A Guide to Teaching Creative Writing and Mountaineering
I’m like a Sherpa. I don’t actually teach writing. I guide writing. Having scaled the mountain of creative nonfiction many times, I am familiar with the landscape, the weather patterns, and the types of choices that need to be made when obstacles arise. Sharing the adventure with students is rewarding. Following are some principles and pragmatics by which I lead:
Studying the terrain will inform our climb. I provide examples of well-written creative nonfiction, in its various forms, for analysis and inspiration. Material includes older and contemporary work, both with an outward and inward, personal, focus. Essays about writing, in particular, introduce us to others who’ve donned wool socks, undertaken the same endeavor, and reflected on their experience.
We must equip ourselves with proper gear. That equates to using a common language with which to discuss writing. I help students understand and practice utilizing terms such as structure, pacing, voice, summary vs. scene, etc. while evaluating what we’ve read together in class and also at home.
Warm-up stretches benefit the body, and similarly, in-class writing exercises stimulate the mind. Writing together, then sharing this work as well as our approaches to the work, opens us to divergent paths of creative thinking and also helps build community.
While setting our sights on a mountain, we must pay careful attention to the trail. The prose delivers us—whether to an image or a notion or a feeling. I enjoy waking students to see that the tint of our ideas changes according to the words we choose. With the goal of growing their appreciation for the potency of language, I have students try expressing one idea in various ways and analyzing their choices.
To keep students moving forward, I supply them with two essentials, critique and encouragement. Critique suggests to them how to take the next step and encouragement builds in them the belief that they can. While writing is a solitary endeavor, for the duration of this class, I’ve got their back. I feel proud and excited when I accompany students to the next level of their ascent.
We’re never aiming to reach the summit on the first day. Progress is incremental. Especially in an introductory writing class, this means pointing out only one major flaw of an essay in its first review. After the student works to resolve that issue and presents a new draft, we focus on another problem. One hike at a time. Addressing every flaw immediately leads novice writers to view their challenges as insurmountable. Also, having to produce revisions enables students to realize, first-hand, that writing well takes time and tenacity.
Writing is a climb for me also. I share with students the fact that I’m continually learning to write; every essay is a trial. Sometimes I am clawing my way and get nowhere. Mental fog periodically obscures my focus. More than once, I’ve been partway up a mountain, stuck, searching for ideas that were just not sprouting, and resigned myself to turning around and trekking home. Showing them examples of my unfinished work and multiple attempts at composing a single sentence reassures students that their writing struggles are normal.
We will each plant a personal flag of achievement. At the end of our semester expedition, despite any adversity or fatigue, it’s inevitable that we will have gotten somewhere. Our mental muscles feel it. The view is proof: I have students look back at their initial writing to see where they started and write a reflection on their progress, including plans for the writing challenges they wish to pursue next. And with some rest, clean clothing, and a replenished water bottle, I will happily meet a new troop and do it all over again!