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, from introspection to audience consideration. Each semester began with student examination of themselves, then the study of craft, and finally writing for an audience in workshop.
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 to continue learning without formal instruction.
We learn best when we are motivated to improve our writing rather than simply earn a grade. In order to put students in charge of their education and minimize my role as instructor, I used 1) a contract grading system, 2) open-ended assignments that forced students to confront the difficult task of doing independent, personal thinking and expression, and 3) a course design that guided a student’s thoughts outward from themselves to an audience.
The contract grading system is an idea borrowed from Peter Elbow. My syllabi list concrete actions that I believe lead 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, experience showed they stopped counting points and fretting over final scores and instead focused on improving their writing.
When the semester ended, students who put forth honest effort had spent months engaged in independent thinking and learning. In other words, they were prepared to continue their education as their own teachers.
After many weeks of revision based upon lessons of craft, students submitted their short story to the workshop for peer evaluation. Rather than my primary pedagogical tool, I used the workshop 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.