It's finally happened. You've reached the pinnacle (or at least a peak) of your career: you've been asked to teach a creative writing class. Sounds easy, doesn't it? After all, isn't writing in your blood, with words flowing from your fingertips every day?
The problem is that what comes so naturally on paper is hard to explain, difficult to define and even more impossible to teach to others. You can make the process easier, however, by following these nine simple steps:
1. Plan ahead. Scour past issues of writer's magazines, pulling ideas for each class from those pages of infinite wisdom. Line up your schedule in chronological order: covering the basics, developing a plot, creating characters, etc. Find materials that match each week's theme and help reiterate your points. Make copies and lay out the entire course plan before the first class. Having a clearly defined curriculum relieves the pressure of coming up with something new each week.
2. Plan twice as much material as you think you're going to need. You may be counting on class participation and end up with a room full of Marcel Marceau wannabees. Or the brainstorming session you allotted 30 minutes for only takes 30 seconds. Rather than filling dead time with complaints about your cat, make sure you have additional handouts and exercises. Find a book of quick writing exercises and use those as a springboard for a few of your own. These are great ways to revive a class and to help your students apply what you are teaching them.
3. Plan activities that will involve the whole class. Part of the problem with a creative writing class is the diverse group of people who sign up. Poets may not be too interested in writing short stories and vice versa. Develop lectures that can encompass all the writers in the room. After all, writing is writing. The lessons I have learned in my fiction writing -- show and don't tell, bring characters to life, integrate scenery as a character -- have all been applied to my articles and, in my opinion, add a depth that would be lacking if I didn't have a background in fiction, too. A session on character development, if delivered right, can help everyone from the journalist to the poet make their writing come alive.
4. Share a little of yourself. Go beyond telling how you made your first sale or how great it is to go to work in your sweats every day. Show some pieces of your work before and after -- with the typos and crossouts. It shows the class your evolution as a writer and helps you vocalize what is essentially an internal process. In addition, this helps writers realize final drafts don't magically spring from the author's fingers without many, many revisions and several staged executions of favorite lines and entire scenes.
5. Develop several brainstorming activities. When I was in creative writing classes, the "assignments" that the teacher gave us (go look in a mirror and write a poem about what you see, write a story about this painting, etc.) inspired me well beyond that night's homework. I count a few of those pieces among the best work I've ever done. There's just something about a room filled with writers that jump-starts the creative muse.
6. Do a few "get to know exercises." I had my class "interview" each other for mock newspaper articles -- a great method of developing characters, because each "reporter" had to gather all the background information before putting pen to paper. The interviewee was allowed to be anything he or she wanted -- a bordello madam, a mystery writer, etc. It was fun to listen to the interviews but even more entertaining to hear the finished newspaper articles. This exercise helped others in the class open up and share a bit of creative flair.
7. Don't push for the class to participate. I had two people in my class who never turned anything in for critiquing or read a single sentence to the class. I understood their reluctance. Some writers are naturally reticent while others aren't quite ready for the critical swipe of a red pen. Encourage the shyer students to submit work via e-mail or after class and opt for a private critique, rather than a class-wide discussion of the piece. When the entire class analyzes one student's work, be sure to emphasize as much positive criticism as negative. Remember, it's hard to be the one in the spotlight, with your "baby" being dissected by others.
8. Cover the basics of the business. I went over synopses, queries and copyrights with my students, showing them how to use the available information and where to do research. Although many members of my class were writing for pleasure, the thought of future publication of their work generated hundreds of questions. You don't want to just teach your students how to write a story and then leave them fumbling blindly in the dark, looking for the light at the end of the publishing tunnel.
9. Learn from your students. I don't think any writer ever reaches the point where he or she has nothing else to learn. Some of my students were better at dialogue than me and we had some great discussions about how they made their scenes come alive. I found each member of the class had a strength that the others could benefit from and I encouraged them to share it.
That give and take in the classroom resulted in a lecture that was enjoyable for me, both as a teacher and as a student. There were moments when we sat in a group and simply discussed the joys of writing or the different routes to publication. A relaxed, friendly atmosphere gives everyone a chance to create their own education. And finally, the number one lesson to remember: in the best creative writing classes, everyone should get a chance to be both student and teacher.
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