As a young college student, I planned to become a photojournalist. In the years before digital processing, we logged hundreds of solitary hours in the darkroom—timing exposures, soaking our fingers in chemical developer, examining dripping images by the light of a dim red bulb. Photography trains the eye to search for meaning, for context, for composition. The critical eye is never satisfied with the first lucky outcome. The photographer’s refrain, like the gambler’s refrain, is One more time. You dig into your bag of tricks. You try a longer exposure. You burn this. You dodge that. You crop. You enlarge. You do it again and again. Massive failures stack up against modest successes. A darkroom, like a casino, has no clocks, no windows. You emerge, spent, to find that hours have passed like seconds, that your clothes stink, that you are only a little closer to achieving your goal. You are not discouraged. You think, One more time.
Photojournalism taught me to look for the story. To relinquish the whole for the part that represents the whole. To focus carefully. To do it again and again. All art is about process, about discipline. Perfection is an illusory thing; it is regular attendance to our craft that keeps us in the game. This same philosophy serves me now as a writer and an instructor of creative writing. In the arts as well as the sciences, we must train our eyes and commit to the process. The following statement is a short summary of my teaching objectives, methods, and assessments.
Developing the eye
According to Mark Twain, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” While every student does not aspire to literary greatness, each student wants—and needs—to become a better writer, to develop a sharp eye for language. To this end, my lectures and workshops examine writing at the sentence level. We tear apart text, locate load-bearing words, eliminate extraneous ones. Form equals freedom, I argue, teaching Ouilipo constraints to shatter complacent writing. We read nontraditional texts alongside canonical texts. We learn rules so that we may break them. Part of our task as a writing community—and this is how I regard a classroom—is to foster an environment of compassion, of fearlessness, and of rigor. Students work hard to uncover their own voices, to write stories that are unique to themselves.
Engaging the viewer
Whether working in the genres of poetry, drama, fiction or nonfiction, our primary goal as writers remains the same: we must engage the audience. Writing is a solitary pursuit; the audience, an abstract notion. Given its invisible nature, many writers are tempted to disregard the audience in favor of personal expression. When this happens, creative writing becomes an outlet for navel-gazing rather than a narrative craft. In an effort to short-circuit this misstep and speed student progress, one of the first lessons I impart is a tough one: No one cares…unless you make them care. In a world of blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook, and Instagram, the notion that the individual isn’t the center of the universe can be a difficult one to reconcile. It is paramount, however, that writers disengage from hero/victim narratives of self in order to acutely observe their worlds and craft engaging narratives. The sooner we rid ourselves of the desire to be acknowledged/understood/celebrated, the sooner we can participate in the writer’s sublime art—storytelling.
A focused lens
Opportunities for focus exist at all levels of pedagogy. With this in mind, I design courses around theme and form, adding context and framework to student writing. At the introductory level, I have designed and taught two courses: In “Writing Through the Senses,” we read poetry, fiction, and scientific nonfiction in categories relating to a particular human sense. Students conduct weekly sensory experiments to better understand the function of the body as it relates to writing and personal perspective. In “Letters & Literature,” we read epistolary poetry, fiction, and collected letters by published authors. Students compose epistolary poetry and fiction, and send weekly letters to authors, to international pen-pals, and to prison inmates. This course makes visible the presence of the reading audience, and students learn, first hand, the value of engagement. My introductory courses also integrate the workshop model. Students share their work in a supportive environment, develop constructive dialogue and written critique skills, and produce a final writing portfolio.
At the advanced level, I have designed and taught two courses: “No Excuses Fiction Bootcamp,” a rigorous course for creative writing majors, and “Stranger than Fiction,” a creative nonfiction course for journalism, English, and writing majors. Both courses consist of weekly craft lessons, in-class writing exercises, critical readings, and a weekly workshop. In the advanced fiction course, students workshop four original short stories or novel chapters. In creative nonfiction, students workshop essays written across three categories: personal, research, and profile. These courses center on developing and refining craft, as well as peer review and written critiques. Students revise and edit their work for a final portfolio, attend a public reading, and perform a reading before peers, learning a further lesson about audience engagement.
Writing is rewriting
My task as an instructor is to show that writing well is not about luck or innate talent, but practice. Using a scaffolding method for teaching has been most effective toward this goal, as evidenced by my own assessment of student progress, along with student evaluations. Students continually note that their writing has undergone significant improvement, and that they have learned the tremendous value of returning to the page, stacking massive failures against modest successes, and chanting One more time.