Sweet Spot

spiral notebook and pencilIt’s the first week of my second semester creative writing class, and I’m getting to know my new students.

Half of them have no idea why they’re in this class. They needed an elective and my class needed students. There are twenty-four of them, slightly suspicious, worried about how much work it will be, hoping it will be fun and not too hard. A few did not know what ‘creative writing’ meant, thought it just meant longer essays.

The other half see themselves as poets or the author of the next vampire novel that will monopolize the NYT Bestseller List for weeks. They love to write, and show up on the first day with notebooks full of their writing to show me.

There is a place on the continuum between boredom (under-challenge) and frustration (overchallenge) where they will work their hearts out and actually learn something. I am aiming at that spot.

This is a story about me and my friend we got kick out of the Sonic.

Where is the optimal point of challenge for a student who begins a story with this sentence? I could be severe: he should have learned grammar by now, he should know what a run-on sentence is, and hasn’t he ever read a story before?

Where do I begin?

If I were an editor, it would be easy. But I’m a teacher, and I have to see this young writer Monday through Friday every week from now until June. My job is to challenge, not discourage.

Looking at stories like this, I am not even sure students have ever been asked to write a story before. They all have written a ‘personal narrative’ – I used to teach that unit, too. But they do not know how to create a character separate from themselves. They don’t know that the ‘I’ in a story isn’t necessarily the author.

My first fiction unit began with a character-creation exercise. We invented a name, age and physical description for our fictional characters. We decided what they eat for breakfast, what time they get up, what kind of car they drive, what they fear, love and dream about.

Neveah stood there with her 5 foot 8 frame. She was a beautiful girl. She has a shoulder length hair with bangs, with her hair colored dark red on the bottom and black on top. Her dark skinned skin tone is as smooth as silk, with her birth mark on her right arm. “Why am I always pushing him away,” Neveah thought to herself as she reached in her dresser for her purple blouse and her pencil skirt.

Next lesson: how to incorporate description into exposition. Their reaction: why did we have to decide what they look like if we’re not going to describe them? My observation is that younger readers expect every character to be described – hair and eye color, especially:

Jason’s blue eyes flashed across the room, staring into her brown eyes.

And characters in these stories are invariably beautiful, handsome, and smart. Supporting characters may be bald, have acne, be fat, short and dim-witted.

Lots of action is good:

Jack Ripley entered the elevator. He was a vampire hunter who had been hired by the police to track down several vampires who had recently been responsible for a string of attacks.
Wham!!!! Someone slammed into Jack. Turning, he saw a tall man with fangs grinning at him. Suddenly, he had him in a chokehold. Jack called upon his martial arts training and flipped the vampire, over his shoulder, who landed with a Thud!!!!

The writer is sixteen. She will have her first novel finished in about eight weeks, at the rate she’s going. Revision for her is mostly about fixing spelling and commas. It makes her intensely happy to write stories about vampires and dream about being the next Stephanie Myers. Her best friend is writing a book about a murdered girl whose ghost is trying to help solve her own murder.

I like working with this kind of zeal. I don’t have to dampen their enthusiasm for vampires to teach them about character development, scene and summary, or plot arcs. They absorb my lessons and begin to write better stories. They still imitate the characters and plots they have read or seen in movies, but imitation is a suitable starting point for learning the basics.

Being a good writer doesn’t mean you can teach writing. You can have high standards for yourself, be super-critical of your own writing, but you can’t tell kids that they’ll never be a writer. And you can’t circle every mistake with a red pen, or write volumes in the margins of their story. You look for something to praise, find a good entry point for criticism, and offer suggestions with restraint.

So I push a little, praise a lot, try to show them why I like writing so much. They’ll get a little better.

I hope that they will take something from the class – that they will notice the story of the next movie they see, not just the special effects. I hope that someday they will read a book that isn’t a school assignment.

And I would like to imagine their invented characters coming back to haunt them someday, demanding another story.

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