Category Archives: teaching writing

I’ve taught writing to K-12 students (unpaid) and college students (paid) and have both Opinions and Concrete Tools to share.

Writers in the Schools — A Second Time Round

(This is Part Two in a series on teaching a fanfiction workshop. Part One is here.)

When planning the fanfiction workshop, I had the benefit of experience to look back on. The MFA program at the University of Washington offered an internship called “Writers in the Schools.” I worked with a classroom teacher at a local school to teach short story writing to a class of 7th graders. That was a challenging job and although we all made it through, with some great short stories, I never quite felt I was up for the task. I was pretty shy and had absolutely no idea how to keep the attention of thirty teenagers! They were awestruck for the first few weeks, but when my “author glamour” wore off, it was a struggle to keep them quiet enough so that I could give my lessons.

On top of that, after the class was over I felt that I had taught them the wrong things. I spent so much time explaining the conventions of the short story form, the mystery genre, the adventure genre, and so forth, when many of these conventions are already imprinted on our brains. I spent much less time with confidence-building and tips and tricks for getting unstuck. And when their stories were finished I critiqued them in the same way adult writers critique each other’s stories, not understanding that I was sending a message that a Professional Stamp of Approval would be required for their art.

I gave it my best, and I did a good job, but still . . . . I wanted a do-over!

Since then, I’ve had a lot more experience with teaching and public speaking. I now know that teaching is as much performance art as it is transmission of information. It’s about knowing when kids’ attention is lagging and how to get it back.

I’ve also had a lot of time to think about what kinds of help young writers actually do and don’t need. In general, it’s helpful if it’s about how to get ideas out of your brain and onto the paper. It’s not helpful if it’s about how to do it correctly. It’s helpful if it’s about practice. It’s not helpful if the initial focus is on final product.

Above all, it’s helpful if it’s fun.

Enter the fanfiction component.

Next up: Day One

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On teaching a fanfiction workshop for kids

This year I volunteered in the classroom to teach a group of 4th and 5th graders how to write fanfiction stories. It was a great experience! I got the chance to see some really excited writers and read their work, and the kids got the chance to have fun writing.

When planning it, I thought about what would have helped me as a young writer. I was constantly writing stories, but I felt like they all had the same character in them . . . a girl with an embarrassing similarity to me! There’s nothing wrong with that, but it made me feel self-conscious about my writing. I was also self-conscious about writing stories featuring my favorite book characters. I didn’t realize that authors are always borrowing characters and plots and then reworking them.

I also thought about what would be helpful for kids who think they can’t write. Grownups make writing quite difficult for kids by insisting it be done “the right way.” That’s why so many adults have writer’s block. In some ways, schooling seems to have improved — I’m seeing more focus on starting out with a rough draft and not worrying about spelling and punctuation in that rough draft. But at the same time, there’s a much smaller emphasis on teaching handwriting, and that hinders kids’ fluency and their feelings about their own writing. So writer’s block isn’t going away anytime soon!

Teaching fanfiction instead of regular fiction had big advantages for both these groups. Self-conscious writers don’t have to worry that their characters or plots suck, because somebody else made them up. And they don’t have to worry so much about pleasing adults — only themselves.

In the next few blog posts, I’ll be writing about my experience. I also have some worksheets to share, so I’ll be uploading them to this blog for general use.

Next up: Writers in the Schools, The Second Time Round

– Kristin

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What’s wrong with John Gardner’s concept of narrative structure

This weekend I had the opportunity to read a negative review written about someone whose stories I found dazzling. The reviewer has since admitted he was wrong about the review, so I suppose the less I say about the whole thing, the better. But I was intrigued by the reviewer citing John Gardner as the example of How One Must Write.

John Gardner has been on my mind lately as one of the people who studied at the Creative Writing Workshop From Hell — run by a highly authoritarian program director who also pioneered the Creative Writing Program as Anti-Commie Propaganda. (For background, see Creative Writing Programs and the CIA Fan Club and More on the Iowa Writers Workshop.)

Did the authoritarian workshop impact Gardner’s aesthetic, and through that, the writing advice that is handed down to writers, editors, and reviewers? I don’t know.

But I’d really like to, because John Gardner and his Way One Must Write has been on my mind since 1996, when I wrote a critical essay on narrative structure for my master’s thesis. I’m including an excerpt here.

The form of a story does influence its subject. A traditional narrative structure, such as that found in many nineteenth century novels, has strong closure, in which something happens that limits the characters’ options or makes them unable to change in some way. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes the story’s denouement:

“The conflict is now resolved, or in the process of resolving, either because the will of the central character has been overwhelmed or because he has won and his situation is once more stabilizing (188).”

In the first instance, where the character has been overwhelmed, the character cannot change because he or she has failed. In the second, the character cannot change because he or she has won; this is not necessarily bad for the character or the reader, but it can mislead the reader by obscuring the fact that something always happens next.

This traditional plot structure is well suited to death and marriage stories; death and marriage can both limit the characters’ options in the way that Gardner suggests they should—by making them either fail or “succeed.” However, many other stories don’t fit this traditional plot structure—especially quest stories in which the protagonist continues questing at the end of the novel. Song of the Lark, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit don’t fit this structure because the female protagonists don’t seem to be able to conclude their quests or stop their emotional and intellectual growth. That is, although they do “win,” their victory doesn’t halt or obscure their growth. Another kind of story that can’t be told using this traditional narrative structure is the story in which the characters don’t win or lose, but instead simply live in some kind stasis. For instance, in Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, the main character, Oliveira beings the story with no real battle to fight and reaches a point in which he literally cannot go on to do anything else, either living or dying. In Hopscotch, Cortazar gives the reader the alternative of reading the novel by skipping from one chapter to another in a prearranged way. At the “end” of the novel, Cortazar directs the reader to chapter 131, then to chapter 58, then back to chapter 131 and so on, for infinity or until the reader decides to put the book down. Here Oliveira has not won. He might be said to have lost, because he has no hope, but I would argue instead that he is simply in a deadening stasis, much like the drug-addicted mother in Paley’s story.

If traditional narrative structure doesn’t provide a way for these stories to be told, it also doesn’t provide a way to keep the struggle between possibilities and limitations unresolved at the end of the story; or to show life as a process rather than an end product.

If I had this essay to write over, I would probably say many things differently. If I look at John Gardner’s book again, I would probably read it differently. But one thing’s for sure:

There is no One Right Way to make stories.

Thank goodness.

The creative writing workshop from hell

A writing workshop is a must for aspiring writers. At least, I’ve always thought so. Once upon a time, they didn’t exist, and people still wrote books.

Anyway, writing workshops have been helpful to me. They go like this, generally speaking: you write a story, you make a number of copies, you take them into a workshop with a bunch of other aspiring writers and one published author. The writers all talk about what worked and didn’t, in a friendly and respectful way, and then the published author sums up their thoughts and opinions. You are advised to take all advice with a grain of salt. You go home, look at the comments, and do your best to incorporate them without throwing up from anxiety.

Over time, you learn not only from other people’s comments but also from your own comments what works and what doesn’t.

And over time, you graduate into a writing group, where all participants have an more equal voice. If you’re lucky, it’s a respectful group of writers who appreciate your writing aesthetic.

By and large, that’s what writing workshops have been for me. However, they’re not always like that. My friend Ian had a horrific experience, in which the writing workshop devolved into race-based personal attacks.

As it turns out, there’s a historical context for that kind of writing workshop. It begins with Paul Engle, the highly influential director of Iowa Writers Workshop from 1941 to 1966. You could call him the Founding Father of writing workshops, because although he didn’t start the writing workshop as we know it now, he brought it to national prominence in the U.S.  through his amazing ability to solicit fellowships from corporations, the wealthy, and the government. I found out about him through an article about CIA funding for creative writing, which I discuss here and here and here.

Wanting to know more, I checked out the book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and The Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl.

Engle was the boss. He had ultimate authority over which workshop students got funded, and by how much. McGurl writes:

“. . . Iowa Workshop students were required to report to . . . Engel every fall, lining up outside his office door. Entering one by one to make their plea for fellowship money, they would talk about their needs, their goals, and Engel, unhampered by codifications or committees, would announce the figure that seemed to him just.” (p 174)

Engle also set the tone for the general teaching practice in the writing workshop. As he explained in 1961, the goal was to discourage the author’s outpouring of spontaneous feeling and to use the social pressure of the workshop to intimidate or even terrify students into controlling their own work. (pp 130-131)

McGurl explains that Engel had a recurring nightmare that was immediately familiar to his students as a metaphor for his writing workshops. In his nightmare, Engle was in a concentration camp surrounded by a stone wall, among guards and prisoners. The guards forced him to walk along the wall in an extremely humiliating fashion. He complied, and found he was so good at it that all the guards and prisoners looked up at him in amazement and admiration. (172-173)

McGurl goes on to point out that in this model, the wall is still there. There are still guards and prisoners. The lucky writer is still a prisoner, and doesn’t escape the prison, but only rises above it.

So that’s the creative writing workshop from hell. You, as writer, are a prisoner in a concentration camp, terrorized into banishing spontaneous feeling from your work, and your only hope is to do such a good job that you rise above it all. But you can never escape.

Perversely, because of the influence of Engle and his money and prestige, this became the Platonic Ideal of writing workshops, the model that teachers of creative writing would emulate for years to come. The workshop leader (with all their biases surrounding race, class, gender, politics, etc) is dictator. And their influence, like Engle’s, extended beyond the workshop to affect which authors could be published.

Later, there was a shakeup, and a more progressive form of the workshop emerged, with more respect for writers and their works, and more understanding of the ways that race, gender, class, and other biases affect workshop participants.

But the ghost of Engle remains. Authoritarianism is part of the heritage of the writing workshop.

Is there something useful to be done with this new information about the history of the writing workshop, I wonder? Should we question the entire format of the writing workshop as based in authoritarianism and war? Or should we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, the progressive shakeup took care of all that” and move on with our lives? I don’t know.

But I do know one thing. Writers who have been traumatized by a Ghost-of-Engle Writing Workshop should take heart and be validated. And pick up your pens.

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Aside

Walk into a bookstore and pick up a highly acclaimed book. Look at the cover. Some of them have accolades like “National Book Award Winner” or “Pulitzer Prize winner.” That’s a mark of favor by the literary establishment, which includes … Continue reading

more on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop

In my post “Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club,” I talk about Eric Bennet’s essay on how Iowa Writer’s Workshop director Engle (1941-1966) procured lots and lots of money from govermental and private organizations for the explicit purpose of anti-communist propaganda. Fifty years ago, so that’s ancient history, right? Nope.

Here’s just one example of how its influence passed through various people to me. John Gardner, 1958 Iowa Writers Workshop graduate, wrote The Art of Fiction, championed by one of my professors as the authoritative volume on how to write. It’s really good in many ways. I love his concept of fiction being a “vivid and continuous dream.” But there are certain Rulez in the book that limit the types of stories that can be told.

John Gardner inspired Raymond Carver, another student of the Iowa Writers Workshop (1963-1964), and Raymond Carver was a leader in “minimalist” writing, which was in favor during my undergraduate years. He’s a great writer. My favorite: his story “A Small, Good Thing.” But minimalism leaves out a lot of things — language, intrusions by the narrator, and commie politics. How much of that was influenced by the Iowa Writers Workshop of the 1960s?

It would be an overstatement to say that Gardner and Carver took anti-communist propaganda whole cloth and passed it on. (We’ll leave that to John Irving, graduate of the late 1960s, who according to Wikipedia wrote, “This is Marxism. It’s leveling everything by decimating what works … It’s that vindictive ‘We’ve suffered, and now we’re going to take money from your kid and watch you squirm’… There’s a minority which is an open target in this country which no one protects, and that’s rich people”)

No, this is only influence, and one influence among many. But it passes on from writer to writer, from institution to institution, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.

Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

This week, author Eric Bennett dropped a rather enormous bombshell on the literary world. The CIA, as it turns out, helped spread propaganda through creative writing programs all across the United States.

What? How?

Through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most prestigious and influential creative writing program in a U.S. university. To make a long story short, in 1960 Paul Engle, the head of the program, wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation explaining exactly how his program could help fight communism (by bringing foreign writers to Iowa to indoctrinate them). He got the money, and later money from the CIA and the State Department, and used it to implement his plan. In essence, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under Engel became the CIA Fan Club. The money, and the director who sought it out, left an enduring mark on creative writing programs all over the country.

You can read more about this from Bennet and a rebuttal from a University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass.

All this money brought prestige and influence to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which in turn influenced the creative writing programs that came after. Bennett writes, “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since.”

With this influence, the Iowa Writers Workshop exported its long-held values – “middlebrow realism,” as explained by Glass in his rebuttal. And it exported Cold War propaganda.

Having gone through an MFA program and a creative writing undergraduate program, I have to say that this explains a whole lot. I’ve been busy re-evaluating my experiences in view of the larger picture. I wasn’t just learning writing, I was learning what the rich and powerful wanted me to learn.

The most obvious example took place in graduate school. Many writing professors will tell you that political writing is bad writing. (Of course, that’s a complete misunderstanding of politics. Everything is political. If you don’t see it, that’s just because it reflects the politics of the dominant culture.) At the time Paul Engle headed the program, that would have meant commie writing is bad writing, but today it means more than that. So on time my professor asked us to hand in some story ideas. I had an idea about something that happened to the anarchist Emma Goldman. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off – it would involve doing historical research and somehow transforming that moment into fiction. He returned it with a note explaining that stories starting from politics turn out badly. So I chose a different idea, having to do with a husband and a wife and some turtles. The Emma Goldman incident never made it into story form, although I did write an essay about it for the Aqueduct Press blog.

I would have been more skeptical of the concept if I had thought it came from the CIA. But no, it came from a trusted professor. And who taught him? Not any particular person, I imagine. It was just in the air.

That’s the obvious example. But the influence of the CIA Fan Club also spread to the seemingly apolitical – to general questions of content, style, and narrative structure. Good writing met the expectations of the “middlebrow” white male with his wife and children and white picket fence. Bad writing didn’t.

Those seemingly apolitical questions played a huge part in my writing development in my very first university courses. Creative writing programs at the university are deeply influential in a writer’s aesthetic. Writers, and especially beginning writers, have the disadvantage that they really don’t know which stories are good and which aren’t. We write what’s in our heads, and it may or may not please the reader. We don’t know until someone has read it and given us feedback.

I first studied creative writing in the early 1990s at the University of Utah under writers such as Jan Nystrom and François Camoin. They taught both the “traditional” writing that the Iowa Writers Workshop favored and “experimental” writing, a kind of writing that plays with narrative structure and style and today would be called postmodern. I felt the pull of both.

One of the wonderful things that Jan Nystrom and François Camoin did for me as a writer was to expose me to all kinds of interesting “experimental” writers. This was important, because the writing I was already doing coming into the creative writing program differed from the expected norms. I felt very much at home with Leonard Michaels’ lyrical prose, especially a story about a hotel maid who kept cleaning the same room over and over and finding more and more disturbing things. That was a story that went straight to the imagination and the spirit. I also felt at home with Grace Paley’s stories, which didn’t use quotation marks for the dialogue. This gave the dialogue an internal feel.

These stories became part of what I saw as possible in literature. Another couple of things that stood out –

  • Jan Nystrom wrote a story about women who fly around and leave shoes on roofs. There wasn’t any (rather Freudian) climax, but I loved it, and along with the work of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley it became part of the inspiration for my Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Wings.”
  • Sophia Kartsonis’ first story was very lyrical and poetic. Somebody questioned whether it was too poetic to be a good story. To me, the poetry enhanced the appeal. I raised my hand and said so. As for me, my first story to be workshopped had comma splices for most of the sentences. This was entirely intentional and was part of the rhythm of the story. One of the classmates saw that as a big flaw and said so, but Camoin stuck up for me. In a different workshop, I might have been squashed by both the classmate and the teacher.

Also on the plus side, Camoin told us which literary magazines would accept experimental writing. It was only a small fraction, but it saved me a lot of trouble and got me published.

On the minus side, even though there was a lot of freedom and flexibility in the curriculum, there was also a lot of emphasis on “minimalist” writing, which is basically “show, don’t tell” taken to an extreme. The author’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions are theoretically omitted, as are explicit politics. This is one of the three favored forms of writing by the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to Bennett. (Bennett called it “cold” writing, but the kind of minimalist writing we looked at had dazzling language. Dazzling, but not gorgeous in the way something like Virginia Woolf’s work is gorgeous. More like a stained glass window than a river.) Just from a craft side, I learned a lot of bad habits there, which I had to unlearn in graduate school and beyond. Thing is, you can only skip telling if your reader is coming at you from a common cultural context, which is rarely the case.

Also on the minus side, this freedom of narrative structure came at the expense of the ability to publish some of my stories. I have written a couple of stories that just weren’t suited to go anywhere. They’re not bad stories; they just didn’t meet a particular literary aesthetic.

And so the years went by and a lot of things happened with my writing that I’ll also write about if I have time. I’ve abandoned a fair number of stories that didn’t meet expectations for narrative structure and I’ve edited out various experimental aspects of stories. And I’ve always wondered: Is something wrong with my story, or is there something wrong with the writing aesthetic? I still don’t know. Writers can judge their own work, but only to a point.

But you know what? Every time I did something unusual, whether it succeeded or whether it failed, I was fighting Cold War propaganda.

I’m pleased.