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Some Thoughts on
Teaching Creative Writing

The best creative writing classes don’t start with lectures, nor with formal instruction – though they probably include some of both. They start with questions from the instructor and answers from the rest of the class. The teacher fixes a place on the collective mental map and begins to cut a path, so the whole group may arrive there together. Learning to write, a life-long process, is a highly individual experience. As a creative writing teacher, I try to make the process as collective and collaborative as possible.

In the end, though, creative writing is an individual process – grit, imagination, fortitude, and eloquence must all be invoked at the lonely desk. For that reason, the mentorship model is central to my teaching. Whether I am working as a writing coach with a professional writer,  or in a classroom with twenty college students, I think of my relationship with each writer as a individual, reciprocal one. This orientation comes from my experience attending a low-residency MFA program, but it also reaches much farther back, to countless early childhood evenings spent listening to my parents read books and tell stories to me.

In a society where fewer and fewer read books, I am committed to nurturing literary appreciation. I have particular faith in the ability of creative nonfiction to foster that appreciation, because the genre offers a way for students of all ages to write their own lives and to reach far beyond their personal experience, engaging with global political, social, and cultural issues.

In the classroom and workshop, I use examples of literature more often than examples of student work to teach issues of craft. Group discussions of student writing focus on the generative process, revision strategies, and helping the writer realize her vision. I want to ensure that the workshop experience doesn’t strangle the creative process. Writing practice is an essential part of almost every class session.

I draw inspiration from the pedagogical writings of Carol Bly, Peter Elbow, Paulo Freire, John Gardner and Ursula K.
Le Guin, and from having participated in the writing workshops of Barbara Lazear Ascher, Sven Birkerts, Ted Conover, Phillip Lopate, and Liliana Valenzuela.

As a teacher of creative writing, I bring a toolbox, pass around the tools, and we build things together. At heart, the process is the same, whether the setting is a café, county jail, library, literary center, newsroom, public high school, university classroom, hospital ward, or professional writers’ conference.

 


Photo to right: Journal shelf, Seattle, 2005.
Photo below: Mangrove tree, Huave lagoons, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 2000
Photo at bottom: Museum, Templo Mayor, Mexico City, 2004