writing doesn’t say enough

I’m reading Madison Smartt Bell’s writing book Narrative Design for my final paper on the structure of stories.

He discusses the faults with the craft-only Iowa style workshop approach to teaching creative writing, as well as the faults with the what he calls the inner-process style. About the inner-process he writes:

The inner-process teaching strategy can indeed get interesting results. But to my mind the risks it presents to the individual student writer are too great. One’s inner process should in fact remain private. If you admit into it the writing teacher, and/or the writing group, you risk forming a quasi-pathological dependency.

He goes on to say that the good teacher finds a balance between both and so will the discerning student. Recalling the workshop I took with James Baker Hall he navigated very carefully between those too places. There were very few guided writing exercises, only a few at the beginning of the semesters and no in-class ? writing at all. And the only real craft advice he gave was to quote Kafka:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

Jim’s teaching was immense. One semester in a workshop with him and I learned as much or more than two semesters of physics and four semesters of calculus. My life was changed. How did he do it? I’m still not sure. There weren’t very many things that he did, nothing that I could point to. He listened. He recognized. He trusted.

So I’ve begun teaching creative writing as part of my Monday/Wednesday ESL tutoring. My student said he wants to write a book, tell his story. So we do writing exercises at the beginning of our session and at the end of the session we read and discuss Bless Me, Ultima. In the middle we use a reading skills workbook.

This evening the writing exercise I used was Where Do Stories Come From: Experience, Imagination, and Culture ?. We talked about stories we tell that come from our memories, that come from our imagination, and that are sort of folk-tales that we hear and share. Then for ten minutes we wrote about our earliest childhood memory ?.

My student wrote about half a page. When he read it back to me he was very moved. He talked and elaborated on his experiences. As he was talking his eyes filled with big, heavy tears.

I listened.

He said, Writing doesn’t say enough. ?

I told him that as he kept writing it would become easier, that he would become as comfortable with using the pen as he was using his voice. Keep writing and it will become easier. You won’t hold back in your writing. When you speak you say what ever comes to your mind, you don’t worry if it’s going to fit or sound right, you just say it. When you write you can do the same thing. Don’t worry about grammar or complete sentences. You can fix that later. Don’t hold back. ?

This is a nice environment for me to practice my own teaching style. I want to find the balance between craft and inner-process. Now I am able to use the exercises I came up with and see how they work. Since it is one-on-one the dynamics are easier to manage. And since the focus is ESL teaching, I am able to direct the exercise back in that direction when they get too inner-process.

I feel good about my tutoring and the writing exercise. They are definately helping with my student’s english language skills. He tells me his feels more confident helping his son with his highschool homework.

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