Writing is a discipline and it takes discipline to write.
So how does one learn and practice to become a writer? What’s more, how does one teach others to become writers?
In the next few months, you will hear from those who teach creative writing. Consider this your mini, free Creative Writing 101.
We kick off this series with Dr. Tara. Hart. Tara is one of two Co-Chairs of HoCoPoLitSo. In addition to being a community advocate for poetry and literature, she is a scholar, a poet, and a teacher. Listen to Tara read her poem “Pine” published in TriQuarterly. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Howard Community College. Here’s what she had to share with us.
LY: How would you describe – to someone brand new to teaching creative writing – your approach to teaching creative writing?
TH: I’ve realized over the years that the greatest challenges students face in their creative writing are getting it done on time and overcoming a sense of vulnerability, and that realization has significantly impacted my course design. I set up the grade distribution to reflect the fact that in the professional world of creative writing, you might have tremendous freedom in your assignments but you must hit your marks. Students might struggle to produce creative work by a certain deadline because they haven’t consciously made time or created the right environment for their creative process and habits, or because they fear the judgment that follows sharing their work, which can be very personal. So one of our first assignments is to create an action plan that anticipates difficulties, and every assignment they do receives full credit/points if it meets the required length and deadline and is on topic; I don’t “grade” individual pieces of creative work a la A, B, C, D, F.
This design motivates them to meet their deadlines and push forward even when it’s not perfect or even close. Their final portfolio of work, containing their best pieces and a reflective essay on their own strengths and goals for improvement, is graded at the end of the semester, but it’s now a much lower percentage of their overall grade, and it’s quite remarkable how the “best” writers very often do end up with the highest grades, even though the vast majority of the final grade is really about completing work on time. It affirms my idea that strengthening the habit of writing consistently and pushing through fear to meet the challenges of writing in unfamiliar genres and on a variety of topics produces, ultimately, better quality writing.
I heard a “Moth” storyteller on NPR say that a turning point in her life when she decided to “stop being a writer” and decided to “actually write.” I think my class, with its emphasis on production and feedback, distinguishes those students who are compelled to write and to develop the habits and discipline of a writer, from those who just like the idea of writing and might otherwise use the excuse that the instructor doesn’t “like” their writing – if they don’t do well in the class, it’s because they simply didn’t produce and engage.
LY: What is the most challenging thing to teach in creative writing?
TH: I have struggled most and improved most in the area of designing valuable peer review experiences in which students consistently give, receive and respond to each other’s feedback. Peer review skills are important in composition as well, but it’s harder, in a different way, for students to critique someone’s personal memoir than an expository essay. When I gave creative writing students choices in terms of whom to review, the same strong writers would get the most feedback and others would be neglected. Now I deliver the course most often as a hybrid, so that the Canvas learning platform becomes the “workshopping” portion of the course, and I use its automatic peer review feature to make sure everyone receives equal amounts of attention.
I’ve also worked hard to teach them how to work effectively within a writing community. I give very specific guidance and requirements about how to review each other’s work, using the model of What Works? What Doesn’t Work? and What If? , and as they explicitly improve in the quality of their feedback they implicitly improve their own writing because their self-editing skills are inevitably sharpened. I have learned to come in with my comments at the end of a unit, such as writing to them about patterns and possibilities I see in their fiction or in their poetry after they’ve worked a while with that genre – this gets them in the habit of listening to each other first and for quite a while without waiting for or deferring to the “real” critique from the professor.
Students might say that the most challenging/scary part of the course is reading their work aloud, which I’ve required to greater degrees over the years. I want them to learn more about the rhythm and music of their words. Also, the literary readings we do together, in which each student gets on the stage of Monteabaro Hall and reads for two minutes, make the students feel closer to each other, often increase their self-confidence in their writing, and illustrate the power of a supportive writing community.
LY: You are a poet. What’s the best suggestion/tip/teaching that you received from your own creative writing teachers?
TH: I didn’t study towards an MFA but trained in criticism, so my best creative writing teachers have been the master poets and writers I’m fortunate to read and meet and listen to as they are interviewed about their process for The Writing Life or present in venues here on campus or at the Dodge Poetry Festival every other year. I tell and require my students to READ, and to “read like writers,” which an astonishing number do not do extensively or widely. I ask those who do not read often, “Who, then, do you think is going to read your work?”
Billy Collins has had the greatest impact on my own writing when he teaches that readers don’t really want to hear about the writer’s thoughts and feelings but are looking to find themselves in what they read; that readers need to be oriented in concrete, specific ways before you launch them into abstraction or profundity; and that as writers we need to stop hiding behind vagary or ego. I’m better at spotting the difference between self-indulgent “bravery” (in which facts and feelings are wielded as weapons) and the tender commitment to offering truth.
LY: What is the most common advice/suggestion/tip you find yourself giving to your students?
TH: Show, don’t tell! Let the reader “be there” through the use of sensory details, rather than summarizing or explaining the experience for them. I’m also (in)famous for crossing out lots of text. I can do lots of slashing because I’ve already given them full credit for doing their work – I’m free to tell them how unnecessary lots of it is. Student writers tend to over-explain and interrupt their own compelling action or images with redundant “telling” of what we’re already inferring and feeling.