Toward a Pedagogy of Process for the Creative Writing Classroom
Jenny Dunning | May 2010
As commonplaces in creative writing go, pushing process is likely second only to “show don’t tell.” Yet we continue to rely on the writing workshop as the default setting in creative writing pedagogy, despite its inherent emphasis on product and the ongoing critique that dates back to the 1980s.1 I want to ask what it might mean to truly teach process in creative writing, that is as a goal in itself, as a practice, which I believe is the most appropriate emphasis for the undergraduate introductory creative writing course.
A hand-me-down pedagogy inherited from graduate creative writing programs, the writing workshop has come under fire for many reasons. As Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice discuss in “Creative Writing and the Persistence of ‘Lore,’”2 much of the problem lies in our field’s resistance to examining our assumptions about writing and our pedagogy. Perhaps it’s not the workshop itself that’s at fault so much as our one-size-fits-all approach to it and all the baggage that it has taken on over the years, particularly the idea that writing cannot be taught and the authority issues that have historically afflicted the workshop.3 Too often, workshops privilege a narrow aesthetic—that of the teacher.
These critiques have merit. Even more problematic, however, is the traditional workshop’s inherent focus on product. To the extent that students learn by doing, the workshop is process-oriented. But the traditional workshop requires students to submit completed drafts of poems, stories, or essays, thus missing the opportunity to mediate the most critical part of the writing process: generating and growing (to use Peter Elbow’s metaphor4) a piece over time and gradually discovering the work’s deeper meaning. The truth is, most of us don’t write like we ask our students to write. We don’t dash through a complete draft of a story, poem, or essay, composing in a single evening or at most over a few days, as undergraduate writers with a workshop submission deadline looming do. Everyone’s process is different, of course, but most of us allow ideas to gestate (sometimes for many months, until we find time to write), then write incomplete drafts and new starts as we feel for the voice, the perspective, and the shape of the piece we want to write. Revision, which with the traditional workshop approach often becomes a once-over attempt to “fix” the problems identified in the workshop, happens throughout the writing process. It’s this trial-and-error process that I want to inculcate in my students.
I’m not alone in my call to pay more attention to the entire spectrum of the composing process in the undergraduate writing classroom. In a recent article in the Writer’s Chronicle, Steve Healey suggests, “A new pedagogy could front-load classes with interventions in the writing process before it begins and while it’s happening, instead of the more traditional back-loading—that is, intervening after a written product already exists.”5 Healey also advocates for our students to develop a broader range of writing strategies, voices, and aesthetics. There seems to be, as Healy notes, a growing consensus favoring such a pedagogy. I want to suggest a model we might use to flesh out this way of thinking about teaching creative writing. While I will suggest examples of the types of activities we might use with this model, these are by no means intended to be comprehensive.
Ironically enough, the model I propose for such interventions and broad-range skill development involves a return to the original model for the writing workshop: the art studio. Unlike the writing workshop, interventions can take place throughout the creative process in the studio; additionally, studio art education typically functions more like an apprenticeship in which students practice a diverse set of skills. Last fall I attended an interdisciplinary luncheon discussion on creativity at St. Olaf College, where I teach. One of the presenters was sculpture professor Irve Dell, who shared a list of strategies compiled by members of our art department that “promote or enhance creative outcomes.”6 This list became the starting point for my radical rethinking of how we might teach process in the creative writing classroom. What the strategies boil down to are approaches and assignments that set students up to practice creativity. If creativity itself cannot be taught, we can at least promote/enhance/model/practice the practice of writing creatively. Let me elaborate.
A recurring theme in the art department’s list is the exhortation to play, experiment, take risks. The traditional writing workshop promotes the opposite, encouraging students instead to “play it safe,” to stick to strategies that have met with group approval in the past or worked for them in an earlier piece of writing. But if we’re truly teaching process, it’s the play with words, images, voices, rhythms, forms, etc. that we need to value. This means that we need to spend much more time on exercises and projects that don’t necessarily lead to a finished product.
Poetry students can benefit from practicing elements of prosody much as a sculpture student might gain expertise in various techniques and learn to use different kinds of equipment. Poet and teacher Robin Becker’s “skills acquisition” pedagogy, described at the 2009 AWP Convention,7 exemplifies how this practice might be structured. Students in her classes follow a guided series of reading and writing assignments designed as a kind of apprenticeship. A typical week’s assignments might include a set number of lines of blank verse, verses with specific rhyme schemes, syllabic verse, and various forms and poem types—villanelle, pantoum, elegy, praise song, etc.
In fiction, students need practice in using different points of view—first person and third person, of course, but also using a reminiscent perspective, close-to-character narration, objective narration, a storyteller’s voice. Where a story comes from—whose story it is and what the narrator’s relationship to the point-of-view character(s) is—makes all the difference in fiction. In order to fully understand and be able to take advantage of subtle variations in where a story comes from, students need experience with many options. In both fiction and nonfiction, students benefit from experimenting with different forms—traditional, epistolary, collage, segmented, alphabetical, even graphic forms. Students might try out diverse strategies—employing minimalism, for example, or incorporating digressions, research, found material, etymologies, and so on. What’s most important is that students recognize the spectrum of choices available to them as writers and practice using as many as possible.
Grading practices have to change if we’re truly going to promote experimentation and risk-taking. Becker gives an A if students incorporate the assigned elements in their poems, which helps students build confidence. In general, we need to include more “low-stakes” assignments in our classes: especially at the introductory level, students benefit from shorter projects, projects whose goals are process-related rather than product-related. We want to avoid having students concentrate on polishing pieces that are better seen as stepping stones in their learning process, something that happens all too often in traditional workshops. We might also give collaborative assignments, a strategy on the art department list; collaborative assignments both spread risk and encourage a greater mix of strategies. When we do evaluate “products,” we can take the student’s process and self-assessment into consideration. I ask students to turn in a “Dear Jenny” letter with complete stories, poems or essays in which they discuss their process—how the piece “grew” over time, what new strategies they tried, what they learned from the writing project. Not only does this give me insight into their process, which I can use in evaluation, it also encourages them to be more reflective about their writing generally.
My art department colleagues recognize the need to encourage active observation. As in art, so in writing… A poem, or piece of lyrical prose, might even be considered a kind of observation in itself. In the writing classroom, we can assign freewrites that rely on recalled or active observation. We can take “fieldtrips.” We can play “observation games.” We can assign observation exercises. Poet and teacher Steve Longfellow asks students to record daily observations over the course of a semester—a description of an object, arrangement of objects, or a scene in which they use only specific concrete details, no superlatives or judgments; they end each one-paragraph description with a simile, thus jump-starting the process of making meaning. Over time, this discipline develops students’ powers of observation and description remarkably, as well as helping to generate new poetry and short prose pieces. We can also be aware of the role of observation in published works when we “read as writers.”
Creative outcomes are enhanced by “limiting variables” and “seizing the accident,” also strategies on the art department list. We need to recognize the role of chance in creativity both in how we talk about the creative process with students and in the assignments we give. When students concentrate on formal requirements, the door to their unconscious may spring open. Many favorite prompts for both fiction and poetry ask students to include specific random details. Robin Becker’s guided sequence of assignments builds in limited variables, both in content and form. A guided writing exercise such as Wendy Bishop’s “15-Sentence Portrait” that specifies sentence elements and content sets students up to surprise themselves when writing about a person they know well and feel strongly about.8 Another approach is to use Oulipo-type exercises modeled after the one Dinty Moore presented at NonFictioNOW 2005. Moore designed two sets of variations based on Montaigne’s short essay “On Thumbs”—one content-based (begin essay with the information contained in Montaigne’s final sentence; focus on a word that rhymes with thumbs; write about a nonhuman animal with opposable thumbs; etc.), and one formal (memoir, in 2nd person, an essay with no narrative, etc.); writers roll a die to determine which variations they must use.
It’s important to demystify the creative process, as surfacing strategies such as limiting variables and incorporating chance does. Heather Sellers’s new multi-genre introductory text The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students9 goes further than other texts I’m familiar with in focusing on the creative process itself. She concentrates on six elements key to creative writing—energy, image, tension, pattern, insight, and structure—rather than the usual emphasis on genre conventions. I especially appreciate her term “leaps” for those intentional jumps that can add energy to a sentence. Assigning interviews and essays about authors’ composing processes contributes to demystification as well. A number of teaching anthologies now include such essays and interviews—Ryan Van Cleave’s Behind the Scenes series and 12 Short Stories and Their Making, edited by Paul Mandelbaum among them—or ask students to find interviews with authors who interest them in literary journals and the like.
We have to design assignments that encourage students to emulate a complicated creative process. It’s worth quoting Irve Dell directly here:
Those of us who teach art spend a lot of time reinforcing “the creative process.” Start making, don’t think too much. Work and rework. Do and redo. React and allow for change. Be pulled by the work. Sketch or make models (not unlike drafts). Do not begin a work by visualizing the solution.
Such rich advice. This is the trial-and-error process I referred to above. The creative process requires flexibility and suppleness. It’s not a linear process. Similar to Dell’s description of process in the art studio, we draft, and redraft, often writing fragments and partial drafts. We start over, rearrange, write from different perspectives. Revision and reworking are built in all along the way. And we allow discovery to happen during the writing—as the saying goes, if you don’t surprise yourself, you won’t surprise the reader.10 By design, much of the writing may not be intended as part of a complete work. In fiction, particularly, we may need to “write outside the story” to get to know non-point-of-view characters. In a phone interview years ago, Joyce Carol Oates told me that she writes thirty pages in each character’s voice—conversations between the character and his mother, wife, girlfriend, sister, etc. as well as internal monologue—before beginning a work of fiction.
The traditional workshop, by requiring complete drafts, sets up a two-step, complete-draft-and-revision process very different from this more complicated approach. As teachers, we may emphasize the need to let a work grow more slowly, but in my experience, even diligent students end up doing most of the writing just before the deadline, as they do for most undergraduate assignments. Indeed, many students find open-ended composing processes uncomfortable. They benefit from assignments specifically structured to facilitate writing in this way. I assign story and essay “starts,” which students share in small peer review groups who mirror back the reading experience, pointing out what interests them, where the tension is, what words and images stand out, what tone or feeling they get from the piece, and such. I often conference with students at this point in the process, rather than after they have completed a full draft. This allows me to help them recognize opportunities they may not be aware of and avoids discussions in which students, already invested in a finished draft, spend their time defending their choices. Recursive assignments, assignments that ask students to go back to material and develop it differently, varying the point-of-view, language, form, and aesthetic orientation,11 further help students recognize a broader spectrum of choices.
For short stories and essays, I also assign “radical revisions,” an idea developed by the late Wendy Bishop for composition students, after students have written a complete first draft following the approach described above. Consistently, this project results in the best writing students do in a course. By definition, a radical revision is a revision that doesn’t lead in a straight line from early draft to final draft. It requires that students begin again—starting in a different place, writing from a different point-of-view, reimagining/reinventing the voice and/or form. It requires “research,” with what this consists of being left up to students, though I do make available articles on alternative grammars and structures, as well as ideas about writing from a so-called “female aesthetic.”12 Students can also find their own approaches—such as the student writer who turned to early Ray Carver stories as a model for minimalism. It doesn’t matter, finally, whether their writing ends up being “minimalist” or “close to the body” or something else; what matters is that they discover a new way to develop the same material, and so learn an essential lesson about how the creative process works.
It’s crucial that, from introductory classes on, students explore how we make meaning and intensify emotional impact in writing through such strategies as selection, compression, metaphor, layering, repetition and patterning, and juxtaposition. Reading published pieces from the perspective of how they work is an essential part of this project. But students also can learn-through-doing about these strategies. The play and experimentation described above contributes to this project. We can do more targeted exercises as well, such as writing “centos,”13 a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets that dates back to Homer. Borrowing lines frees students from the minutiae of composing while allowing them to concentrate on how placement creates new meanings. Translations between genres or media help students become more conscious of how each genre works. For instance, by translating into image (making a video or a collage) a poem or short-short fiction or nonfiction, either published or student-written, students can better understand the role of “image narrative,” the way images can accrue meaning, in written works. Similarly, students can work from film to written work. I’m particularly intrigued with using film as a model medium because film editing requires explicit choices that help us better understand similar choices in written work.
Much of what I’m talking about here might be subsumed under the umbrella of exercises and writing prompts, which have long been part of creative writing classes, alongside workshops. But we need to go further than setting students up for the happy accident. We need to help them recognize the elements that lead a particular prompt to be successful—the tension and energy that arises from the combination of unlikely, surprising elements; the power of patterns that accrue meaning through repetition and variation; the value of formal constraints; the importance of discovery, of not knowing what point you’re writing toward. And at the introductory level, we need to emphasize skill building and familiarity with a broad range of strategies over full-length, finished work. In other words, students most need practice in the practice of writing creatively.
There is still a place for workshops in our pedagogy, workshops that promote a broad aesthetic and emphasize the diversity of choices available. As students progress to more advanced classes, they will shift to longer, more finished works, and workshops at that point can be useful. But I believe we still need to emphasize and build into the structure of all our classes a more complicated, recursive composition process with generative exercises and assignments such as the starts and radical revision discussed above. We need to balance the time we devote to workshops with other activities, including the discussion of how we make meaning and a more critical reading practice for writers.14
Jenny Dunning’s fiction and personal essays have been published or are forthcoming in many literary magazines, and her story “Reva” received a special mention in the 2008 Pushcart Prize anthology. Her essay “Housekeeping” was featured on the radio show Writers in the Attic. An assistant professor at St. Olaf College, she lives in Northfield, Minnesota.
- See Wendy Bishop’s essay “Teaching Undergraduate Creative Writing: Myths, Mentors, and Metaphors” (1988), Hans Ostrom’s “Undergraduate Creative Writing: The Unexamined Subject” (1989), and Katherine Haake’s “Teaching Creative Writing if the Shoe Fits” (1994), for example.
- In Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy, ed. Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2007).
- See Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project, ed. Anna Leahy (Tonawanda, NY: Multilingual Matters, 2005).
- Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (New York: Oxford UP, 1973).
- “The Rise of Creative Writing & the New Value of Creativity.” The Writer’s Chronicle Feb., 2009, p. 38.
- Teaching Creativity: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, Oct. 8, 2008, St. Olaf College.
- “Creative Creative Writing Pedagogy: Alternatives and Supplements to the Workshop,” Feb. 13, 2009, AWP Convention, Chicago.
- Wendy Bishop, Released into Language (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990).
- Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
- Robert Boswell’s short essay “The Practice of Remaining in the Dark” (Poet’s & Writers, July-Aug. 2008) or the longer version, “The Half-Known Work” in The Half-Known World (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2008) is a useful supplement in this regard, as is Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town (New York: Norton, 1992).
- In fiction, one of the key aesthetic choices involves the spectrum between fiction that emulates life (John Gardner’s “fiction as a dream”) and fiction that is self-consciously artful (William Gass’s “linguistic artifact”); these choices are explored in “A Debate: William Gass and John Gardner” in Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists, ed. Tom LeClaire and Larry McCaffery (Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1988). I ask students to develop starts trying out these two approaches.
- Essays on “Grammar B,” “Jazz Grammar, “Double-Voiced Discourse,” and “Fractured Narrative” can be found in Elements of Alternate Style: Essays on Writing and Revision, ed. Wendy Bishop (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997). For ideas about a female aesthetic, I suggest Hélène Cixous’ “Laugh of the Medusa,” Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ “For the Etruscans” and Lillian Bridwell-Bowles’ “Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing within the Academy.”
- See www.poets.org for more information and examples.
- On this subject, see Katherine Haake’s essay “Dismantling Authority” in Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project, ed. Anna Leahy and Gerald Graff’s “What We Say When We Don’t Talk about Creative Writing” (College English 71.3, Jan. 2009).