Back to Basics

A few weeks ago, my two most advanced classes read my short story, “Naming Angelo,” which placed in this year’s Dell Award, and then we had a discussion about the story. The questions and the discussion were incredible. I was definitely able to see just how much they had grown in confidence in their English this year, and it was also really surreal to be asked questions about the choices I’d made for this story, as a writer. When one student asked, “Why did you choose to parallel your character’s struggle with personal identity with the struggle for Italian national identity during the risorgimento?” I was blown away. Not only was it a fabulous question, but I also had to think fast, because I hadn’t been thinking about any parallels between personal and national identity at all—when I first wrote the story, I was thinking, “This could be a cool time period to set this in,” and nothing more. We rounded off the class by me asking the students to share what they thought happened next after the fairly ambiguous ending of the story. If you ever need a lesson in how a story, once written, belongs to the readers, ask a bunch of seventeen-year-olds to tell you what happens next. Their responses ranged from martyrdom and bloody battles, to shameful victory and then unknowing marriage to the villain’s brother, to incest (I have no idea where that came from, but yikes!).

 

Anyway, after the students had read my story, I asked them if they would be interested in doing some creative writing lessons, and they were. they’ve been studying literature for their whole high school careers, and they had no background in creative writing at all aside from any they had done on their own, so they were very interested. This led to me teaching a series of lessons in the basics of creative writing.

 

In all honesty, after a year of teaching, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a teacher. I have had some incredible teachers, and I really admire them, but I’m coming to the conclusion that you have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy teaching, and even though I thought I was that kind of person, now I’m not so sure. I just don’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, and there are other things I would like to do that I think I would be better at. But more on that later, because even though I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a teacher, I will say that I’ve had a blast teaching these kids creative writing.

 

Since these students had never had formal creative writing lessons, we started with the basics. What is creative writing? Why do we write? What are the basic elements of a story? I then gave them prompts to choose from and had them outline and write a short (1 to 2 page) story for homework. The next week, first drafts in hand, I had the students pair up and read each other’s stories and give each other feedback. Then we discussed plot in more depth. What is plot? How can you outline a plot? What are some of the basic plot arcs? And so on. This time for homework, they had to map out their stories plot, and then they had to write several different beginnings to their story to see their options for where to start. Finally, using their new beginnings, their outlines, and their classmates’ feedback, they revised their story for the next lesson.

 

We did imilar exercises with character. First they read and gave feedback on their partner’s stories—different partners this time so they would get a variety of feedback. Then we talked about characters, agency, motivation, etc. We had a lot of fun coming up with examples of strong characters they enjoyed reading about. We even invented a few examples to demonstrate how motivation works. Why did the protagonist blackmail the driving instructor? The driving instructor was determined to fail the protagonist, so he wouldn’t be able to get his license and couldn’t drive his little brother to soccer practice. And if the protagonist’s brother couldn’t get to soccer practice, he would be bullied at school. And maybe the protagonist was bullied at school when he was younger, and he wanted to try to protect his brother. So why is the driving instructor determined to fail the protagonist? No, she can’t just be evil with no purpose. Maybe she’s going through a divorce and something about the protagonist’s attitude reminds her of her cheating husband? Maybe she has suspicions that he’s a supervillain and will use his license for evil? Coming up with these examples as a group and getting the students involved was tons of fun, but could get a little weird at times. They’re definitely a very creative bunch. After that lesson, they had to answer some questions about their protagonist and their antagonist, and then they had to pick a scene in their story and write it from the antagonist’s point of view to get into their head and understand their motivations. Then they had to revise.

 

Next we covered setting and all the cool things you can do with it. We talked a lot about how setting can—and in my opinion should—be as important as any character to the story. We talked about how setting isn’t just time and place, but it’s also weather and mood. We talked about how setting can reveal things about the characters involved. If a couple is having a heated argument in their home, it says something different than if they’re having a shouting match in the middle of a fine restaurant. And again, they revised their stories.

 

Tomorrow, for our final lesson, we’re going to talk about point of view. I should be planning that lesson now, actually, instead of writing this post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve had to go back to the very basics of creative writing—back to things I learned in elementary and middle school. These are skills that are so ingrained in me that they’re second nature, and it was often very difficult to explain them. But in explaining them, I also gave myself a refresher course on the basics, which can never hurt, and was actually quite fun. I also wanted to make it hands on, so that what I was talking about was put into practice with their own stories, and so I had them work on the same stories all the way through all the lessons, revising first plot, then character, then setting. They have critiqued each other’s stories each lesson, always working with a new partner, and we have talked extensively about how to give and take criticism. Working with the same story like this isn’t a system I have encountered in any of the creative writing classes I’ve taken, but I think it’s worked out well for these students. After we talk about point of view, they will revise one more time, and then turn in their final drafts. So, while I’m not sure I enjoy teaching on the whole, and I’m not sure it’s what I want to do for a career, I have really enjoyed teaching creative writing to these students, and I can’t wait to read their final stories.

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