Tag Archives: teaching writing

‘Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex’: Stephen King’s Advice

In a recent interview at The Atlantic, author Stephen King shares some more advice on writing beyond what he wrote in “On Writing.”

To the question, “You write, ‘One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.’ If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?” King answered:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

King on teaching writing:

I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

King on letting students pick their own books to read vs. steering them to the challenging texts:

You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teachingMoby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.

 

‘Most flowers die fast or get passed gas’: Exquisite Corpse poems (1 of 3)

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New Exquisite Corpse poems from this semester’s creative writing class, second hour. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

He shaves your grandma’s legs when cash rules everything.

Love is a many-splendored thing that scares us so.

I’m giving up, up, and away.

Stop signs are pointless because there are many dogs.

Bed time is my favorite color.

Underwear is like outerwear, except for the exceptionalism of the word.

Donkeys are dumb animals on the edge of moonbeams and rainbows having to see the light at the end.

I did not want to drink, or not, to my house and kids I destroyed.

I need you to find true love, which is beautifully hot in Acapulco with coconut.

Winter is the season that rhymes with a bat.

I want a drink of me and the time.

And the award goes to go home sad.

The alligator chewed the gum loudly. The trumpet played quietly.

I ate is the past tense purpose of writing.

Good fortune is bad luck in the bowl of being the best person.

Death-defying stunts are two words that cannot express hatred.

The future will never change.

Big people eat a lot of the tip of my nose.

To the supermarket for 20 years to life.

True friends don’t really exist, like in Jurassic Park with dinosaurs running around.

Mate like two moths under the sea where [you’d] better run or else nothing matters the most.

Twelfth Street is the place where the people stay with me ‘til we are like you.

See the big trees die in the clear blue skies and cold lemonade.

The tree was at the park to hold my love.

You gave up instantly the coffee began spilling.

Red violets are blue; I’ve been drinking watermelon juice.

Time goes by very much in the style that only I have.

Your personality intrigues me to rescue her majesty and marry her hair.

Most flowers die fast or get passed gas.

Orange squares taste exactly enough.

Milk does a body; good God, we need ketchup.

Goldfish are very funny looking through Alice’s looking glass.

The ocean sand in your toes feels like gorillas on water.

Mind-numbing gets done at the people.

The cutest little girl in the middle of the ocean where the water looks like an ugly monkey.

Once upon a time flies when you’re having a kitten.

Why did she do whatever you want to do with my favorite food?

Last night I experimented with all the power in a meadow for unicorns.

“This isn’t fun anymore” reminds me of Macklemore.

“Very odd” is what people call me later.

Selfish people always live longer than an elephant’s trunk that has baby chickens.

Night owl was an owl that I wanted to eat.

Me? I’m the best I ever had.

Man, I feel like a person with a pair of socks.

Any dish makes me feel greatness.

A wild animal had been really confused lately.

Like playing a musical chicken that sings girly stuff, yo’ daddy likes when pony tails aren’t.

Clean is better than nothing.

I’m excited about girls who stink like you.

‘So easy it is actually hard’: A student compliments my creative writing class

I gave my creative writing students (high school seniors) a “Kreativity Kwizz” a few days ago, and one of the students gave an answer that I read as one of the best compliments I could get on this class:

“I know that this class is by far the most unique, weirdest class I have ever taken, and that it is so easy it is actually hard.”

This statement shows me that my student really gets, really understands, that being creative doesn’t require doing the things that people typically think of as hard work: solving lots of math problems or memorizing facts for a test (although I do ask students to memorize a few poems). Learning creative practices requires different thinking, or even no-thinking, which are themselves  challenging. I also just love the way this student worded this idea, showing her own creativity!

‘Punk rock is not my dear Aunt Frank’: More Exquisite Corpse Poems (2nd of 2)

For introductory explanation, see previous post.

Her origami smells like your love of dogs.

Fast running is not very reliable.

Now is the time for score, and seven years until my cat dies.

Money is my favorite thing, with some stuff, and then the cops came home like I never say you can’t.

A healthy unicorn ate my baby girl that no one notices.

Old ladies love old men.

Love is admiring something’s beauty, and the beast is Miley Cyrus, cried the young son.

Who will watch your mind? I have no mind.

The man-eating bunny is just a rabbit.

Time is always poorly wasted.

Easy does it, but hurry up now, you child of mine. You are my sunshine babe.

My shiny bicycle, wobbly and shaking — it’s hard to define this section.

Youthful old people still die.

Yum is what candy tastes like, heaven with sin.

Amazing things always happen never.

The one who has the pirate once said, “this is so long, bro.”

“Me scurvy is acting up” is the way where the wild things dance like nobody is watching you pee while eating away at my insides.

Distorted TV pictures make me or a tiger wild and dangerous.

Breathing like I’ve been running makes me very unhappy.

My domain name is nothing but letters.

The everlasting time traveler gets lost at Petro.

I don’t care to explain yourself.

Sometimes the dog can whistle your problems to someone.

Monkeys fling poo towards me because I want yogurt.

“Off with his head and toes” are in LeBron James’ poetry.

Music is the worst thing that I like most of the time here and now.

“Bro” is the name he lives in.

Here lies the body. Of course I like salmon.

A sweetie told my mother to say “that is good riddance; I hate going to the air balloon.”

Overrated is rated too overly.

An overly ambitious cab driver has smells that are lightly crisp, and remind me of Kit-Kats.

Hate is not nice love.

Big tigers are very big; Europe is not so.

Cows never loved you.

Punk rock is not my dear Aunt Frank.

Turtle beats the hare every time I see you are my nemesis now.

Kittens will kill you hard enough to scratch glass.

As it always seems, you’ve broken the black cat of me.

One flower is all left turn on Second Street lights dangerously placed.

Was the chicken really worth anything anymore? And that I need to know about the chupacabra in the bathtub, yo. How are you, man?

You punched my big nose is what I smell.

Two dolphins walked into bars and held on tight.

Another plane of existence is futile, ye wench.

You are beautiful, no matter of fact.

Will you sign your name and find yourself there?

Word is a stupid word.

Dinosaurs blame the government, twisting words and alibis.

Words are sometimes very weird-beard on your face.

“Rawr” is what a lion is the phrase for.

Mandatory that you have fun time to sleep in a pool of vomited words like sour and sweet mixed together.

Number the amount of children [who] are becoming new elders.

The grand piano sounds heavenly in silence with really big bells.

The gingerbread man I’m behind now: Thanks for not being there.

Elsewhere must be near.

The kindergarteners are not the best of all I get me out of hell.

Hell has cookies, apparently, so has come the lion.

Upset emotions were lacking with her old blue shoes that I want a dog in.

The Jonas Brothers’ rock is the best music, is my life-blood, is a gross sacrifice to my grandpa’s parrot.

Murder is a serious crime like stealing someone’s lipstick.

What are you really saying that he doesn’t want to know many more?

More than words can describe this thingy-thing-thing, what is this thing that is a noun, for they can always degrade.

Fire burns things I love is a beautiful thing.

“Bing bong” went the door and indulged our interests in having many things like syrup.

I think of songs [that] make me sad about that one day in this room there, blue-azul-rojo like no other ocean [that] has all sorts of the beautiful autumn day.

Songs that are very good habits die hard.

I feel the same as the carrot that is quite ridiculous, sir.

A treacherous life in water comes from my mouth.

Mouth to mouth makes life a beautiful thing.

Body [is] just cyberwire essence of the mind’s thoughts I’m having. Right now is the time for the love of God who never was there.

Sometimes life sucks as much of your knowledge lies!

I dislike the fact that unicorns are scarier than goblins.

I hope you find yourself a new beginning-end-middle era that begins too soon.

Too soon I will be free puppies on my street next to Wal-Mart.

Always will my hair be as big as you plus me equals love.

Last chance to waltz alive on the inside like potato chips and bologna.

Leg hair flowing like goddess divine is a key to success in Halloween costumes.

This morning arrived late today.

The squid thoughts: squishy movement, tanky, tall, buff, skinny, short, but tall enough to look at her sadly.

Tiger Woods’ prose is a true novelty I can’t read.

The wind is messy little kids that ruin the moment by saying things like “ooow weee” all the way home.

Home is where I live like you are never ever deal[ing] in absolutes.

Math is not my strong-suit of my body armor.

Amazing grace, how sweet the trees are saying stuff and things to do what you want whenever.

Click here to see a longer listing.

Link: Perrin on robo-grading

My colleague Dave Perrin has written eloquently in this English Journal article about some of the issues we writing teachers have about “robo-grading,” where computers grade student writing. I particularly like:

When facts, logic, and truth become dispensable in the assessment of writing, then writing instruction, ostensibly, will become focused solely on the mechanics of writing. So much for the short-lived return to critical thinking that the Common Core State Standards initiative promises to bring back to the English curriculum. Although the e-Rater and its brethren may not be interested in the truth, the truth is that writing teachers always have been.

and

“good” writing is always subjective. English
teachers are notorious for their pet peeves and personal opinions of what is “good.” Over time, astute student writers will collect these hallmarks of good writing from various teachers, stack them against one another and their own, reject some and embrace others, and eventually develop their own style and criteria for good writing. The adoption of such a narrowly defined concept of writing in which, for instance, each sentence in a student essay must be at least 15 words long or contain a conjunctive adverb, threatens this process.

and

The proponents of robo-grading laud it precisely because it provides some sort of objective quantification of writing, but writing teachers
know that a certain degree of subjectivity is inescapable, and indeed even essential to the assessment of writing, as the self cannot be removed from the act of reading (or grading) any more than it can be removed from the act of writing. Students must be taught to read and write in a world where facts matter, where logic is challenged, and where the “truth” is often not only subjective but also subject to nearly inscrutable nuances.

Links: Grammar, science: 20 Feb. 2013

1. A post at Smithsonian called “The Ten Most Disturbing Scientific Discoveries” is from a couple years ago but still seems valid. In light of some of my experiences with feeling my creativity is not an intentional and/or consciously controlled, I enjoyed reading how much else that we do is also at least influenced by other non-rational, sub-/unconscious things:

6. Your mind is not your own.

Freud might have been wrong in the details, but one of his main ideas—that a lot of our behaviors and beliefs and emotions are driven by factors we are unaware of—turns out to be correct. If you’re in a happy, optimistic, ambitious mood, check the weather. Sunny days make people happier and more helpful. In a taste test, you’re likely to have a strong preference for the first sample you taste—even if all of the samples are identical. The more often you see a person or an object, the more you’ll like it. Mating decisions are based partly on smell. Our cognitive failings are legion: we take a few anecdotes and make incorrect generalizations, we misinterpret information to support our preconceptions, and we’re easily distracted or swayed by irrelevant details. And what we think of as memories are merely stories we tell ourselves anew each time we recall an event.

2. A post illustrating the wrongness of some grammar proscriptions, that infinitives can be split, that it’s not such a crime to end a sentence with a preposition, and that it’s OK to start a sentence with a conjunction (like “and”). I spend a good portion of many of my teaching days instructing high school sophomores is the basics: not confusing their, there, and they’re; finding subjects and verbs so as to avoid writing sentence fragments; and how to use semicolons between independent clauses (and series that contain sub-series, like this sentence).

A bright student asked me today why we study grammar, and I said, basically, that correct grammar is the way that smart people talk to each other and that if one wants to sound smart, one has to learn to use correct grammar (in at least those situations where one wants to sound smart). In retrospect, I should have said “educated people” instead of “smart people,” since of course there are many smart people who do not have formal education, but otherwise I’d stand by my explanation. My student seemed to enjoy what I said — perhaps it sounds cynical, but I can’t honestly come up with a better justification. David Foster Wallace, in his essay “Authority and American Usage” (a version of which is here), says

“the real truth, of course, is that SWE [Standard Written English] is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as ‘Standard’ by same. That it is the shibboleth of the Establishment, and that it is an instrument of political power and class division and racial discrimination and all manner of social inequity” (page 107 of the paperback of Wallace’s book “Consider the Lobster”). Wallace also says, “In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (pg. 109).

Wanting my students to have the ability to code-switch to SWE, I hope to teach them the standards, however arbitrary, of standard English. I do not want to argue that students don’t need to be taught these standards — although I suspect that some of my students pick up these standards unintentionally by immersion in language-rich households and/or by the self-directed decoding-processing of great quantities of texts (that is, reading for pleasure).

What often troubles me about teaching grammar in a writing class is that it seems altogether separate from teaching the writing — as if I were teaching fluid dynamics physics to beginning swimmers: it’s something to think about, but doesn’t really accomplish the goal. Writing, like most skills, improves through practice and repetition more than it does by theoretical analysis. The biggest thing I had to let go of as a creative writer was letting go of theories about how my stories should be, and just write.

As a teacher, I’m not sure how to really incorporate the students’ theoretical-grammar knowledge into their actual writing practice. I don’t know where the words I write come from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten writing done by thinking, “First, I’ll put a noun — no, wait, an adjective, and then a noun, then a verb — maybe an adverb sprinkled in somewhere?” Along these lines, I was in a meeting today where a special education teacher asked my opinion about whether a student was using too few or too many adjectives. I didn’t know how to answer that.

Writing is holistic, and in my case, my writing has gotten better over years and years of doing it, very little of which involved abstractly theorizing. Using language is an immediate experience, not far removed from other “automatic” brain activities as recognizing faces, perhaps. I love about teaching writing that it is holistic, that I’m asking students to create works, rather than just asking students to return some facts or solve some problems, as other disciplines do. But maybe the best any writing teacher can do is provide students formulas and techniques until students can create their own habits, process, mental models, etc.

Poems: Noses smell like other noses (Exquisite Corpse, 2 of 2)

Here are some more lines I took from the Exquisite Corpse poems we, my students and I, made this semester. Minor changes (punctuation, appropriate word endings) were made to improve readability. I know this is a long list, but there were many creations that amused me. I love how poems created somewhat randomly, unintentionally, end up being so wonderfully surprising.

Noses smell like other noses.

Observation: Simple bliss in yogurt is good when frozen yogurt is the best time in Creston ever.

Upon lobsters, I demolished buildings because their water is not tasteful, bland.

Pedestrians are worth ten people in the room for all of us. We don’t speak Klingon.

During the old times of people being themselves, people are liars, liar liar pants on the bottom shelf.

I don’t have a lurking motion towards home.

The quick brown fox jumps into the kitchen sandwich.

In this classroom, rows are blindingly straight, like my peace pipe

Please send that message to me, myself, and I, or be forgotten like the Pythagorean theorem of a dead dog.

Stupid is what stupid was.

Everyone thought they were driving in the car that we all hate.

Heads will roll, for this life is not ordinary folks eating brownies.

Yesterday was today in future tenses.

I will be known to whoever should hold this hammer.

His head is full of stuffed crayfish, red with anger.

Ugly horse can become beautiful barbecue.

Evilness makes me puke where no one stands.

Hippopotamus is a small animal that punches puppies willingly, as a doctor should, dancing under the rain.

Earth can be hardened by not showing off the bees that filled the air when I was a boy.

At Mississippi is a wood chuck who could chuck a peck of peppers skipping through the grass.

This person is one but what is two?

Pink bird, flower, orange you glad I didn’t know her well?

Loving people dearly endure the teasing of antelopes.

Obesity is a big problem like a cat that has to have fingers on its hands.

Puke smells bad and is green; everything green is good.

I’m used to being sly foxes who don’t deserve fish that are very colorful.

You have a huge shoe size, which varies depending on the same level as a level-nine sorcerer making coffee for grandma, and I cried until I couldn’t even think about it.

Cheerios are as tasty as a pear tree in a large cup of the birch tree skies colored blue.

Everyone is real talk, big ears, flying in the blue sky.

Magenta and the young rapper Pink Tree have red bears that are often red sky in the morning.

The 5 of us as humans rule life.

Green leaves in the trees surround me like A, B, C, one, two, three.

It’s impossible to resist the smell of the interesting problems with a genius outside town.

Slowly he saw everything, its big ears flapping on the ground.

Today I ate my own stop sign, drop and roll.

“Up” is a movie about a really slow caboose.

Daylight brings out the bright and shiny new day, when everyone was going to sleep on a sloth.

Go off a cliff and into a sea of cows’ milk and cookies, which are really good to fly away like mosquitoes.