Teaching Composition Creatively by Maggie Hess
Teachers of writing want students to think of themselves as writers. This simple shift in identification indicates a larger move from being a passive learner to being an active participant in the classroom and in the writing, thinking world. Teachers want students to feel a sense of agency as they write—the ability to consciously control language—and to feel a sense of agency through writing—to know that what they write matters and is nothing less than a platform for their voices to be heard. In this regard, there is a vast discrepancy between courses in creative writing and composition. Why is there a stronger sense of students as writers in creative writing classes than in composition courses? Both include the thoughtful consideration of and then production of texts. Both move students toward being more critical readers, writers, and thinkers.
One answer is that creative writing courses are generally electives while composition courses are required. This obvious difference between the two is both true and ignores the potential richness of examining this question closely. Randall R. Freisinger, in “Creative Writing and Creative Composition” (1978), takes the discrepancy between student ideas of these fields further, calling the general “student image” of creative writing courses “radically more positive than that of composition” (283). He proceeds to argue that Stephen Minot’s ideas about students’ motives for taking a creative writing class can and should be cross-applied to composition classes, with the potential to raise student enthusiasm and improve the “image” of freshmen composition. This article, especially when examined in conjunction with others linking creative writing and composition, has interesting implications for composition pedagogy and material integration.
Stephen Minot, in “Creative Writing: Start with the Student’s Motive” (1976), proposes that there are (at least) six motives driving students who take creative writing classes. “We who give courses in creative writing,” he begins, “often start with our own enthusiasms” [emphasis mine] (392). The use of the word give, rather than teach, is significant. Minot establishes at a single-word level the theory he espouses throughout the article: that students—their motives, their writings—should be at the center of the course, and it is the teacher’s privilege to offer whatever guidance s/he has. Thus, his theory on student motives: if teachers can establish why students are there, they will be able to tailor their teaching to those motives and have greater success in moving that student toward making “the act of writing itself […] their primary concern” (393). That is, Minot’s theory can be seen simply as a strategy for encouraging students to write for the sake of writing—that is, to see themselves as writers and treat that undertaking seriously.
Freisinger identifies four of Minot’s six motives as being “particularly relevant” for composition courses: “partially conscious therapy,” “entirely unconscious therapy,” “childish delight in language,” and “ego formation” (283). Each motive, he claims, when properly framed, can contribute to making the freshmen composition class more desirable in the eyes of the students. This proper framing, he quickly acknowledges, may be rather comprehensive: that is, given that freshmen composition is required, “What we may discover is that students have no motive […] If this is so, we must provide them with a motive” (283). Minot’s motives, then, become means to an end: teachers of composition take the motives of creative writing students and convince composition students of their worth. For example, in his explanation of the first motive, partially conscious therapy, Freisinger explains that if composition classes allow students to write about subjects which matter to them, composition teachers can also assure (convince) their composition students of the therapeutic value of said writing (284). Freisinger believes the second motive, entirely unconscious therapy, has similar implications for the composition class: that students must be interested and invested in their subject matter, and composition teachers must therefore allow for freedom of subject and “provide growing space for such involvement” (284). In essence, the assignments given in composition classes should be broad enough to accommodate a wide range of students’ interests.
Wendy Bishop, writing more than two decades later in “Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-Ends Composition” (2003), espouses a related idea. She argues that integrating the genre of “creative nonfiction” into composition classrooms will allow for new ways of thinking about composition. This is necessary, she explains, because as writing classes divided between creative writing and composition, the types of writing done in composition classes became limited. “Exposition and argument were left to us,” Bishop says, “not narration and description, which were ceded to creative writing […] Containment and teachability resulted in an eviscerated type of essay” which was neither personal writing nor professional writing, and left only “school writing and research papers” (266). According to Bishop, this is the prevailing mode of the undergraduate student essay. She explains that the genre of creative nonfiction has the potential to reinvigorate the student essay by emphasizing the “flexibility of the essay in all its permutations” (268). The essay, in other words, can and should have the space to be both scholarly and personally compelling—in style and subject (271). If teachers and professional writers can write creatively and vigorously (simultaneously), why cannot students?
To support her point further, Bishop quotes Peter Elbow and Thomas Newkirk. Both complain that even as academics have started to write more informally and to embrace personal voice in academic essays, they have not extended the same options of “play” to their students (272). In an interesting parallel, “childish delight in language” is the third motive identified by Minot for why students take creative writing classes. Freisinger explains that, “If we can help students rediscover words as a creative medium, a means to pleasure and a tool for original expression, they may come to see that writing is fun and that it matters” (284). He claims the implication for composition pedagogy is that teachers should focus on content rather than what he indicates is an overemphasis on “rules of standard written English” (284). He also describes a philosophy of positive feedback so that students will relax and continue to improve in what they feel is a safe environment to play with language.
James E. Miller, Jr., in “Rediscovering the Rhetoric of Imagination” (1974), makes a compelling argument that students need not even be taught how to play with language. They simply need to rediscover, or even just consciously uncover, the ability to do so. He contends that students “are not empty vessels waiting to be linguistically filled. Rather they are full and bubbling over linguistically and might benefit most from experiences that provide a gradual awakening to what it is that they already know” (366). He goes on to detail what it is they already know, which includes grammar, how to persuade others, defend themselves, pre-empt verbal attacks, and how to understand humor, anger, and grief and deploy that full range of emotions to their advantage. In other words, they know most of the tools of any expert rhetorician and how to use them. “And,” Miller adds, “he [the student] has used language creatively every day of his life as he has uttered sentences, many no doubt with great effectiveness, which he has never before encountered” (366). Seen in this framework, all writing is inherently creative. The composition classroom becomes the creative writing classroom, and play with language is inherent in and inextricable from its design.
Minot’s fourth motive of ego formation that Freisinger engages is the “I want to be a writer” syndrome—a desire based less on the task of writing than on the achievement of the label of “writer” (Minot 393). The applications for this motive are both extensive and difficult to achieve: Freisinger acknowledges that most freshmen in a composition course do not, in fact, want to be writers. To apply this motive in composition courses involves changing the perception of composition within the entire university. Freisinger argues that “If we can counter the popular belief that freshmen composition is mainly a ‘service’ course,” then there will be the possibility of convincing composition students that the ability to write is valuable both personally and professionally (285). Here, Freisinger comes full circle: he returns to the question of how to engage students of composition in the belief that writing has power, and that they have the power to be writers. Bishop makes a similar point with a different statement: “That we don’t see students as authors says more about us as teachers, I believe, than it says about students as thinkers” (268). It is possible that the changed perception of the freshmen composition course must first come not from students—but from the university and the teachers of composition.
Assuming, however, that the change must come from both the instructors and the students, the student experience of the course is paramount. “Our best chance,” Freisinger claims of convincing students that composition matters beyond its requirement fulfillment, “rests with our willingness to make our classes more creative” (285). To do so, he suggests adopting the creative writing workshop format for the composition classroom and creating an atmosphere where students not only write, but also talk about their own and others’ writing. He requires multiple drafts for formal papers and he shares examples of papers with the entire class, which they discuss “in the large circle” (285). “We call ourselves writers,” he says, “we write, and we discuss what we have written” (285). He is claiming his classroom is a workshop space, wherein all participants are taken seriously as practitioners of their craft. As such, he does not assign topics but rather provides guidelines for a broad approach (such as a personal narrative). He assigns what he calls “finger exercises”—essentially warm-up exercises—and journals that students share in order to keep them constantly writing and receiving reactions to their texts. In this, his composition classroom does look rather like a creative writing classroom. In fact, the main difference might be in the “truth” of the subject matter: one can assume his composition students are not encouraged to write fiction for their formal essays.
Freisinger comes to this point of full integration by the conclusion of his essay, written in 1978: “We should, then, view composition as creative writing, and we should teach it accordingly” (287). The majority of composition and creative writing classrooms today continue to be structured very differently. In creative writing workshops, classes in fact sit in circles. Teachers respond as readers and most classroom feedback is in the form of peer review. In fact, a large part of the work assigned in creative writing workshops is providing feedback for peers. What would happen if composition classes looked like this? Would students feel more ownership of their writing? Would academic writing feel more relevant to their lives?
Bishop points out, twenty years after Freisinger wrote his article, that an “increasing number of MFA-credentialed teachers of first-year writing” are now influencing the field of composition (263-264). “These teachers,” she clarifies, “are part of a generation that has been required to mix practice with theory and that feels encouraged to write in more than one genre” (264). These teachers and trained creative writers are more comfortable with and more likely to assign their students essays that are better placed under the genre of “creative nonfiction” than “research paper.” They do not see creative writing and composition as separate, distinct entities—rather, as they have had to move between genres, so too will they expect their students to produce writing that is at once creative, playful, persuasive and scholarly.
Such teachers may bring with them into the composition classroom a focus on elements of craft and style as well as content. Despite Freisinger’s implication that creative writing workshops delight in childish language play (with willful ignorance to the rules of standard written English), most creative writing workshops engage in an intense study of how to use language intentionally—and therefore, where and when it is appropriate (or distracting) to break the rules. A more nuanced application of this philosophy in composition classes might do more good. That is, creative writing classes do have a sense of play and freedom: they rarely present a hard-and-fast-rule about writing without presenting at least one counterpart (for example, sonnets are traditionally fourteen lines. Modern sonnets are sometimes thirteen or fifteen lines). Composition classes need to engage in a similar philosophy of teaching intentionality of language beside flexibility of form. Bishop points out that there are many “engaging nonfiction writers whose writings I could point to as worth of discussion and emulation” that cover a range of styles and levels of formality (273). Why not present students with a very formal, traditionally structured argument essay and one with more post-modern sensibilities? They will then have a range of styles to draw upon for their own writing—perhaps allowing them the personal investment Freisinger claims they need while still allowing teachers of composition to assign topic and type of essay.
On the issue of topic, Bishop argues that there can be both freedom and focus in the classroom. She says that to integrate personal experience and rigorous investigation, she can “focus on life-history research…design a course that focuses on community and place…teach practices of ethnographic attention” (270). However, this is not the freewheeling process or almost complete lack of topic that Freisinger leans towards. Bishop explains, “I believe in instruction. I believe assignments can be structured and sequenced so learners improve their ability to remember, to observe, to reflect, to analyze, and to write” (270). To those process theorists who might object to such structure, she says that she does not think structure is “inauthentic”—that perhaps those who feel it is have already learned how to discipline themselves (270). She describes a balance between craft, rigor, and flexibility.
Similarly, Minot argues for starting with student motives in order to use the classroom more effectively as a teacher. He does not advocate allowing students to dictate class objectives. Rather, he encourages teachers to think about how to achieve their objectives by a path of least resistance. Composition teachers might dream of students who start class with the motive of a “childish delight in language” (393). However, as Minot explains, even that “is hardly an endpoint.” He suggests that texts can help move the student beyond this superficial enjoyment, saying, “Poems like Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’ or selections from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities serve as effective transitions between language play and sophisticated composition” (393). In the composition classroom, such texts might encourage students to see the possibilities of both “language play” and “sophisticated composition.” That is, they might begin to see the vast range of ways to tailor writing into something they can enjoy as well as use.
This sounds daunting. Nevertheless, Miller argues that it is not only possible but already halfway achieved, asserting that “all writing assignments in composition classes should be grounded in […] engaging the individual student in penetrating, perceiving, structuring, creating, or re-creating the reality he knows—or all the reality he can come to know” (367). The student arrives with considerable stores of information and creative insight. How can the composition classroom make use of this resource? Bishop would reply, “We treat the student essayist as we treat ourselves, as essayists and authors of creative nonfiction” (271). This includes exposing students to a range of writing, being honest about the flexibility of the essay, reading with a generous eye toward the use of personal experience and idiosyncratic use of language, and being willing to learn from students’ quirks rather than trying to eliminate them.
Teachers of composition, in order to convince students to think of themselves as writers, must first believe their students are writers. They must enter their classrooms as creative writing workshop leaders (in the best situations) do: with the ideas that this is a space for knowledge to be shared and gifted among practitioners of craft, and that all writing is as personal and creative as the voice that is driven to speak. Perhaps the recent influx of MFA-credentialed and -trained teachers will bring about the cross-genre and cross-pedagogy philosophy that Freisinger and Bishop desire. Perhaps it starts with the simple practice of turning the chairs in the class to face one another.
By Maggie Hess, San Diego State University
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