Everything I Don’t Know About Swords: On Teaching Creative Writing

March 19, 2018 | 1 book mentioned 2 8 min read

One evening in grad school, half-drunk and Googling my own name, I found a blog run by one of my fiction students. I shouldn’t have read it, but of course I read it. “I already hate this class,” she wrote. “My teacher is a stuck-up snob who won’t even let us write the things we want to write.” She wanted to be a romance novelist, but my syllabus had forbidden a long list of plots and genres: romance, detective stories, space adventures, dying grandparents, breakups, and so on. Why even enroll in a creative writing course if you didn’t want to make great art?

When I started teaching creative writing in 2005, my syllabus assigned almost exclusively white male authors of realist short fiction. I had no theories on what fiction should look like and had never even heard the term “pedagogy” before. I was 23 and in grad school and just trying to survive.

coverI was not a serious reader as a college student, and so most of my reading was either assigned to me, or randomly pulled from anthologies. My college courses were heavily focused on dead American men like Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Raymond Carver, with perhaps a single story by Jhumpa Lahiri or an excerpt from Beloved. A few professors pushed me outside this zone, but mostly I was reading a narrow slice of “the canon” and nothing else.

In my class, the only acceptable genre was the one I had learned to associate with so-called serious fiction: sad middle-aged men trying to reclaim their youthful glory, preferably while drunk on cheap whiskey. Maybe include a scene where he’s digging a ditch, or thinking about when he was good at baseball. Everything is subtext and nobody ever says what they mean. These were not the kinds of stories I was writing or even identified with, but I was in the business of creating Literature.

Before they walk into your classroom, many undergraduates have never written fiction seriously before. Some have dabbled, and occasionally you meet a preternaturally driven young person, but the average student brings some talents to the room with little idea of how to shape them into something meaningful.

You will very likely be the only creative writing teacher they ever have.

Running a passable fiction workshop is pretty easy. You assign some short stories for the first month, and after that everyone writes two stories of their own. The assigned readings don’t have to relate in any way to the student stories; they’re just there as exemplars of what good fiction might look like. When you workshop the students’ pieces, you can follow a script:

  • Name one thing you loved about the story and one thing you would change
  • Which characters or moments would you like to know more about?
  • Did anything in here confuse you?
  • Evaluate the dialogue.
  • Any sentences you loved? Any you want to edit?
  • What did you think of the ending?

During discussion, drop the names of a couple authors they probably haven’t read. End by offering your own critique, and include a writing aphorism, something that sounds very wise but you also know to be not totally true, something like: the choices a character makes must always be tied to a mistake in his past. People will write this down. They will have had a few laughs. When they leave, they will have learned almost nothing. You’ll get great student evaluations at the end of the semester.

Most stories turned in for workshop are bad. As a novice teacher, I took these bad stories personally, as if the students had written them just to spite me.

My syllabi resulted in scattershot work and a sense among the students that no choices really mattered. Nobody was writing anything good. Even the obviously talented students were flailing. The best you could hope for, most times, were glimmers of great ideas. Novice writers tend to imitate what they see, rather than being driven by some innate idea of great art, so a poorly-conceived syllabus will lead to poorly-conceived stories.

I’m not saying you can’t teach creative writing; I’m saying I couldn’t teach creative writing. I survived for a few years on the strength of my enthusiasm and my ability to make undergrads laugh. Syllabi like the one I used when I started have become the default approach for many professors, though they’re so limited in their effectiveness that any good work you get is an accident. It’s both prescriptive and not; it sets rigid boundaries but with no clear rationale. It reinforces the traditional notion that white male American realism is the only valuable kind of writing, and then passively says, “Just write me some stories like this,” with no other guidelines.

Syllabi like mine have become the default for novice creative writing professors. I think this development is partly a product of the growth of MFA programs. Increasingly, English departments are assigning intro Creative Writing courses to grad students, who receive minimal training and may be required to use a standard syllabus. The standard syllabi are designed to be simple, so that anybody can be plugged in to the class at the last minute and run it smoothly. They’re designed by a well-intentioned person in the department who needs to endure several rounds of approvals from higher-ranking faculty, at least some of whom don’t believe Creative Writing is a serious academic pursuit. A system like this is bound to produce stale, myopic syllabi that offer as limited a view of what it means to be a writer as possible.

Five years ago, I was teaching a course called Creative Acts, which is a basic intro to creative writing, and is open to all majors. A lot of students take this class because they assume it will be an easy elective. The quality of the work I had been receiving was poor, and nobody in the room cared. After we workshopped one student’s story and everyone handed her their critiques, she pointedly stood, walked to the front of the room, and dropped them all in the trash can next to my desk. In the next class period, we were discussing yet another student story about a college kid who wants to get drunk and does, eventually, get drunk, and I was despairing as I tried to drag us into some conversation besides whether or not people found the main character “relatable.” An alarm sounded on a phone in the back room, and suddenly half the class stood and started doing the Macarena. You don’t realize how long a single minute can last until you endure a spectacle like this, realizing nobody in the room respects you or your work, and further realizing you’ve given them no reason to do so. When they finished, I ended class, announcing that I needed some time to reevaluate all of my life choices.

It was too late to salvage that course, but before the next semester, I trashed my syllabus and rewrote it from scratch. I borrowed heavily from my friend Matthew Vollmer, a professor at Virginia Tech, and designed a course that required the completion of eight specific short exercises written within various formal and content-based constraints: a story in the collective first person, one about a monster, one in the form of instructions, one driven by a single magical element, and so on. Each assignment was paired with published stories that modeled these techniques, which forced me to open my reading list to a much broader range of authors and genres. With specific tasks to accomplish, the students turned in dramatically better work. They hated some of the assignments, but there wasn’t as much pressure on each one to be perfect, because there was something new to do every week. It made writing fun, but it also gave us some grounding principles to discuss, besides, “did you like this story?” And it implicitly opened up the idea of writing itself, of what it could contain and who could make it.

The best thing I read that semester was a story titled, “The Anxious Boy’s Guide to Piecing Your Mother Back Together.” It was written in the form of a manual, complete with Table of Contents and Index, and it told the heartbreaking, clearly autobiographical, story of a gay, Latinx college student trying to survive college while also caring for his chronically ill mother. He read parts of it aloud in class and a few people cried. It wasn’t a perfect story, by any means, but it was the realest, most exciting work I’d ever gotten in a creative writing course. And then it kept happening: every week, they turned in stories like this, with students putting themselves on the line and investing themselves emotionally in the work in a way they never had before. On a course evaluation, one student wrote, “This class changed everything I ever thought about writing.”

Last November, close to midnight, I sat in the dark staring at my laptop. I was well into my second hour of watching sword fights on YouTube. I switched between samurai movies, anime, medieval battle scenes, and pirate duels. Two of my students just kept writing about sword fights, and I was trying to be a better teacher. If I was going to critique the battle scenes in their novels-in-progress, I needed to understand what made a good sword fight. When I spoke to one of these students, I discussed the usual things—characterization, precision, pacing—and he nodded and listened and took notes. Then he said, “But what about the battles? Were they exciting?” And I wasn’t sure. So I had to do my homework. For two consecutive nights, I watched the videos. I even read the comments.

The next day, I used the term “saber,” and a student immediately corrected me: “It’s actually a claymore,” he said. “There’s a pretty big difference.” We discussed katana, cutlasses, and something they called, “a horse-killing sword,” a thing that, I assure you, actually exists. Somehow this led to an anime discussion, in which I vaguely recognized the names of some Yu-Gi-Oh! characters and somebody named Goku. There is so much I don’t know and my students do. I was drowning in this conversation, but I think we made some progress. It was one of the best teaching days of my life.

This past fall, I taught the Capstone, the final course our fiction students take in the major. I wanted it to feel like something important and difficult.

At this point, I was working with experienced, smart, and driven students who had a sense of what they wanted to write. They designed their own final project, in consultation, and I didn’t restrict them in any way. Instead of conducting short formal experiments, we split our time between reading criticism (about genre, aesthetics, cultural appropriation, and gender issues in publishing) and short stories that helped to illustrate or inform these debates (some authors we read: Ken Liu, Danielle Evans, J. Robert Lennon, Cristina Henríquez, Paul Beatty, Aimee Bender, Lesley Nneka Arimah). The constraint imposed on them was a philosophical one: they were forced to think about the way their work would interact with the world outside our classroom. I encouraged them to go wild with their stories, as long as they could explain themselves.

Which meant I read: sword fights, an epic novel-in-progress featuring no fewer than 10 fantasy races, a collection of erotica stories, a chapbook of stories in experimental forms, some batches of conventionally literary stories, one historical novel that involved a lesbian ghost, and more than a few interdimensional travel stories. There was also a series of realist literary stories in which every now and then a monster or a talking lizard would appear.

I do not enjoy all of these. I’ve learned that I find sword fights, even the very best of them, boring. I was often struggling to keep up in our discussions, no matter how much time I spent on Tumblr reading about the differences between goblins and orcs. And yet: I never enjoyed a semester more. I know it was the best teaching I’ve ever done.

It was the rising energy of the students putting something new and weird and daring into the world, and me straining to connect with it and help them find a shape for it—that’s when I felt most like I was doing a job that mattered.

My job is not to define literature for them, but to give them the vocabulary and tools—and the inspiration—to define it for themselves.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower's Handbook. He co-hosts the Book Fight! podcast and works as non-fiction editor for Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.


  1. Oh gosh. That part about your student throwing out all the critique in the trash, and later, the students doing the Macarena, was harsh. But you obviously ended up giving teaching your all, and learned a lot from it – and had fun. If you’re not learning from your teaching, you’re usually teaching wrong.

  2. I wish I would have had more teachers like you when it came to writing. The hard, vulnerable part is admitting you don’t know something and/or could be wrong, but you’ve nailed it.

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