It’s been a whirlwind semester, so far. In addition to reading and editing fiction submissions for Border Crossing with two wonderful interns, I’ve been teaching two courses for the first time: a course on Responding to Writing for future teachers, and an intermediate creative writing course for majors and minors that is specifically designed to help students take risks in their writing, to encourage them to experiment in order to help them discover their voices.
Teaching the combination of these two courses for the first time together has brought some interesting insights. Much of the theory we’ve been reading for the writing response course discusses the importance of encouraging students to make their own decisions about their writing. Not only with regard to topic selection, but also with regard to choosing the best form to express their ideas, and even deciding what that best form is. English education scholars like Katie Van Sluys and Katie Wood Ray encourage teachers not to enforce their own aesthetics on students, but rather to ask students what they think makes good writing so that the students work on building their own aesthetics. In essence, good writing instruction is the ultimate panacea for the age-old complaint of the creative writing graduate: “What will I do when there are no more workshops?”
Ideally, we tell students, they should make friends with the other students in their program, so they can share their writing journeys and work. But post-graduation, the working writer most often makes decisions alone, in front of a glowing computer screen. And if what Walter Benjamin said about genre is true, that–
All great works of literature invent a genre or dissolve one.
Isn’t the core work of the creative writing teacher to foster a culture of experimentation, in which students are encouraged to take risks, so that they can work on developing and discovering their own voices?
The intermediate creative writing course I’m teaching this semester incorporates a collaborative–and rather experimental–performance project. I approached Lloyd Eddy, my colleague, the art professor at Lake State, before the beginning of the semester, looking for an opportunity for my students to collaborate with art students, and he invited me to come talk to him and Joshua Legg, our new dance professor, about a collaboration they were already planning. The three of us had an exciting discussion about the possibilities of a collaboration among students in all three disciplines, and I was really excited about the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues. For years, I had made most of my decisions alone at my computer, and I’d never collaborated outside of my discipline.
At the beginning of the semester, we divided students into interdisciplinary groups, in which they had to decide not only the subjects for their collaborations, but what forms those collaborations would take. We formed a faculty group and met for weekly discussions, like our students, to deliberate about our own piece. This past weekend was the first dry run of the emerging collaborations, and I’m excited by the varied forms the groups have chosen. I got chills and tears in my eyes, more than once, as I watched the performances. There’s a dance in which a narrative poem torn into strips will be part of the costume of the dancer, draped over her dress and tied in ribbons throughout her hair; the final gesture of the dance is mirrored in a sculpture that will be projected onto the stage. Another dancer is using a spoken-word poem as her sound score; the artists in that group will exhibit a triptych of mixed media paintings. Joshua and Lloyd and I are making a film that explores the creative process through the visual imagery, gestures, and language of alchemy. It’s been so much fun to discover the similarities between all three art forms, to explore the creative process not only with words but also with art and dance. I’d forgotten how invigorating it can be to experiment together in the classroom and with my colleagues–who are brilliant and inspiring–and I can’t wait for rehearsals to start!
Update: our short film, When the Gate Swings Open, and Bottles Hang from Trees, is now available on YouTube!