James Van Pelt

Writing Words Fantastical and Otherwise

Month: May 2019

Becoming a Writer

A Goodreads member asked me a while ago what my advice was for aspiring writers. This was my reply:

This is an interesting question. I’m doing a 45-minute presentation at a local comicon that’s entitled, “Becoming a Writer.” It’s an intimidating topic for only 45 minutes! I think that I have to start with a rock-solid basic to answer the question, which is to read, read, read and write, write, write.

I know, that sounds unhelpful and stupid, but it’s actually the formula. You read to get story and language running in the back of your head, and you write because most of us have a lot of crummy writing to get through before we start getting to the better stuff. Writing is like any other art: you progress. Almost no one starts as a genius from the get go. They start crummier than they’re going to end up, and the only way to get from the beginning to the better is to wade through the crummy.

You read a lot to find your influences, and you write a lot to find your voice. It’s that simple.

Being simple doesn’t make it easy, by the way. If you want easy, inherit a lot of money.

Becoming a Creative Writing Teacher

At the end the last school year, I mentored two teachers who were going to teach Creative Writing for the first time. I put together a syllabus for them and a notebook (and thumbdrive) filled with examples, exercises, quizzes and everything else I could think of to help them get started.

I realized today, though, that no matter what I gave them, especially for teaching poetry to high school students, that nothing would start them down the path to being creative writing teachers better than collecting the first set of poems from the students.

This is about how teachers who haven’t done much creative writing (which neither had), can grow as a helpful guide to other writers.

Here’s what happens to the new teacher with that first stack of poems, or at least what should happen: the teacher reads the first poem. It will be both the best and worst high school poem that teacher has read. It will have almost no connection to any of the poetry the teacher read in literature classes. It will be an artifact all on its own.

Then the teacher reads the second poem. There’s a chance that it will vary so wildly from the first poem that there will be no comparison, like comparing an apple to a racoon. But by the time the last poem in the stack is read, the teacher will be able to roughly divide the poems into categories of effectiveness. A few of the poems, for whatever reason, will impact the teacher as a reader more strongly than the rest.

Now the teacher, if the teacher is going to be helpful to the students, has to be able to do at least two things for the class: first, tell them what qualities he thought the strongest poems possessed, and show the class those poems. Secondly, the teacher has to be able to say something constructive to each student about her/his poem.

That’s all: generalize about the set of poems, and be specific about individual ones. Hopefully the teacher does this in a positive fashion that stresses how writing is a personal, subjective, growth-centered activity. Every student feels their first effort was validated, and that they learned something from it and their classmate’s efforts to write one they like better the next time.

That’s all. This teaching stuff is a cinch. (See what I did there?)

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