Creative writing is a powerful, ancient, and yet delicate practice. We write — quietly, often in isolation, in tentative and mercurial moods. We revise, and turn back upon our own narratives, and wonder about the reception our work might meet in the world. Sometimes we hide manuscripts in drawers, or take deliberate action — as did Franz Kafka and Mahatma Gandhi — to prevent our words from making their way to an audience. Kafka and Gandhi were both unsuccessful in preventing their writings from being destroyed; but their impulse to do so, to keep hooded the hawk of their creativity, is common among writers of all stripes.
We’re not sure that we have, really, anything to say; or we are afraid that if our words are not well met we might ourselves be wounded. Or we believe, as did the ancient Egyptians, that words have their own life, for good or for ill, and that writing is a means of seizing the power of the gods. This course attempts to explore this conversation — between the writer and the wider world — and to find ways of bringing our writing safely out of hiding.
We will be exploring craft, and method, and the strategic practices every writer must learn in wrestling with narrative. Each of us will examine our strengths — the ways in which the natural mood and flavour of our writing makes itself known — and our vulnerabilities as well: how we get stuck, or lazy, how we lost confidence and gain doubt. How we learn to shut down and hope the whole thing will go away.
This course is about writing, and reading, and making a claim for our fundamental right to use words on paper. Within that context, we will explore the ethics of writing (particularly about one’s own family or culture of history), the hurdles of writing, and the great gifts we might receive from others of our creative kin (that is to say, the long tradition of writers of creative non-fiction).
The threshold between fact and fiction (which is not the same as that between truth and lie) is the territory of creative non-fiction. In this course we stake out that territory, inspecting the geology of its forms and ideals, finding our own individual places to homestead. Creative non-fiction involves the search for truth, and fidelity to fact, yet also an awareness that truth and fact are often provisional, and mythological; they are shapeshifters on the wide-open plain of creativity. We will explore what this means, and what to do about it. And, finally, the goal of the course (from my point of view, at least), is to have fun: to preserve and nurture the creative and imaginative spirit that is the foundation of all the arts and sciences.
Art, craft, power, purpose: writing is all these things, and many others too. In this course we will make connections between the various threads of creative writing, forge those connections in our own work, and share that work with one another.
Process and Projects
Writing is a deep skill – the type of skill that is complex, diverse, and personally challenging. As with all deep skills, learning to write well is hard. There are so many factors that contribute to skill development, so many things to consider, so much diversity in the forms of writing. It doesn’t even make sense to think of writing as a single skill. Rather it’s a weaving together of many skills: creativity, craft, knowledge, self-awareness, drive, discipline, persistence, judgment, people skills, and so on. Because writing is a form of communication, it’s wrapped up with the complexities of human interactions and relationships. Learning to write well is not simply about mastering the elements of grammar – in fact, grammatical mastery is one of the least important skills in writing. Sure, it’s good to know the difference between its and it’s (to use the most common grammatical error as an example), but it’s not nearly as important as finding your voice, or connecting to your subject, or doing the introspective work to explore what your writing means to you and what it might mean to those who read your work.
Within all the disciplines of deep skill, there are ongoing debates about how best to learn. In music, which instrument should you study first, or which style of music? In dance, should you start with ballet or bhangra? In physics, should you first study foundations or applications? In politics, should you start with local or global? You get the idea. Complex subjects are complex, and there is no single correct way to approach them. The same goes for writing. You could start with linguistics, or grammar, or theory, or forms, or the creative process (which is where we start, in these courses), or any number of interesting points of entry. Eventually, they would all take you to the same place: greater skill. But, with writing, no matter which path you choose, you will still do three things: reading, writing, and reflection. You would explore the literature of your particular approach (the literature of forms, or literary theory, or the philosophy of creativity); you would write in the style of your particular approach (writing in specific forms, or writing theory, or writing in a philosophical way); and you would reflect – think, feel, wonder – about what it all means and how to keep going.
Read. Write. Reflect. These are the activities involved in developing the skill of writing. If you want to improve your writing, do those three things.
The basic schedule for project submissions is that a project is due at the end of each month. The first project is due at the end of the first month (September); the second project is due at the end of the second month (October), and the final project (the self-awareness assignment) is due at the end of the third month (November). That’s easy, right?
I strongly encourage you to follow this schedule – one assignment per month, for three months. However, you do not have to follow this schedule. Any project that you submit before the end of the final week of the third month will be graded.
Let’s review and confirm: there are no fixed due dates and no penalties for late projects in this class. There are suggested due dates: the end of every month. But you will not be penalized if you do not submit projects on those dates. You can submit your projects at any time up until the final day of the third month. Again; no penalties are involved. Everyone in the class has the right to delay the submission of projects up until the final day of the third month.
Ideas and practices regarding due dates and late penalties are legacies of a traditional educational structure that focuses on compliance and control. These traditions do not encourage creativity, and they are not sensitive to the diversity of human experience. Life happens. Sometimes things take more time, or less time, than you imagine. In this class I acknowledge the dynamic character of learning, which in turn entails that I also recognize the fundamentally problematic nature of due dates and late penalties.
This all might sound great, and I hope that the scheduling flexibility afforded you in this course works well for you. My goal in doing this is to facilitate a more fluid approach to creative work. But I also offer a cautionary note: every semester there are students who miss the final deadline and fail the course as a result. Freedom has consequences. If you miss the final submission date, there will be no further discussion about due dates and timelines. You will forfeit grades for whatever is incomplete. Try to avoid this situation.
How best to avoid it? Use the monthly schedule shown below. It works. It’s there for a reason (and the reason is that many people are not good at scheduling). If something happens in your life and you are delayed in submitting a project, get it done as close to the monthly schedule as you can. You won’t be penalized. If you get stuck, ask for help.
Whatever you do, don’t plan on submitting everything at the end. That is a terrible strategy. It will probably result in you failing or dropping out of the course. Instead, work consistently in this class. The projects are entirely doable on a monthly basis. The schedule is set up for you to do it that way. Don’t push the river.
Scheduled Dates and Final Deadline
First Monthly Project (Reading) — Week 4
Second Monthly Project (Writing) — Week 8
Third Monthly Project (Self-Awareness) — Week 12
Final Deadline for all Projects — End of Week 12
For further details, please review the specific sections for each assignment.
For the first two projects (the reading project and the writing project), you will create Lab pages: one page for each project. Working with web pages and modern writing and publishing workflows is a primary goal of the course. After all, writing is for sharing, right? The tools of modern web publishing have made this easier than ever, more seamless, and more powerful for writers seeking to be heard. Academic environments tend to cultivate the practice of writing for one person (the instructor); but creative writing is a tradition in which you cast your words into the world, as far as they can reach. Let's do that.
But a more open workflow has implications, among them this: the title of each of your Lab pages will be viewable by other members of our community. This is how modern web publishing workflows function. Others in the class will not be able to edit or view the content of any pages that you create (unless and until those pages are published; see below) — but others will be able to see that you have created pages: their titles will show up in the list of drafts. (If you are concerned about the title of a given page being visible to others before you are ready to share the contents, you are welcome to use a provisional title such as "Work in Progress." Just remember that each page you create will require a unique title.)
Your pages will not be viewable on the internet unless you decide to publish them (which only the instructor can actually do; see below). Each of your pages will have its own unique preview URL where you can see how the page would look if it were published.
When you are ready to submit a given project, you will click the option that says Submit to Review (available above Save Draft).
We will discuss this process in detail in class.
Publishing is not required for any pages that you create in the Lab. There are a variety of reasons why you might decide not to publish your pages, and the decision is yours alone. Or, you might decide to share your project with the wider world, on the open internet. In that case, you would request that the instructor publish your page. We will discuss this process in class. If you decide to request publication, any published pages will work just the same as all the other web pages you are familiar with: open, public, shareable.
The content and structure of these pages are completely up to you. Naturally, web pages tend to be more engaging if images (and/or videos) are embedded within them, and we will discuss this in class.
Published pages will remain published until the end of the semester or until you request that a page authored by you be unpublished. You may also request that a given page remain published after the semester.
For further information, please review Should You Publish Your Page?
The Self-Awareness Project
The final project — the self-awareness project — is a more personal project and does not belong in the public sphere. So, you do not create a Lab page for your self-awareness project. Instead, you send that final project to me, via email.
You can submit any project for moderation as many times as you like — until the final deadline. In fact, I encourage you to submit your projects more than once. Writing is an iterative process, after all, and later drafts are often better than previous ones (especially if you ask for feedback on these drafts). I will review each new draft that you send — until the final deadline. Typically, your grade will improve after each draft (provided you ask for feedback and that you are attentive to it). Once the final deadline has passed, the project submission period is closed and you will no longer be able to send new drafts. This also means that you will not be able to improve your grade on a project after the final deadline has passed.
A Note of Caution
You can write about anything you want. But please consider that any subject that is challenging for you to talk about openly (such as personal trauma) is a subject you should probably not write about — especially on a public platform such as this. On the other hand, powerful personal experiences often provide excellent source material for writing, so it may be difficult for you to decide what to do. First, please use your judgment about how best to keep yourself emotionally safe within and beyond the classroom. Second, please discuss your plans (or your concerns) with me if you decide to write about personal or provocative subjects. In particular, be cautious of subjects involving violence, abuse, trauma, death, mental illness, and related themes (whether they happened to you, happened to someone else, or are imagined). These subjects reliably activate strong emotions and are often unsafe if not handled properly. While no subject is absolutely off-limits in this class, there are many subjects for which there is a risk of harm to you, to me, to others in the class, or to our shared communities. We must be respectful and careful of ourselves and our relationships with others. Please ask me for guidance if you are uncertain.
Asking for Help
People are different. Some like to learn on their own, others prefer direct and ongoing support, and there is, of course, a wide range in between. You are free to approach this course in the manner that suits you best. If I don’t hear from you, I will assume that you are working happily away, reading, composing, and getting things done. If you ask for help or feedback, I will try to be as helpful as I can.