Pedagogy Stew

In a creative writing class, the emphasis is often on either the creative part or the writing part.

I try to structure assignments in creative writing so that students are asked to do both the creative part and the writing part well — to be unconventional (be creative, take risks) but then also to write in what are conventionally considered to be good ways to write (specific imagery, strong style).

I’m used to students who are good at both, bad at both, good at the first and not the second, but I’m lately finding another kind of student really compellingly interesting — the ones who are TRYING to take risks, but their attempts focus on writing in conventionally bad ways (vague imagery, weak style).

I ask students to reflect on their writing in their portfolios, so I know that for some of them, they are genuinely, intentionally (and not ironically), using clichés or avoiding strong verbs. So it’s a risk, but it is often also bad writing (cf. above, students who are bad at both). It comes from contrariness, or cleverness, or some actual urge toward originality, so I reward the risk-taking. But I don’t want to reward the bad writing.

Let me share an example and then make up an example to illustrate. I once had a student who described a shirt as being “Culver’s blue.”  It thought this was brilliant. It’s very specific, and regional, and I’d never seen it before. But let’s imagine a student says, instead, “she was wearing a colorful shirt.” I want to know at least a little more; if it’s worth mentioning, it’s worth mentioning some more specifics. I mean — there’s a big difference between a Hawaiian shirt with orange and pink flamingoes vs. a white button-down shirt with orange and pink stripes.

I think what I have to do, which I apparently haven’t done well yet, is articulate what categories of risk I mean. I need to figure out how to help students balance the two ideas below, from an article called “Poetry as a Way of Seeing: Risk, Silence, and Attention” by Lilly Blue:

First, Blue says that students need support for risk-taking, that creative writing instruction needs to go “[b]eyond literary conventions and writing techniques.” This is what I’m trying to accomplish by insisting they take risks.

Then Blue gets at the heart of that requirement of writing more specifically: “Supporting students to look closely at the world around them also helps them see themselves more acutely, which is a significant factor in composing original work …. There is value in honing our attention so we can articulate detail and distil the world through a lens of specificity essential for writing poetry.”

As I’m revising my assignments and rubrics this summer, in preparation for the 2018-19 academic year, I need to include this somehow, that students should, that we all should:

Scrutinize the world so closely that the scrutiny itself and any reporting that results from it is, inevitably, a very specific risk.

Marnie Dresser is a poet, creativity researcher and English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Richland. She lives in Spring Green with her husband and son and contributes to this space on a rotating basis ideas about creativity and education.