Working with Creative Writing Students: Tutoring Beginning Poets & Fiction Writers
This presentation is designed to introduce writing center tutors and staff to various methods of working with beginning creative writing students.
Tutoring Creative Writing Students
As creative writing programs grow, more creative writing students will begin visiting writing centers to receive feedback on their work. Many of these students will be enrolled in introductory level writing workshops and will at some point have their writing workshopped by their peers, who will most likely be beginning writers as well.
This handout discusses the writing obstacles most frequently faced by beginning poets and fiction writers and will offer tactics for addressing these issues during a tutorial.
For more information about working with creative writing students, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation "Working with Creative Writing Students" available here
Discussing Creative Work with the Student Writer
While creative writers often draw on very personal material for their poetry and/or fiction, when discussing the work with the student, remember that a poem or story written from the first person perspective may still be fictionalized. Not all creative work is "confessional" in nature.
Refer to the "speaker" in a poem, or the "narrator" in a story, rather than assuming that the voice or character is the writer him/herself.
Example: "I can see this poem focuses on the speaker’s mother."
"This narrator seems to be angry at his father."
Students may be comfortable discussing their creative work as personal material or may let you know that the speaker is in fact them. However, students will benefit from looking at their work more objectively and from realizing that the material from which they are drawing can be manipulated even if it initially came from real life.
Common Pitfalls for Beginning Poets
Students who are writing poetry for their first workshop will face some of the following obstacles.
Beginning poets tend to:
- Use abstraction rather than images
- Fall back on clichés
- Use sentimental language
- Have trouble moving beyond their original subject
Abstraction vs. Image
Beginning poets often rely on abstract concepts, such as despair, love, evil, heaven, or hate. These words are loaded but general and don’t tell the reader much about the writer’s perspective or experience.
Remind the student that people read poetry to experience the world through another’s perspective. Good poetry is personal and specific.
Here are some ways of helping the student move past abstraction:
- Get the student talking about the story or emotion behind the poem.
Example: What did you want the reader to take away from this poem?
- Brainstorm a list of concrete images to replace the abstract concepts in the poem.
Example: What objects, colors, or details remind you of love (or sadness, or heaven, etc.)
- Examine one stanza or section of the poem. Have the student focus on expanding that section, adding more detail.
Example: It sounds like the speaker is talking about her mother in this stanza. What details evoke her as a person? Can you think of a specific memory about her?
- Have the student write what s/he can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
Example: Challenge the student to work in a detail that involves one of the reader’s senses in each line of the poem.
Moving Beyond Clichés
Beginning poets often rely on clichés because they are comfortable, familiar, and hold truth. However, clichés are not unique or surprising. We’ve heard them before. Often, clichés are merely placeholders for something the student is still trying to articulate.
Remind the student that clichés aren’t unique or specific and that their personal perspective and experience will be much more compelling.
Here are some ways of helping the student revise clichés.
- Encourage the student to play with the language in the cliché.
Example: “The lake was a mirror” might become “The lake mirrored the mountains.” Here, the clichéd noun becomes a verb and more detail is added.
- Work on figurative language. Have the student write a series of metaphors the replace the current cliché. Metaphor often opens up the possibilities of language and lets in more surprising elements.
- Encourage the student to get more specific and tackle the image in more depth, or have them write the image from a different perspective.
Example: “The lake was a mirror” might become “The lake was a bowl of sky.” Here, the student focuses more on what the lake is reflecting rather than simply its reflective quality.
Revising Sentimental Language
Beginning poets often draw on personal experience or relationships for material; however, they may have a hard time looking at such material objectively. If a student’s language and images seem overly sweet or precious, then their writing may be suffering from sentimentality.
Here are some ways to help them think anew about their subject.
- Remind the student that emotion is rarely black or white. It is often ambivalent, especially when we are reflecting on something in our past. Encourage them to think more objectively about the subject.
Example: I can tell from this poem that the speaker really loves her grandfather. What other memories exist of him? Was the speaker ever mad at him, or did he have a habit that drove the speaker crazy?
- Have the student approach the subject from a different perspective, especially if their sentimental language seems tied to cliché.
Example: There’s a long tradition of writing about nature. How have other poets addressed nature in their poetry? How do you think your view of nature is different?
Moving Beyond the Original Subject of the Poem
In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses two subjects in the poetic writing process, which he calls the triggering subject and the found subject. The triggering subject is what got the student started writing. However, poems are seldom about just one thing. The found subject is what the student writes his/her way into, where s/he leaps from the original subject into something more.
Beginning students often have trouble making this leap and can become stuck in their triggering subject.
Here are some ways you can encourage them to look beyond their initial subjects.
- Make webs with the triggering subject in the center. Have the student free associate using the initial subject as a springboard. Then encourage the student to weave the two subjects together in his/her revision.
- Encourage the student to experiment with drastic revision. Have them rewrite the poem starting with the last line and see what new directions the poem takes.
Almost all beginning poets will need practice overcoming abstraction, cliché, and sentimental language, as well as making the leap from triggering subject to found subject. As with any writer, encouraging the student to see the poem not as a finished product but as a work in progress will leave the poem open to greater possibility.
Common Pitfalls for Beginning Fiction Writers
Many of the issues with which beginning poets struggle will also apply to beginning fiction writers. However, students writing fiction will also struggle with some craft issues specific to their genre.
Beginning fiction writers tend to:
- do more telling than showing (more summary than scene)
- struggle with the scope of their story
- fall back on stereotypical characters
- employ overly dramatic or “action movie” plots
Summary vs. Scene
Beginning fiction writers will still be learning how to differentiate scene from summary and when to use each. Their stories may not yet have clear distinctions between one scene and the next, or their story may be one long summary. It is often helpful to reinforce the differences between summary and scene during the tutorial, especially if the student’s story has a great deal of summary.
Scene: takes place in real-time, like a movie, usually contains dialogue between characters, and should be used for important interactions and events.
- She was quiet as he drove her home. He parked by the curb in front of the yellow house with its overgrown lawn. She reached into her purse and pulled out a white envelope and handed it to him.
- “Read it later,” she said.
- The car door squeaked as she got out.
Summary: moves quickly, giving the reader important highlights or reminders, and is used for background information. Bits of summary often occur within scenes.
A written scene is like a scene in a movie: we watch everything that happens to the character(s) as the action unfolds. Summary is more like watching a character talking to you on the screen about something that already happened to him/her: this would get boring if it went on for too long.
Telling vs. Showing
Most of us have heard the old adage “show, don't tell.” In order to become involved in a piece of prose, a reader must be able to see, hear, taste, touch and smell things throughout the story. Is the setting painted clearly and vividly? Are characters described well? Showing is especially important when writing scenes.
Here are some ways to help students concentrate on showing.
- Point out places where you have trouble seeing action, characters, or setting. Have them describe the scene to you and encourage them to jot down details, or jot them down as the student describes them to you.
- Brainstorm lists of details associated with the setting in each scene.
Example: What kind of décor does the character have in his/her apartment? What kind of bar is this? What’s the atmosphere of the town where the story takes place?
- Encourage students to think of each written scene as a scene in a movie.
Example: If this were made into a movie, what would be the most important scene? What would you see and hear as that scene took place?
Getting the Scope of the Story Under Control
Many beginning fiction writers have read more novels than short stories. While novels have hundreds of pages to lay out setting, character, and action, a short story may have only twenty pages (or less for an introductory workshop). If you notice that a student’s story lacks action in the first few pages or seems to be dragging, s/he may be struggling with scope.
Here are ways to steer the writer in the right direction.
- Have them describe the plot of the story to you. What do they feel is the heart of the story? What’s the central conflict? Lay a timeline for the narrative.
- Encourage them to start the story in the middle of the action or conflict. Certain things should be revealed on the first page of any story, for example, the main character and his/her gender, age, occupation (if applicable) and location. What would get the reader invested on the first page?
- Suggest that the student revise the story starting in a different point in the plot.
Example: Many students end their stories with a couple finally coming together. What if the student began with the couple’s first date? How would the story change?
Fixing Stereotypical Characters
A student may or may not be aware that s/he has employed a stereotypical character. If they’re not aware, point it out to them and work from there. Stereotypes may appear in issues of race, gender, sexuality, class, even a character’s occupation or interests.
Remind the student that stereotypes are predictable, and readers would rather connect to a character that seems more real, flaws and all.
Here are some ways to help the student flesh out a stereotyped character.
- Point out the stereotyped character and discuss what makes him/her a stereotype. Next, ask the student how s/he could they revise the character to make him/her more realistic?
Example: Say a character has blonde hair and is obsessed with buying expensive shoes. This seems like ‘the shallow blonde’ stereotype. Perhaps she collects something other than shoes. What hobby might be surprising and also tell us something about her character?
- Ask the student to create character by drawing on real life. Suggest s/he even go to a café and people watch for an hour or so to get ideas.
Example: Does this character remind you of anyone you’ve encountered in real life? Who? Can you describe that person in more detail? What were his/her flaws, strengths, fears, and desires?
Reining in Overly Dramatic Plots
Most beginning fiction writers worry about plot. Will it be entertaining and hold the reader’s interest? Will it be exciting enough? However, plot often evolves from strong characters, not shocking events. If a student’s story contains exploding cars or houses, car wrecks, or multiple deaths, they may have an overblown plot.
Here are a few tactics to help them out.
- Ask the student to consider what made memorable events in their lives, or the lives of their friends. Many students don’t believe their own lives are exciting enough to use as fodder for writing. In reality, readers are more compelled by characters and events they can relate to on some level.
Example: Tell me more about the summer camp you mentioned a moment ago. What were the other kids there like? What did you take away from that experience?
- Have the student examine whether his/her plot is realistic. Could this really happen given the characters and the setting, or does the plot rely more on shocking the reader, taking a sudden and unlikely twist?
Example: I see that on this page, the main character’s best friend gets in a car wreck and is now in a coma. How does this fit into the progression of events? How does this action help the plot? Where might you go from here?
- Have the student keep the element of surprise but tone down the shock value of the event.
Example: Let’s say the student has a character who gets drunk and dies in a fatal crash. What else might happen to this character? Does he have to die? Maybe he walks somewhere and gets lost, or perhaps he drives to his ex-girlfriend’s house instead. Perhaps he wakes up in a park and doesn’t remember how he got there. The student can make a list of all the possible things that might happen to a character.
Most beginning fiction writers will need to work on showing vs. telling, scope, character development, and plot progression. Encourage them to read as many short stories as they can for models, and remind them to keep it real in order to keep the reader involved.
For more suggestions on working with beginning poets and fiction writers, view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation “Working with Creative Writers.”
Helpful Resources for Creative Writing Students
-Burroway, Janet. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Longman, 2006.
-Cameron, Julia. The Right to Write. Tarcher, 1998.
-Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, 2006.
-Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. W.W. Norton, 1992.
-Lamotte, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor, 1995.
-Laux, Dorianne and Addonizio, Kim. The Poet’s Companion. W.W. Norton, 1997.
-Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton, 2000.
- The Academy of American Poets
Search for poets and poems.
- Poets and Writers magazine online
Read articles on the writing life and interviews with authors. Ask questions of other writers in the Speakeasy Forum.
- Associated Writing Programs
Helpful for students looking for an MFA program.
- Best American Poetry and Best American Fiction anthologies, published every year and available at most bookstores.
- -Literary Journals. Tell students to check the periodicals at their school’s library, a local bookstore, or even online. (Note: Barnes & Noble and Borders don’t typically carry these small press publications.)
Using Metaphors in Creative Writing
What is a metaphor?
The term metaphor meant in Greek "carry something across" or "transfer," which suggests many of the more elaborate definitions below:
|A comparison between two things, based on resemblance or similarity, without using "like" or "as"||most dictionaries and textbooks|
|The act of giving a thing a name that belongs to something else||Aristotle|
|The transferring of things and words from their proper signification to an improper similitude for the sake of beauty, necessity, polish, or emphasis||Diomedes|
|A device for seeing something in terms of something else||Kenneth Burke|
|Understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another||John Searle|
|A simile contracted to its smallest dimensions||Joseph Priestly|
|Related Terms Table|
|extended or telescoping metaphor: A sustained metaphor.||The teacher descended upon the exams, sank his talons into their pages, ripped the answers to shreds, and then, perching in his chair, began to digest.|
|implied metaphor: A less direct metaphor.||John swelled and ruffled his plumage. (versus John was a peacock)|
|mixed metaphor: The awkward, often silly use of more than one metaphor at a time. To be avoided!||The movie struck a spark that massaged the audience's conscience.|
|dead metaphor: A commonly used metaphor that has become over time part of ordinary language.||tying up loose ends, a submarine sandwich, a branch of government, and most clichés|
|simile: A comparison using "like" or "as"||Her face was pale as the moon.|
|metonym: The substitution of one term for another with which it is commonly associated or closely related.||the pen is mightier than the sword, the crown (referring to a Queen or King), hands (referring to workers who use their hands)|
|synecdoche: The substitution of a part for the whole or vice versa (a kind of metonym).||give us this day our daily bread|
Why use metaphors?
- They enliven ordinary language.
People get so accustomed to using the same words and phrases over and over, and always in the same ways, that they no longer know what they mean. Creative writers have the power to make the ordinary strange and the strange ordinary, making life interesting again.
- They are generous to readers and listeners; they encourage interpretation.
When readers or listeners encounter a phrase or word that cannot be interpreted literally, they have to think—or rather, they are given the pleasure of interpretation. If you write "I am frustrated" or "The air was cold" you give your readers nothing to do—they say "so what?" On the other hand, if you say, "My ambition was Hiroshima, after the bombing," your readers can think about and choose from many possible meanings.
- They are more efficient and economical than ordinary language; they give maximum meaning with a minimum of words.
By writing "my dorm is a prison," you suggest to your readers that you feel as though you were placed in solitary, you are fed lousy food, you are deprived of all of life's great pleasures, your room is poorly lit and cramped—and a hundred other things, that, if you tried to say them all, would probably take several pages.
- They create new meanings; they allow you to write about feelings, thoughts, things, experiences, etc., for which there are no easy words; they are necessary.
There are many gaps in language. When a child looks at the sky and sees a star but does not know the word "star," she is forced to say, "Mommy, look at the lamp in the sky!" Similarly, when computer software developers created boxes on the screen as a user interface, they needed a new language; the result was windows. In your poems, you will often be trying to write about subjects, feelings, etc., so complex that you have no choice but to use metaphors.
- They are a sign of genius.
Or so says Aristotle in Poetics: "[T]he greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor." It is "a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars."
Creative ways to use metaphors
Most books give rather boring examples of metaphors such as my father is a bear or the librarian was a beast. However, in your poetry (and fiction for that matter) you can do much more than say X is Y, like an algebraic formula. Definitely play with extended metaphors (see above) and experiment with some of the following, using metaphors...
|Uses of Metaphors|
|as verbs||The news that ignited his face snuffed out her smile.|
|as adjectives and adverbs||Her carnivorous pencil carved up Susan's devotion.|
|as prepositional phrases||The doctor inspected the rash with a vulture's eye.|
|as appositives or modifiers||On the sidewalk was yesterday's paper, an ink-stained sponge.|
|Scratching at the window with claws of pine, the wind wants in.||Imogene Bolls, "Coyote Wind"|
|What a thrill—my thumb instead of an onion. The top quite gone except for a sort of hinge of skin....A celebration this is. Out of a gap a million soldiers run, redcoats every one.||Sylvia Plath, "Cut"|
|The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.||Robert Frost, "Once by the Pacific"|
|Little boys lie still, awake wondering, wondering delicate little boxes of dust.||James Wright, "The Undermining of the Defense Economy"|