Creative Writing as a Bridge to Better Academic Writing in Freshman Composition
Ashley Christensen and Judith Weeks
Where have we been and where are we going with respect to using creative writing in freshman composition courses? In the 1970s a movement James Berlin later called Expressionism (also called “Expressivism” or Neo-Platonism) began with theorists like Murray, Elbow, Macrorie, Emig, Berthoff, and William Coles who focused on the individual’s self-discovery and discouraged “the canned, dull, lifeless student essay that seemed the logical outcome of a rules-driven, teacher-centered curriculum that ignored student interests, needs, and talents” (Tobin 5). Expressivism’s focus on the individual mostly meant self-discovery through the process of writing, but since creative writing is considered a personal experience and is included in expressivist pedagogy, it falls into this category. Berlin argues that Expressionist theory is not concerned about the audience or reader but only the self, which is “isolated, cut off from community, and left to the lonely business of discovering truth alone” (776). The writer in the “New Rhetoric” is a “creator of meaning, a shaper of reality, rather than a passive receptor of the immutably given” (776). This is a reductive and oversimplified view of expressivist theory since Expressivism is anything but passive. Sherrie Gradin explains that writing is generative and constructs knowledge (50). She also explains why the focus on the individual is desirable in composition courses: “In order to be effective citizens and effective rhetorical beings, students must first learn how to carry out the negotiation between self and world” (xv). We miss an important piece in the puzzle of understanding composition studies if we dismiss the involvement of self in the learning process or deem it indulgent.
Another opponent to expressivist pedagogy, Erika Lindemann, argues that a composition classroom is not the place to explore and practice writing techniques through creative writing examples or application. Rather, she argues for what she calls academic writing:
Freshman English does what no high school writing course can do: provide opportunities to master the genres, styles, audiences and purpose of college writing. Freshman English offers guided practice in reading and writing the discourses of the academy and the profession. . . . The sort of writing course I have described neither requires nor finds particularly relevant a significant role for literature. (312–13)
What Lindemann does not take into account in her reasons for abolishing literature in a freshman course is that concise and productive academic writing can be strengthened by looking at literature. Lindemann argues that literature in the classroom is simply distracting and accuses her critics of limiting students by having them write only about literature and not teaching them how to write literature (315). This is a very limiting idea, and not supported by our research. In fact, most proponents of including imaginative literature and creative writing in composition classrooms do not want creative writing to have complete control in an academic classroom. This group includes Gary Tate, who wishes to “exclude no text” (321); Wendy Bishop, who wants to “infuse, improve, and invigorate the teaching of composition” (259); and Art Young, who believes poetry “is not to teach students to be better poets but to provide opportunities to engage course content in meaningful ways” (475). Their purpose for proposing literature or creative writing is to enrich, to add to what already exists.
If adding a bit of imaginative reading and writing does not deter the current emphasis on rhetorical theory but rather supplements or enriches composition courses, why isn’t it incorporated into the curriculum? In some cases it has been, but in most it hasn’t because of the underlying misconception that creative writing doesn’t have much to offer academic discourse. Gradin explores this prejudice in Romancing Rhetorics. She argues that expressivist theory is seen as being derived from Romanticism because both focus on the individual’s ability for “inspiration” or “self-discovery,” which critics argue “comes at the expense of intellectual rigor” (5). She says, “In spite of Romanticism’s impact on our world, we are still a culture that values logic, reason, and hard facts, and that devalues imaginative thinking and intuition” (7). Peter Elbow gives his justification for using creative writing in the classroom as he talks about a hybrid approach to helping students learn to think: “Thus I teach two kinds of thinking. I’ll call them first order and second order thinking. First order thinking is intuitive and creative and does not strive for conscious direction or control. . . . Second order thinking is committed to accuracy and strives for logic and control” (37). Valuing logic and reason is a positive thing, but does it have to exclude imaginative thinking and intuition? Why not include both?
Gradin furthers her argument by refuting James Berlin’s idea that there is great danger in teachers not knowing their pedagogical strategies because they might “unconsciously offer contradictory advice about composing—guidance grounded in assumptions that simply do not square with each other” (766). I agree with Berlin and Gradin that teachers should be aware of what they believe, and I don’t believe that the theories are binary opposites as Berlin suggests. Why can’t we apply some principles from New Rhetoricians, some from Expressivists, and some from Current-Traditionalists? Do they have to be in complete opposition to each other? English 150 at BYU incorporates many theories such as current-traditional by teaching grammar and social epistemic by using group activities, among others. Implementing some expressivist pedagogy, especially the use of creative writing and in particular poetry, is a productive step for contemporary freshman composition classes to take.
In 1964, Marvin Bell advocated for poetry as a usable and necessary tool in freshman composition courses. He says, “Because poetry is generally concise, poems may be studied as if they were miniatures of more expanded writings . . . a poem may be narrative, expository, critical or argumentative” (2). Concision is important in any genre of writing, but it is especially important in rhetorical writing. We can also use poetry to understand purpose in writing. Students often seem to have no purpose as they start a paper except to meet a demand the teacher is making. Learning about and writing their own poetry can connect them to their issue and help to create purposeful writing. Art Young explains this idea: “Composing a poem occasions disequilibrium because they have learned to mimic the prose of familiar ‘school’ discourse, and now to write poetry they must rethink form and content” (475, emphasis added). If writing in the language of poetry helps students “rethink” anything, it is well worth the effort. One of the biggest challenges in teaching freshman composition is to help students open their minds to understand what they believe and why.
There are some relevant questions in regard to bringing creative writing into the classroom. One of the main questions addresses the issue of a teacher who does not feel adequately prepared or knowledgeable to teach creative writing. The solution to this problem is rather simple, especially in a program as well organized as BYU’s. Because the purpose of teaching creative writing is not necessarily to teach interpretation or a particular theory, it is not needful to choose poems, short pieces of fiction, or essays that are very difficult or complex.
There are plenty of poems, short fiction pieces, essays, and creative nonfiction pieces that are accessible, teachable, and self-perpetuating. A poem can be intelligent, deliberate, and provoking without fitting into the stereotypical box most people place it in (inaccessible, confusing, and esoteric). Because the creative writing exercises are not based on interpretation and because the purpose is not to teach students to write poetry or essay but rather to study and use elements found in creative writing, a teacher does not need to be experienced in creative writing.
An understanding of language and basic exposure to creative writing would be necessary, but at English graduate levels and upward, it seems that most teachers would be more than capable of observing and helping students learn from a text, even if it is not in their specialized genre. One solution to this problem would be to create a general packet for teachers. The packet would contain various poems, short fiction works, essays, and pieces of creative nonfiction that could be used to teach specific principles. Each piece of writing could be accompanied by a few discussion questions, possible activities, and applications.
We are suggesting creative writing as a supplement to learning about how to write more effectively. We are not suggesting that English 150 become a place where students are taught creative writing; rather, we propose that they be introduced to good writing and its techniques in order to help new writing students connect to their topics, become more creative scholastic thinkers, and write their thoughts and arguments with more clarity, precision, and interest.
In regard to the grading of creative writing assignments, the exercises could be given points for completion, but it does not seem necessary to “grade” the writing that is produced in response to the creative writing stimulus. The activities would be fashioned as rush-writes or prewriting activities used to generate discussions about their papers. At a teaching seminar at BYU in August 2009, Cheryl Glenn spoke to the graduate instructors for a good deal of time about the need for students to “write to learn” as a mode of “discovery thinking.” She said that students should start all papers with personal writing. In her book, The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing, she says, “In-class writing activities can take a number of different forms, but they all have one thing in common: they involve students in practicing the skills of planning, writing, revising and editing” (65).
In BYU’s freshman composition course, students are assigned to write an opinion editorial, a rhetorical analysis, and an 8–10 page issues paper. The purpose in having students write these papers is to teach them to transform thought into written word effectively. We teach them rhetorical principles and critical thinking, but when they are asked to actually write the papers, they flounder in the vast possibilities that language offers and have difficulty discovering the most productive ways of writing out an idea and argument. In learning to write an opinion editorial, students have difficulty with word choice—they are unaware of the implications their language carries. Poetry is a bridge into a land of deliberate language. Teaching students about creative writing, and poetry in particular, offers concise and tangible examples of language in a deliberate and productive form. In academic writing, deliberate, concise, and productive language is also a main goal in teaching students to start their paper-writing careers, but how and where do they learn to use this language?
Students most often have intelligent ideas and thoughts that they would like to explore and explain through the course of their paper, but until they possess the tools necessary to carry out their project with clarity of language, their thoughts are left as a jumbled and messy attempt at articulation. In some cases, they try to use the language they think they are ―supposed‖ to use, an inflated academic vocabulary that they do not have a handle on yet. Both of these issues are less than productive as students attempt to write papers, or in our specific case, an opinion editorial or an issues paper. As teachers, it would be simple to devise lesson plans that implement creative writing activities into the freshman English curriculum.
In the middle of my first semester as a graduate instructor, while teaching the most demanding assignment (the issues paper), I noticed a general malaise spread through my freshman composition classroom. My students seemed to still want to do well in the class, but their enthusiasm had mostly evaporated, leaving a thin trail of wispy intentions. They were struggling to know how to do what I expected, to write a paper full of persuasive power and fresh insights. They didn’t know how to form an argument and articulate it. One student in particular repeatedly asked me if it was okay to have an opinion that differed from the opinions she had found on her topic. When I reminded her that this was the point of the issues paper—to make an effective argument—she still seemed bewildered on how to proceed. For many of my students, the concept of having an opinion or voice in academic writing was foreign. I was also frustrated with what appeared to be a great lack of enthusiasm or burnout. They were having a hard time letting their ideas be heard over the voice of the scholars they were quoting in their papers. After studying the benefits of creative writing in an effort to help the students connect with their topics, I decided to follow Edward Proffitt’s advice and “let them write poetry” (132).
At this point in my teaching, I had not even considered teaching any sort of creative writing as a part of my course design because I didn’t see the benefits of creative writing in freshman composition. I do not have an extensive background in reading or writing poetry, yet I decided to experiment with it in my class. After researching Art Young and others’ ideas on how to incorporate poetry, I designed a lesson that included writing poetry with the purpose of getting my students to “own” their arguments, or to be personally invested in their papers. With the opinion editorials, the students who had chosen a topic that was significant to them wrote better and more convincing arguments. My idea was to show them that a simple poem was able to convey meaning even with a small amount of words. I chose Eduardo Galeano‘s “The Nobodies.” Before reading the poem aloud, I wanted the students to be thinking about the main issues they wanted to write about in their issues paper, so I had them do a rush-write answering these questions: “What is the most important idea/concept to you in your issues paper? Why?” After the rush-write, I showed the poem on a PowerPoint and read it out loud. We discussed the purpose, style, and method that Galeano used to make his point. I noticed a surge of interest in the room; students were sitting up in their chairs and were contributing to the conversation. I then had my students write a poem about what they had written in the rushwrite. There were some looks of enthusiasm accompanied by a few moans of exasperation, but they went to work. I assigned only 10–15 minutes for them to write the poem, and I told them it would not be graded. I then had them get into groups to share their poems. I noticed that the enthusiasm continued, and when I asked each group to pick someone to share his or her poem with the class, the students seemed excited and proud of their work.
Later, I asked willing students to e-mail me their poems and to respond to this exercise. Most of the comments were positive, so I concluded that, at least with some students, this would be a welcome change from their daily activities and would allow for some personal reflection and responsibility for their arguments. The activity helped them to take a more personal approach to what they wanted to say. One student said, “This was a phenomenal activity! I absolutely loved it because it helped me understand why I care about this subject. I thought the activity was extremely productive and enlightening” (Palmer). This experiment garnered the enthusiasm and new perspective that I wanted students to have. Because of this success, I wanted to pursue the use of creative writing in my classroom but needed some background on the debate and practice of using creative writing.
Although Bell wrote about poetry in freshman composition just over fifty years ago, his list of techniques and ideas that teaching about poetry could bring to a classroom is still applicable today. His list includes subtlety of language, the need to “investigate the relationship between ‘objectivity’ and ‘subjectivity’ openly,” and the need to “prove assertions with references to the real world.” He also says that poetry teaches that “language can shape thought,” teaches about structure (introduction, middle, and conclusion), teaches different points of view, and offers a new perspective on looking at a subject (1-5).
The following paragraphs give examples of the ways poetry, short fiction, essay, and creative nonfiction could be used in a freshman composition course to teach students about writing an opinion editorial. In order for students to write effectively, they need to learn to put thoughts into words with clarity. This cannot be accomplished until students learn to care about the words they are using in their arguments. It is often easy for students to try to use academic language before they know what they are saying, simply because they are mimicking what they perceive an academic paper to be and using a thesaurus to write their papers. They think this is high-level academic discourse and the language they are “supposed” to use, but they are not putting in the time or effort to actively take part in the words they are putting on the page. “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop is an excellent example of the importance of word choice. It would be a simple exercise to have the students read the poem and try to describe an object with the effectiveness with which Bishop handles language. Students could also be asked to pick a single word or phrase from the poem and research it extensively. This assignment could be used to help students begin to be more aware of the language they are using and the connotations, histories, and baggage that come with the language they use in their writing. It would help students learn deliberateness in their word choice. They could look up the etymology and talk about the words, their sounds, their history, their place within the poem, and their relationships to all the other words within the poem. This simple exercise could be used to show students the importance of deliberate language in their own academic and personal writing. It is vital that students own the words they use to some degree, and poetry is an understandable and useful way of doing this.
Some teachers find that when they assign an opinion editorial or an issues paper, students are mislead into thinking that they must simply go to the library and report on the information they found about their topic. They fail to personally connect to the things they write about. In her article Suddenly Sexy: Creative Nonfiction Rear-ends Composition Wendy Bishop says, “Nonfiction has long held promise for improving our thinking about composition—first year through graduate levels—yet viewing these areas of reading and writing productively together has been a hard sell in composition circles” (259). An example of a personal essay could help students to better understand what a good research paper is in the midst of an era where information is readily accessible for the student but innovative ideas are rarer and more valuable. Beginning writing students often fail to realize that an effective argument is about connection, about their own thoughts and ideas, and not about regurgitating facts or the opinions of someone else.
“Our Vanishing Night,” an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg in The Best American Essays 2009, is a moving, persuasive essay about the growing light pollution that cities across the globe are causing. The article was published in National Geographic and makes a clear point about the detriments of light pollution on our ecosystem and human psyche. The essay effectively uses first person narrator, anecdotes, and personal opinion while still backing the entire piece with fact and well-thought-out, pertinent research. The students could read the article and assess it together as a class. They could then be assigned to write a few paragraphs of their issues paper in essay form to help them better acquaint themselves with their feelings about their topic and find more meaningful connections to what they are writing about.
Beginning writers also struggle with structure, organization, and introductions and conclusions. Eduardo Galeano is a creative nonfiction writer who is a good example of structure within a very small form. In his book Book of Embraces he writes short paragraphs that are small, poignant vignettes and stories. One piece in the book called The Dignity of Art (Galeano 155) is a microcosmic story. Within fifteen lines, Galeano effectively writes an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. This example could be used to help students break down and recognize structure on a manageable level. They could practice writing their own very short paragraphs about their paper topics containing these elements. Many students have difficulty with the “outline” assignments that are standard in paper writing. The format is not the most productive for every student, so it seems important to introduce him or her to different strategies in the course of our writing instruction.
Supplementing freshman composition with creative writing activities and examples is a natural way to help students not only write more effectively, but also create a stronger personal link between their topic and their own writing. As one student said in response to the poetry activity that Judy did in her class, “I seemed to be a little more emotionally attached to my issues paper because of the act of writing a poem about it. It helped me to express myself” (Jameson). According to Glenn, “It may take you some time to get used to the meaningful chaos of a writing classroom, but as you do, you will begin to see how discoveries take place within the busy buzz” (65). Creative writing in the composition classroom is a topic that has been de-emphasized in the current excitement over rhetoric, but we believe that it still has a place in the freshman composition classroom.
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—. “The Dignity of Art.” Book of Embraces. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
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