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A Boot Camp for Creative Writing (Uncut)

Categories: How to Start Writing a Book, 1st Chapter, Overcoming Writer's Block, Writing Your First Draft Tags: classes/mfa, creativity exercises.

One of my life’s great ironies is that, while I’ve taught in a distinguished creative-writing program for 33 years at the University of Washington (we have three MacArthur fellows in a faculty of nine), I’ve never taken a college-level creative-writing workshop, nor did I want to back in the 1970s. Back then, when I first began furiously writing fiction, the last thing I wanted to do, as a graduate student moving through rigorous philosophy seminars toward a Ph.D., was sit through the intellectually questionable workshops I’d seen from a distance or heard about. To my eye, they were dominated by the instructor’s personality and unsolicited political opinions, and took an approach that was highly subjective, a “touchy-feely” urging of twentysomethings to “write about what they know.” My sense was that those apprentices, who knew so little about literature, history, philosophy, or culture, wrote and rewrote the same underwhelming story, usually about their first sexual experiences, all semester long. Here was not where I wanted to bring my manuscripts. I knew I would be bored. I asked myself then, as I sometimes do now: How long would Melville, Poe, Kafka, Emerson, or Dostoyevsky have survived in a soft-at-the-center course like this?

But when I was hired at UW in 1976, two years after I published my first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, I was faced, at age 28, with the task of deciding what I thought a heuristic, highly productive fiction workshop should be. From the start, I felt it should be a labor-intensive “skill acquisition” course, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. The curriculum should be capacious, allowing for instruction in all styles, genres, and subgenres of fiction. I believed that apprentices learned best (as in music or the martial arts) through oldfangled imitation of master craftsmen, through assignments aimed at learning a repertoire of literary strategies, and by writing and revising prodigiously. I saw the goal of a (literary) art class as the creation of artists who were technicians of form and language; it was the preparation of journeymen, not one-trick ponies, who one day would be able to take on any narrative assignment — fiction or nonfiction, screenplay or radio drama, novel or literary journalism — that came up in their careers. And such a class should make clear that writing well was always the same thing as thinking well.

Fortunately, when I first worked out this course — for both undergraduate and graduate students (for the latter I simply add stiffer requirements) — I had many pedagogical and professional experiences to draw on. I’d spent seven years as a journalist and cartoonist working in all forms, I’d written seven novels, I’d consumed a whole library’s worth of writing manuals and texts on aesthetics, and I’d apprenticed with the novelist John Gardner, a bluff, combustible, and brilliant teacher who once told an interviewer, “Writing is the only religion I have.” I remember once when he was going over one of my chapters for Faith in his office at Southern Illinois University, and I asked if he needed to stop in order to prepare for his creative-writing workshop. Gardner shook his mane of silver hair and said, “No, teaching creative writing is a joke,” and we continued with his critique of my work until the bell rang for him to go to class.

Because I did not want my short-fiction workshops to be “a joke,” I designed them to be demanding, and though requirements have evolved over the years, their rigor remains the same. I assign three full-length stories for my students to complete and revise during the term. I tell them I don’t care what they write, only how they write it. If their first story is told in first person, I ask them to try the other two in third or second person; and, if their protagonists in that first story are people very much like themselves, to switch their characters’ gender, race, or cultural orientation.

I also urge them to experiment with the wealth of literary forms that are our global inheritance as writers. From John Gardner’s first book, The Forms of Fiction (1962), I extracted a three-page handout titled “Short Fictional Forms,” which shows the essential differences in the sketch, fable, parable, yarn, tale, and modern short story. I give students several other handouts as well, some deadly serious, others more whimsical, including Mark Twain’s risible essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”; Lajos Egri’s chart, “The Bone Structure,” from The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946), for conceiving well-rounded characters; and my own essay, “A Theory for This Course,” in which I insist that the work they turn in must present: (1) a story with logically plotted sequences; (2) three-dimensional characters — that is, real people with real problems; (3) sensuous description, or a complete world to which readers can imaginatively respond; (4) dialogue with the authenticity of real speech; (5) a strong narrative voice; (6) rhythm, musicality, and control of the cadences in their fiction; and finally, (7) originality in theme and execution.

But that is just the beginning of what I ask for.

During the course I have students read Northrop Frye’s lovely The Educated Imagination (1963), to help them see, in my paraphrasing of Kant, that education without imagination is empty, and imagination without education is blind. I lecture on such de rigueur topics as plot, description, dialogue, character, the structure of dramatic scenes, and so forth, but usually from a philosophical angle — for example, tracing the rise of 20th-century subjectivism and the historical and cultural evolution of viewpoint from the loss of faith in omniscient narrators and an agreed-upon “objective” world to stream-of-consciousness, the recognition of the relativity of viewpoints, and the preference of many contemporary readers for the supposedly greater authority of first-person narratives. Always, I return students from theory to practice. I give them the impossible task of handing in a photocopy of the finest prose passage they’ve ever read, telling me in one page why they admire it, what literary strategies in it they want to master. (I promise them that by the end of the term I’ll show them how to achieve such effects.) Using the notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Albert Camus as examples, I ask them to maintain a writer’s workbook, one they are to fill daily with images, ideas, scraps of language, character sketches, overheard dialogue, and so forth, that they can use when revising their fiction.

In this creative “boot camp,” as I often call it, I also give students a healthy dose of Gardner. (I put everyone who works with me for the first time, grad or undergrad, through the same drill.) When he heard I’d been hired at UW, Gardner sent me three unpublished pages of challenging writing exercises he’d worked out in 1976 for his students at the State University of New York at Binghamton, along with a sobering two-page introduction stating how apprentices must “learn the feeling from within of a complete fictional form,” as well as “scores of ways of doing everything.” Those exercises and their introduction appear at the end of his posthumously published handbook, The Art of Fiction (1984). In the 1970s and ’80s, I assigned all 30 exercises to my students, which meant they did three a week. (These days for a class that meets twice weekly I assign the 10 most challenging exercises.) Among my favorites, then and now, are:

(1) “Write three effective long sentences: each at least one full typed page (or 250 words), each involving a different emotion (for example, anger, pensiveness, sorrow, joy). Purpose: control of tone in a complex sentence.”

(2) “Describe a character in a brief passage (one or two pages) using mostly long vowels and soft consonants (o as in “moan,” e as in “see”; l, m, n, sh, etc.); then describe the same character, using mostly short vowels and hard consonants (i as in “sit”; k, t, p, gg, etc.).” The purpose of this exercise, Gardner wrote, is to help students see that “describing a scene in mostly long vowels and soft consonants achieves an effect far different from that achieved by a passage mostly in short vowels and hard consonants.”

(3) “Write a monologue of at least three pages, in which the interruptions — pauses, gestures, descriptions, etc. — all clearly and persuasively characterize, and the shifts from monologue to gesture and touches of setting (as when the character touches some object or glances out the window) all feel rhythmically right. Purpose: to learn ways of letting a character make a long speech that doesn’t seem boring or artificial.” (Later, in a second monologue, students present a philosophical position they tend to favor, but present it through a character and in a context that modifies or undermines it.)

Since 1976, my serious students have sparked to this syllabus, which demands from me reams of reading and redacting drafts until the wee hours of morning. Among my earliest apprentices in the late 1970s and early ’80s were David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, and Gary Hawkes, now co-director of the creative-writing program at Lycoming College and author of several novels, among them Semaphore and Surveyor. They were burning to write and be artistically challenged. Some students transformed certain exercises, like Gardner’s three-page monologue, into complete stories and published them in literary magazines.

Clearly, with good students, one can be demanding. I urge them, since writers are lovers of language, to begin reading a good dictionary from A to Z (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary or the 2,129-page, unabridged Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary) as Gardner and I, respectively, had done, to improve their vocabularies and develop their own lexicons, and my very best students do that. In class, I write a new word each day on the blackboard to see if students know it — ullage, gride, yirn, or kalokagathia — and give a “prize” (usually a copy of a literary journal) to the students whose fiction discussed that day exhibit the most delicious, perception-altering use of language. Sometimes if they return for a second course with me, I give them writing exercises of my own invention and 17 selected from Copy and Compose (1969), by Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester, a splendid book that makes them compose new sentences in numerous forms: elaborated, compound/complex sentences; antithesis; various forms of keyword repetition; epanalepsis (circular sentence); and so forth.

This approach to teaching fiction writing has been rewarding for my students and me. Occasionally, five or six of the best pupils continue on their own, meeting at one another’s homes to discuss their stories. Former students have gone on to become successful novelists, college professors, editors, filmmakers, and even one Seattle detective who specializes in sex offenders. (He told me that the class’s emphasis on exactitude in language helps him write concise, accurate police reports, precise in their diction, thereby reducing the chances of a perpetrator’s going free because of foggy wording.)

However, that doesn’t mean that over the last three decades I haven’t been forced to modify the class, as the backgrounds and academic preparation of students and the enveloping culture have transmogrified. At some point in the late ’80s, I realized that students were far less informed about the novels of depth and density I sometimes referred to (such as William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus) and the aesthetic texts — Aristotle’s Poetics, Longinus’s essential On the Sublime, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Albert Murray’s remarkable “The Hero and the Blues,” Sartre’s What is Literature?, William Gass’s “The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words” — that my better students in the ’70s were at least glancingly familiar with. In the period of identity politics and Kulturkampf that swept over American colleges in the ’80s like a tsunami, students’ imaginations cratered; their stories became depressingly less imaginative and daring, but they were oh so politically correct. Furthermore, I began to notice that some students timidly waited for me to analyze and dissect the fiction we were discussing that day or let a handful of the more vocal class members dominate our discussions. That, of course, would never do. This class was demanding, yes. Students worked hard for their professor and themselves. But what I needed to ensure was that they worked just as hard for one another.

About 10 years ago, I added a new task to the standard requirement that students provide hard copies of their fiction for all class members to edit. At the start of each discussion, one class member provides a full critique of whatever story is under review, and when he or she is done the rest of us offer our judgment of that story and the accuracy of the critic’s analysis. Each student must perform this chore twice during a term, making it impossible for anyone to hide or withhold his or her judgment. I ask undergraduates to speak for at least 10 minutes and graduate students for between 20 and 45 minutes. If they identify a problem in the story under discussion, I ask them to suggest at least one — even better, two — solutions the author might try. Everyone in class needs to be prepared to step up and volunteer to take the place of that day’s reporter if for some reason he or she misses class.

Because most students lack the critical skills for interrogating fiction (at first they even struggle with determining a story’s literal sequence of events), I created for them a new handout, a checklist of 24 crucial questions they should ask in regard to fiction, not merely in terms of “themes” but about how a document is made, the decisions that went into its construction, and whether those were the best choices for fulfilling the writer’s intention. After the student critique and our roundtable discussion, if time permits, the student critic and I lead a word-by-word analysis of the work, always with an eye toward explaining the principle of craft behind a correction or line that we praise.

To prepare my students for the next modification I made in my workshops, I tell them about a wonderful event the Washington Commission for the Humanities holds every September, called “Bedtime Stories.” Each year for five years now local authors (myself, August Wilson, David Shields, Steven Barnes, Laura Kalpakian, and others) compose a short short story (about 2,000 words) based on a theme provided by the commission. The themes thrown at us have ranged from “insomnia” to “a goodnight kiss.” Like jazz musicians (or medieval troubadours) responding to a theme, the old pros relish the chance to test anew their storytelling prowess and hear what their peers have produced.

To emphasize the importance of storytelling in addition to craft, I’ve reduced the number of Gardner exercises I assign and replaced them with the assignment that each student turn in weekly a complete, two-page plot outline for a new story, my purpose being to nudge them beyond writing the same semi-autobiographical story over and over, to imagine other lives, and to be raconteurs always ready to tell an engaging tale. (As one member of my 2001 graduate class, a retired English teacher who published his first novel in the ’60s, put it: “I’d rather have dinner with a storyteller than a writer any day.”) Students generate 10 outlines each term, enough to carry them into future workshops. For my graduate students, five of those have specific requisites: (1) One outline must use a classic reversal; (2) one must be in a traditional or neglected literary form not used for a major work of fiction in the last 100 years, a form students must go to the library and research; (3) one must use a historical figure, living or dead, as a protagonist or secondary character; (4) one must address some question, problem, or theme that hasn’t been dramatized in contemporary American fiction; and (5) one outline must blend two or more traditional or contemporary forms of fiction. Many graduate students have told me that those weekly plot outlines were precisely what they needed to make them work on their greatest weaknesses: plot and dramatic structure.

Over nearly three decades what I’ve discovered is that a writing workshop, like everything else, must evolve. If it is to truly help apprentice writers, it must deliver techne, what Gardner once called a deep understanding of “poetic and prosaic form, entertainment, and the powerful evocation of character and event.” To internalize that understanding, I tell my students, serious writers must be edacious readers their entire lives. Yet, in the end, the galaxy of techniques and strategies we teachers provide our students — all that theory and practice — must serve spirited, memorable storytelling. It is toward that end that I’ve shaped, and continue to shape, this rather uncommon course on the craft of fiction.

Copyright © 2003 by Charles Johnson. Originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (October 31, 2003). Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of the author.

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