Here’s a silly but common way to organize a creative writing program: The absolute prerequisite for any class that specializes by genre–and in this context, genre means the big divisions into fiction, poetry, and drama–is a general creative writing class that purports to introduce students to the the basics of all three genres in a fourteen-week semester. Assume your first class meeting is lost to administrivia, your last class meeting is a wash because students are packing out for their winter or summer holidays, and you’ll lose one or two others to snow days or the flu. You have to give thirty–yes, thirty–undergrads a grounding in all the technique they may ever get in fiction in four weeks. All they may ever get of poetry, all they may ever get of drama–four weeks each.
Moreover, odds are that you’re not a generalist yourself, any more than your students are. At least one of those mega-genres is going to be your weak spot, and now you have to prioritize all the technique you don’t know in that weak genre to figure out what’s most important to introduce your students to in the four weeks they’ll spend trying to be, say, playwrights.
Fortunately for me, I knew a Real Live Playwright who helped me figure out what the most important basics were in her genre. She pointed me to Jeffrey Sweet’s book, The Dramatist’s Toolkit: The Craft of the Working Playwright. Sweet’s book didn’t make a dramatist of me, but it did illuminate what Joss Whedon and his writers were up to in all that crackling dialogue on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As I studied the more uneven shows I loved, like Babylon 5 and The X Files, what separated the glorious episodes from the episodes that fell flat was much easier for me to pinpoint. When I turned my hand to fiction again after a decade as a poet and scholar, most of what I got right was the result of using Sweet to dissect Whedon.
So, what are the tools in that toolkit? And which are the ones we need?
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After last week’s post on John Gardner’s curmudgeonly classic The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, it seemed important to look at a writer’s handbook by an unrepentant writer of genre fiction — commercial fiction, even. I wanted a book that was humble where Gardner’s was imperious, practical about the business of publishing where Gardner’s was aloof from it.
Gardner suggests that the young writer read all of Faulkner, and then all of Hemingway to clear Faulkner’s excesses out of her mind. So I turned to Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life by Terry Brooks to recover from all that is magisterial in The Art of Fiction.
A confession: Terry Brooks’s novels are not my thing. That is not a judgment on him, just an observation that so far I haven’t really connected with his work. For the record, in the Grand Taxonomy and Hierarchy of Books That Aren’t My Thing, The Sword of Shannara gave me far more reading enjoyment than did James Joyce’s Ulysses.
A lot of people — critics, teachers, readers, other writers — have judged Brooks harshly for one reason and another. But I will go to school on anybody, absolutely anybody, who seems to know something I don’t. Am I on the bestseller lists yet? No? Then Brooks knows something I don’t. I’m hoping that readers who do connect with his books will stop by the comment thread and share their perspectives.
The Brooks manual has two main areas of insight to offer that balance what’s missing in Gardner, and those two areas couldn’t be more different.
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Here’s a classic set piece: a young writer of genre fiction arrives at college and finagles his way into a creative writing seminar, only to get stonewalled by the professor and most of his classmates because they’re allergic to genre fiction.
Any of several things can happen next. The student may find three likeminded young writers and a folding card table to meet at, and start her own seminar. The student may drop out of college, get a series of fascinating dead end jobs, and write his way to a workshop like Clarion or Odyssey. Maybe she gives up writing altogether. Maybe he stops showing his writing to others. Maybe she goes pro eventually despite it all, and has a chip on her shoulder about that confounded creative writing class for the rest of her days.
I was…what is the genre equivalent of ambidextrous? Ambigenrous will have to do for now. I snuck back into the creative writing seminars as a poet, and most people forgot I had wanted to write fantasy. For a while, I forgot it myself.
A fantasist can find useful tools in a creative writing classroom, even an inhospitable one. But since nobody wants to do time in an inhospitable classroom, and really nobody should have to, I’m going to write a few posts over the next few weeks about books on writing that I’ve found helpful in re-reinventing myself as a fantasy writer.
Back in 2005, when I was just starting my personal blog, Ask Dr. Pretentious, and had maybe six readers in the whole world, I wrote an essay on The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner that has held up so well, I’m giving it another chance at life here. Gardner was surprisingly hostile to fantastic fiction, considering that he was the guy who wrote that first-person retelling of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. Why would I urge writers of genre fiction to devote many hours to learning from Gardner when he regards genre fiction as trash? Read on.
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Hurricane Sandy roared and wailed outside our door, shook down trees across the street, pounded our roof so hard my two little sons couldn’t even recognize the sound as rain. “Drum!” insisted my two-year-old. The kids coped fine until the lights went out. Then they panicked.
Of all the things to fear about a hurricane, darkness is one of the least dangerous. Try telling that to a five-year-old. He can’t wrap his head around why 70 mph winds are worse than wind he’s allowed to play in. He probably could have understood why storm surge is scary if we’d been close to any — fortunately, we’re on high ground and nowhere within sight of a body of water. All the anxiety the boys had detected in the adults around them, all their own anxiety from watching the storm through the windows that day, rushed instantly to compound their longstanding fear of the dark.
As soon as we had flashlights ready to read by, the kids knew exactly which book they wanted. The Way Back Home is the story of a boy and a Martian who get stranded on the Moon and work together to get themselves and their flying machines back where they belong. Before the boy and the Martian find one another, they huddle in the dark, hearing strange noises, fearing the worst. The boy’s flashlight goes out! My sons wanted that page again and again, because that night the idea of losing the flashlight’s comfort was utterly terrifying.
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You know that classic vocabulary assignment, the one everybody’s done because it really works?
As you read a book, keep a running list of words you can’t define, and when you take a break from reading, look them all up and write your own sentences using them. That assignment. It’s still the wheel, so I still don’t reinvent it, but sometimes I get tempted.
Since I took up freelancing eight years ago, nearly all my students have been children of immigrants. The kids are so bright, so hardworking, nobody notices how narrow their vocabularies are until about 7th grade, when the amount and level of writing students have to do shoots up.
The kids’ grades plummet, their English teachers at school shrug, the parents panic, and suddenly I’ve got a new paying gig. The students prefer to read fantasy — I do, too, of course — so I give them the classic vocabulary assignment to apply to the fantasy novel of their choice.
Then this weird thing happens, a thing I haven’t yet figured out how to turn to good use.
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When teachers write publicly about teaching, we usually write about the things that went well. It’s not just that we’re full of ourselves or want to save face — though we fall prey to human nature like anybody else. It’s that we like being helpful, and talking about the things that worked seems more likely to help our readers than talking about the things that didn’t. Maybe some offhand comment that accidentally turned out to be illuminating for a student will help some other student, somewhere, so off I send it into the ether. If teachers are more visibly full of ourselves than other people are, it’s because the work we do can be utterly humbling.
Of course, some lesson plans just fall down and spit. Some things that could be done well go horribly wrong in the execution. We all have bad brain days. Only a small minority of disasters are fun or useful to read about, though. If teaching mistakes were as frequently entertaining as parenting mistakes are, you’d see a lot more sitcoms set in the faculty lounge.
Why did I make my Intro to Myth students read such very long stretches of Tolkien’s “Valaquenta,” when I myself nod off reading it? What was I thinking when I sent my minimally English-proficient Mandarin speakers off to read The Once and Future King? Why did I hector that poor creative writing student to make his dragon-riding antihero more sympathetic, when an antihero was so clearly what he wanted to write?
For every awesome thing I can’t wait to tell you guys about, there’s an equal and opposite gaffe.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.
“Why do we have to read so much?” said the students who thought Intro to Myth would be an easy A. “And all this writing! You turned it into work!”
“Why are you asking us to think critically about mythology, of all things?” said the students who regarded stories only as entertainment. “I want to read this stuff the same way I read watered-down versions of it when I was ten.”
“Why are you making us read The Silmarillion?” said the less reflective of the Tolkien fans. “I’ve read The Lord of the Rings twenty times, and I thought I could get college credit for stuff I already did in high school.”
Alas, one side effect of attending college is that one may be asked to do college level work. Most of my students were good sports about it. I assured the students who weren’t that they were welcome to keep their copies of the syllabi and read the same books for kicks on their own, and they could get out of the bother of keeping pace, writing papers, or thinking about what they read. All they had to do was go to the registrar’s office and withdraw from my class. Nobody was making them stay.
Nearly all of them stayed.
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For a week, I experienced the delightful illusion that I held the whole tradition of myth and mythic literature in my head at once. Gilgamesh to Gaiman, it floated in a perfect structure of interconnectedness. I could see through time. Then I wrote the final exam, and the illusion dissolved instantly.
I’ve had a weird week of synchronicity in which several people, none of whom could possibly know each other, have asked me what I miss about classroom teaching. The question has conjured up the best classroom teaching experience I ever had, in all its problematic glory. It began with a situation that reads like the set-up for an Amanda Cross murder mystery.
Back in the mid-1990’s, before some of my current students were born, I taught this Intro to Myth course that had its origins in a semi-scandalous departmental power grab–the oldest codgers in the English Department were trying to maneuver the university into abolishing the Comparative Literature Department. One of their moves was to offer a knock-off version of the one undergraduate class Comp Lit could always get full enrollment for–the course that made it possible for my Comp Lit grad student friends to pay their rent and eat. That’s not hyperbole. I had classmates who lived in their cars during the summer because without their school-year teaching paychecks they had to choose between food and shelter.
The codgers offered me a break from teaching endless sections of Freshman Composition. Come teach Intro to Mythology, they crooned, invent the whole syllabus to your own liking, set a precedent for how your fellow grad students will teach it here in English. All you have to do is take food from the mouths of your friends and help us destroy their department before it can confer their degrees.
If I had turned the codgers down, they’d have found some other grad student hungry enough to do it for them. So I made it my mission to give them a magnificent, kickass course of a kind they would never want to run again. They would look upon the precedent of my syllabus and shudder.
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The new school year has brought me a fresh crop of tutoring students, which means I get to ask one of my favorite questions: What do you read when nobody’s making you read anything? In the nine years since I left the classroom and started making house calls, almost all my students have named fantasy as their favorite genre.
Not this year.
Mystery won’t be too big a stretch, especially since my mystery mavens have a taste for Poe. But what on earth will I do for my new kid who only truly enjoys sports biographies? Eventually, after I’ve earned his trust, I might be able to entice him to stretch his taste.
Meanwhile, here I am staring Tim Tebow’s memoir in the face, trying to stretch my taste to meet the kid’s. I suspect my Scarlet Letter trick would break down if I tried to read a football memoir as a failed fantasy novel.
Oh, man. What I wouldn’t give to face the Eragon quandary again.
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The cheap shots are kind of tempting — analogies, or allegories even, about the SAT as a form of gladiatorial combat. Some of my students do experience the test that way. Certainly the SAT has become a fasting ordeal, now that it’s four hours long and still allows only one break long enough for scarfing down an energy bar. But I’m not enlisting the aid of Katniss Everdeen to fight the College Board over its test. Odd as it sounds, there are some admirable, humane aspects to the SAT in its current incarnation. I’ve just started using the Neo-Roman culture of Suzanne Collins’s Panem setting to work to take the fear out of Latin-derived vocabulary words.
One of the pleasures of the Hunger Games trilogy for adult readers is the subtle thread of Roman influence on the world-building. It’s completely lost on the narrator, who has been raised in extreme poverty and educated only far enough to serve a dictatorial state. Since Katniss can’t comment on the classical echoes, and doesn’t need to understand them to navigate her world successfully, teenage readers who haven’t been offered much history earlier than 1776 can get by all right, too. They hang on in the wake of Katniss’s enormous personality and follow her through fire and storm to the end of the last volume. My students do get all the big themes and moods of the story, and all the wild action. The little grace notes that genre readers smile over, well, left to themselves, my students just shrug and treat them as non-specific markers of Panem’s otherness.
Consider the Cornucopia.
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