Meditation in the Classroom
Creative writing requires introspection and introspection requires meditation. When I taught creative writing I began each class with five minutes of silent meditation, which calmed and focused my students, followed by ten minutes of freewriting. I also used the monastic practice of lectio divina as an alternative to analytical ways of reading a text.
Meditation, freewriting, lectio divina, and in-class reflection took time — a lot of time. This is usually the first objection to my teaching philosophy from teachers who worry about "getting through the material." My goal was never just to get through the material. I preferred to cover the essentials in-depth rather than race through a lot of different material.
My meditative approach extended to the course design, where the trajectory of the semester guided the student's thoughts inward and then outward.
Directed essay assignments at the beginning of the semester made students examine their reading habits, their sources of inspiration, and their creative process. These assignments were followed by essays from novelists that demystified the lives of writers, revealed how professionals work, and provided a point of comparison to the student's process.
Next, students studied craft techniques by reading and analyzing published works to see how a writer achieved a desired effect. For each craft technique, I devoted time for students to reflect in-class upon ways they might use the technique in their work and make those revisions. In this way, the course guided students through the revision process.
Their time in my classroom was just sixteen weeks. I couldn't possibly teach them everything they would need for the years that followed, so I wanted my students to leave my classroom with the ability to be their own teachers and continue learning without formal instruction. To this end I used a contract grading system and open-ended assignments.
We learn best when we are motivated to improve our writing rather than simply earn a grade. My syllabi listed concrete actions that I believed led to the most learning. If the student completed each item, he or she was guaranteed a minimum final grade of a B. So while students still needed to work very hard in my class, they stopped counting points and fretting over final scores and instead focused on improving their writing.
Such assignments forced students to confront the difficult task of doing independent, personal thinking and expression. These assignments, along with the overall course design, guided a student’s thoughts outward from themselves to an audience. When the semester ended, students who had put forth honest effort had spent months engaged in independent thinking and learning.
Rather than my primary pedagogical tool, I used the workshop only at the end of the semester to test whether students had learned craft lessons and could appropriately apply those techniques in their own writing. In this way the workshop reinforced the craft lessons and revealed which techniques students had mastered and which required further practice.
This hybrid course combines a literature class with a writing workshop and teaches the building blocks of fiction writing.
While studying published short stories, students will also write and revise their own short story. Directed reading and writing assignments will guide them through the process of invention, creation, and revision. This course will also introduce students to “the workshop." It will prepare them to participate in more advanced workshops in future courses. Read the full syllabus.
In this advanced creative writing course students study how two authors transformed their short stories into novels and attempt to do the same with their own short fiction.
For practical reasons, most creative writing courses focus on short stories but most students want to become novelists. In this class students study the three-act structure in novels, long-form plotting and character development, the use of multiple voices to manage momentum, the use of mirroring techniques, and the weaving of subplots. Students apply those lessons as they take one of their existing short stories and attempt to expand it into a novel, since many first novels first began as short stories. Read the full syllabus.
This hybrid course combines a literature class with a writing workshop and introduces students to the poetics and politics of nature writing.
Works of nature writing have changed the course of American history. In this course introduces students read many different kinds of nature writing, think about those works critically, write their own nonfiction prose about the natural world, practice observing the world like a naturalist, and learn how nature writing is a form of political action. Read the full syllabus.
This hybrid course combines a literature class with an advanced writing workshop and explores how political themes are expressed through fiction.
Politics is an indelible aspect of the human condition, and so characters in fiction often confront political issues, directly or indirectly, which means their authors must do the same. Most great works of American fiction are about politics. In this advanced creative writing course students examine how authors have crafted human drama from abstract political themes such as the state of nature and civil society, individual rights, justice, freedom and equality, and democratic self-government. Read the full syllabus.
This hybrid course combines a literature class with an advanced writing course where students transform an existing story into a graphic piece.
In this class students learn the history of comics’ emergence and evolution through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the terminology of comics, the grammar of visual storytelling, the various comic industry standards for scriptwriting, story structure (stand-alone stories, chapters in serialized stories, and full-length graphic novels), and the skills for reading comics critically. Students also take an existing work of fiction or memoir completed in a previous course and translate it into the comics medium. Read the full syllabus.