Using Creative Writing Creatively

One of my proudest moments in high school English class was when my extremely strict, Catholic nun-of-a-teacher handed me back a short story with a large A enshrined in a circle. She was often stern and sometimes downright scary, but also let us read A Patch of Blue by Elizabeth Kata about Selina D’Arcey, a blind girl living in a squalid apartment with her abusive, prostitute mother Rose-Ann and alcoholic grandfather Ole Pa. Selina has no friends and rarely ventures outside until she meets Gordon Ralfe, an educated and soft-spoken black man. Not your typical Catholic high school summer reading, but I loved it, and rode the short story grade high for a long time.

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My worst high school English class memory comes from senior year when students memorized and recited lines from Macbeth to the rest of the class. I purposely did not memorize the lines. I would have gladly taken the F, but my teacher forced me up to the front of the room anyway. Hands shaking, students laughing, I stumbled through Lady Macbeth’s speech.

I’m not sure if remembering these events shaped my classroom pedagogy. It could as easily have been my love of writing or my years of work as a teacher, but creative writing should become be a bigger part of every English class. My own class included.

True, teaching creative writing isn’t easy. 

31-K4eNCoTL._BO1,204,203,200_According to Rebecca Wallace-Segall’s article “A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools” in the Atlantic.It is not easy to teach creative writing within the confinement of school. It is not easy to tackle the issues that arise, and it’s not easy to learn how to teach fiction and memoir writing well.”

But it needs to be done.  It’s interesting that high school teachers put so much value in the novels they read with students, spending the year sharing authors’ valuable themes, use of literary devices, symbols, and conflicts, and yet never teaching students how to create their own literature. Does it not make sense that if we want students to understand theme, they need to immerse themselves in it, creating themes for their own works of art. 

Segall goes on to say, “There’s a reason fiction and narrative nonfiction outsell all other genres in the U.S. It’s the same reason there are 56 million WordPress blogs and 76 million Tumblrs. Human beings yearn to share, reflect, and understand one another, and they use these reflections to improve the state of things, both personal and public. If we want our students to have this kind of impact, we have to teach them to express themselves with both precision and passion.”

I used to teach Senior Writing Workshop, anelective for students getting ready to venture off to college. For most of the course we completed typical assignments: a research reports, a rhetorical analysis, and expository writing, but sometimes we ventured into the more creative with personal narrative and satire, and it is those types of writing that students respond to the most. 

In their end of the year course summaries, students wrote: “There were new things I learned, and I actually got interested in one, which was the satire” and “The papers that I am most proud of are my personal narrative and satire papers. These papers really let me express myself in a way that I never get to do as just another English student…”

But what really stuck with me was the student who said, “I came to this class dreading to write another paper and left wanting to write more.” 

What teacher does not want to read that?

The question then becomes how to intersperse creative writing into an already rigorous curriculum overflowing with literature, standardized testing, and thesis-driven essays. Creative writing can be done through mini-lessons or simple units. Often time, exposure to a topic will have students experimenting on their own.

  1. Personal narrative through college essay. Cover exploding moments, descriptive writing, thought shots and snap shots
  2. Flash fiction and short story writing through mentor texts in comparison to novels. (The “Pedestrian” as compared to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
  3. Creative journalism through narrative nonfiction, blogs and vlogs, book reviews, satire and opinion pieces.
  4. Dialogue and script writing through the study of drama.  Craft a conversation. Teach dialogue, dialogue tags, realistic vs. real dialogue.
  5. Poetry, rap and song lyrics in reaction to social and personal issues examined through literature.  

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https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/a-passionate-unapologetic-plea-for-creative-writing-in-schools/263212/

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Intense and emotional. I couldn’t put the book down.  Author Courtney Summers’s novel will haunt readers after they’ve turned the final page. While the ending will not leave some (ME!) entriely satified, the book tackles themes that every parent hates to think might happen to a child, especially their child. This was not an easy book to read with many possible triggers including drug addiction, sexual assault, and child abuse, but so well done that readers will be reaching for tissues or living the anger Sadie, the protagonist,  emotes.

34810320._SY475_Sadie’s first person point of view is  interspersed with West McCray’s podcast. Both gather clues. Sadie want’s to find one of her mother’s boyfriend and get revenge for a horrible thing he did. McCray wants to find Sadie. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the disjointed narrative, but it never felt that way.  Instead, I loved how the pieces of the narrative puzzle connected by the end.

Sadie jumped off each and every page. She damaged and seeking revenge. She doesn’t understand how amazing she was for taking care of her sister Mattie, she still searches for the good and gentle when her entire life has been anything but that. “I would let his gentleness take me somewhere else,  let myself pretend what it might be like to belong to someone” (91). Because she still has hope for a better future, so do readers. This is also why there is a special place in my heart for Javi and Ellis, two minor characters, who show Sadie that the world is not all bad. 

The writing is wonderful from the details describing characters to the imagery.  “I swallow hard, lick my lips, the ghost taste of the shot still on them” (91). The characters aren’t flat or stereotypical. Many aren’t likable, but they come across as entirely realistic. That means you will meet plenty of assholes and liars along the way.

While considered young adult, Sadie was not written for teens. It connects to all people, no matter what age. While I love this book, I’m still struggling with the end. I NEED MORE. If you want closure, be prepared to be disappointed, but the reader gets enough that the book feels both satisfying and complete. Cliffhanger, not really, but maybe. Closure. No. Read it anyway.  Five huge, bright stars.

Need more about the ending? Check out http://wendythesuperlibrarian.blogspot.com/2019/02/epic-spoiler-review-sadie.html

This Is Where It Ends Review

I’ve decided to dispense with stars for this one. I couldn’t rate This Is Where It Ends easily on a scale from one to five. The subject matter is too intense to give it a glib score. Instead, I thought I’d go over what I liked and what, if anything, could have been improved. Remember, I’m attempting this from a writer’s perspective rather than going on pure emotion.

24529123But pure emotion is a good place to start. I give the author, Marieke Nijkamp, a lot of respect for tackling such a tough contemporary subject. When I think about writing about topics such as bullying, assault, or school shootings, my first thought is that it would be too emotional, too real. I’m a teacher and I live close to Newtown where the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting occured. And I have to say, for me the book was not an easy read. I was swept up in the narrative and suspense, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I wanted to grab a trashy romance after and escape from reality.

From a craft level, I thought the author’s use of time created tension and suspense. The chapters were done in multiple perspectives but they also contained a time stamp that advances in small increments. The book starts with Chapter One going from 10:01 to 10:02 am. Most of the book takes place in an hour. The pacing was spot on except, as a reader, I was frustrated by the portrayal of the police. It seemed to take them FOREVER to get to the school and start doing something.

I loved the use of multiple perspectives, but had issues with some of the characters. A few came across with too similar in voice, and I had to keep checking names until I learned who was who. Others too stereotypcial. Even though some characters came across as the rebel or artsy student, they all had huge problems outside school that no one seemed to notice or care about.

Spoiler alert. Don’t read on if you don’t want to learn some of the details. For example Autumn and her brother lost their mother less than two years ago. Their father started drinking and beating on them. No one does anything. Sylv’s mother has been diagnosed with what sounds like early onset Alzheimer’s. In addition, Sylv is sexually assaulted, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Her brother guesses at what might be wrong but does nothing except explain how she pushed him away that year and he wished he knew why.  Finally, Sylv and Autumn are a couple, but can’t let anyone know because the school wouldn’t accept them as gay. Only one other student has come out and it doesn’t sound like it went well.

This caused a couple problems. While I understand that backstory is required to build to the shooter’s motivation, everyone involved with the shooter had an incredibly chaotic life. At times this made it hard to wrestle with both understanding the shooter and the character’s backstories. A lesser problem I had was the author has many characters talk about the school, Opportunity High and what a great place it is, but most of the things readers learn directly contradict that it is a great place full of opportunity.

While I didn’t like all the characters, I did like the use of multiple perspectives. It made the single hour portrayed in the novel captivating, tense, and heartbreaking for the reader. Along with the multiple perspectives, there were texts. I thought the texts were an interesting idea, but could have been taken further. They seemed like extras rather than an important part of the story.

There is one perspective the reader does not get. The shooter, and I was left wondering why? Readers understand the thoughts and feeling of those who know him (his sister, ex-girlfriend, tormentor, etc), who were part of his life, and in some way pushed him into action, but we never get his thoughts. The shooter’s thoughts would have added a much needed layer to the story.

Worth the read. Absolutely. But only when you’re having a really good day!