Those Easy Creative Writing Courses

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In college, I minored in creative writing.

Most of the people in my poetry writing courses loved words and wanted to learn a few things about poetry, even if they didn’t aspire to be poets.

Inevitably, though, there was always at least one of those “the cat sat on the mat” guys–people who thought a class on poetry writing was a big joke and an easy A. You know the type. I don’t know what kinds of final grades they got, but I do know that many of them had the “Oh, no! What have I done?” moment…especially if the teacher was a professor named Tom.

I won’t put his full name here because, even though he’s won lots of prizes and published lots of poetry books and has been anthologized and gotten all sorts of attention as a poet, I know he would hate my mentioning him on the internet, of all places. But Tom was one of the most brilliant teachers I ever had, and I learned more from him in a few poetry workshops than I learned in most of my other classes combined. (The teacher from my last blog post who told me, “You’re not telling the truth“? That was Tom.)

Where to begin with what I learned from Tom’s classes? First, fearlessness. He’d assign us to write a poem each week, make copies for all the other students, and then read our poem aloud to the class. The horror! I thought I would die of embarrassment. But I didn’t. I read aloud my deepest feelings and viewpoints to a roomful of (sometimes smirking) strangers, and I survived. Not much about public speaking has phased me since then (I think I could now address a joint session of Congress without breaking a sweat). And when I became a teacher myself, it was downright difficult–if not impossible–for my students to rattle my cage with an inappropriate comment. (Hey, once you’ve heard a roomful of poets’ deepest feelings, you’re pretty jaded for the rest of your life. You CANNOT unlearn a poet’s deepest feelings!)

I also learned from Tom’s class not to take myself too seriously. Tom was famous around the English department for his unbridled laugh. He was never mean, but when he found something funny about your work, he’d share his observation, and it was always spot-on hilarious. I remember once writing a persona poem from the perspective of a middle-aged woman who’d had a rough life. After I read it, Tom said, “This sounds like a country-western song.” Then he let out that wonderful laugh, and I laughed right along with him because, you know what? It did sound like a country-western song!  And I loved that he had no qualms about telling me that. That’s another thing I learned from him–the power of praise. Tom didn’t sugarcoat anything: if a poem was bad, he’d offhandedly say, “Not your best work this week” and move on. He didn’t give out praise easily, so when he did, it meant something. I will never forget one day when he said of a poem of mine, “I have no marks on this page. Don’t change a thing.” It was a moment I will always hold dear.

In schools today, it’s hard to justify creative writing classes. They’re a good place to make budget cuts. These classes offer no way to “teach to the test” or cram a set of information into students’ brains. The best creative writing classes flow where they will based on student work. Many of my favorite poems to this day are ones I read in Tom’s class. He didn’t have a syllabus with required readings; he’d just say, “This poem reminds me of something by Roethke–let’s take a look,” and there we’d go. It’s funny: in college, I memorized dozens of different types of rocks and their properties for geology; back then I could’ve told you in which year which king died in which battle; I could solve for x (but not well, of course–I was an English major!). I can’t remember any of that stuff now–that concrete, useful knowledge that a well-educated person ought to know.

But I can still quote the first few lines of “Dolor” from memory and still get the same chills I got the first day I read it in Tom’s class.

So glad I took that crip course. So glad Tom was my teacher.

 

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