April 14, 2002

Reflections on Creative Writing Class

Frank McCourt
Jonathan Greenberg
Frank McCourt in his creative writing class in 1976.

On Thursdays we sang. We sang American and Irish folk songs and it didn't matter that my students were Chinese, Hispanic, African, Russian, Jewish, Korean — the usual New York City agglomeration. We sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "The Rocky Road to Dublin." Not once in 15 years would they ask, "Why are we singing all these songs in a writing class?"

In 1972, the head of the English department at Stuyvesant High School in Lower Manhattan asked if I'd take over three creative writing classes. I thought this might be a nice change after teaching "regular" English. My predecessor in creative writing was happy to return to literature, grammar, spelling, vocabulary. He said the literature textbooks were terrific — big, glossy things with pictures and charts and discussion questions galore so that you didn't have to trouble your own brain. Teacher guides and booklets bristled with tests: multiple-choice tests and fill-in-the-blanks tests and matching-column tests that would knock your socks off. All this put teachers way ahead of the kids, and my predecessor couldn't wait to hit them with the first test on "The Iliad."

He wondered if I knew what I was getting myself into. He had "had it up to here" with teenage drivel. "A hundred students writing 300 words apiece will write 30,000 words and that's what you'll be reading when you could be reading the best that has been thought and said — Matthew Arnold, man." English teachers in the cafeteria scribbled on paper napkins to show that I would spend more than 10 hours reading, correcting, evaluating, grading. There goes your weekend.

The head of the English department offered no syllabus. He said I should just go in there and do something about writing.

So how do you teach creative writing? When in doubt, tell a story. That's what I advised my students when they complained they had nothing to write about. I assured them that "Once upon a time" was good enough for the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault and even James Joyce. My students resisted. They were comfortable and middle class and everything was programmed and they were in this school because they were strong in science and mathematics. They would graduate from high school to the best universities and have no adventures because that's the way it was with their families. They had no stories to tell, and in their lives there was no once upon a time. They envied me my miserable Irish childhood and wished (almost) they could be poor so they'd have something to write about.

In any case, "creative writing" was a misnomer for what was happening in those classes. (I wanted to drop "Creative" from the course title but was told the one-word "Writing" simply wouldn't work.) There was writing, talking, scribbling, singing, oral readings, chanting, poetry, peer evaluations, silences, ring-a-ring o-roses a pocket full of posies around the room. There were projects: One class took "The Scarlet Letter" as a source for poetry, dance, a harp and flute composition, paintings, dramatic sketches, clay sculptures, mobiles. There were hot discussions when I suggested Hester Prynne was the most powerful and sexy woman in American literature, not only for what she did, that awful act that earned her an A on her bosom, but for what she thought. There were breakthrough moments. For Calvin, an African-American student, the floodgates opened when he was assured, "Yes, it's O.K. to use street language in your writing," and he gushed like a Kerouac till he discovered James Baldwin and the high passionate elegance that goes with such a discovery.

Creative writing was an elective course and, maybe, reputed to be easy. There were no huge $37 textbooks, no intimidating tests, "and this new teacher, you know, he has us singing every Thursday and reading every Friday." Students clamored to get into my overcrowded classes. I was told I was popular and that disturbed me. If there was such a demand for my classes it meant I gave out too many high grades. Perhaps, I thought, I should return to regular English, where there is a way of measuring and testing. But since I couldn't face the world of multiple choice and stern analysis, it was back to Creative Writing. Shoot from the hip. Leap in the dark.

How was I to know that for 15 years I'd be the creative writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School, that the classes would go from three to five, that I'd read millions of words of adolescent angst, romance, ecstasy, that often I'd envy my own students their talent, that I probably learned more from them than they from me. What I learned, most of all, was that if you're teaching and not learning then you're not teaching, and if you don't enjoy yourself in the classroom, you might as well be driving a taxi.

I told my writers they'd have to test their talent in the real world. By the end of the term they'd have to bring in either a rejection slip or a check from a publisher. And they did: Kate Milford's essay on sexual harassment in the subways landed on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Later, it was Susan Jane Gilman on the same page. Susan is still at it though Kate drifted away to become a photographer.

Singing led to poetry — no, not the usual high school situation where the teacher leads the class in drilling for the "deeper meaning." I had tried that and hit rocks. I discovered that if my students liked singing they might like chanting narrative poetry and if they liked chanting narrative poetry they might move on to "real" poetry — as long as it was musical and didn't require analysis. We chanted Robert Service's "Dangerous Dan McGrew," Vachel Lindsay's "Congo," parts of Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur" and Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill," and even though it was all enjoyable I wondered: What does this have to do with creative writing?

You can teach biology and origami and how to skin a rabbit but I don't think you can teach creative writing. You can hint and nudge and inspire and encourage. You can help aspiring writers in their search for their material, their style. It helps to read a variety of authors. We read Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hemingway and Faulkner, Chinua Achebe (a good man for once upon a time). My students thought they understood these writers, except for Faulkner. "When you enter a Faulkner sentence," I told them, "wave goodbye to friends and family. You won't be seeing them for a long time."

There were discoveries. There are three main avenues to a teenager's heart: sex, food, music.

You have to be careful with sex. Parents worry their offspring might be exposed to salacious literature. (I was denounced once for having a class read "Catcher in the Rye," though that was before the book received the imprimatur of Cliffs Notes — permission to study, teach, test and never read the book.)

Food. Every week we read Mimi Sheraton in The Times. Her restaurant reviews were stories with beginning, middle, end. There was structure, abundance of detail, humor and descriptions that had my students swooning with hunger. "Go now," I told them, "and do likewise. Do a Mimi Sheraton on lunch in the school cafeteria or dinner at home tonight."

They ransacked the English language for new ways of describing the school hot dog, the beans, the ice cream and, above all, the ambience. They commented on the service and found it wanting and when it came to the final evaluation only one student awarded the cafeteria a satisfactory rating, and he had recently arrived from Russia.

Reporting on family dinners was more challenging. No one wanted to hurt Mom's feelings, and since the students seemed reluctant I began to ask questions.

"Doug, what did you have for dinner last night?"

"I ah, I ah."

"Last night, Doug. Less than 24 hours ago."

It was chicken, always chicken. I'd ask where the chicken came from, who cooked it, who set the table, who served, who was at the table, what was discussed if anything, who cleaned up and, raising a laugh in the class, if anyone in the family had addressed Mom, the provider and cook, and told her what a delicious meal that was and, "Is there anything we can do to help, Mom?"

They wanted to know why I was asking such crazy questions. I told them to figure it out for themselves. The last thing a writer needs is answers — the end of thought and the dream. But I could have told them what they sensed already: they were beginning to notice what they had previously taken for granted, ritual or the lack of it, the dance of the family dinner.

Where are the dreams and fantasies of childhood? The heads of adolescents are clogged with media images and sounds. The teacher, then, is the Knight or Fair Maid of the Imagination and the battle lines are drawn. Pull the plug, cut off the juice, let the batteries die. Just sit there and dream.

And when in doubt, tell a story.

Frank McCourt, author of "Angela's Ashes" and "'Tis," is working on a novel about teaching.

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company