By Lynnell Edwards, Spalding MFA Associate Program Director
For those interested in exploring the mysteries of the undergraduate creative writer, Lynnell will be leading the Teaching Seminar in both the Spring and Summer (Santiago) 2019 residencies.
The old truism that we learn more from our students than they learn from us has been often, and perhaps to the point of cliché, argued. However, on my journey as a teacher of creative writing, there have been a handful of students who taught me things I needed to, but didn’t, know. Here are three memories of gratitude to those students.
You’re not as cool as you think you are: The case of the Grateful Dead lyrics in the poetry packet.
As a long-time teacher of expository writing, I was no stranger to plagiarism. It’s easier to spot than students think, and whenever I encountered it I was always both baffled and irritated. Baffled that they would risk the decidedly severe penalty rather than just take the grade they might have gotten from turning in shoddy or incomplete work. Irritated because it showed how little they ultimately cared about their work in my class. Plagiarism in the creative writing class, however, was not something I expected, chiefly because, sad to say, students can (and do) bang out a poem or thinly veiled story taken from last weekend’s party to include in the draft packet with really no grade penalty for poor work. Needless to say, when the lyrics to “Scarlet Begonias” showed up as poem three in Cody’s workshop packet, I was baffled: Why would he do this? He wasn’t submitting it as final work, and he had other poems clearly of his own making, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to fail the whole packet. I also didn’t have a clearly articulated standard for granting students credit for the packet. (Lesson #1 learned the hard way: points for everything in the intro class.)
The practice was to workshop two of the five poems in the packet—one I chose and one the writer chose. So, in a stance of extraordinary pedagogical courage, I decided to ignore it and make a note when I handed back the packet. Cody, however, had other ideas. After we had discussed the two poems (of which I remember nothing) I asked if he had any other particular questions.
“What about number three?” (He hadn’t titled it.) I stared at him and then looked around the class.
“The third one?” I could hardly believe what he was venturing. “Uhm, is there anything you want to say about that one?”
“No. What did you think?” At this point my heart was hammering; I was going to have to address “Scarlet Begonias” quickly and move on. I looked around the room for support, thinking surely someone else who recognized the lyrics would at least make a noise, or utter a discreet “Dude.” But, no. Silence.
I must have somehow managed to stammer that these were Grateful Dead song lyrics and I wasn’t sure what he thought he was doing and he would need to turn in a different poem and please, everyone, pass your comments to Cody. Please. But what I was thinking was: How uncool did you think I was that I actually wouldn’t recognize the lyrics to one of the Dead’s most famous songs?? And so ended the brief period I had spent thinking that students probably saw me as young and cool and hip because I listened to cool bands and was a mere ten years older than most of them and by god, I knew what was cool which surely anyone could see. The creative writing class and the CW teacher can have a certain cool cachet, but Cody made plain what I already knew but hadn’t really accepted yet in those early years: The authority I have comes from my necessary (and for students, ultimately empowering) distance and my experience, not my relative coolness. And clear guidelines about requirements and penalties have a lot more authority than casually name-checking Green Day. Thank you, Cody.
The case of the onstage car chase and learning to maximize the limits of the form.
While students certainly teach us something about ourselves, in my early years I also found myself learning to articulate aspects of craft that I hadn’t either understood fully or thought about consciously. Such was the case with teaching playwriting, the form I was most practiced in when I first began teaching. I regularly included drama in the introductory class because, in addition to loving the form myself, I also found that it was a genre that many beginning writers easily inhabited, though they are a long time understanding how and why stage plays are different than screenplays. No student made that clearer to me than Brian. Brian’s ten-minute play was a crime story. More specifically, an action movie. There was a complicated plot and a lot of characters and it spanned at least a month and was set in several distinct locations. And there was an onstage car chase. So that’s where we started.
After briefly talking through some of the metaphysics of stage time and the depiction of action and the ten-minute play, I finally said: Tell me about the onstage car chase. He seemed confident, improvising an answer that involved off-stage light and sound that could suggest a car chase. Good, good, I remember thinking. And as he continued explaining how, essentially, he could make this a stage version of Fast and Furious, I stopped him with my own revelation: Think about what drama as a medium offers that film cannot. Think about how what you’re seeing as limits are actually assets for what you want to accomplish. Boom! This was something I instinctively knew every time I had made a decision to begin writing: Is this a short story or a play? (Poetry was still a long way away for me at that point.) But the classroom setting helped me put the idea into words for the first time, and the students that day suddenly were listening in a new way. I don’t remember if Brian revised his play for his final portfolio; it would have been essentially a rewrite, a step many undergraduates just can’t take yet. But I do know that my revelation had been made possible—as have subsequent insights about how writing works—because I was put in the position of teaching it. Thank you, Brian.
The case of the blossoming memoirist and Jesus in your heart.
My first faculty appointment was at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, a small liberal-arts university with a very specific evangelical Christian mission and governing board. And while I generally did not find myself in theologically dangerous territory, I knew that there were conservative Christian students in my classes who sometimes expressed their beliefs in their writing. In general, these students made their peace with me. It might have been that, coming from the South, I was just better acquainted and thus more comfortable with that particular strain of religion, or that I let students know that their faith life—to a point—could guide the direction of their writing or provide subject matter. So when Anne gave me the draft of her lyric essay on proselytizing to strangers—yes, that means approaching people in public places to ask them if they know Jesus in their heart—my own heart briefly stopped. Not only did this practice make me extremely uncomfortable when I found—or thought I might find—myself on the receiving end of it, as a nominal, sort-of-secular Christian I wasn’t even sure it was an effective way of enrolling believers.
My whole being wanted to engage with Anne on the question of why she would agree to do such a thing. I was geared up for an argument with the essay by the time I had read the title and the first several sentences summarizing what she was going to write about. Until I got to the part where Anne described how scared she was. How she didn’t believe she could do this. How she sat there at Starbucks, her heart beating wildly, knowing that Jesus was calling her to interrupt the man sitting at the table next her, knowing he didn’t want to be interrupted, and to invite him to invite Him into his heart. The writing, which had been to that point ordinary and safe, lifted me off the page and into her own fear, her own urgency. I found myself rooting for her, wanting her to share that thing she found important above all. I wondered whether this was a world and a faith I had misjudged. And whether Anne had something to say I needed to hear. (Lesson #2 learned the hard way: Trust and sympathize with the novice writer; lead with compassion.)
No, Anne did not convert me at that moment. And I don’t doubt that the evangelical faith her twenty-year-old self was carrying might ultimately be a burden to her as a woman.
But I sensed that she needed to write this piece, at this time, and she made real to me the huge risk of faith deeply felt. She moved me off my own arguments and into a place where I could see how she might lean into that fear and shape her essay. How she might take a risk in her writing—perhaps bringing her closer to the real source of her conflict?—and become a better writer. Thank you, Anne.
Joining the MFA program in August as associate program director meant I would be leaving behind my role—at least in any substantial sense—in the undergraduate classroom for the foreseeable future. A bittersweet decision in some ways, it has been, however, the right choice at the right time. And thankfully, I have no doubt that these graduate students will also tell me everything I don’t know. I look forward to their shaping my craft and my sense of myself as a teacher in innumerable, invaluable ways.
Lynnell Edwards is author of three full-length poetry collections: Covet, The Highwayman’s Wife, and The Farmer’s Daughter, and the chapbook Kings of the Rock and Roll Hot Shop. As associate professor of English at Spalding, she directed and taught first-year writing as well as other creative writing and literature courses. She now serves as poetry faculty and Associate Program Director of the Spalding MFA in Writing program.