For fiction writers, provocation is part of the job description. The same should go for our teaching of fiction, especially with students who are just starting out. Unlike some other college courses, where passivity and routine help students stomach lectures, an ideal creative writing classroom is one in which students can expect to be challenged, pushed beyond their comfort zones or just plain bothered.
Part of this orientation toward creative writing pedagogy involves setting aside class time (and space, both figuratively and physically) for students to confront smaller creative challenges. I’ve found that opening class with a minor provocation and call for student response—maybe 5 to 15 minutes—startles the students’ brains into a more operative and imaginative mode.
I’ve been in workshops where well-meaning instructors try to attain similar results by opening class with several minutes of “free writing” in which students are told to write whatever they want. To me, this always seemed both pedagogically lazy and overly invested in the idea of creative writing as chiefly a discipline of self-expression, as if fully formed art lives inside of people and only needs to be scribbled down on notebook paper. My pedagogy rejects the self-expression model in favor of a writing workshop that acquaints students with generic traditions and stresses the collectivity of 21st century art-making. By writing and then immediately sharing, my students become involved with the reciprocity necessary for writers and readers to understand collective challenges. Thus, the activities I’ve listed below are intended as quick experiences of deeply traditional concepts (by no means wholly self-explanatory) that force students to find and understand the constraints that give our fictions substance.
- Make it Talk. For this activity, you’ll need to bring a small item to class—the more improvised, the more banal, the better. Last time, I brought an electrical plug convertor. Pass the item around the class, inviting students to get as well acquainted with it as possible. Then tell them to make it talk. If this convertor could talk, what would it say? How does it speak? What story would it tell? Many students will come up with some easy jokes (“you’ll be shocked to hear what I did yesterday!” or “I’ve always felt the need to change things”), but the goal here is to get them to think about how to create a nonhuman and disembodied narrator that nonetheless seems to have a quality of voice.
- Tell Us About Your Happy Place. Because it’s a friendly ice-breaker at the beginning of the semester, I challenge my students to describe what they’d consider their happy place. I refuse to interpret the prompt further (and in fact, the less interpretation you offer in these activities, the more students begin to interrogate the boundaries of the prompt). Urge the students to address this place in sensory terms to “bring” us there. While sharing these short writings, remind them of the power of setting in a story and how it need not be a mere background detail.
- There’s a Bomb Under a Chair. I’ve done a number of versions of this exercise, but it’s based off a fairly famous Alfred Hitchcock bit about the differences between suspense and surprise. Before class, hide a Post-It note under a random seat in the classroom (or don’t… the exercise will work anyway). After the students are in the class, tell them there’s a “bomb” under one student’s seat. Be clear it’s not an actual bomb. Then invite them to explain, in writing, why the bomb would be under their particular seat, or someone else’s particular seat. The activity is meant to highlight the randomness of the real world against the meaning built into every plot in a story-world. (Sometimes I don’t actually hide anything, and then I point out how let down they are by the “twist” that I introduced to our real-time narrative.) During conversation, I try to remind them that they were having a readerly experience, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next and why. I usually give the “bombed” student a bonus point.
- Pick a Narrator for Life. Also a fine ice-breaker, I invite the students to pick anyone—living, dead, famous, an acquaintance, fictional—to narrate the student’s particular life story. If you do this, expect at least a quarter to pick Morgan Freeman. Many pick their favorite fictional characters, and nearly none of them choose themselves. But the students get a sense of one another and can also discuss what distinguishes these narrators. As an instructor, I suggest that an enduring question of narrative is the relation between the story and the storyteller, and that they should keep it in mind for their own work.
- My First Time. Remind your students that they need not tell stories from their own lives for this one, although they can if they choose. Give them five minutes to begin a paragraph with “The first time I _____________________” and see how far they can take it. Have a few students share these, and then instruct them to write another paragraph, this time beginning, “The second time I __________________.” I find this a useful activity for demonstrating how narrative temporality is based on sequencing more than discrete units of time, and it’s also a way to introduce the idea of a retrospective first-person narrator. I’ve had multiple students transform this quick activity into a full-fledged short story during the semester.
There are, of course, countless writing exercises devised over the years (I’ve had mixed results with some of John Gardner’s classics). For me, these class-beginners are more about disrupting expectations and creating a class equilibrium than “covering” any given concept. I do my best not to over-plan any of these activities; the point is, after all, to let something new come into the room.