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Essayist Dinty Moore says “the hand is connected to the arm which is connected to the heart” in an attempt to explain why writing by hand is instrumental in sewing the seedlings of great ideas that form and grow under the act of further writing and revision. When I first bring up hand-writing to my students, they often look skeptical, or wary to say the least. Some of them groan. Some of them say they will definitely handwrite at home. Most of them, though, do ask: “Why should we write by hand if we can type on a laptop?” And I have a few answers for them.


For one, writing by hand slows the writer down. While this may sound like a counter-intuitive hindrance to the writing process, it’s actually an element that makes for better writing, and a higher quality first draft. By sitting at the laptop or desktop computer, typing 40 words per minute allows you to write too quickly, moving forward and backward linearly, erasing any sign or record of your process, any change that you would be able to look over when writing with a pen on the page. By being forced to slow down, your brain has slightly more time to think about what it decides to pen. This allows for more real decision making compared to the writer at the computer whose hands type too quickly, perhaps glossing over a better idea that may have needed a few seconds more to percolate.


Another reason why hand-writing is paramount is that this approach creates room for risk and play, for less constraint. This is to say that there is something about a sprawling page and a pre-writing mindset that alleviates pressure for the writer, allowing them the space to try things on, to “just get the ideas down,” and worry about the meticulous details later. In Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, he emphasizes the importance of a writer’s journal, another arena where hand-writing takes place, arguing that it allows for the “freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be prejudiced, even stupid. No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry also supports hand-writing, explaining that students should write from their centers instead of their heads. Author and writing instructor Heather Sellers agrees that writing is a physical act, just like football, and so should be practiced physically with the same dedication and reverence that players hold for their sport.


As a writer who hand-writes herself, I can attest to a feeling that comes from the practice. It’s a feeling that comes after I’ve warmed up, after I’ve gotten a few paragraph down, and it comes when I’m hitting a stride, when I can feel my heart rate quickening, my writing becoming somewhat faster, when I know I’m on to something important. Though what I pen by hand is always a start and far from a finished, final draft, the ideas that come forward in the hand-writing stage I’ve come to realize are my better ones—the seedlings of greater things to come, planted by the pen in my hand.

Lee Jacobus

Riders to the Sea

Posted by Lee Jacobus Expert Oct 26, 2016

One of the things that humanizes the classroom is storytelling. In their reviews of my teaching, my students have often mentioned that our drama classes were enlivened by some of the stories I told of my own experiences in the theater seeing plays. That surprised me, but on reflection I realize they were right.


For example, when I taught John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea I told my students about the first time I saw the play. It was 1957 in tiny Theater East when the Abbey Theatre brought its company to the United States for the first time since the war. Siobhan McKenna played Maurya.


I was brought there with a group from my undergraduate class, taught by the late David Krause, who was an Irish Studies expert and my drama teacher. I had no idea what to expect. We had not read the play in advance. It followed the performance of Synge’s one-act In the Shadow of the Glen and seemed to us a riveting drama.


But another drama intensified the experience for me. In the last moments of the play one of the actresses came onstage with her apron filled with glass milk bottles – Bartley’s body had been brought in and laid out and the women came in to mourn. The actress dropped her apron and the bottles broke on the floor. Everyone was barefoot, yet as the actresses came into the scene none looked down. Most of the glass was broomed into a pan. They walked across the remaining glass and seemed unhurt and unaware. At that moment they kneeled and began keening in what can only be described to someone who has not heard it as an unearthly wail of loss, pain, and sadness.


Amazingly, no one was hurt. The keening stopped when the play ended. There was total silence in the theater. The lights went down, the actors left the stage, the lights went up again and finally when the actors returned the audience—141 souls—broke into incredible applause.  Everyone knew this was a completely unforgettable experience in the theatre.


Have you had a similar experience? Have your students? How do you discuss performance and use storytelling in your classroom?


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on October 26, 2011.)

When I first started studying, writing, and teaching creative nonfiction, I generally found myself attracted to contemporary American authors—Tobias Wolff, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, and others.  They wrote in a language I immediately understood and made references to figures and events that were at least somewhat familiar.  Even if I didn’t actually watch The Mickey Mouse Club or had never lived in New York City, I was aware that such things existed, and they weren’t all that far away from me.  I had a little more trouble with older writers, because of that tired undergraduate complaint “I just couldn’t relate.”  Yes, dear reader, your humble blogger was once one of those students who felt like his inability to immediately “get it” was always the fault of the writer—that the reader had no obligation to do any work himself.


I’m much less stupid now, of course, and as a result, I’m now able to really enjoy the opportunity to teach William Hazlitt’s "On the Pleasure of Hating," an essay I just couldn’t appreciate the first time I read it in my early twenties, but find I enjoy—and “relate to”—more and more as I’m dragged, kicking and screaming, towards middle age.  And I’ve been developing ways to get my own students to appreciate—and perhaps even “relate to”—Hazlitt’s 19th century text.


First of all, what’s not to love about an essay called “On the Pleasures of Hating”?  As far as awesome titles go, this one’s only approached by Phillip Lopate’s “Against Joie de Vivre.”  As a reader, when you see a title like that, all you can really do is blink, raise your eyebrows quizzically, then shrug and say, “Well, okay.  I’m listening.”  It’s like if someone said to you, “You know what I hate?  Orgasms.”  You’re pretty sure you’ll disagree with this person, but you’re dying to hear the reasoning behind such an outrageous position.


People frequently don’t want to agree with Hazlitt’s contention that hating is a pleasurable act– particularly well-intentioned college students (and even their bleeding-heart professors).  Hatred is a scourge, after all.  It’s something we’re trying to eradicate.  “Some people might find pleasure in hating, but I—as a liberated, open-minded person—certainly do not, and I don’t think most other people do either.”


Yeah?  Then tell me, why are the Kardashian sisters famous? 


Think about it—Kim, Khloe, and the other one only exist in our culture so that we can hate them.  You know it.  I know it.  And our students know it too.  Oh, sure—many of us have probably decided that those girls shouldn’t be judged so harshly, and that there’s something a little creepy and misogynist about our culture’s fascination with—and condemnation of—the things that these attractive though rather vapid young women say.  But nevertheless, these reality stars—and others like them—are presented to us for our collective loathing.  And frequently, we oblige—even if it’s just by laughing when Joel McHale or Beavis and Butthead belittle them.


“Nature seems (the more we look into it),” Hazlitt writes, “made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool, were it not ruffled by the jarring interests, the unruly passions, of men.”  We’d be the lotus-eaters without the awesome buzz.  Without something contemptible to react against, I tell my students, there would be no progress or productivity—we’d simply be filled with an unearned contentment.


One of the main objections some students—and even this professor, once upon a time– have to this essay is the knowledge (eloquently expressed by James Baldwin in “Notes of a Native Son”) that hatred consumes and destroys people.  “Sure, anger is useful and important,” these people can say, “but you have to guard against being hateful, otherwise you destroy yourself.”  I do believe that’s true, but I also don’t think that truth negates Hazlitt’s point that hating can feel quite good.  Because Hazlitt does not advocate being hateful, he’s advocating hating– in appropriate measure.  Hazlitt tells us:


The echoes of liberty had awakened once more in Spain, and the mornings of human hope dawned again: but that dawn has been overcast by the foul breath of bigotry, and those reviving sounds stifled by fresh cries from the time-rent towers of the Inquisition – man yielding (as it is fit he should) first to brute force, but more to the innate perversity and dastard spirit of his own nature which leaves no room for farther hope or disappointment.

The hatefulness he sees in other people is one more thing to hate.  So we understand that hatefulness is never to be understood as virtue.  But certain types of hatred—perhaps, say, a hatred of ignorance, or intolerance, or injustice– is proper, necessary, and– above all– pleasurable.


There is any number of directions to take a class after a discussion of Hazlitt.  We might have a group discussion about the things we hate, and note the enthusiasm and giddiness and pleasure that people exhibit as they say things like, “Yes!  I think Coldplay sucks too!” or “Man, those talking baby E-Trade commercials are annoying!”  Of course, this essay might lend itself to a cool writing assignment.  I have been thinking about asking students to write about the things they hate, but I’ve been a bit concerned that I would get a collection of essays expressing their authors’ contempt for racism or sexism or homophobia or hate crimes or the last season of Lost—you know, low-hanging fruit.  But recently—as a result of editing and revising this very blog post—a friend pointed out to me that an exercise devoted to writing about hating something everybody else loves might make for an insightful, reflective assignment.  I’m now brainstorming an idea for an essay about why Tom Hanks should have just called it quits right after Bachelor Party


How would you go about teaching Hazlitt?  Any thoughts on writing assignments his essay might inspire?  Most importantly, what do you hate that everyone else seems to just adore?

On the first day of every Introduction to Creative Writing class, I tell the students that for the course of the semester I want them to live like writers. It doesn’t matter, I say, if they want to be professional writers, or if they are taking the class for fun, or simply to fulfill a credit, I want them to live like writers. Then I make the requisite joke about how that does not mean staying up late with a glass of wine and a cigarette, nor does it mean attending bullfights, nor does it mean drugs. What it means, I tell them, is three things.


  1. Be observant
  2. Acknowledge complexity
  3. Pay attention to language


            I really believe those are three keys to strong writing. And I really believe those things don’t come to you when you sit down to write—you have to collect them as you go about your day.  But I’m also trying to get my intro students to write literary work—without telling them that they have to write literary work.  Because it’s writing literature—that which encourages reader and writer to engage with the world, not escape from it—that best serves my students as they strive to become better people (as we all strive, I think).


            Becoming a better writer involves becoming a better person. I really believe that. Sometimes I say it.


My graduate students, who all want to become professional writers, get a similar talk, phrased a little differently. Live in such a way that generates writing, I say. Live in a way that reminds you you’re a writer.


            And what does living like a writer mean for me?


I collect words, titles for stories to be named later, I collect sentence structures and rhythms and Mad-Lib-type endings to the phrase “_____ is the kind of person who ____.” I collect names to fill in that first blank. I have such a fondness for the names Fergus and Angus—haven’t found a place for them yet though.  I read so much that people who read a lot make fun of me. I make notes on who did what and how. I keep a list of favorite stories and novels in chronological order of my life. That is how I organize my life.  I live like a perpetual student. I research the sponge divers of Simi, the soft palate of the mouth, the flora and fauna of Southwestern Virginia, and the history of Armenia. I go to art museums and gardens and battlefields. I listen to live music, and live readings, and talks on who knows what. I ask everybody—everybody—have you read anything good lately? I kiss babies and hold hands; I hold babies and kiss hands. I drink coffee before writing but not before reading. I look for the second side, and the third, and the fourth. I acknowledge the complexities of life and still find most of life to be quite simple. I listen more than I talk, I throw away as much as I keep, I fail regularly, sometimes better, I quote Beckett, I quote Kafka, I quote Morrison, I take comfort where I find it, and I lie down on the floor a lot, sometimes to stretch my back and sometimes just because.


            I don’t get paid very much.


            But I wouldn’t want to live any other way.


            I suppose I want my students to know that too. Sometimes I say it. Though not usually on the first day.

Annalise Mabe

Going Small

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Oct 4, 2016

When I teach creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, most of my students want to go big, meaning that they are wanting to bring their readers on an emotional journey, pulling out the big stuff: their parents’ devastating divorce, the death of their favorite grandparent, their best friend from elementary school who they no longer speak to, or their first long distance romance that couldn’t bear the miles. These are all worthy topics to pursue, but a pitfall of trying to go big is not being able to cover the landscape of the event, to translate it the same way it happened.

            Many of my students look at their lives and think that nothing interesting has happened to them, that they haven’t done much, and so they scan their memories for the moments with the highest peaks, the most drama, and think they’ve found their story there. Author “Story Seminar” creator Robert McKee teaches that a trivial story well told is more powerful than a significant story poorly told. It doesn’t matter, I tell students, if you haven’t trained in the junior Olympics, haven’t fallen into movie-like love yet, or have only lived in Naples, Florida for all of your life—in fact, that’s better. Take your story to the park instead. Look around your hometown, in the antique store that’s always open that you never go in. What’s in there? What stories live there?

            To Go Small is to look closely at the practice of running, an old object in an antique store, a seemingly insignificant moment, like the walk you take after dinner around your apartment complex, and to ask those objects, moments, practices or memories questions. Borrowing from Lynda Barry’s book, What It Is, I ask my students to make a list of ten couches they’ve sat on in their lifetimes, then ask them to choose one. With that couch in mind, I ask them guiding questions borrowed from Barry’s book to help orient them in the moment they’ve chosen. Where are you? What are you doing? Who else is there? What time of day is it? How old are you? What does the couch look like? Whose house is it? What’s in front of you? What’s to your left? What’s to your right? What’s behind you? What’s below your feet?

            By answering these questions, students engage in pre-writing and are forced to Go Small, looking at the minute details of the memory, picking out carpet patterns, wall decorations, couch fabric, time of day, season, etc. And by picking out these significant, concrete details, their piece becomes much more alive as it’s coming from a real, specific place, and a vivid moment in time. I ask students to then begin writing the moment or the scene with the details they collected in mind.

            Haley Morton, a previous student of mine, practiced Going Small in her piece “Early October,” a fiction piece about a narrator who runs:

            “Sweat burns through my pores. Catching my blonde skin up in its path. Gathering itself   into lines of pearl and opal across my neck and forehead and heaving chest. It’s hard for me to think about nothing. Especially now. When my legs collide with the ground  without a hint of grace and my thumbs tuck into my balled-up, pumping fists. I try to linger in each step with purpose as I bob past the arching oaks and violent palms with their saw limbs, all rooted in a hostile soil that seems it would be home to nothing but tumbleweed.

            When the students share their post-exercise writing, it’s usually their best piece of writing so far in the semester. When they read out loud in class, it’s clear for the rest of us to see that they are somewhere else, back in time, and we get to see the inside of their childhood house: the fast food bag on the table their dad brought home, their mother’s pearl earrings she got from her grandmother, or the Last Supper picture their older brother found on the side of the street. Their pieces come to life, glowing with sensory details and specific images. From hearing themselves and their peers’ pieces, they start to see the importance, the poignancy, in a broken coffee cup, in a shiny trinket, as opposed to the topics that were just too big to pin down, too big to write well in a first draft.

            In Phillip Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell, he writes that famed novelist Philip Roth would go to bed reminding himself, “Don’t invent, remember.” This is to say that oftentimes, when we imagine, we are actually more distant from accuracy than if we were to pull from what we see in our actual lives. To pull from our lives is to go over the mundane, to collect the seemingly insignificant, and to Go Small, finding a kernel, a part in the work that symbolizes or speaks to the bigger feeling, the bigger moment, we so often seek to convey.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Listening In

Posted by Ayşe Papatya Bucak Expert Sep 27, 2016

Young writers often get the advice—and sometimes the assignment—to eavesdrop.  I’ve always found this a little funny, since after all, don’t most of us spend large portions of our lives in conversation?  Why do we need to listen in on somebody else’s conversation in order to learn about conversation?  I wasn’t sure of the particular value of being outside of the conversation.  So I decided to try it.


Like many a writer, I often find myself in coffee shops.   But I also happen to live in a town that is a prime destination for people in recovery programs, who also naturally find themselves in coffee shops.  And so one of the first things I heard was one highly caffeinated young guy saying to another, “It was a tell-tale sign when we did free hugs and Ted wouldn’t hug anybody.”


A few days later, walking out of the gym behind a young woman and her probably four-year-old son, I heard this exchange:


Toddler: I want a snack.

Mom: I have something in the car for you.

Toddler: What is it?

Mom: Juice.

Toddler: What kind of juice?

Mom: Orange juice.

Toddler, with outright exuberance: Hallelujah, baby!


Later, sitting in a Barnes and Noble café near the customer service counter, I heard this:


Female customer, probably sixty-something, brandishing the bondage bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey:  Do you think this would make a good gift?

Customer Service Rep: Well, I wouldn’t give it to someone you didn’t know well.


Next customer, a very thin woman around seventy in a denim mini skirt and high-heeled sandals: I need a ride home.

Customer Service Rep: But we’re a bookstore.


Meanwhile, someone I know posted on Facebook that he heard an old woman on the subway turn to the homeless guy next to her and say, “You smell like my husband.  He’s dead.”


The website Overheard in NY is full of such gems.  The truth, I guess, is that we’re a nation of eavesdroppers, whether we mean to be or not, and we find our fellow Americans pretty amusing.


There are lessons to be learned from these moments, sure.  The guys in recovery had a very particular vocabulary that they shared and used fluidly.  They were also way more intimate in the way they spoke to each other than most any other group of twenty-something males I have ever seen in conversation. And the child shouting Hallelujah for his juice was surely imitating adults he has heard.  Kid talk is often funny for the way they use words correctly but in slightly inappropriate contexts.  It was a touching scene, too, showing how well the mother knew her child, as well as how much he appreciated her knowledge.  And living here in South Florida, I’ve certainly observed the infinite variety of the elderly (some of the stereotypes are true—the driving is pretty terrifying), but as with any demographic, the individuals are many and they can be found everywhere, saying just about anything.


So a student given the assignment to eavesdrop certainly could learn this or that about the ways we speak to each other and who we are.  I might try an exercise where I have students copy down things they overhear over the course of a week, then share the best bits with the class so that the group can collectively determine what lessons can be learned from the snippets.  And I could see creating a writing exercise based on any of the snippets.  Part of what’s interesting about eavesdropping is how the absence of context sparks your imagination.  What kind of kid “Hallellujahs” orange juice rather than a bag of chips?  Who is Ted and why wouldn’t he participate in free hugs?  Did that lady ever get home from Barnes and Noble? (Last I saw she was talking to a very patient cop.)  And is that other lady pulling a “Rose for Emily” thing with her dead husband?


Eavesdropping works as an assignment because you can listen without the social obligation of participating in the conversation.  You can sit in on conversations by demographics of people you might not otherwise speak to (assuming those demographics speak to each other in public places).  But really I don’t know that it’s so important to go out and spy. Just now as I sit here writing, the guy fixing my air-conditioning said, “You can go ahead and close up the joint.”  My house has never been called a joint before, but I like it.


I suspect the real value in the eavesdropping assignment is not so much that it encourages students to be spies, but that it encourages them to be observant.  Go out into the world in your writerly identity, it says—and pay attention.  The writer’s life is one big eavesdropping exercise, though there are some problems inherent in that, as well.


Jane Smiley’s hilarious satire of academia Moo takes down the eavesdropping assignment pretty effectively.  One workshop student listens in on her roommate’s inane conversations and creates inane writing.  Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s novel Harriet the Spy also makes clear the hazards of eavesdropping on your close comrades.  They don’t care for it so much.  Especially not when they are twelve years old.


So what is the difference between overzealous, shameful Harriet-the-Spying and being a writer?  I guess in part it’s the dishonesty of it, of pretending not to be listening when you are listening, and it’s how you use the material you get hold of.  It seems safe to take a snippet of conversation from a context you don’t know and make it your own story,  less so to take your roommate’s private life and transcribe it.


But then again, I bet Harriet the Spy was a pretty great writer. What do you think? Is all material fair game?


[This post first appeared on LitBits on 7/5/12.] 

Several years ago, a student of mine (we’ll call him James) stuck around after my introductory fiction-writing class because something was on his mind. This was around week three of the semester. He’d seemed highly engaged in the course so far, but today he was being quiet.

We waited while everyone else cleared out. I smiled reassuringly. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. When the room was empty except for us, I asked, “So what’s up?”


He told me that he would never be able to complete the exercise I’d assigned that day.


I had asked students to brainstorm some interesting details from their pasts, and to incorporate these details into a scene of fiction. The idea was to get students to use pre-existing knowledge as a way to give their work more authority.


I asked James what the trouble was.


He shrugged. “There’s nothing remotely interesting about any part of my life,” he said. Then, so I’d understand his dilemma, he elaborated. “I grew up on a farm, in a town of fifteen people, where everybody is related. The next largest town was ten miles away and there were only fifty or sixty people there.”


I told him that to me, a guy who grew up in densely populated New Jersey, his life sounded completely fascinating.


“No, it isn’t,” he said. And to prove his point, he started telling me about the various cows that his family owned.


“I’ve always wanted to milk a cow,” I told him.


He shook his head and tried not to laugh at me. “They weren’t milk cows.” Clearly, I should have known better, but my knowledge of cows is limited to Far Side cartoons and Chick-fil-A commercials.


It won’t surprise you to learn that James was able to use his knowledge of a) farming, and b) living in a very remote area, to create a scene that was fascinating and sophisticated.


Each of our students is an expert at something. Their knowledge and experience runs deep; often the trouble is that they believe their knowledge to be universal and their experience to be common or uninteresting—until told otherwise.


I’m not advocating that students only “write what they know.” I regularly steer students away from writing slightly fictionalized accounts of events in their own lives. Still, I’ve found that it can be very useful for them to put some of what they know—particularly, unusual things that they know really well—into the stories and poems they write. Doing so gives them confidence and their work a startling amount of authority.


[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on October 3, 2011.]] 

Joanne Diaz

Riding the Metro Haiku

Posted by Joanne Diaz Expert Sep 13, 2016

The undergraduate classroom might seem like the last place to introduce students to archival materials. We have so many other commitments—to coverage of historical periods, to literary interpretation and theory, to improving student writing—that it might seem like an extra activity that might simply take up too much class time. However, students can and should learn about the cultural conventions that affect the transmission of texts, and I would argue that their close readings of these texts is actually central to their understanding of what poems, plays, and short stories are and how they work. Reading various versions of a text can actually get undergraduates—and teachers—to work toward a clearer and more effective definition of close reading. The results of my students’ research consistently demonstrate that textual studies can actually inspire close reading and help students generate the questions that they can use in a variety of literature courses.


Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a short, easy way into discussing archival materials. This is how the poem appears in most literature:


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.


Immediately, students are engaged with the poem. The title locates us in Paris in the early 1900s, when the Metro system was still a wonderful and terrifying new symbol of modernity. The students are haunted by the “apparition” of the faces, stuck underground like the ghosts of the dead. And they like the surprising comparison between these ghostly faces and the petals on a bough. They see the commentary on the alienation of the modern metropolis. Formally, they can recognize Ezra Pound’s debt to the Japanese haiku tradition (and, as Ezra Pound wrote in his essay titled “Vorticism,” this poem is indebted to the haiku tradition), and the poems mathematical precision: the equation between faces and petals, the loose iambic pentameter of each line.


In fact, this poem is so accessible—or at least it seems to be—that it’s easy to forget that it is the result of a variety of editorial decisions, and that the transmission of the text across time actually transformed the poem. This is how the poem looked when it was first published in 1913, in Poetrymagazine (To see the original 1913 publication of Pound’s poem, you can go to this link on the Poetry Foundation website:



The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd  :

Petals       on a wet, black    bough  .

Ezra Pound


In this version, the title is boldly announced in all caps, the poet’s name appears just beneath the text, and the poem itself seems to be deeply concerned with innovations in typography and design. In this context, the words are transformed by the use of white space between them; and by the change from a semicolon to a colon. With a semicolon, Pound joins two independent ideas, but with this use of the colon, Pound suggests that the second line is an appositive, or description, of the first.


In class, we discuss the tiny differences between these two versions, and I ask students which version they like best—not which is best—and I don’t tell them which version has actually become the standard version that appears in literature anthologies until the very end of the class period. As they work through each version, they have to pay attention to the tiny, seemingly superficial choices in layout and punctuation that they might overlook in a reading of just one version in our anthology. In doing so, they are engaging in a critical discussion, even if they don’t know it yet. In recent years, bibliographical scholars have shown how such “accidentals” as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and overall typographical design contribute to meaning in significant ways. In this example from Ezra Pound, students see that these choices in appearance are indeed substantive, even emotional.


[This post originally appeared on LitBits on November 2, 2011.]]  

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Today, we welcome guest blogger Annalise Mabe!  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Heather Sellers

Teaching in Tens

Posted by Heather Sellers Expert Aug 1, 2016

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Poetry is an oral as well as written tradition, and we are only doing half the work—and having half the fun— if we silently read a poem on the page. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the chance to emphasize this enough in the classroom. As I struggle for both depth and breadth in my courses, I often run out of time before I can focus on the performance of poetry.


At least a few times during the semester, though, I create opportunities for students to engage with the performance of written texts. This might seem like an optional activity that doesn’t have the substance of a lecture or in-depth discussion, but I would disagree. In fact, in-class recitations can generate real excitement among students, in part because memorization requires a slow, attentive reading that we wish for every time we assign a new text.


With this in mind, I recommend the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam as a classroom activity. In an English literature survey we spend a couple of classes reading sonnets by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but because these sonnets represent one small unit out of many in a survey course, that’s about all the time we have for The Bard’s sequence. Even so, the memorization requires students to read their poem with a quality of attention that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. Even if our activity means that we get to spend less time discussing other poets, students quickly understand the power of a poetic sequence, and how it can convey a variety of emotional and intellectual struggles in innovative ways.


Here’s how it works:

  1. First, I ask students to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. If students are anxious about the process of memorizing a poem, I offer them several strategies: they can write the poem, longhand, several times until they get a sense of how the lines fit together; they can photocopy the poem and carry it with them, memorizing it throughout the week; or they can memorize the poem by reciting it once through, then hiding the final word of the poem and reading it through, then hiding the final two words of the poem and reading it through, and so on until they’re reciting the poem with no words exposed.
  2. Once students have memorized their poem, the next task is understanding. In order for them to deliver Shakespeare’s lines with emotional accuracy, they have to attend to his sonnet logic: the turn that occurs, usually in the final couplet; the if/then structure that Shakespeare relies on to create tension in many of his poems; and the rhetorical strategies of his poems, whether they be blazons, anti-blazons, complaints, or poems of praise. I remind students that they have to make the language come alive so that anyone who listens will be deeply moved. With as many as twenty-five students in a class or discussion section, this can be quite challenging, but I’ve found that my students are so engaged with this challenge that they’re willing to extend the slam over two class meetings. I also recommend that they go to Poetry Out Loud for some advice on reciting well.
  3. When students recite their poems in class, they must also be prepared to talk about what they learned as a result of the process. They can talk about the narrative situation of the poem, the way Shakespeare relies on inherited wisdom from Erasmus, the Bible, or his contemporaries, or anything else that they think could be valuable to our understanding of the poem as a whole.


Each student takes about 3-4 minutes for their total performance. In the past, I’ve sometimes asked colleagues to be the “judge” for the slam; other times, I’ve relied on students as the judges. The judges are allowed to award two prizes: one for exceptional recitation, and one for exceptional explication. Of course, one student could potentially receive both prizes. If you’re looking for a way to engage your students, try this exercise; if you already do something similar in your survey courses, please respond to this blog entry.


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 10-4-11.]]

David Eshelman

Material Realities

Posted by David Eshelman Expert Jul 13, 2016

Unlike print-based genres—poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction—the dramatic genres, such as playwriting, are allied to certain material realities.  By this I mean that what is mentioned in a script is not just for a reader’s mind, but is meant to be concretized before an audience’s eyes.  I find myself frequently noting on drafts of student scripts that particular stage directions sound “expensive,” and I don’t mean this as a positive comment.  I use this word to discourage writers from including elements that would make staging difficult—for example, impossible special effects and overly frequent scene changes.  In a similar vein, I ask student authors to remember that acting is paid labor.  Frequently, beginning playwrights will include a character—often a waiter—who does very little.  In the professional theatre, the actor playing this character would have to be compensated for his or her work.  Therefore, inclusion in the script means an added expense, and if it’s not a meaningful expense, there’s no reason for it.


What’s more, wasteful writing can mean not just a waste of monetary resources, but a waste of performer time.  To return to the waiter example, a playwright in a university setting could likely find a fellow student willing to play a minor role without compensation—meaning that the inclusion of a peripheral character would not increase expense in this case.  However, I ask writers to also take into account the performer’s perspective.  While student actors might be willing to play small roles, the truth is that no one wants to sit through weeks of rehearsal for a part that ultimately isn’t all that meaningful. A small part is one thing, a small and wholly insignificant part is quite another.  Therefore, ethically, the playwright should cut the role or make it worthwhile; otherwise, she or he is wasting someone’s (unpaid) time.


Material realities have even greater significance when they illuminate larger issues of artistic representation.  Cultural prejudices, for example, exist everywhere; but it is easier to see their consequences in the dramatic arts.  As I remind students, acting is one of the only jobs where employers can legally include sex, age, and race as hiring considerations—even though these categories are subject to legal protections elsewhere.  Because scripts create work for actors, I remind my students that, with each role that they write, they are potentially creating or denying work for another human being—and often doing so along race-based, sex-based, and age-based lines.  In other words, since each role potentially puts food on someone’s table, playwrights must not ignore their responsibilities to society. If the roles they create put food only on the tables of young white males, I encourage them to at least be aware of the exclusions they’re building into their creative work.


Just as the stage concretizes the text, so the field of dramatic writing concretizes the problems of representation that all creative writers face (or should be facing). In playwriting, it is harder to ignore one’s ethical responsibilities because they are so apparent.  A print-based writer knows in theory that she or he should not create characters that conform to offensive stereotypes.  The playwright, however, must understand that, when she or he creates such a role, she or he must essentially look another human being in the eye and say, “You.  Be that.”


[[This post first appeared on LitBits on 3/30/12.]]

The other night, my wife and I accidentally got sucked into watching a Jersey Shore marathon. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically a high concept science fiction program that involves a group of grotesque orange aliens who derive sustenance from a diet consisting solely of hard liquor and whose highest form of compliment is to call someone a “Guido.” To be honest, the show is a little derivative of other science fiction shows that came before it—these aliens have the aggression of Klingons and the dull-witted brutality of the "toaster"-model Cylons.  My wife and I agreed that the show was stupid and a waste of our time, and we turned off the TV once we realized it was 3:30 in the morning and this marathon wasn’t going to be over anytime soon.


It’s as obvious as it is glib to point out that so-called “reality” television doesn’t resemble the world in which most of us actually live, but I worry that some people—and by some people, I mean some of my students—might mistake this manipulated footage and manufactured drama for something that resembles life on planet earth. Chuck Klosterman suggested in his essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” that MTV’s The Real World fundamentally changed how young people relate to each other—“People started becoming personality templates,” Klosterman wrote, “devoid of complication and obsessed with melodrama.” Over the years, dozens of students have told me about auditioning for one reality show or another, and I could always tell which “type” they wanted to be—Sensitive Heterosexual Guy, Wild Party Girl, Intellectual-Yet-Approachable Black Dude.  The problem with reality television, really, is its tendency to reduce actual human beings into characters.  Static, superficial, underdeveloped characters at that.


This is why I like to teach creative nonfiction to undergraduates.  While some writers, like Phillip Lopate, suggest that a nonfiction form like the personal essay is more suited for middle-aged people (who are, presumably, prone to reflection), I believe that it’s important for students to examine and write about their lives.  I know the complaints about college students’ supposed self-absorption, and I feel like it’s lately become fashionable to bemoan our students’ interest in writing about their own lives.  The suggestion is that writing about the self—particularly the young self, the self who hasn’t experienced very much of the world—convinces students that they can be writers without taking risks that involve experiences, adventures, and other people.


I don’t subscribe to that theory.  To be sure, I don’t subscribe to the opposite theory, espoused by some composition scholars, that personal writing is good for students because they are already experts in their own lives.  I’ve met a lot of people in my life, and very few of them seemed to have much expertise when it comes to discussing themselves.


When I ask my college students to write nonfiction, I am asking them to disregard the superficial, melodramatic narratives that tend to pass for reality in our popular culture and, instead, dig deeper.  A show like Bad Girls Club or Road Rules traffics in abstraction and stereotypes, but in memoir and essay writing, we’re looking for the concrete, for the unique individual consciousness.  We’re stripping away the constructed persona and focusing instead on the person, with all of the complexity and contradictions that would be sure to get her application to live in the Jersey Shore beach house rejected.


Some of my students have become talented essayists and memoirists.  I’ve directed three phenomenal MFA theses concerned with post-traumatic stress disorder, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and growing up in an orphanage in the early 1960s.  I’ve seen students get accepted to Ph.D. programs and publish their work.  And while I take pride in whatever role I might have played in my students’ success, if I’m being honest, I have to tell you that I’m a little more proud whenever a student—through reading and writing creative nonfiction—achieves a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world and himself.  It’s deeply gratifying to find out what happens when people stop being ridiculous caricatures, and start getting real.


[This post first appeared on LitBits on 11/30/11]