How Creative Writing and Composition Pedagogical Approaches Can Benefit A Writing Classroom:
The Ethnographical Study of an Upper-Level Expository Writing Class
I am in my fourth year of teaching at the college level, and instruct both composition and creative writing classes. As I continue to create and refine my writing pedagogy, I find it interesting to note how composition and creative writing classes have become separate entities, yet the teaching of these classes can share similar traits.
I have accepted, until recently, that the classes and studies are separate entities, and approached the instruction of both types of writing in different ways. The creative writing classes feel more relaxed, with opportunities to make mistakes and ¡§feel¡¨ your way through the writing. The composition classes are a bit more formal, with lecture time and ¡§structures¡¨ introduced to help shape the writing (which might be considered formulaic in creative writing).
As I continue to grow as a writing instructor, I wonder: What might happen if I tried to combine my approaches to teaching both creative writing and composition in one class? Would the students benefit, or be confused? Could such a class even exist? And what ¡§shape¡¨ would the writing take?
I needed to find an outlet for my test. Most of the classes I teach have a ready-made structure, designed by professors who came before me, which does not leave much room for new, creative approaches. However, one class offered at public university where I instruct seemed to leave enough room for me to test my theories of bringing creative writing and composition approaches together in one class: expository writing.
The definition of what the class should be, and how it should be taught, does not seemed agreed upon by its department. For the compositionists, the class is regarded as one that should explore writing across the curriculum, geared towards business majors who need law, journalism, and ¡§professional¡¨ writing skills. Yet we already offer professional and technical writing classes, and I believed offering an expository writing class that catered to students outside the English major redundant.
I asked creative writing professors who¡¦ve taught the class how they approached it, and they said they saw expository writing as a form of creative non-fiction. I found this interesting, yet the class is offered as a composition class, not creative writing, and I didn¡¦t want the students who took the class to feel led astray if I taught it completely in a creative writing format.
I decided this class could indeed be a testing ground, one where I could combine the two pedagogical approaches of writing, both traditional composition as well as creative methods. I would teach some methods I offer in my freshman composition and ¡§professional¡¨ writing classes, and others I¡¦ve gleaned from creative writing workshops. I would teach different forms of organizing a work, ways of approaching topic/theme and development, and genres in which to express these writings. In short, I would give them room to ¡§play¡¨ with their writing, to take it in different directions without form, before offering different types of genres in which they could decide to ultimately shape their writing, based on what an audience would need and expect.
First, I needed to decide exactly what expository writing was. I came across several definitions of exposition as I tried to decide what types of assignments would best suit an expository writing class. For example, in Outlines of Rhetoric: Rules, Illustrative Examples, and a Progressive Course of Prose Composition by John F. Genung, he describes this type of writing as ¡§giving the meaning or explanation of things¡¨ (263). He posits that exposition is difficult because the ¡§subject matter with which it deals is general instead of particular; that is, instead of using eyes and ears and memory to describe or recount what he has observed, the writer is giving the idea he has formed of a whole of objects.¡¨ While I agreed that writers could explain a subject without writing a clear thesis statement, I wondered how they could give an idea of what the subject is without using senses or memory or observation. This is where creative writing would be utilized for my students; if they were to make sense of a ¡§whole of objects,¡¨ they would first need to define what that object (or personal trait, or situation) was.
I decided that the definition of exposition, for purposes of this class, would be: an explanation of subjects and events in a creative manner. Expository writing explains to, as well as engages, the reader.
Next I needed to decide which pedagogies belonged to composition, and which to creative writing. These pedagogies proved difficult to separate. Both creative writing and composition pedagogies can standardly use journaling or planning, workshops, and revision strategies. However, I find they are used in different ways.
Journals: In other composition classes I¡¦ve taught, we did less ¡§journaliing,¡¨ or recording of our thoughts for possible use in writing, than we did ¡§planning,¡¨ which used more of a form. In the essay ¡§Teach Writing as a Process Not Product¡¨ by Donald Murray, he calls planning ¡§prewriting,¡¨ or ¡§the awareness of the world from which his subject is born. In prewriting, the writer focuses on that subject, spots an audience, (and) chooses a form that may carry his subject to his audience. Prewriting may include research and daydreaming, notetaking and outlining, title-writing and lead-writing¡¨ (4). This felt like the planning was towards a purpose, while journaling seems to be more of a recording of ideas that might possibly be used in a writing of which we are not aware.
Journaling, for creative writers, is ¡§likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth (Burroway 4). We record our ideas in them but often don¡¦t know if they will be of use to a finished product.
I decided my students would keep a journal in which they would record ideas. I would give them prompts for the journals but would also recommend that they write any ideas in them that they might have that could or could not pertain to our assignments. Also, I chose to give the students general information about the assignments at first, but had them freewrite about the subject matter for a couple of weeks before giving them the assignment forms. This way, I felt, they would still be planning towards a work, but wouldn¡¦t try to fit their writing into a structured form or product, discarding ideas they might have about the subject matter before recording and experimenting with them.
Workshops: Workshopping has been a standard practice in both my composition and creative writing classes, although my approach to workshopping has been different. In my creative writing classes, for example, we tend to workshop as an entire group, with students receiving first the work to be discussed in a previous class, deliberating on it before the next meeting, and then coming together to collaboratively discuss its strengths and weaknesses. In my composition classes, I tend to break the classes into smaller workshop groups of three or four students, allowing them to focus on a few works at a time. I hadn¡¦t considered much why I did this, but after thinking about it for this essay, I decided that it came down to time and the length of work. Creative writers tend to write just a few pieces in class and revise them throughout the semester, while composition students write several pieces and need more feedback, and generally more quickly, as they are expected to turn their work in throughout the semester, rather than at the end as a portfolio.
I chose to make small workshop groups for this class too, as with 25 students with four assignments to complete before the end of the semester, we just wouldn¡¦t have the time to do all-class workshops. However, I also liked this approach because it meant that the students would have to turn to each other for feedback on their planning and drafts; I wouldn¡¦t become the authority who could ¡§fix¡¨ their writing simply because I couldn¡¦t be with every student at once when we had workshopping time. Rather I would circulate throughout the groups, offering advice on whatever student work was in front of the group, and then hope that the advice given to one student would be information they could use collaboratively. They would need to learn to critique each other¡¦s work and become their own authorities on what ¡§good¡¨ writing is.
Also, by talking to each other about their writing, the students would get a sense of voice, or writing as we speak, simply by hearing each other¡¦s language choices and dialects. I wanted to get them away from stiff academic prose; this class would emphasize writing that people WANTED, but were not obligated, to read. To have the class members be able to speak together, to laugh over funny writing, to frown over what was unclear or questionable ¡V the collaborative process would show that ¡§we experience our language or dialect not just as something we use but a deep part of us¡¨ (Elbow, Everyone Can Write). So the students would decide w hen to put their own voices into the work, and by speaking to each other, could learn to discern what was unique about their vernacular that they might be able to inject into their writing.
First assignment ¡V personal narrative
For the first assignment, I chose to assign a personal narrative, or personal essay. I used these terms interchangeably, substituting ¡§essay¡¨ for ¡§narrative,¡¨ as I was going to show them how to construct both forms of writing. I decided to stress theme/thesis, development, and organization. I mostly used techniques I learned in composition pedagogy classes, although I offered two alternative ways to organize with creative writing narrative storytelling in mind.
This assignment, I thought, would be imperative for the students to understand that writing is a real event and is important to the creation of their ¡§selves¡¨ on the page, or a representation of them on paper. The narrative, I explained, was not just self-expression, which is thought by some to be exclusive to creative writing. In order for their writing to be successful, I told them, the reader must be able to identify with it, even if the experiences described by the author might not be those of the reader; the reader would have to be able to empathize with the writer by establishing a common ground. The intimacy of the essay would be a bit like hearing a conversation from the writer, I said, or a bit of gossip. In other words, the juice would be in their details.
The goal would be to write both creatively: explaining or describing an event that had a profound effect upon the writer, as well as expository: to explain why the event was so profound. They would have to interpret their details, and still ¡§show¡¨ the event well enough so their readers would understand it and empathize.
To begin, I had them write about themselves in their journals: What is important to them right now? They scribbled quietly in their journals for 10 minutes.
Now, I said: Why might this be important to others? How can you illustrate your experience to draw in readers? They stopped. Some of them looked at me blankly. To write well, I reminded them, we have to remember that no one has to read our writing; they must want to. So who is your audience, and how might they relate to you?
They thought for a while. Pens began to move again, and finally as quickly as they had the first time. Some students were smiling.
Towards the end of the class, the students were talking animatedly. ¡§We¡¦re not going to write academic essays, are we?¡¨ one student asked. If they meant by that, essays that required MLA or APA format then, no, I said. Some cheered. Their definition of writing ¡§compositions¡¨ was beginning to change too.
We worked on creating details for the next several classes, showing the ¡§scenes¡¨ of our experiences, trying to decide how to best present them so that a reader would understand and appreciate them. I had not yet given them the assignment sheet that said exactly what the writing should ¡§be.¡¨
A couple weeks into it, some began to get fidgety. I wondered if these students, many of them business majors trained to offer ¡§results,¡¨ needed closure, and wanted to know how to create an end product. I decided it was time for a lecture on organization, and to offer the assignment sheet.
For the lecture, I chose four different organizational schemes to narrate, and allowed the students to choose which one ¡§felt¡¨ right for their writing. The first two I learned teaching first-year composition: time segments, or parts of a whole. A time segment is looking at an experience and relating it chronologically, I said. Parts of a whole would be breaking the experience down into its different ¡§segments,¡¨ and explaining each segment thoroughly before moving on to the next one. This might work, I said, if someone was explaining many aspects of a relationship, rather than just one.
Then I switched over to creative writing pedagogy. I explained the memoir as it was explained to me during my MFA word at Goddard College: You create a scene, summarize what it means, and then relate it to the audience, creating a bigger picture.
Finally, I showed them a fiction technique: the narrative arc. According to Burroway, a narrative arc establishes a conflict first, using plot points or complications to further that conflict until you reach a climatic scene (the crisis), and then shows resolution through falling action (Writing Fiction 40). This type of writing works well to attract a reader, I said, because the writer is starting with the ¡§juiciest¡¨ part of their story first: the conflict.
Whatever organization approach the students chose, the traditional ¡§five-paragraph¡¨ essay wouldn¡¦t work, I said, because it is too repetitive (and repetition breeds boredom), and too formulaic.
The students workshopped with each other, offering their journals to their class members to see what they thought were the most interesting details they used in their exercises, what they should use first to appeal to the reader. They were learning to write for an audience, to bring a reader into their work by considering what that audience would be interested in.
One student shook his head. ¡§My writing¡¦s too stiff, too formal,¡¨ he said. ¡§I need to learn to shake the academic voice.¡¨ Was he writing for an academic? I asked him. He pointed out that I was going to read it, and grade it, so sort of. Good point, I told him, but really, the piece wasn¡¦t for me. ¡§Who would you want to read this? How would you speak to them? That¡¦s the voice you want for this work,¡¨ he said. He nodded.
The final pieces turned in for this project were funny, intriguing, and heartfelt. One student wrote of how he used jogging to sort through his problems; as the workout began harder, his critical thinking became more complex; his answer to the problem was found in the final mile of his run, showing that answers to problems could be as difficult to obtain as a rigorous workout. Another student wrote about his struggles with controlling his temper. I asked the latter student if I could read his essay aloud in class. He blushed, but nodded and seemed pleased.
He had chosen to begin his work with a narrative of how he had been arrested in a bar fight. As I read the work aloud, the class grew silent ¡V an aberration in this now chatty class. I finished the opening and asked if they liked the work. ¡§Yes!¡¨ some said.
¡§Why?¡¨ I asked.
They thought about it. ¡§It¡¦s interesting,¡¨ one student ventured. ¡§He let us in to a little piece of his life.¡¨
The crossover between composition and creative writing had been established, I thought. He had exposed a piece of his life, and done it creatively, and chose to write in a narrative arc, putting the conflict first, drawing the readers in. When he finally explained how the events led him to understand he needed to change his behavior, I felt his exposition was created and explained well. He¡¦d mastered the assignment.
At the end of the first assignment I asked the students to write me a note telling me if they liked the assignment; understood the assignment; and/or had anything they wanted me to cover before the end of the semester. They could write the note anonymously if they were afraid I wouldn¡¦t like what they said.
The feedback on the personal narrative assignment was almost all positive. ¡§I like the relaxed style of writing we¡¦ve been doing so far,¡¨ one student wrote. ¡§It is a refreshing change from my professional writing classes.¡¨
The student who had written about dealing with his anger said he enjoyed the assignment as it became clear to him.
¡§I think I really approached the assignment in the wrong way,¡¨ he wrote. ¡§I looked at it as more of the typical writing assignment instead of something that should have voice and tone all over it. After I realized that it was different, I began to enjoy the assignment more.¡¨
Second lesson ¡V character sketch
In the second lesson, I chose to have the students write a character sketch, as long as it was not about themselves. The ¡§character¡¨ had to be someone they knew well, I told them. Like the personal narrative, they would have to decide how best to ¡§show¡¨ their person, but consider their levels of subjectivity and objectivity as they did so.
This lesson, I hoped, illustrated how personal judgment could influence a paper. The person they chose to illustrate would be complex, and they had to make calls as to how to convey ¡§who¡¨ that person was. So the writing as analytical, which is commonly taught in composition classes; however, the creative part would be to establish that person through detail and explanation, rather than writing a thesis statement and supporting it.
We began to work with writing using sensory details and dialogue ¡V how did the character¡¦s setting influence who they were? How did their speech patterns show them as a person?
I asked them to journal the answers to these questions:
1. What is unique about your character?
2. How does their setting, or their surroundings, help to define them?
3. Why would someone else be interested in that person?
4. How might their character describe themselves differently than you do?
I thought this would be a good cross-lesson in both composition and creative writing, because the student still needed to analyze their person in order to write a good sketch of them, which would help their interpretation skills, commonly called for in composition. It would be exposition because they would have to ultimately decide on how they wanted to ¡§show¡¨ their person, what shades of gray would be used to depict who they ultimately decided their person was. However, they would also need to draw upon creative writing skills to write good dialogue, which is not often covered in composition classes I¡¦ve encountered, other than how to punctuate it.
Their textbook was a prime example of this. The example offered on writing dialogue showed a stilted conversation between two people, where each spoke in a little speech to the other, offering information that was clearly for the reader, and not for each other. People do not generally talk in this way, I explained. We cut each other off, we don¡¦t explain ourselves well, and the kind of dialogue offered in the book was boring anyway, apt to turn off our readers. Again, I offered them pages from the Burroway book covering direct, indirect, and summary dialogue. I offered advice on how to know when to use each kind, advising them to write direct dialogue only when it ¡§showed¡¨ their character well, or depicted a conversation that was interesting.
I asked them to spend the weekend listening to different conversations, ideally with their character, and to record them as best they could. When they came back to class the following week, they spend their workshopping time reading through the dialogues and deciding which parts of it were the most interesting and showed their character the best. The rest was either summarized to help with transitions through the paragraphs, or discarded as unimportant to their work.
As the work was refined through revision, I decided to introduce the genre of journalism writing to the class. I brought in a chapter from Donald Murray¡¦s book Writing For Deadline: The Journalist at Work. The chapter, ¡§Writing for Surprise,¡¨ again emphasized writing for an audience, and how to make decision calls as to what information to present first, and why.
The choice to bring journalism into the class covered writing across the genres, something composition instructors teaching other sections of expository writing were also emphasizing. However, this reading also brought into question again levels of subjectivity and objectivity. I told them that, in journalistic articles that could not be classified as either columns or opinion pieces, the journalist had an obligation to be fair and impartial. Could they do that when they wrote about a character they knew so well? Many of the students decided they couldn¡¦t, and stuck to writing essays and letters, where they could put themselves into the work as well. However, they discovered they still had to make ultimate decisions about how their character ¡§looked¡¨ to their audience, based on what they decided to tell and expose.
Third lesson ¡V Writing Persuasively
I felt the students had learned much about analyzing and presenting themselves and others through their writing. But had they learned enough analyzing skills to persuade audiences? I decided that their third project would be to write an argumentative or persuasive piece, where they had to choose an issue and stance, and then an audience that would hear that stance to try to persuade them.
My assignment sheet said this:
You are to write a 4- to 6-page persuasive piece discussing an issue and your stance on it.
This should be a culmination of the skills that you¡¦ve learned throughout class: creating a compelling opening, using organization, effective details, nice tone, etc. Also you should be considering the appeals you use to create ethos, pathos, and logo (all three must be used for an effective persuasive piece). A mix of sentence structures makes your writing more interesting. Also consider your visual message, as many people respond even more strongly to a visual message than a written one.
At the same time as you are thinking and writing creatively, remember that you need to design and communicate an effective piece for your readers, or ¡§audience.¡¨ Think about what would make your narrative most effective for your reader(s). Your tone and form depends on your audience: Does the audience respond well to humor, or should another tone be used?
Consider what genre would work best for your audience: a letter? memo? newspaper column? brochure? and so on ... use the form that ¡§speaks¡¨ best to your audience, and the one that would also most effectively reach, or get noticed by, your audience. (For example, I¡¦d write my mom a letter, but not create a Web page for her ... she doesn¡¦t understand the Internet.)
In this lesson, I wanted my students to think about several writing considerations. Two of my emphases included:
• They needed to consider audience. What could they write that would persuade the person or people to whom they were writing that their stance was true, or that it was at least something they could consider. We talked about strategies I commonly associate with composition writing: rhetorical appeals, or the use of ethos, logos, and pathos to make an argument.
According to Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student:
¡§Persuasion goes beyond the use of mere logic, appealing to many aspects of the audience. At the heart of persuasive writing are three kinds of appeals, which are informal arguments geared to the audience. If an audience is to be persuaded they need to (1) trust the writer, (2) be engaged emotionally, and (3) be convinced by reasons and evidence. We call these credibility, affective, and rational appeals. The master persuader interweaves all three of these appeals in any piece of writing¡¨ (Corbett and Connors).
To be engaged emotionally, they would have to write creatively, I told the class. You can persuade someone that what you say is true, but unless you pull on his heartstrings and put them in an emotional state, he won¡¦t feel compelled to do anything about it. We looked at Martin Luther King Jr.¡¦s speech ¡§I Have A Dream,¡¨ and discussed how he not only made his point, but also put his audience into an emotional state, making his speech one of the most remembered in our country.
• What visual strategies might assist the reader? For example, if writing to a busy boss for a raise, would using bullets (as I am using here) help the boss get through their points quickly? Or would using bold face and/or italics actually hurt the power of the message ¡V say, a letter to a mother, who might not appreciate the overemphasis of words through font manipulation? I gave them a handout from the composition textbook Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicator:
The act of creating any workplace communication, then, is driven by the writer¡¦s understanding of three basic elements:
• Audience ¡V those who are going to use your document: who they are, what they know about the subject, their previous experience with documents like the one you¡¦re designing, even their cultural background.
• Purpose ¡V what you want your document to accomplish: persuade your readers to think or act a certain way, enable them to perform a task, help them understand something, change their attitude, and so on.
• Context ¡V the circumstances in which readers will use your document: at their office desk, in a manufacturing plant while they¡¦re completing a task, while they¡¦re sitting around a conference table, and so on.
¡KThese three elements ¡V audience, purpose, and context ¡V make up the rhetorical situation. As a writer, you may consciously employ heuristics to define these elements, or you may approach them more intuitively ¡K in each document you design, you¡¦ll try to shape its visual language so that it fits the rhetorical situation¡¨ (Kostelnick et al 5).
I feel this assignment started to tie in everything they¡¦d learned so far. They had to write clearly, but also with heart, using creative elements such as enough details to make the situation clear and empathetic for the reader. Again, students bounced their drafts and ideas off of each other in small workshop groups, learning what they would need to be specific about and write about with detail in order to get the audience to understand and hopefully, side with their stance.
Projects varied from memos to bosses outlining why a student needed a raise to why a student/mother felt she deserved to be paid for the work she did around the house. She opened her essay creatively, fashioning an advertisement to find someone who would do her ¡§job¡¨:
Seeking: Highly motivated and reliable individual for fast-paced work environment offering great long-term rewards. Must be willing to work 24-hour shifts daily, weekends and holidays included. Background in cleaning services, food services, secretarial services, childcare, nursing, psychology, accounting, storytelling, coloring, Disney trivia, taxi driving, playgroups and crisis counseling a must!!! Individual must be a team player. Job does not offer health benefits, vacation time, overtime, or sick days. Call 1-800-2B-MOMMY.
She used this opening to apply a light touch to an essay where she appealed to her husband to understand why she couldn¡¦t be a full-time mother, go to school, and have a full-time job too. She told me she offered the essay to her husband after she¡¦d finished the assignment for class. Because she used a creative, humoristic approach to the persuasive piece, she felt her husband took her writing piece more positively than if she had just confronted him, and saw her point as well, she told me afterward.
At the end of the class I asked the students if they would do more than fill out the standard university evaluation on the class and me. It was the first time that I taught expository writing, and I wanted to be sure that mixing both composition and creative writing strategies was not confusing. They filled out the evaluations anonymously to ensure they wouldn¡¦t give me any answers just because I thought I ¡§wanted¡¨ them.
I was pleased to discover that mixing creativity into the composition class seemed quite successful. The students told me they very much liked the class, and were happy to see it wasn¡¦t the ¡§dry¡¨ composition class they had anticipated. ¡§I don¡¦t like to write, but you made me like it a little bit more,¡¨ one business major wrote. I was thrilled when one of my students was quoted in the student newspaper that my expository writing class was one of the best classes she¡¦d ever taken:
The best class I've ever taken at USF was Expository Writing, under the instruction of Danita Feinberg. The course was run like a workshop. Students were put into groups of three in which we discussed and proofread each other's work. It was great and incredibly helpful to have the opinions of my peers before I turned in my work. Danita was an amazing teacher. She created an atmosphere in which it was easy to share and participate. I can honestly say that my written work has improved significantly as a result of this course (Nolan ¡§Seven of the Best USF Classes¡¨ The Oracle).
From the evaluations, and from the positive review in the paper, I realized that using the workshop format was going to continue to be crucial to my teaching pedagogy, whether I was in a creative writing or composition classroom. To give the students the opportunity to talk with each other about their ideas, it allowed them to feel an authority over their own paper. Instead of trying to write the ¡§correct¡¨ answer for me, they were considering audience, using other students to get a feel for what was working well in their paper, what wasn¡¦t, and to also get ideas when they felt a little stuck.
More than that, however, I felt the students did what I believe to be most true about effective writing: The writing must be a work the audience wants to read in order for it to be considered successful. The use of creativity in their expository works made them fun for me to read and grade, and challenging, yet fun for the students to write as well. By cross-teaching creative and composition techniques, I felt this class was one of the most successful I¡¦ve led.
Corbett, Edward P.J., and Robert J. Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press: 1998.
Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Genung, John F. Outlines of Rhetoric: Rules, Illustrative Examples, and a Progressive Course of Prose Composition. Boston: Gin and Company Publishers, 1894.
Kostelnick, Charles, and David D. Roberts and Sam Dragga. Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicator. Longman Publishing: 1997.
Murray, Donald. ¡§Teach Writing as a Process not Product.¡¨ Reprinted in Cross-Talk in Composition Theory. Ed. Victor Villaneuva, Jr. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1978. 85-103.
Nolan, Angela. ¡§Seven of the Best USF Classes.¡¨ The Oracle. 13 June 2005.