Drafting a creative writing classroom constitution

It's been a hot minute since the last blog post here, which is because I've just finished (as of last Friday) my Masters in Fine Arts thesis, a novel called The Aquanaut Hotel. It's 320 pages. It's weird. And it took a very long time. But this post isn't about that (probably, assuredly, future ones will be). This post is about writing a new constitution.

Or, at least, the kind of constitution that a creative writing classroom can come to live by:

Constitution lesson 3.jpg

But before we deep-dive into what my "Imagination, Narration, and Description" class decided to include in their constitution, I want to spend a minute to frame why we were spending time in a creative writing class coming up with legislation at all in the first place.

We've entered the final third of our semester together. It's an introductory writing class, so we've spent a lot of time talking over things like what it means to be a writer and where writing comes from. The first unit is the "Noticing" unit, which is all about description and culture and subject matter for writing. The second unit is the "Imagining" unit, which is about the parts of our brain that influence writing and how we can encourage those parts to grow. The third unit is where we jump into the most traditional aspect of a creative writing craft classroom: "Storytelling." In this part of the semester, we're talking about what works. And that inevitably leads to a discussion of what doesn't.

 Elmore Leonard's "Ten Commandments for Writing", as taken from   OpenCulture  . Craft books and websites on writing are full of this kind of advice, and almost all of them involve a rule that begins "Never..."

Elmore Leonard's "Ten Commandments for Writing", as taken from OpenCulture. Craft books and websites on writing are full of this kind of advice, and almost all of them involve a rule that begins "Never..."

I take a Freirean approach to my pedagogy, which essentially means I try to de-center myself and the things I believe about writing from our conversations in the classroom. While I'm happy to share my opinion when they ask for it, I'm much more interested in their journeys of self-discover and interrogation rather than a classroom full of mirrors attempting to mimic every action I would take. Writing is as much an act of introspection as it is of communication, and if I cut the knees out from under my students by forcing them into increasingly smaller boxes as writers, they're going to miss the part of writing that involves self-exploration.

Too often, introductory creative writers hold fast to rules given definitively--it's why every college-level fiction workshop has the odd student shouting "NO ADVERBS" and "SHOW DON'T TELL" at their peers' stories, an act that I think does much more harm than good. Rules like these diagnose real problems and attempt to solve them in a slash-and-burn, absolute manner. And that makes them unappealing to students.

Still, rules can be helpful. Especially for those students who are interested in literary publishing.

So to start the class, I asked my students to make a list of every rule-on-writing they'd ever heard of (or could remember and write down in five minutes). I told them to start with the ones they believed, but after that they should feel free to write rules they've heard but that they think are kind of bogus. Once they'd finished writing and they'd had the chance to talk over their responses with a partner, we made a list. Only, it was a list of bad advice:

 Note: At the top of our board is the main question(s) for the day: "How do we keep readers interested?" and "Do we care about readers anyway?" These become more relevant for the constitution, which we'll return to. The "Bad rules" beneath them, whether I agree with their points or not, are answered with exceptions and reasons why they may not always apply.

Note: At the top of our board is the main question(s) for the day: "How do we keep readers interested?" and "Do we care about readers anyway?" These become more relevant for the constitution, which we'll return to. The "Bad rules" beneath them, whether I agree with their points or not, are answered with exceptions and reasons why they may not always apply.

We quickly discovered two trends in the rules that we had problems with as a class:

  1. Any rule on grammar or technical execution in writing was a stylistic choice. Sure, it's most likely true that you should use a semicolon in the correct way, but technical advice like "No adverbs" and "No contractions" and "Said is dead" (a bit of advice I'd never heard and vehemently oppose, but which is apparently taught in high schools?) were either boring or were context dependent.
  2. A lot of the rules we didn't like involved the use of absolutes. "Never," "Always," and "You shouldn't" were phrases that didn't mesh well with the goals of writing we'd discovered over the rest of the semester. There were plenty of times in which, the class argued, "You always need a hook" could be irrelevant to the genre you're writing in, or "always outline" didn't fit your aesthetic.

Our takeaways became incredibly nuanced, which was a joy to find as a teacher. My students weren't satisfied with "no rule will do" (although some certainly argued it), but insisted that guidelines were useful so long as we got to the heart of what they were trying to tell us. Then was the challenging part: they had to come up with their own rules. And like any good constitution, theirs would have to be designed to hold up to scrutiny.

Constitution lesson 2.jpg

The first thing was to make sure we weren't claiming something that couldn't be true by calling this a constitution for writing. One thing that we kept coming back to in discussion of "bad rules" was that people writing for themselves should be able to write whatever they pleased. So instead, we titled this (whiteboard) document CONSTITUTION FOR MINDFUL WRITING. That is, writing that cares about the experience of a potential reader.

You can read the bill of rights, so-to-speak, that we came up with above. These are rules about respecting the person reading your work. About writing from a place of sincerity. But there are caveats in the form of phrases starting with "avoid..." and "according to author's discretion." A student argued, for instance, that a satirical piece may want stereotypes--if only to poke fun at those who use them. We voted on each of these rules, reaching unanimous decisions on each. Funnily enough, a single student voted against the second rule, saying that, to him, fluff was sometimes useful. He's the reason we added the "or aesthetic" portion of the law--not everything was plot or character. (And, for the record, proved an example of every person's vote counting, a useful reminder in the flailing democracy we find ourselves in.) The only absolute had to do with plagiarism, which is fair enough, I think.

The rules themselves are absolutely useful for my students, writers who, if they haven't already, will now be thinking a lot more about the ways in which they present their characters and respect their readers. But the secondary benefit of the exercise--the one I actually see as more important--is that we can use this lesson in the future to talk about the ways in which techniques and rules and pieces of advice are guidelines for them to consider at their own pace. "This is a framework," I said at the end of class, "for how I want you to see the Storytelling Unit. We're going to talk a lot about what makes stories tick and what different writers do to keep readers interested. But that doesn't mean those rules necessarily apply to you."