Passion, Fire, Hope 101

Everything I need to know I learned in creative writing class

| March/April 2002

When I returned to school in 1989 I began to teach. Or rather not to teach but to participate in classes. I knew from my own experiences in school that I wanted the classes to be different from what I had been put through. I knew that the most important words any instructor had ever said to me were, "Never believe anything you read, and rarely believe anything you think." I knew I was somehow supposed to be helping students become better writers, but I knew also that the best writing springs from passion, love, hate, fear, hope. So by definition the class had to be as much a class in life as in writing.

I walked in the first day and changed the name of the class from "Principles of Thinking and Writing" to "Intellectual, Philosophical, and Spiritual Liberation and Exploration for the Fine, Very Fine, and Extremely Fine Human Being." Many of the students reached for their class lists to make sure they were in the right room. As I took the roll, I asked each person to tell the class what he or she loved. At first suspicious, they began to open up.

I SOON REALIZED THAT that I could not give grades: It would be immoral to ask someone to write from the heart, then give the writing a C. This created a problem, since the department required me to assign grades. I suggested assigning grades randomly, but neither the students nor the department liked that idea. I suggested giving everyone a 4.0. This was fine with the students, but not the administration. My next plan was to give everyone a grade of 3.14159, or &Mac185;. Math majors in the class thought this was a hoot, but the administrators didn’t get the joke.

Eventually, the students and I devised this plan: Because people learn to think by thinking, we would spend most class time on open discussions of important issues. What is love? What is the difference (if any) between emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical intimacy? Is there such a thing as a universal good? What do you want out of life? If you had only a limited time to live (which is of course the case), how would you spend your time? Is the universe a friendly place or not? Similarly, the way to learn how to write is by doing plenty of it, so I decided my main job in the classroom would be to cheerlead them into writing more. The students could, of course, write anything they wanted about anything they wanted. I would not judge any papers, but merely give the writers positive feedback, and I would try to guide them wherever they wished to go in their explorations.

I asked (not told, but asked) students to write about what they’d done that they were most proud of, and about what caused them the most shame. We took the shame papers (mostly unread) into the hall and burned them. One student, getting married the next summer, wrote her wedding vows as well as a letter to her fiancé, to be delivered moments before he walked down the aisle. Another, a wine salesman by trade, spent the quarter writing sales pitches. For each piece of writing a person did, he or she received a check mark (longer pieces received more). The final grade corresponded to the number of check marks. If a person had 34 check marks by the end of the quarter, for example, the grade was 3.4. Simple enough.

I asked each student to hand in a couple of pieces composed in forms of expression other than writing. Many brought in food, some paintings, a few tape recordings of their own music. A chef from Kuwait cooked us a seven-course meal and showed us pictures of his country. Another student brought a videotape of himself doing technical rock climbing.

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