Professor of English and Creative Writing
English Department, Sturm Hall, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208 / 303-871-2898 /
Some Thoughts on Teaching
by Brian Kiteley
About half my courses are creative writing workshops for undergraduates and graduate students. I don’t like the usual workshop method, but I use it, in a limited form, imposing a wide variety of exercises on the process. What do I mean, I don’t like the usual workshop method? The standard American workshop is a lazy construction. The teacher asks students to bring in stories or poems to class, sometimes copied and handed out ahead of time, sometimes not. The class and its final arbiter (usually the teacher) judge the merits of the story or poem. Few ask the question, “Where does a story come from?” The standard American workshop presumes that you cannot teach creativity or instincts or beginnings. It takes what it can once the process has already been started. Most writing teachers say, “Okay, bring in a story and we’ll take it apart and put it back together again.” I say, “Let’s see what we can do to find some stories.” The average workshop is often a profoundly conservative force in fiction writers’ lives, encouraging the simplifying and routinizing of stories. Madison Smartt Bell says, “Fiction workshops are almost inherently incapable of finding success.” I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities, to foster strangeness and irregularity, as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself, and I don’t worry much about success or failure (I think Bell’s lament is to the point, but I also think writers should leave workshops to do the final work themselves, deciding on their own whether they’ve failed or succeeded).
My classes are spare parts warehouses young writers enter to ransack (and create) fragments that can be fitted together to build a story (or many stories). Exercises can be more than convenient tools for triggering conversation about fiction before the group gets down to the real work of discussing longer stories. Exercises are the heart of the process of teaching fiction in my workshops. Students select exercises from my own collections of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany or The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, or from other books. They also design their own exercises and algorithms (procedures for solving a creative problem). Students do two sets of five exercises in the first few weeks of the term, with a consistent set of characters, place, and time, but I urge them not to write a story. We read these exercises, and the class looks for a story or several stories. We often suggest two or three or parts of several exercises as the building blocks for the longer story they will write and give to us for the third workshop of their work. In other words, the class and I are on the lookout for an unusual combination of fragments to make another story than the writer may have had in mind. The effect of this collage is to show the whole class the many possibilities of narrative. I want the class to see fiction as a machine with interchangeable working parts. A side benefit of talking about small pieces of prose (the exercises are usually less than two pages) is that we can talk about language, paragraphs, and sentences, which is harder to do when you’re struggling to describe how a fifteen-page story works. Most fiction workshops seem resigned to the idea that young writers ought not to be interfered with while they’re dreaming up their stories. But creativity can be taught.
In essence, I start the workshop much earlier in the process than most teachers do. Workshops can actually help students find stories. This isn't a revolutionary approach, but it feels that way sometimes. Many writing teachers seem not to want to disturb the delicate process of creation, as if it could be spoiled by exposure to the light of day. The activity of composing is at least as interesting as the activity of revising, but the vast majority of American creative writing workshops are mainly concerned with revision. Workshops can train writers to improvise and apply new methods to the discovery of story ideas. Instead of simply evaluating writing once it's been written, workshops should explore the way we discover and uncover stories. A writer becomes a writer when she finds the proper subject of her work. The right kind of exercises and combinations of exercises can unlock and expose to air the obsessions we need to examine to make great fiction.
The workshop should also situate the student writer in a tradition of other writings. I often have two dueling texts, to show very different approaches to fiction and the craft of fiction. But I think more and more that workshops and literary history courses should resemble each other. There need be no wall between the two types of classes. Literary studies classes wisely avoid examining the idea of authors' intentions (although perhaps they go too far in this prohibition). We can't know what an author was thinking when she wrote a poem or a novel, even with a very elaborately annotated manuscript, but that doesn't mean there isn't evidence of the construction of the poem or novel quite visible in its structure and expression. New Historicism worries about the long stream of interrelated events, social forces, and texts that make up History. The idea that there is an author flies in the face of a lot of theoretical and philosophical thinking that underpins much literary study. But literature is an important force all by itself, a way of looking at the world, and reflection of human consciousness, which might be just as important as the historical events surrounding literature.
I also teach travel writing, contemporary historical fiction, and postcolonial fiction classes. I believe that all writing is creative writing. My expository assignments in literature classes are creative and unusual, such as requiring students to write out a set of questions in advance of their papers (which they hand in and I help them revise), then the students answer the questions, constructing something like a self-interview. I also ask students to do projects that involve imitation and parallel construction. I am a reader (and writer) who enjoys organic innovations in the form and content of fiction and poetry. By organic, I mean, experiments that develop out of the relationship between content and point of view. I also believe language is infinitely malleable, a live being in our hands, which deserves our great respect and curiosity. Some of the writers I have loved over the last twenty years: Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marcel Proust, Primo Levi, Isak Dinesen, Grace Paley, Isaac Babel, Christa Wolf, Donald Barthelme, Eduardo Galeano, Mikhail Bulgakov, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick, W.G. Sebald, Ezra Pound, Amitav Ghosh, Richard Powers, James Clifford, Timothy Mitchell, George Steiner, Guy Davenport, William Gass, Henri Michaux, Walter Benjamin, Henry Adams, Don DeLillo, Washington Irving, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Here is a longer list of recommended readings.
Here's one link to Barnadette Mayer's wonderful exercises for poetry (which can easily be adapted to fiction). And here are some sample fiction exercises from The 3 A.M. Epiphany and some from The 4 A.M. Breakthrough.
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