Monday, November 3, 2014

Teaching Creative Writing to the Bad Writer You Used to Be

There’s an implicit, underlying question when you sit down to design a creative writing course and ask what undergraduate writers need. The true question: what did I need as an undergraduate writer? But that doesn’t help. 
We only have a semester after all.
            In Rebecca McKay’s “Teaching Creative Writing” course the other day, a few of us were toying with this question: would you ever show a creative writing student what you wrote as an undergraduate?  Even thinking about it now makes me feel cold.  Let me tell you about my undergraduate creative writing; every line of dialogue addressed the individual to whom it was directed, like in a soap opera.
            “John, how are we going to get home?”
            “I’m trying to figure that out, Mary!”
            “But John, we spent all our money on that creative writing course with that underwhelming instructor.”
            “Mary, don’t you think I know that?!”         
            I too indulged in plot-driven adventures of characters who were thin and attractive without ever apparently needing to groom themselves or exercise, a practice indicative of too much time spent reading fan fiction.  I occasionally participated in the overuse of adverbs (though admittedly, the tendency has abated quite thoroughly). I think every MFA student has scars from reading their old writing.  To this day, I can’t write a character description without chanting don’t overdo it, no strange hair or eye color, no similes involving the landscape or the sky.  So needless to say, that writing will stay in the bottom of the box in my garage where it belongs (don’t even think about it, we have a dog).  It can be demoralizing, but it’s also a reminder about how far I’ve come as a writer.
It’s unsettling to recall those days and then imagine teaching a class of 24 writers of similar abilities (or even, shudder, less).  Your old creative writing teachers go from “cool” status all the way up to sainthood.  They endured you when you were still finding your voice, and they even helped out along the way.  They modeled the habits of good writers that you needed to see.  They were articulate and constantly reading, in touch with their writing communities, and seemed to always have the perfect way of summarizing or understanding a troublesome passage or piece. And when their shoes look more like boats, it’s hard to imagine trying to fill them for a class of undergraduates.  I guess, as Becka reminds us, the good part is that they won’t recognize our inadequacies.  They won’t notice that your knowledge of magical realism is sorely lacking, or that you’re really more of a niche writer.  If you can forgive the students their improper conjunctions and be as ardent in helping them as your creative writing teachers were in helping you, that’s all they’ll remember: your passion.

Maddy Miller has a full first name, but she would prefer if you didn't know it.  She got her BA from the University of Utah, swears in her sleep, can fence a little, and her first kiss belongs to a frog.  She believes her amphibious choice was probably better than most.

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