About two years ago I began to get in the habit every Monday of asking my undergraduate creative writing students if anyone had an adventure over the weekend, or done anything that might be considered unusual. I sometimes accompanied this with a little light teasing: “You guys are young, the perfect time to go out and have an adventure,” and so on. Often my students simply stared at me as if I were crazy.
I hoped my question might lead to students easing out of their comfort zone and perhaps finding new subject matter to write about. As every writer who has taught an undergraduate fiction workshop knows, there’s a certain inevitable amount of stories that will come your way about dying grandparents, or stories about breakups or hooking up in bars, an unwanted pregnancy or bad roommates. The students are searching for subject matter, and these are the old standbys. Or they try out genre fiction, modeling their narratives on fictional worlds they know intimately from television or the movies.
I’m not the sort of teacher who restricts what students can write for my class. I’ve come to believe that young writers need to write what matters to them, that working through their individual passions can lead them to a deeper understanding of why they want to write in the first place. I’ve also found that if I impose one “No” on subject matter in class, students tend to hear that No reverberate, and hear other No’s elsewhere and so cut off possible paths, possible risk taking in their writing. So, if I was good about not imposing a No, how could I, perhaps, also offer a Yes?
Sometimes a student would come to my office a little flustered, confessing that he or she had no clue what to write about, and I’d always say (guided by Flannery O’Conner’s wry observation that anyone who has survived his or her childhood has enough material for a lifetime), “Tell me about your family. What does your dad, your mom do, tell me about your aunts and uncles, your grandparents.” After a little skeptical silence, I’d start to hear some family tidbits, and when I’d hear something like, “And then my dad has an older sister, but we never talk to that side of the family,” I’d pounce: “Oh, why not?” And soon enough, the student realized he had three or four dramatic vignettes he could try to transform into fiction.
These were individual victories, but they didn’t affect the larger class. So last fall, I began sending out emails to students each Thursday alerting them to interesting nearby events taking place outside the usual bubble of the university that might offer them new topics from which they might create fictions: a stamp collectors show, a Civil War reenactment, a Japanese tea ceremony, an “owl prowl,” or a barrel horse racing competition.
Very few students took the bait. So this spring semester I decided to make going on an adventure (and writing up a two page report) a requirement for my two classes, a beginning and an advanced fiction workshop. At first, the idea of venturing outside the university comfort zone met some resistance, a sort of sullen and unspoken Why are you making us do this? And a certain fear, I think, a reluctance to venture into the unknown.
I kept sending out emails each Thursday with announcements I’d gleaned from the local newspaper. Weeks passed, and then one student, who grew up in suburban Chicago, went to a local agricultural fair, donned a shoulder length glove, and extended her arm into the surgically-sculpted open window of a cow’s stomach. Another attended a roller derby game, and wrote this:
“I wish I could feel the freedom these women possess, and have the ability to use my body in a way that may not be seen as ladylike, damning the consequences. A few bruises here and there would be worth it to feel truly alive, working together with a team, completely unknown and free from worry of what I look like. No one dare tell a roller derby girl she’s fat: that body is meant for use. Society has no hold on them; they are above the petty, competing glances at the thighs of another woman.”
At the beginning of class I’d read out loud some students’ short adventure essays, and this seemed to serve as inspiration. By the end of the semester, my students were enthusiastic adventure seekers, and many went out on two or more (extra credit!), to a small town’s barn auction, or a pet cemetery, a free Afro-Cuban jazz concert, or an Edible Book arts festival. One student, Trent Lorenz, went with his mother (Mom’s Weekend) to a vintage button show, and she is now directing him to some family history:
“My mom is making me look through my late great aunt’s old buttons. She kept a lot of them because it was in her Polish blood to waste not. I’m hoping there are some hidden gems in there, considering she was born in 1912. As of right now, I’m thinking of doing something with this adventure. Maybe something along the line of Robert Olen Butler’s “Wish You Were Here” postcard book, because I was told that buttons tell the story of our past one little piece at a time, and that their pictures depict historic events that should be appreciated as art but are often overlooked. I think I’ll need to collect more buttons for these stories, but I also think I have a good start.”
Another student attended the Hindu Holi festival of spring, where crowds throw colored powder at each other (the celebration on our campus included hundreds of pounds of color, a DJ, live music, water guns, and Indian food):
“They laughed with me, danced with me to the live band, chased me and let me chase them, all the while with paint flying about! For a brief moment of my eighteen-year-old life, I felt my youth coming back: the little child that is still not done playing tag and climbing trees. It feels so bittersweet to think of my inner-kid. I really, really miss the fun I got to have before things like responsibilities, opinions, judgments and hormones got in the way. Society put the lid on my inner child’s expressionism. It was so very nice to get to be a kid again. Quite frankly, it didn’t matter what thoughts or opinions you had of Holi so long as you were friendly and open to getting hugged by complete strangers trying to mask you in green. I absolutely loved every moment of it. It was worth earning the nickname “Colors” at work.”
Another student attended a game at the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament: “A surprising part of the game was the physicality of the play. The chair seemed to be in no way a hindrance for testosterone charged physicality between players. The fouls were flying and they looked painful too. Players would run their chairs into each other and at times even tip each other over because of the force of the hit. When this would happen the downed player always got up without the help of their teammates, opponents, or the ref. I thought this was the most incredible part of the game because of the amount of power it must take to flip one’s self (as well as a wheelchair) up off the ground using hands and arms.”
Finally, two students went together to a white Victorian House in town that dubs itself The School of Metaphysics, to attend a showing of a contemporary artist’s film about premonitions in dreams.
These two students turned out to be the entire audience, and while there they were served tea and cookies. One student summed up the adventure this way:
“Overall, there were two things that I really enjoyed about the experience. One was this new stimulus to consider dreams and just how they can be guided to make them productive. The other was much more unique and enjoyable. It was that feeling of peering into someone else’s life, namely Dr. Pam and her assistant. This was something they really believed in and devoted a good amount of time to. It is hard to explain, but I love that feeling of seeing a real life, not the kind you see in stories, not the kind you see in movies. The kind that on the surface would look absolutely unremarkable, but yet isn’t. It is genuine, unmarred by greed or a desire for anything but to help others by spreading what they see as a powerful tool to improve one’s life. This is such a break from the standard modern life that I have been a part of. There was a certain beauty to it, and I believe that this is what I appreciated most.”
Another benefit of these adventures was that my students arrived at a wider view of the surrounding community. Every week I posted four or five lively and unusual events taking place, the secret lesson being that the weird and wonderful can be found anywhere. A writer can take that lesson to the bank for the rest of his or her life.
Unfortunately, most of my students hesitated until the last month of the semester to experience an adventure, and so the benefit of new story ideas and possibilities wasn’t able to be attempted or realized in the class. For this coming fall semester I’m thinking of requiring students to have an adventure before mid-term, so that there will be more simmering time.
Often, writing instructors can grouse about the limited subject matter undergraduate students bring to the table in a writing workshop. But really, they’re just trying the best with what they think they have. At this late date in my teaching career, I think I may have managed to find a way to broaden my students’ outlook, to help them find mystery and surprise in unlikely corners and stories nearly everywhere.
Other posts of interest on the craft of writing: