshops I lead should concern themselves with things other than the manuscript up for discussion. On the one hand, I believe in a workshop—especially at the undergraduate level—that focuses on writing, and not on what one does with the writing once it’s finished. Put another way, there’s no better element of professionalization than learning to write well.


On the other hand, part of being a writer means giving readings and submitting work for publication, and I’m not doing my students any favors by pretending otherwise, or by withholding information or advice that could benefit them. Beyond that, I would argue that the very process of preparing a manuscript for a public reading or for submission to a journal makes one a better writer. When I know that I’ll be reading my work in front of actual, live human beings, I’m suddenly able to see the work with fresh eyes and less patience. I become a better self-editor. Imprecise words, flabby phrases, and lags in pacing—not to mention typos—announce themselves loudly.


Similarly, when I prepare to submit a piece for publication, I find myself reading it through the eyes of someone who doesn’t already know me and who has no reason—or time—to give me the benefit of the doubt. The piece, in other words, must stand on its own, and it must stand out.


So certainly there’s a pedagogical element to professionalization. Yet I value the workshop as a space that encourages ambition, experimentation, and even failure. That’s how we grow as writers, and much of the work we do in workshop is not meant for public consumption. The writer’s apprenticeship is a long one, and to rush the process—to make one’s work public before it’s ready—does the writer no favors.

I’d love for others to weigh in:


  • Does your workshop give a class reading? If so, is it made public?
  • Does your workshop involve educating students in the submission process?
  • Should students in workshop be encouraged—or even required—to submit their work?




[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/3/11]

Annalise Mabe

On Diverse Reading Lists

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Jan 24, 2017

As instructors, professors, or graduate assistants, we are often in charge of selecting course texts, mapping semester outlines, and designing syllabi. These tasks, however, come with choice. Who do we highlight? Whose voices do share? And how could our choices affect our students who are close-reading these works for the first time in their lives?


In Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling,” she writes:


A word after a word

after a word is power


From a rhetorical perspective, every choice, especially word choice, inherently creates meaning—an argument, a stance, a connotation—even if we don’t mean it to. Thus, by selecting specific texts and authors, we have (whether we like it or not) an undeniable power to change the direction or trajectory of how students may perceive themselves, their work, their capabilities, and their understanding of the world around them.


It is paramount, then, to be aware of what and who we choose to read with our classes. Kenzie Allen, a current PhD student in English/Creative Writing, writes:


“I think a diverse reading list is an essential tool for decolonizing the classroom, and a way to address the narratives, preconceptions, and shorthand notions we learn and initialize.”


And what better a time to challenge traditional or homogenous notions than when students are still in their formative years, when they are getting a first-hand “college experience,” being surrounded with some 35,000 different faces, flyers handed to them left and right, and a man with a mega-phone practicing free speech?


Multiperspectivity, or exploring multiple perspectives, has actually been proven to make us smarter. In a recent study, researchers Sheen S. Levine and David Stark assigned students to either a diverse group (with at least one student of another ethnicity or race) or a homogenous group, then asked them to participate in a stock trading exercise. Findings were sharply conspicuous showing that students in diverse groups performed 58% more accurately, providing more correct answers while those in homogenous groups tended to copy one another, providing wrong or misinformed information. The researchers concluded in their New York Times Opinion article that “diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation,” that “diversity prompts better critical thinking,” and that “diversity matters for learning, the core purpose of the university.”


These findings could extend to the company we keep in our classrooms—the pieces we read.


Kenzie Allen is Oneida and writes of her experience as a Native American writer: “For me, I feel a personal responsibility to imbue into my poems not simply the ‘dead and gone’ Native that is so often depicted in the non-Native gaze or colonial metanarrative, but to show something of our modernity, our on-going issues, and our survival.”


College is a time for reflecting on self-identity, a chance to re-invent, to step outside what has always been known, and to challenge the stereotypes or generalizations that our students may have grown up with. We can do that by breaking the monotony of Poe, Hemingway, and Hawthorne; we can introduce Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay, and so many more.


Allen continues to explain the importance of multiperspectivity: “In a time when the marginalized are so often silenced, to speak at all can be a radical act, as is making space for those voices.”


She writes, “It’s another kind of justice, or healing. The author is always more than simply one aspect of their identity or interests, so the more diverse or multi-faceted the reading list, the more we are able to bear witness to this complexity.”


As instructors, we are gatekeepers. We are the ones who decide what will be read, what will be written, and what will be shared over the course of a four-month semester. We have an ultimate responsibility, then, to empower our students with a more diverse experience, opening their minds to who they can be.

It is not always easy to distinguish between drama as literature and drama as theatre.  My view has always been that good drama is based on good literature, but having said that, we all know that there are moments in the theatre when the action moves far beyond the printed page and its stage directions.  Those are the moments when we realize that drama is theatre.


This meditation is a result of my having just seen a wild adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself directed and adapted by Christopher Bayes, whose roots are in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune.  Bayes tossed out the standard text and built a commedia dell’arte version on the comic bones that Molière had provided beneath the dialogue.


The result was dynamic, wildly comic, and enthralling to the audience.  And while the slapstick, the ham acting, the sometimes lewd jokes, the inappropriate, but funny, music, and all the  screaming, shouting, dancing and romping was over, we realized that the story line that Molière concocted as a way of ridiculing the current medical profession was in a bizarre way, still intact.


What I realized–and what delighted me–is that no printed version of this adaptation could ever have done justice to it.  And that goes for any version on YouTube or even the iPad or laptop–because much of the fun of seeing the play was in sharing the pleasure with a living audience.


In teaching I think it is important to try to talk about the aspects of the play that go beyond the printed page, but at the same time to make sure that the literary values are clear and that they remain the bones on which the production must be animated.


How do you teach students the difference between drama as theatre and drama as literature? What plays and/or performances have illuminated this difference for you and for your students?



[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on December 21, 2011.]] 

In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s.  Air Supply.  Foreigner.  A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry.  But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  Don’t sing.  I mean it.”


The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren.  I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways.  The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love.  In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.”  Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings.  For some reason.  So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].”  In the chorus he tells her:  “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”


This is not a particularly good song.  In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all.  But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on.  This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.


Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy.  In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with.  They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was.  Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.

I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”  And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y  12-year-old good company.  I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.


I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives.  In fact, some of us have several.  So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise.  First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through  the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection.  Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.


And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages.  We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester.  In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete.  Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment.  It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.


So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection?  Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative writing is finding new ways to break students out of their routines, getting them to look at their world and describe it a little differently, a little slant. This semester, I gave my introductory students an assignment, based on an exercise of John Gardner’s, in which they wrote 250-word sentences that might appear in a story. The assignment, I hoped, would make unavoidable a deep consideration of details, clarity, pacing, and of course mechanics. It gave them fits, in the best sense—but in the end they cooked up some doozy prose, also in the best sense. In fact, some of the best writing all semester was contained in these long, long sentences. I suspect that’s because when building and wrestling a sentence of that length, students can’t help focusing on the parts and the whole simultaneously. They see that form is content, that punctuation carries meaning, and that this sentence (and, by extension, all sentences) demands nothing less than our most considered attention.


I’m going to use that assignment again.


Next semester, I also plan to spring a “radio drama” assignment on my upper-level fiction workshop. I’m thinking that students would work in pairs, create a drama that is five minutes long, with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. No voiceover. My hope is that the assignment will cause them to pay close attention to dialogue and narrative structure. It should also be fun. We’ll play the finished five-minute recordings in class, maybe burn CDs with everyone’s work—an audio anthology of radio dramas. Perfect for long car rides.


So my question, as this semester draws to a close, is this: What have you got up your sleeve for the spring?


[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on December 28, 2011.]]

On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.


Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”


The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.


But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”


If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.


It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.


And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.


We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.


Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.


David Eshelman

Local Theatre

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Nov 22, 2016

Although many do not recognize it, local theatre is the cornerstone of the dramatic arts. (By local theatre, I mean what people watch in their own towns.) While metropolitan centers like New York City exert influence, what really counts is the theatre that people see. A theatrical production is often unavailable either in print, film, or other media: it is experienced only by those who gather to see it; and, since most individuals stay close to home, close to home matters. While famous plays have impact, the effect is diffuse when compared to print-centered writing or to film. The effect of non-local theatre works only along the lines of a “trickle-down” influence, rather than the direct impact of other forms: people read a story, but read about a theatrical production.


Given the importance of local theatre, one would think that such performance would be thriving — unfortunately, it is not. This is especially true for local playwriting. Because local theatres have no obligation to present new, local work, they typically turn to renditions of familiar plays that audiences have seen before. While productions of such plays may be comfortable for audiences and for the theatre makers involved, they create minimal opportunities for local dramatists. Though most regions of the country — even far-out, rural places — have some local theatre, they do not often have local dramatic writing. Such a situation hurts local writers and theatre as a whole by inhibiting regional diversity in a form that, of necessity, must be regional.


For this reason, playwriting instructors must not only be writers, but also theatre artists. Specifically, they must act as producers, arranging shows and making them occur. It is not enough to ask students to stuff their plays into envelopes, send them to faraway theatres, and hope for the best: instead, the instructor must ensure local performance opportunities. Print publication is unlikely for beginning dramatists. Because of the pre-eminence of live production, playwrights have far fewer opportunities for print publication than do poets and other writers. Production at distant theatres is similarly unlikely. Most theatres that produce new work already have relationships with playwrights-in-residence and are unlikely to assist beginning authors who live far away. These theatres tend to prefer local writers because proximity makes for an easier working relationship. Instructors can collaborate with existing local theatre companies; but, most often, the instructor will have to run his or her own “production company” — whether it’s something as simple as a series of public readings or as innovative as a podcast/videocast theatre.


Plays must be performed — there is no other medium for them — and, like it or not, the playwriting instructor must be on the front lines of performance.


How do you incorporate performance/production in the playwriting classroom?



[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on July 26, 2012.]] 

William Bradley

The Agony of Defeatism

Posted by William Bradley Expert Nov 16, 2016

Part of leading a discussion in a creative writing workshop involves encouraging students to give rigorous feedback and criticism to their classmates, while also fostering an atmosphere of respect and friendship.  Hank Devereaux Jr.—the narrator of Richard Russo’s academic satire Straight Man—observed that, in the creative writing classroom, “tough, rigorous criticism is predicated on good, not ill, will.” As teachers, it’s part of our job to create an environment where student writers feel comfortable receiving—and giving—detailed feedback and constructive criticism.  The workshop, after all, isn’t going to work if the only thing the student author hears is “great job” or “I really liked the words you used to convey your ideas.”


Creating an environment of friendly and well-intentioned critique is difficult in any creative writing classroom, but it’s particularly difficult in a creative nonfiction classroom.  As writers, we’re frequently defensive when it comes to our work, but as creative nonfiction writers, we sometimes wind up feeling defensive about our experiences and ideas as well.  Once, as a student in a workshop, I had to listen as a classmate explained that she didn’t like the piece I had written because the “narrator” was so whiney and self-absorbed.  And while I like to think that I have thick skin … come on.  That hurt.


I try to be particularly conscious of the student author’s feelings and protectiveness of her work even as I ask my students to talk specifically about what isn’t working in a piece.  Still, even with my attempts at sensitivity, some students are stressed out and even hurt by the entire workshop experience.  Who can blame them? They’ve just revealed themselves—exposed their realest, innermost selves—without the safety net of a fictional narrator or poetic speaker, and now they’re getting criticized for their efforts.  That can be disheartening, even infuriating.


A couple weeks ago, my book—this manuscript I’ve been working on, in various forms, for over five years now—was rejected by a publisher.  Again.  As most working writers know, rejection is just part of the process.  You read the nicely-phrased note, sigh to yourself, then get back on your laptop and find the next contest or university press to send the thing to.  You nod to yourself, silently wish the editors who rejected you good luck with their future endeavors, and then get back to work.


At least, that’s how I think it’s supposed to happen.  The truth is, that’s not how it works for me.  Instead, I give out this little gasp.  Then I pace around the room a little bit.  Then I announce—either to my wife or, if she’s not home, one of the cats—“I don’t know why I continue to operate under the delusion that I’m a writer.”  My wife, for her part, knows to let me say this out loud, to get it out of my system.  And the cats seem to know the same thing—they seldom interrupt my pity parties.


Keep in mind, I’m a fairly successful writer (“For the type of loser who doesn’t even have a book,” Mopey Me adds with a frown).  I’ve published over two dozen essays, reviews, and interviews in some of the best magazines and journals in my field.  I say this not to brag, but to point out that I have no reason to feel like a loser when something I write—from the shortest essay to the book manuscript itself—is not accepted for publication.  But I do.


Inevitably, I get over it.  I take a couple of days, but then return to the manuscript in order to decide, “Was it them, or is it me?”  Sometimes, I make changes.  Sometimes—like this most recent time—I conclude, “You know, I think this is ready as it is.”  And I send the thing back out again.  Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.  The point is, I essay.


But the larger point is that I understand personally the frustration and disappointment when a piece of writing is received less enthusiastically than its author might like.  My students’ sadness (or anger) at a workshop discussion may not be exactly the same as my own response to a rejection, but it’s darn close, I think.  That’s important to keep in mind—too often I get frustrated by my students’ frustration.  “I’m trying to help you!” I think to myself.  But it’s useful to remember that they’ve poured as much as themselves into their assignments as I have into my book.


Lately, I’ve taken to telling my students what I’m working on, and when the work gets rejected—or accepted.  I want them to understand that the occasional disappointment is inevitably part of this process, but that if they persevere, they might know the joy that comes with realizing they have succeeded in reaching—and moving—their audience.


Any other tips on how to deal with student frustrations in the writing workshop?  For that matter, any advice for me on how to deal with my own bouts of self-loathing that inevitably accompany rejection?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 8/28/12]]

Michael Kardos

Thanksgiving Exercise

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Nov 10, 2016

No, I’m not talking about the calorie-burning exercises we feel we must do in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Day of Carbs. Rather, I’m talking about a favorite, and seasonally appropriate, writing exercise.


The first story in Bill Roorbach’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Big Bend is titled “Thanksgiving.” The story begins with a phone call. Ted’s sister-in-law, Mary, is calling to convince him to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. And because he has vowed to “become part of the family again,” he agrees to come—but he isn’t happy about it. By the end of the story, events have caused him, in a fury, to upend the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.


Roorbach’s story gives rise to a very straightforward writing assignment:


A character, in a fury, has upended the Thanksgiving Day table. Write the scene that causes him/her to do it.


What better tinderbox is there, emotionally speaking, than an entire family all gathered together for one night? I like this exercise because it isn’t quiet or subtle. There is no way to avoid conflict in a scene that ends with a flipped-over dinner table, especially on a holiday, especially the holiday during which we are supposed to give thanks.


Moreover, this exercise requires students to complete certain mini-exercises along the way, such as:

  • Writing a scene with multiple characters in it;
  • Creating a conflict that causes the climax provided in the prompt;
  • Providing sufficient detail so that we know exactly what is on that table prior to it being overturned.


I am thankful for this exercise, which students seem to have great fun doing. I am thankful for Thanksgiving for generating the sort of familial tensions that generate good fiction, and I am thankful that this is not the case in my family. And I am thankful for the leftovers in my refrigerator, which, I understand, really ought to bring about that other kind of exercise—the kind that doesn’t involve typing.


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/2/11.]]