In a video interview, Ira Glass outlines the gap between a young writer’s creative potential and the writing which makes its way to the page. Because for writers at any stage there’s a sizable distance between what we create and what we believe we can create, the assignments and discussions in my classroom emphasize radical revision. I believe life itself is a rough draft; each sunrise gives us the chance to revise how we think, act, and react. Similarly, I encourage the students to think of their work and our classes as a work-in-progress.
During an interlocking set of assignments, spanning several weeks, I ask undergraduate students to revise a single poem according to each week’s craft focus. The students convert the poem to iambic feet, then vary the line lengths, then change the form to a sonnet, then imitate sprung rhythm. The outcome is that students begin to see revision as a multi-stage process and they see experimentation as an essential element in composition. My hope is that, because the students retain each earlier version of the poem, the pressure is off. Instead, drafting and revising become a playful exploration—a challenge to see the poem, the self, and the world from a new point of view.
My workshops emphasize experimentation and play in order to instill the value of revision. But this is not the only reason for the exercise. I think of creative writing as a component of critical thinking. The revision constraints I assign to the students are meant to be obstacles. The challenge, then, is to write one’s way out of a conceptual corner. The revision process becomes a puzzle and the motivation in the classroom comes from intellectual challenge.
The classroom, then, is like a writing laboratory. The subject of study is the self. Through self-reflection, the students articulate their processes in order to organize their learning for increased recall. For example, in the beginning of the semester, I ask the students to reflect on their current reading practices. After talking about literary criticism and the connection between New Criticism and creative writing, I present Neil McCaw’s argument that close reading is not a capacious enough textual investigation for creative writers. I then ask the students to brainstorm possible reading strategies in the vein of Charles Bernstein and Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments. By introducing the idea that there are multiple purposes for and strategies of reading, I am asking the students to reflect on the ways their reading informs their writing.
My dedication to students is a dedication to humanistic principles. Revision, reflection, and creative problem-solving provide the foundation of citizenship and civic responsibility. Frederick Douglass, in his narrative, talks about learning to read as his way out of slavery. Bit by bit, he says the “light broke in upon me by degrees.” I think about his line with each definition or bit of description in a student’s writing. We are breaking in by degrees. Learning creates both a freedom and a responsibility. My classes are designed to celebrate the freedom one feels when discovering a new way of seeing and to share the responsibility for actively finding those moments. In my classes students learn how to play with poetic craft and investigate puzzles, and through articulating their choices and the rationale behind them, they come a degree closer to the capaciousness of intellectual inquiry and its power to liberate minds and bodies.