Creating Writers at GSB

This month, three guest bloggers from our three academic divisions reflect on the writing process, helping students become writers, and their own love of storytelling and the written word. First up is English Department Chair Dr. Andrew Lutz.

Creating Writers at GSB
Has this ever happened to you?
You show up to your creative writing class the first week in September. Your teacher says you’ll have a story due every two weeks in the fall semester and a poem due every week in the spring, and that each semester will culminate in the production of final portfolios of revised fiction or poetry.
Then your teacher reveals your first assignment: “Write a story of five or more pages. Your story should be realistic fiction.”
This doesn’t sound so bad, you think. You’ve got a shoebox full of fiction that you’ve been working on. Your mother and father have both told you it’s really good. But then your teacher says, “All of your fiction must be new and original.”
But you don’t sweat it. You’re a reasonably talented writer. Your two best friends are about to break up. And your Aunt Carol recently told you about that hurricane she lived through in North Carolina. You’ve got material.
But then your teacher says, “You may not write about any of the following,” and proceeds to beam up on his white board a list. Your jaw drops. The heading reads, “Things to Avoid in Your Own Fiction.”
No tragedies, life lost/saved/found/created. No mental insanity or domestic abuse. No addiction stories. No eating disorders. No accidents: auto or other. No natural disasters—avalanches, hurricanes, tornados, monsoons, etc. No outrageous events. No fires. No broken limbs. No countries or civilizations saved. No breakups. No more character types: Heroes, villains, victims, serial killers, axe murderers, etc. No more coincidence or surprise or “It was all just a dream.” No drastic jumping ahead in time. No tears—single or otherwise running down cheeks. No “being there” for anyone. No “having someone’s back.” No melodrama. No weddings. No funerals. No looking off into the distance. No riding off into the sunset. No staring deeply into each other’s eyes. No Faerie Tales, Sci-Fi, or Fantasy.
You look around the classroom at your shell-shocked classmates, not having realized you were enrolled in a melodrama detox seminar. You look at your teacher, raise your hand warily, crestfallen and ask, “What can we write about then?”
“Anything else,” he says.
And so begins the first semester of Creative Writing and Portfolio Development at GSB, a class where students learn why authors ever bothered to write in the first place, where no word is taken for granted or thrown carelessly on a page. In Creative Writing students make conscious decisions and examine their everyday worlds closely, with an open ear for dialogue (the way people actually talk) and open sense receptors for not just how things look to the eye, but how they sound to the ear, feel to the bare foot, how they smell and taste.
Once they get going, students are often shocked to discover not just what they can’t write about, but even more important how much meaning what they do eventually end up writing about actually yields. Real stuff, everyday stuff: rocks; the pattern in the carpet; the door not held for the person who was seven, not five steps behind; the tick of a clock; the discoloration of the buttons on a projector remote. It is certainly true of the focus of the spring semester, poetry, and just as true of the fiction that students write in the fall that all writing starts with the concrete, the specific, the object. All things thoughtfully considered can yield meaning. As American poet William Carlos Williams said in “Paterson,” his famous epic poem, “No ideas but in things.” In the early weeks of the class, students must put aside what they think they know about writing, shelve that fantasy novel they’ve been working on since sixth grade, walk away from abstract ideals, and stare, literally stare at objects in order to generate text.
Students become sensitive to their environments, viscerally in tune to the goings on around them. And they become deep, introspective thinkers. A butterfly in a glass display suddenly becomes a metaphor for the many and narrow ways people look at us. Koi swimming in circles in a pond in winter become powerful statements about the search for identity. A black square museum painting brings two unlike-minded people together and helps them realize they have a great deal in common. A subway platform becomes a metaphor for a way station in life.
The creative breakthroughs aside, the challenge facing students in Creative Writing is huge by any standards. Nothing makes a writer like a deadline. Students learn how to improve their writing through revising their first drafts. But what improves them most as writers is volume, repeated attempts, continual assignments, story after story. One story due every two weeks. Eight stories in one semester. For advanced students, one story a week, sixteen stories a semester. Now not all students who take the class will end up being writers. In fact, some may never write again. But the effect of having tried is immeasurable. The process improves them as human beings. In an interview several years ago with Ben Marcus for The Believer, noted short story writer George Saunders spoke about his experiences teaching in creative writing MFA programs:
“for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there (published), the process is still a noble one . . . trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building . . . . I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”
Any struggle to communicate has a beneficial effect.
There are other benefits as well. Students walk away from the class with original portfolios of their fiction and poetry that they can use to demonstrate for college writing programs or colleges in general that there is some unique angle to their academic career beyond pure book learning and straight As. Most important, however, having spent a semester or two on the other side—being writers—students become better readers. This translates into stronger analytical skills in “regular” English and literature classes and penetrating critical thinking. Former literary magazine editors Charlotte Walsh and Nikki Morley (’17) put it this way: in English classes “we learned how to pick apart novels and analyze them, but we didn’t know how to put them back together again. That’s where Creative Writing came in.” When I’ve had the opportunity to teach a student simultaneously in Creative Writing and AP Literature (for example), I’ve seen deeper and more profound analyses of the literature in essays, on tests, and in class discussion.
In Creative Writing, students are fully engaged by design. With enrollment kept low (about 10 students), the class devotes more than half its instructional time to workshopping student writing. This requires that all students read the work of their peers on a weekly basis and are ready to offer up their honest, unadulterated critiques. On Monday morning, students distribute printed copies of their fiction or poetry to each of their classmates. Half of it must be read for Thursday’s workshop; the other half for Friday’s. In the process of all this reading, students are learning about writing choices, and constantly comparing what they do to the work of their peers, assessing themselves. They come to realize that writing is a form of sustained self-consciousness.
Writing is also work, hard work, and it requires a great deal of reading. Workshopping teaches accountability for all students in the class. Developing confidence in public speaking, asserting opinions, backing arguments by example—are all skills that students develop while critiquing. From my own experience as a student and teacher, no single environment has done more than the workshop to teach me how to read more deeply and write more meaningfully, and to teach more comprehensively. All your assumptions are put on the table (quite literally) for examination. You come to quickly understand what you believe, and even more important, why you believe it.
Just a few weeks into the semester, students are fully engaged both in the writing process and the workshop environment. The class runs itself. As the teacher, I often sit back, dazzled by the level of engagement I witness, the passion that student writers bring to the class. Students realize they have to develop a voice both in their writing and in their daily participation. From examples of “college writing” former students have sent back to me, it’s clear that in many cases our high school writers are performing at a level far above that of college freshmen and sophomores. Their engagement with their writing and the workshop process, and their willingness to take risks will pay big dividends in college and later on in life.
Andrew Lutz
English Department Chair
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.