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Ayşe Papatya BucakAyşe Papatya Bucak teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Her writing has been published in a variety of journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Normal School, Brevity, and Creative Nonfiction. Her short fiction has been selected for the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize anthologies.

Form vs Formula

posted: 1.6.15 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

This semester I’m teaching a graduate workshop called Forms of Prose.  If you are a nonfiction writer, this suggests things like the lyric essay, narrative journalism, and the personal essay.  If you’re a fiction writer, it probably suggests only short story vs novel. But I am teaching the class as an examination of any of the implied or stated rules imposed on a work of prose.  Some might be arbitrary rules about rhythm, rhyme and repetition (as in much formal poetry), and others might be the unspoken rules of reader expectations.  For example, we will look at how the workshop story bemoaned by the world at large (or just the anti-MFAers) might actually be a consequence of an abuse of form.  That when form is poorly executed it becomes formula.

By way of example, let’s take the fad of six word stories and essays.  I’m generally not a fan. Especially not of the possibly apocryphal Hemingway version: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”  Supposedly Hemingway said this is all the story you need to tell.  But I suspect one of my finest teaching moments may have been when I said to a totally-disturbed class: that story is only interesting if that baby has no feet.

Listen, I get it.  It’s heartbreaking; that story can make me cry, because anything suggesting the mortality of babies can make me cry.  But a reliance on abstract emotional manipulation is not the same thing as great storytelling.  Which is not to say a six word story couldn’t be great.  Because herein lies the difference between form and formula.  Form forces a writer to rise above restrictions to reach originality; formula allows a writer to rely on restrictions to be relieved of the burden of originality.  Formula works on some readers, of course (including me: hello, Sophie Kinsella, I love you), but it isn’t what anybody enters an MFA program aspiring to, so my class is going to set all kinds of rules, just to show how well writers can surprise readers when we follow them.

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The Originality Scale

posted: 10.14.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Last year I traumatized my MFA students by inventing this thing I called the Originality Scale.  At the bottom were stories we’d heard before told in familiar ways, and at the top—well, there was no top, because whatever would go at the top is so original we can’t even imagine it (yet).  The middle, however, was filled with variations—old stories told in a new way, new stories told in an old way, new forms, new technology, history told with a new perspective, etc.  For the rest of the semester, the students seemed troubled, taunted, tortured by where their writing would fit on the Originality Scale.  I became so alarmed that I presented to the class the notion that human beings need to learn the same things over and over again, and that is perhaps why the same stories work over and over again.  And could they please forget the Originality Scale.

Except I don’t really think they should forget the Originality Scale.  The problem was not the Scale, the problem was the fear and paralysis induced by the Scale.

I think what my graduate students were really afraid of was that I might be telling them they shouldn’t be writers; that they weren’t original enough.  But what I was really trying to say was they needed to work harder at it.  To be conscious of it.

Originality matters.

So how can we teach it?

For me, quite simply, originality often boils down to the sensation that I haven’t read a piece before—but I’ve read a lot, too much. Beginning writers often have no idea what is unoriginal because they have not read enough. They struggle to recognize clichés and often seek out writing that is comfortable and familiar.  And yet because they are often young, they are frequently early adopters of using new technology in writing.  Texting, Facebook, 3D-printing all turned up in my students’ work long before I ever saw them in published pieces, and this is one of the things my students are better about bringing to their work than I am my own.  And it is one way to encourage originality. Technology, after all, is the one thing that has changed writing time and time again.

Beginning writers can also be very brave about breaking the rules (they don’t know the rules!).  And so it can be important to not “correct” them and bully them into a standard Freytag’s pyramid formation, but rather to talk about a writer’s intentions versus a reader’s response, and what readers look for when they don’t get what they expect.  Surprising is not the same thing as original and neither is weird.  What is original must still make the reader feel or think or see.  But it doesn’t have to follow the exact format of inciting incident, obstacles, climax, resolution.

During workshops, students can be encouraged to choose more unusual or unexpected points of view, to set a story in a less predictable location, to embrace…drum roll, please…what they know (which in my (students’) experience has included the secret tunnels of Disneyland, roller derby, cattle ranching, and the behind-the-scenes life of pretty much any low-wage job you can imagine).

And, of course, they can be asked to read…to read and read and read until they know what is out there.

The final irony is the thing that makes a piece of writing original may not actually be the thing that makes it great, and yet if a piece doesn’t have some unexpected, previously unseen something, it probably won’t be great. Good maybe, but not great.  And sometimes students just need to know that.

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When is a Mistake Truly a Mistake?

posted: 3.31.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down.  My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner.  One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories.  Or twins.  Or rain.  Naturally, one of my friends wrote a story about twin clowns in the rain.  Once I banned a student from using colons.  What had started out as a unique grammatical touch had spread throughout her work and then throughout her classmates’ work like head-lice in the second grade.

Over the years I’ve noticed that beginning writers gravitate toward certain things—things I would call writing mistakes (melodrama, sentimentality, clichéd descriptions, familiar language)—and sometimes as a teacher, you want so much not to read another story in which a single tear drop runs down the face of the heartbroken that you put your foot down.  But is this teaching?  I have often said about beginning writers that you have to let them make their mistakes.  But do I believe it?  And even if I believe it, do I practice it?

As an undergraduate I wrote a story that was all a dream, I wrote a story about an abused woman who was keeping her pregnancy secret, I wrote a story about not being able to get my homework done.  And my teachers were Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates.  Can you imagine?  Joyce Carol Oates could probably have written a whole ‘nother novel in the time she had to read the dreck I was writing.  Russell Banks was writing Cloudsplitter, one of my favorite novels of all time, at the time.  Certain of my stories must have been an agony to them.  And yet neither of them banned me from doing anything.  I wouldn’t say they praised me either, but they did let me make my mistakes.  And one of the best stories I wrote as an undergraduate—which became the first story I ever published—was about a couple with a dying baby.  Exactly the kind of story I might now discourage an intro student from writing for fear of sentimentality and melodrama.

Those of us who teach creative writing often get asked if creative writing can be taught.  And one of the common responses is: a good teacher can get you further faster.  Things you’d have to determine on your own, you learn more speedily in class.  But what happens if you don’t make your own mistakes?  I feel sometimes like I am asking my intro students to learn from the mistakes of intro students past—and that runs the risk of their writing a certain way because I have told them to, as opposed to deciding for themselves what is good writing. And that might well discourage innovation.

MFA programs get accused of this a lot—an absence of innovation, a wealth of mediocrity.  But MFA students in this day and age have often been through several years of workshops by the time they get to graduate school.  A fear of taking risks can be taught or encouraged very early on.

I’m about to start a new semester of Introduction to Creative Writing.  It’s my tenth year at my university.  And all this time I’ve stated as one of my goals, on every creative writing syllabus that I’ve ever created, that I want students “to start developing your own aesthetic as a reader and a writer.” I try to encourage this by choosing a range of readings from writers of different backgrounds, writing in different styles.  But like many faculty, I’ve fallen into teaching the same stories year after year—especially in the intro class.  The ten-year mark seems like a good time to take stock of my own aesthetic, and how I might be over-selling it to students.  I know some of my prejudices—I’m wary of overly large plot points, I’m a sucker for a little magic, I worship at the altar of voice—so I think as I finalize my syllabus for the semester, I better look for a story with a big plot, a realist tone, and an near absence of style.  Maybe I’ll even try to write a story like that—after all, it’s been awhile since I allowed myself to make such a mistake.

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Why I Teach

posted: 2.11.14 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

The final assignment I give my MFA students is one they often hate, to write a “Why I Write” essay.  Lately it seems the “Why I Write” has become a genre onto itself, a rite of passage for amateur and professional alike. And even a cursory reading in the genre suggests many of us write for many of the same reasons:

  1. To learn
  2. To leave the world better than we found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because we can (a variation of which is Flannery O’Connor’s famous retort, “Because I’m good at it”)

It may seem like I’m criticizing the form, but I love these essays, including versions by Jim Harrison, Orhan Pamuk, Susan Orlean , Barry Hannah, Rick Moody; the most famous examples, by George Orwell and Joan Didion; and my personal favorite, by my former student, Kathrine Wright.

I love how these essays share the process of creation with readers, and I think at least once in their writing life, every writer should consider the question. But I suspect the reason my students are so against the assignment is they are afraid they won’t come up with a good answer.  They get defensive.  And this, it seems, is how I feel upon being asked, “Why do I teach writing.”


Why shouldn’t I!

Sometimes my students get famous! (see: “Teacher’s Pet” ). Sometimes my students get jobs! (see: “From Grad Student to Assistant Professor”). Sometimes they give much onto others! (see: “How to Make a Planet”) .

And yet periodically there is a lot of hate aimed at those of us who teach creative writing (see: “Get a Real Degree”), like we are the snake oil salesfolk of the post-modern age. And I suppose if we actually promised our students fame and riches, we would be.  But the truth is I teach writing for the same reasons I write:

  1. To learn
  2.  To leave the world better than I found it
  3. To be heard
  4. To give voice to the voiceless
  5. To love language
  6. To be preserved past death
  7. Because I can (and because I’m good at it)

The creative writing classroom is a place where students learn to give and receive critical feedback, to think past the first thought, to find language for emotion, to communicate their thoughts and beliefs and ideas to others, to really reach each other.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

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A Simile is Like a Metaphor

posted: 3.19.13 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Textbook discussions of figurative language tend to insist that similes and metaphors deepen a reader’s understanding of what they are describing.  But if you look at how most writers employ similes and metaphors, they don’t so much deepen the meaning of what is being described as they change it.  Much like you wouldn’t use an adjective or an adverb unless it changed the meaning of a given noun or verb, you wouldn’t use figurative language to say the same thing your literal language is saying.

Instead, figurative language is one of the best tools for writers who want to add emotional connotations, tone, and atmosphere, to a thing that might not otherwise have these features.

Take Michael Ondaatje’s poem “Sweet Like a Crow.

We understand that his niece’s voice does not literally sound “like a scorpion being pushed through a glass tube” or “like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle”.  But this long list of humorous and horrific imaginary sounds sets the tone for the poem, a comedy right up until the pay-off of the lovely final simile “like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep/and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.”  If readers took similes literally, the poem couldn’t work—this list of contradictory sounds could not all illustrate the same sound.  But in this case, the figurative language sets a tone for the poem and then skillfully changes it, so that the reader understands the literal image (his eight-year-old niece Hetti Corea’s voice) differently by the end of the poem.

Likewise, in “The Staying Freight,” the amazing opening story to his collection, Volt, Alan Heathcock employs figurative language to describe a young boy’s dead body–not because it creates a better picture of what the boy literally looks like, but because it changes how the reader sees his death:

      “Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.
      “Winslow simply didn’t see his boy running across the field. He didn’t see Rodney climb onto the back of the tractor, hands filled with meatloaf and sweet corn wrapped in foil. Didn’t see Rodney’s boot slide off the hitch.
      “Winslow dabbed his eyes with a filthy handkerchief. The tiller discs hopped. He whirled to see what he’d plowed, and back there lay a boy like something fallen from the sky.”

(You can read more of Heathcock’s story at The Nervous Breakdown. )

Try to imagine writing that moment with literal language—a man looking at the body of his son, who he has just accidentally killed.  It’s hard to figure how one could do it without melodrama or sentimentality.  Or simply too much gore.  And so Heathcock turns to simile, and while the simile in no way gives the reader a clear picture of what the boy’s body looks like, it attaches an emotion to the sight, it changes the tone of the event entirely. Winslow’s son becomes a fallen bird, a tragic and yet somehow beautiful sight.  With, inevitably, a dose of Icarus thrown in.

This is a useful trick in creative nonfiction as well.  The nonfiction writer is tied to the truth of what has really happened, and yet often the truth of what has happened doesn’t adequately convey the emotional truth of what happened. Being able to employ figurative language that moves beyond describing the literal to applying an emotional atmosphere can go a long way toward achieving greater truth.

When student writers first start using figurative language they tend to make one of two mistakes: they apply metaphors and similes too randomly or they use clichés.  Pointing out that figurative language is often more an act of point of view than an act of description—that it is grounded in the language and world of the narrator and brings in the feelings of that narrator—can lead them away from those mistakes.

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The Tallest Men on Earth

posted: 1.14.13 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

There’s a band called “Tallest Man on Earth” that for quite awhile I thought was called “Tallest Men on Earth.”  And I was disappointed to realize I was wrong (never mind that the band is just one guy and so the singular is appropriate), because Tallest Men on Earth just sounds so much more interesting than Tallest Man on Earth.  This to me is the perfect lesson on titles.  When you see something titled “The Tallest Man on Earth,” you know, or at least you assume you know, exactly what it’s about (he’s a Turk named Sultan Kosen, and he’s eight foot three).  But if you see something titled “The Tallest Men on Earth,” that sets a greater mystery—it raises a reader’s curiosity right away.

At the moment, in fiction, nobody is coming up with better titles than Karen Russell.  Her short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, establishes her sense of humor, the stories’ strangeness, and their originality.  But she topped that with her second book, Swamplandia!, a title that I sometimes call out just for the fun of it.  Never have I loved an exclamation point more.  It’s a title that actually gets stuck in my head.  Easy to remember when you’re in the library or the bookstore or recommending things to friends.  And like St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, it sets the reader up for what’s to come—a strange, atmospheric novel set largely in an alligator theme park.

Students often struggle with titles.  They use a lot of clichés.  Or puns.  Or abstractions. They often use words that appear in the very first sentence or line of the piece.  My advice to students is twofold:

1)     You want a title that will draw readers into the poem/story/essay before they read it.

2)     You want a title that helps readers see the poem/story/essay in a new light after they’ve read it.

Titles can raise curiosity and they can satisfy it, helping point readers toward an interpretation of a piece. Of course, there are many, many great books with only ordinary titles, or perfectly ordinary books with great titles… a scan of the books piled right in front of me includes this mixed bag: Game of Thrones (I like it!), Farewell, Escape, Sultana’s Dream, Joseph Anton, Water for Elephants and the for-sure winner, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.  If I judged a book only by its title I certainly wouldn’t be reading Farewell or Escape; given that these are not romance novels, the authors probably didn’t do themselves any favors there.  Joseph Anton is Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, and the brilliance of the title lies in the realization that Joseph Anton was the false identity Rushdie lived under during the Fatwa.  It’s a book about that other version of himself; the title points to a reading of the book.

For readers, a title is the beginning of the reading experience and it’s the thing that lingers longest in the end…

And one possible fun exercise for the last day of the semester—have students each brainstorm a title for an unwritten piece and then donate that title to another student as a parting gift—a piece to be written later.  It’s a way of getting students to think about titles as their own entity and of encouraging students to keep writing once the semester is done.

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Things My Teachers Taught Me

posted: 9.11.12 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Recently a former student of mine wrote me a nice thank you note in which she mentioned how she would never forget the moment I told the class that I averaged thirteen major drafts per story.  This—a casual remark I happened to drop in my lecture—was the most illuminating moment of the semester for her. I remember mentioning the number not because I find it revelatory, but because I find it amusing: Thirteen! So unlucky! And so weirdly consistent.  The remark certainly wasn’t written into my lesson plan, and it wasn’t one of the sound bites that I’m careful to repeat all semester. It was tossed off, the kind of thing I don’t usually say because it’s about me rather than them.  And yet, out of the whole semester, that was the lesson this student found most important.  Teaching is like that much of the time.  The off-the-cuff remarks, the of-the-moment lessons, the things you didn’t notice much are the things that strike chords with students.

I haven’t been a student since 1999, so this incident made me think: what things do I remember?

(I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I’m mentioning names.  I know I have been absurdly lucky to study with these masters, and I give thanks for it.)

Joyce Carol Oates: “This is a good sentence. You don’t usually write sentences like that.”  I actually remember the sentence, which was in a writing exercise, not a story, and was long, full of clauses, which I now know to call appositives, that went much further with description than I usually did.  I’m sure I remember her remark because of the backhanded nature of the compliment, but it was one of the most helpful things a teacher ever told me. It showed me where to go as opposed to where not to go.

Ron Carlson: “Make your dog a real dog.” When I first started writing fiction, I was really focused on character, and as a result, I sometimes had characters who felt real, but who existed in front of a fuzzy background.  In order to create the illusion of an entire world, you need to surround your characters with things (and animals) that also feel real.

Russell Banks: “You’re funny.”  One of the things about the faculty-student relationship is that you actually know little about who your students are outside of the classroom.  I like to think I’m funny, but there was no way for my professor to know that, and I was remarkably unfunny in class.  So when I finally relaxed a little in a story and showed that side of myself, he was surprised.  His surprise led me to realize that I wasn’t writing with my whole self.  I was writing as some serious student-self who I thought was more like a writer should be.

Alberto Rios: “Stay in the moment.”  It took me a long time to realize that not every scene in a story is equal, and that some moments that are over in an instant in life should take a long time on the page.  At first it seemed ironic that I learned this from a poet rather than a novelist, but now it makes sense to me.  Poets are masters of depicting the moment.

Stephen Wright: “There’s a voice here.” I have always resisted the idea that writers have to find “their voice.”  I have always wanted to be able to use different voices.  That small difference, that he said “a voice” rather than “your voice,” when talking about my story, was very reassuring to me.

So what’s the lesson for teachers? The obvious one is none of these are critical remarks—they are either descriptive, supportive, or generally applied; apparently whatever specific criticisms I got have long departed my memory. I also think there is a lesson related to being in the moment.  To have your plans, your go-to words of wisdom, but to be in a living, breathing conversation with your students. They’re listening, and you never really know what they’re going to remember….



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Listening In

posted: 7.5.12 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

Young writers often get the advice—and sometimes the assignment—to eavesdrop.  I’ve always found this a little funny, since after all, don’t most of us spend large portions of our lives in conversation?  Why do we need to listen in on somebody else’s conversation in order to learn about conversation?  I wasn’t sure of the particular value of being outside of the conversation.  So I decided to try it.

Like many a writer, I often find myself in coffee shops.   But I also happen to live in a town that is a prime destination for people in recovery programs, who also naturally find themselves in coffee shops.  And so one of the first things I heard was one highly caffeinated young guy saying to another, “It was a tell-tale sign when we did free hugs and Ted wouldn’t hug anybody.”

A few days later, walking out of the gym behind a young woman and her probably four-year-old son, I heard this exchange:

Toddler: I want a snack.

Mom: I have something in the car for you.

Toddler: What is it?

Mom: Juice.

Toddler: What kind of juice?

Mom: Orange juice.

Toddler, with outright exuberance: Hallelujah, baby!

Later, sitting in a Barnes and Noble café near the customer service counter, I heard this:

Female customer, probably sixty-something, brandishing the bondage bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey:  Do you think this would make a good gift?

Customer Service Rep: Well, I wouldn’t give it to someone you didn’t know well.

Next customer, a very thin woman around seventy in a denim mini skirt and high-heeled sandals: I need a ride home.

Customer Service Rep: But we’re a bookstore.

Meanwhile, someone I know posted on Facebook that he heard an old woman on the subway turn to the homeless guy next to her and say, “You smell like my husband.  He’s dead.”

The website Overheard in NY is full of such gems.  The truth, I guess, is that we’re a nation of eavesdroppers, whether we mean to be or not, and we find our fellow Americans pretty amusing.

There are lessons to be learned from these moments, sure.  The guys in recovery had a very particular vocabulary that they shared and used fluidly.  They were also way more intimate in the way they spoke to each other than most any other group of twenty-something males I have ever seen in conversation. And the child shouting Hallelujah for his juice was surely imitating adults he has heard.  Kid talk is often funny for the way they use words correctly but in slightly inappropriate contexts.  It was a touching scene, too, showing how well the mother knew her child, as well as how much he appreciated her knowledge.  And living here in South Florida, I’ve certainly observed the infinite variety of the elderly (some of the stereotypes are true—the driving is pretty terrifying), but as with any demographic, the individuals are many and they can be found everywhere, saying just about anything.

So a student given the assignment to eavesdrop certainly could learn this or that about the ways we speak to each other and who we are.  I might try an exercise where I have students copy down things they overhear over the course of a week, then share the best bits with the class so that the group can collectively determine what lessons can be learned from the snippets.  And I could see creating a writing exercise based on any of the snippets.  Part of what’s interesting about eavesdropping is how the absence of context sparks your imagination.  What kind of kid “Hallellujahs” orange juice rather than a bag of chips?  Who is Ted and why wouldn’t he participate in free hugs?  Did that lady ever get home from Barnes and Noble? (Last I saw she was talking to a very patient cop.)  And is that other lady pulling a “Rose for Emily” thing with her dead husband?

Eavesdropping works as an assignment because you can listen without the social obligation of participating in the conversation.  You can sit in on conversations by demographics of people you might not otherwise speak to (assuming those demographics speak to each other in public places).  But really I don’t know that it’s so important to go out and spy. Just now as I sit here writing, the guy fixing my air-conditioning said, “You can go ahead and close up the joint.”  My house has never been called a joint before, but I like it.

I suspect the real value in the eavesdropping assignment is not so much that it encourages students to be spies, but that it encourages them to be observant.  Go out into the world in your writerly identity, it says—and pay attention.  The writer’s life is one big eavesdropping exercise, though there are some problems inherent in that, as well.

Jane Smiley’s hilarious satire of academia Moo takes down the eavesdropping assignment pretty effectively.  One workshop student listens in on her roommate’s inane conversations and creates inane writing.  Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s novel Harriet the Spy also makes clear the hazards of eavesdropping on your close comrades.  They don’t care for it so much.  Especially not when they are twelve years old.

So what is the difference between overzealous, shameful Harriet-the-Spying and being a writer?  I guess in part it’s the dishonesty of it, of pretending not to be listening when you are listening, and it’s how you use the material you get hold of.  It seems safe to take a snippet of conversation from a context you don’t know and make it your own story,  less so to take your roommate’s private life and transcribe it.

But then again, I bet Harriet the Spy was a pretty great writer. What do you think? Is all material fair game?

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The Workshop Workout

posted: 5.8.12 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

As a student, I was never really a fan of writing exercises—they often seemed gimmicky or overly directed.  Only once did an exercise ever turn into an actual story. (On my desktop I titled the exercise “Stupid Ron” because I so resented having to do it—I have since spent quite a bit of time apologizing to my then teacher, the beloved Ron Carlson; the story that resulted was published in Glimmer Train, served as the writing sample for my now tenured job, and won me a $5000 grant from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, which I used to go to Bread Loaf.)  Despite that one success, when I became a teacher I remained suspicious of writing exercises; they seemed like an awfully convenient way to expend a chunk of class-time. But, mostly because my students say they value them, I have gradually come to use writing exercises in my workshops.  I still don’t do them (I don’t eat lima beans either, now that nobody can make me), but I’ve come to believe in their value.

The student-me was only ever assigned one kind of writing exercise, intended to inspire—to lead to the creation of new work.  And I have never really been short of ideas for new work.  But I’ve found that there are really three types of writing exercises; those intended for:

  1.  inspiration
  2.  exploration and revision
  3.  fun

Inspiration exercises often work best for beginning students who haven’t discovered that they are allowed to write about all kinds of things.  For example, in my intro class this semester, I had the students brainstorm historical and current events that they’d like to write poems about.  This was a pretty surprising idea for many of them, even though they’d just read a host of poems about the Vietnam War.  In the intro class, I’ve come to depend on writing exercises as a way to get students away from more clichéd topics and styles—to break them of habits they were somehow born right into. 

Another favorite inspirational exercise is to have students write an A-Z story (Ron Carlson  again—from What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers)—a 26 sentence story in which the first word of every sentence has to start with the subsequent letter of the alphabet.  The exercise obliges students to vary their sentence structure and their vocabulary (though you do end up with a high percentage of stories with xylophones and zebras in them; I’m thinking of instituting a ban).

The second kind of exercise—exploration and revision exercises—have become my bread and butter.  I ask students of all levels to take a story (or essay or poem) they are working on and do the exercise with that particular piece in mind. For example, I might ask them to add a scene in which one character tells another a story.  Or write about a book a character is reading.  Or insert a flashback into your flashback, and then insert another flashback into that flashback.

Really all the students are doing is drafting, just with directions that take them away from the conventional, scene-heavy story structures that too many doses of show-don’t-tell have mired them in.  These revision exercises also get students to write scenes and sentences out of order, thus reminding them that a draft (of a story, an essay, a poem) does not need to be created in one fell-swoop, typed out from start to finish in a single caffeine-fueled computer session.

And then there’s the fun.  The surrealists liked to play their party games to free their minds, but sometimes fun is just fun, a break from writing toward a finished product.  Sometimes in class I say, just write something weird, as weird as you can get.  And then again sometimes fun fails.  I asked one class to do an assignment from Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning to Love You More , a re-enactment of the scene from Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” in which the narrator places his hand over that of a blind man and helps the blind man draw a cathedral.  It was toward the end of the semester and my students all seemed to get along—never did I imagine that they’d be so reluctant to touch each other.  It didn’t turn out to be the fun artists-being-artists exercise I hoped for, but it did provide an unexpected lesson in just how intimate that last action of the story is.

Most of the time I make up exercises based on what my class is reading, but some other great sources are:

Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment just out from Paper Monument (glowing New York Times review here)

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter

Now Write! Nonfiction edited by Sherry Ellis

The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell

Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer edited by Bret Anthony Johnston

Anyone else have any favorites?

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On Friday Night Lights and Teaching Character

posted: 3.26.12 by Ayşe Papatya Bucak

MV5BMTYwNjIyMTYwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTA2MDU1MQ@@._V1._SY317_CR12,0,214,317_I confess, I’m one of those writers with a deep and abiding love of the much-missed Friday Night Lights, a television show that not only entertained me, but made me think about how I want to live and who I want to be.

Now I admit, I have loved a number of shows of the young adult variety, starting with but not limited to Felicity; Gilmore Girls, seasons 1-5; Veronica Mars, seasons 1 and 2; and—surely you were expecting this—every all-too-short second of the single season of Freaks and Geeks.

I suspect young adult television, much like young adult literature, has such a hold on me because it is often about people building their identities, determining their values, and shaping their characters (as we are wont to do when we are young).

And this is why I mention Friday Night Lights in the context of teaching creative writing.  More than any two characters on television, high school football coach Eric Taylor and high school guidance counselor Tami Taylor were working hard every week to shape the values of their daughter, their high-school-age-charges, their no-longer high-school-age-charges, and even themselves.

In writing workshops, we often talk about character—character-driven work, characterization, character arcs—and what we mean most of the time by “character” is simply a fictional human being (and some nonfiction writers mean nonfictional human beings).  But what if we really meant character?  The content of someone’s heart.  Their integrity. Their values.  What if instead of obsessing on that workshop workhorse—what is at stake for this character?—we put character at stake instead?

At the end of the pilot episode of FNL, the star quarterback of the Dillon Panthers has been paralyzed, and Coach Taylor, in voice over, reminds his team (us! It’s us!) how they (we!), at some point in their lives (our lives!), will all be tested.

What better scenario for fiction (or any creative writing, really) than the moment in which someone’s character is tested?

Next workshop, instead of talking with my students about what their characters desire, I’m going to talk with them about what will test and shape and skew their characters’ “very souls.”  And I will ask my students to consider what their characters might do as a consequence of being tested.  Because as Coach Taylor so wisely said in season five: “character is in the trying” and “the trying” is as good a definition of plot as any I’ve ever heard.

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