I approach teaching as a practice of learning and knowledge production. While I consider myself a constant student—often having many questions and infrequent answers—it was in the context of creative writing and studio art classes, in which I was a student, that I developed ways of learning that made the most sense to me. It is the unique capacity of creative classes (and the teachers of those classes) to challenge students to not only produce a work of art, but also cultivate the questions embedded in the work, and a method of research that supports the development of those questions.
I did my graduate work in a creative writing MFA program because I needed a way back into my own thinking as a visual artist. For me the poem presents a structure in which to organize thoughts, images, and ideas. It provides a method to experiment with a material, and is simultaneously a revered and ordinary platform for communication. Poetry is, as many argue, a necessary human function. It is because of this work that much of my teaching experience is in the creative writing class. However, I believe that the teaching philosophy that I present here can be applied across artistic disciplines.
The job of the creative writing class is manifold, but primary to the class’s purpose is the investigation of how the manipulation and composition of language creates meaning. The problems, questions, or prompts posed in a creative writing class do not have predetermined solutions, and often the best approach is to follow, as the artist Sol Lewitt suggests, “irrational thoughts…absolutely and logically.” The importance of the work resides in how the student thinks, and inevitably, writes.
Given that creative work (and I like Richard Hugo’s definition: work that “contains and feeds off its own impulse”) can be amorphous, daunting, fluid, painful, funny, and electric, it is appropriate to frame lessons with questions that elicit thinking and writing leading to an understanding of craft and process. This practice and the discipline required to be successful in a creative writing classroom is vital to achieving a goal of knowledge production, as significant and important as scholarship in the sciences and mathematics.
In the creative writing class the simplest example of this technique would be the free-write. For this exercise my students write non-stop for three minutes (repeating the last word written if they get stuck) in response to a phrase written on the board, or a series of images, or even a short video. Often I have students read their responses aloud and ask the class to informally workshop what they hear, much like in-process drawings tacked to the wall for discussion in a studio art class. This generative practice, prompting immediate engagement with the imagination cuts at the fear of writing, and affirms that the writing done in a creative writing class is meant to be read and heard by an audience other than the self. It also begins to instill the idea that meaningful work is built out of revision.
How students discuss creative writing relates directly to developing an ability to read as writers. Reading works from inside as well as outside the literary canon expands a student’s awareness of craft and intention. Discussion of a reading should begin always with reading the work aloud by numerous voices in the class. It is important for students to inhabit an author’s language, and also hear how others interpret reading the work. What is most important to the creative writing student is focused discussion on how a particular work is written. What decisions does the author make regarding story structure, form, music, syntax, and word choice? And, how are those decisions significant for the creation of meaning? What types of questions does the author or poet seem to be asking?
Creative writing, like all artistic production, asks students to look closely, to examine the worlds around them. Through this basic function of observation I challenge my students to use writing and art making as a method of civic engagement—to be an active observer, to realize how their work is an act of resistance, “a rift,” as Adrienne Rich writes, in the prevailing mode. Such resistance leads to empowerment, but not without risk and vulnerability. And, while the experiment may happen in the context of the class, I believe it is imperative that a teacher holds individual conferences with students to not only encourage and affirm creative risk-taking, but also offer closer readings of a student’s work and process. In this role the teacher becomes less a figure of authority and more a partner in the creative act.