Magazine article Academe

Creative Writing Class as Crucible

Magazine article Academe

Creative Writing Class as Crucible

Article excerpt

We need to pay attention to student writing and emotional response in the post-Virginia Tech classroom.

I've been teaching writing and literature for more than twenty years now, many of those years at a public liberal arts university in Missouri. What changes every semester is who gets taught and how they learn what they learn. One semester there seemed to be a lot of writing about serial killers, rapists, slashers, and murderers-so much writing that I started a file and told a friend, if I end up dead, go to my office and get the file marked "suspects." Some of the writing was simply the over-thetop work of young men who didn't write very well (it wasn't the women writing this stuff). Some of it wasn't. That same semester, a man called and left a message on my home answering machine that said, "I'm gonna get you, get you, get you... out of the closet."

I suspected that the messenger was a member of my creative writing class. I took the tape to the campus police, and the head of public safety told me to get Southwestern Bell to put a tap on my line for thirty days. I didn't call Southwestern Bell, but I told my class about the message and that I had called Southwestern Bell; I got no more of those messages. But between the suspects file and the message, my traumas were getting excavated. Growing up in Detroit, I had had a steady diet of gristlemurder and rape-in the papers, on the TV, and on the streets. Coming out was gristly in its own way.

Even though I was freaked out, I kept trying to do the teacherly things. One-on-one conferences, for instance. JP was writing fiction about a serial killer. In exhaustive detail. In conference I asked, what are you trying to do to your audience? What effects are you going for?

He seemed to have no conception of audience. He wasn't in a rhetorical situation as far as he was concerned. He claimed to want to be a cop, "maybe FBI," wanted to try to understand the mind of a serial killer. He was taking a serial-killer course in the psychology department at the same time that he was taking creative writing.

But what about the reader? I pressed the point. If you are writing genre fiction ...

What's that? he asked.

A type of fiction that has conventions, that has a following of readers who know the conventions. ... I trailed off. He didn't nod, oh yes, I know what you mean. Cliché time: my heart sank. I know the genre only cursorily. Growing up in Detroit was enough gristle for me, thank you. I have never aspired to write like Elmore Leonard. Listen, I said, if you're trying to scare me, you're doing a damn good job. You got to me, okay?

He got bug-eyed in a way that let me know he used the big eyes effectively and often, mostly on women. Okay, that's all, I said. Now next assignment, could you show me a little range as a writer? Try something else? After he left I thought about the videotape of Ted Bundy with the Barbie doll at a frat party. Bundy had been trying to scare people, of course. We know now he was also premeditating. The creative writing teacher's standard invocation-make me believe it's real-became, for the rest of the term, something else, a whispered, "I sure hope you don't really mean this."

Community of Writers

Students from many different majors take creative writing classes. Many have already discovered the pleasure of putting words on the page. What I can help them learn are the difficulties that present themselves once words are on the page, how to attenuate the process of writing in order to examine how a literary representation was made and how to ponder the effects of that representation on any reader they might be lucky enough to have.

About those readers: students in these classes have a keen ability to recognize the age-specific experience encoded in each other's language on the page. Closeness in age and similarity of experience drive the reading of each other's work as much as or more than the words on the page. …

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