At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes ask my students: “Can creative writing be taught?” With the expectation that they’ll be learning how to write creatively, students are taken aback by the question. Lorrie Moore describes the scene best in her story “How to Become a Writer”: “They seem to all have one face—giant and blank as a vandalized clock.” At first, they’re not sure how to respond.
In undergraduate and graduate writing courses, I was taught creative writing: how to be a better reader, how to be more receptive to my surroundings and interactions, how to improve my grammar and punctuation, and how to cultivate my intellectual curiosity. However, I was moved less by the knowledge my professors imparted and more by their presence: I was surrounded by creative, passionate, honest, generous and dedicated adults with open minds and a never-ending supply of encouragement. They were my heroes.
I still keep in touch with many of those professors, and the student-teacher relationships have evolved into professional ones. For example, I reviewed a former professor’s collection of poetry, and that same professor and his wife (also a former professor) contributed financially to my Kickstarter campaign, which funded the printing of my first book, The Prescribed Burn. Following their examples, I vow to be the instructor who treats every student’s contribution with reverence and who is available to her students, even after the semester ends.
My first priority in any writing course is to make students feel comfortable with each other as soon as possible. Because they’ll most likely be working in small groups and in workshop sessions, they need to shed their insecurities and learn how to respect one another. In order to facilitate this, I include ice-breaker exercises and try to incorporate humor. I fill class time with a mix of discussion, practical exercises, group work, lecturing, and individual student presentations.
My greatest strengths as an instructor are my organization skills, my empathy, my open-mindedness, and my creativity. Many students have shared their appreciation for my fastidiousness, which was born out of a long-ago fear that I might not be prepared for class. As a result, I utilize class time efficiently and don’t allow for boredom. In a writing class, students are bound to share personal details, and I listen when a student is sharing. Even though I’m the authority figure in the classroom, I love when students challenge me. Not only does a challenge demonstrate critical thinking, but it occasionally opens my mind to new possibilities. Finally, my strongest asset – my creativity – gives me the power to develop unique exercises that push students in ways they’ve never been pushed before. For example, I teach poetry (that daunting subject) in a way that differs from how students were probably taught poetry in high school, when they were encouraged to view poems in a societal/historical context without learning about craft or reading like a writer. In contrast, I encourage students to appreciate the poem for its sound, language, and organization without beating the “correct” meaning out of it.
So far, my proudest moment as an instructor happened at Rutgers, at the end of the fall 2014 semester, when a student from one of my colleague’s classes approached me during my office hours. “Ms. Wirstiuk?” she asked. I recognized her face. “I was one of your students at Passaic County Community College.” Instantly, I knew her; she had been my only student to earn an A in a basic writing skills class at PCCC. I remembered being so impressed with her efforts to exceed my expectations and always try to understand and apply my feedback. Determined to succeed, she had earned her associates degree and had transferred to Rutgers, where she was taking an elective creative writing class. I was so happy to see how far she had come from remedial writing.
I can show my students how those who’ve come before them have done it. But to be successful, they must observe, borrow (with proper citation, of course), and experiment. They must ask themselves questions they haven’t asked themselves before, trust that they possess the answers, and then find the specific words to express what’s true to their experience, whatever that may be.