Remember the last time you were really angry with someone. Now write about the incident from his or her point of view.
Imagine you’re driving along an unfamiliar road. You hear the engine running, feel the strap of the seatbelt holding you in. Is it light or dark outside? The car stops. You step out. What do you see?
Write a poem of questions. No answers. Just questions.
Write about one of your scars.
These are some of the prompts I used this summer in my creative writing class.
We usually began the day in this way, the first 20 minutes of our daily 3-hour class spent freewriting.
I’ve always loved what appears on the page during these exercises, seeing the material our subconscious alights upon when we turn off the internal censor. It was a privilege to hear what my students came up with. No matter what I threw at them – pick 3 words from this hat and use them in a scene! Look at this random object; now put it in your writing! “Translate” this Zapotec poem even though you don’t know the language! – they set right to writing and astounded with their imagination.
So it’s kind of ironic that after a month spent urging others to write (write! write for your life!) I am having trouble myself.
I keep feeling like I need to tell you all about my summer in Spain, all these new experiences, all of this stuff…but I don’t know where to begin. I don’t yet know what it actually means.
So I’ll start with what I know so far. In some ways I did a better job this summer than I thought I would. In other ways, I just scraped by by the skin of my teeth. That pretty much sums up what a first teaching experience would be like, right?
The great thing about the program is that it emphasized “experiential learning.” As in, these students didn’t fly across the ocean to sit inside every day. Each teacher was charged with getting them out and about, to use the city as the classroom.
For a subject like creative writing that’s both straightforward and something of a stretch. We can write anywhere! Everything is material!
Of course, on certain days the link wasn’t always so obvious. Why did we go to that garden to talk about story structure? What does this museum have to do with plot?
I went with the “just go” approach (even though I didn’t know the city well; getting lost was always a possibility) hoping they’d thank me later for dragging them all over.
Lest this all sound like fun and games (and it was fun! we did play games!), I also had moments of panic. (Oh my gosh, there’s still an hour left of class and I’ve already gone over the entire lesson plan! Wow, this story is a total fail with them!)
I’m not what I’d consider quick on my feet, but a fair bit of improvisation was necessary. That’s what’s great about trying new things, right? You find, yet again, that you’re capable of so much.
I think I did a few things well: creating a safe space for sharing work. Cheerleading their efforts. Being flexible and open to changing plans. Treating each day as an adventure.
I struggled mightily with some of the more traditional aspects of a creative writing class, though. I was not the best facilitator of conversation. I had trouble guiding students effectively through readings.
It was an intense experience, as was to be expected. As with most immersion experiences, of course, there was no way to predict all of the challenges. Expect the unexpected, as it were.
One day during the last week we went over the villanelle, a demanding form of poetry consisting of 19 lines and a repeating refrain in a specific order. Two of my favorite poems are villanelles (“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop and bonus! listen to Dylan Thomas read “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night“).
As I looked out at the seemingly bored faces as we went through the poems, I wondered what I had been thinking. You’re going over the villanelle…now? Though I could understand their weariness – it had been a long, jam-packed month; they were tired, the material didn’t necessarily resonate with their life experience yet – it was also a blow to share work I loved, only to have it felled by teenage indifference.
After our discussion, I asked them to try a villanelle. Amazing as ever, within half an hour (though poets spend years on this difficult form!), they were ready to share. And their efforts were so impressive! One student who had been kind of shy at first, but was opening up more and more, had written a villanelle about a friend of hers who had committed suicide. It was a breakthrough.
Before I left for the program, an experienced teacher and poet told me I could either become the students’ friend or I could help them dig deeper and find what really mattered to them. The first would feel more comfortable, but the second would mean more, though it would be harder to achieve.
I’m not sure I got to either, but I swam between the two, briefly touching aspects of both. I was not a typical “teacher” – and this had its pluses and minuses. I think they liked calling me Sion (no Ms. Dayson for me!) and that I freely admitted when I didn’t know something and wrote them long notes in the journals they turned in weekly. I loved how one day’s disappointment could turn into the next day’s joy. How I’d think I’d bored them to tears and then they’d blast off into some new realm with a small kernel I had offered.
We had a final dance. The belief that I had some good moves quickly disappeared; as soon as the teachers hit the dance floor a huge space opened around us. Our old fogey moves literally repelled them!
I went to say my goodbyes thinking I’d leave the dance floor to the youngins then (as apparently, I’d just learned, I was old). “Thank you for such a wonderful summer!” one gushed, giving me a hug. Another gave me two hugs for good measure and wished me luck. (Wasn’t I supposed to say that? I guess I really was upfront about not knowing just what the heck I was doing!)
I was surprised and touched by the farewell. There is so much more I could have done. I hope if I have the opportunity again I will be much better. But it seems the students walked away with something. I know for sure they have a whole notebook of ideas and head starts and little notes scribbled from journeys all across Barcelona – and that ain’t nothing.
There’s much more to say and I haven’t even told you that I’m still in Spain! As I knew I would, I still feel very much a “learner.” But I hope to always be learning, even if my actual title for a summer is “teacher.” I want to take Spanish classes when I return to Paris (probably won’t help my French, but oh well!), I’ve already signed up for a fall course on Modern and Contemporary Poetry. I’m ready to begin my days with prompts, too, as I had them do.
Give yourself the chance to see where the pen takes you. Write the world.