Creativity in a Classroom Fishbowl*
By Sheila Finch
I've been teaching in a California community college for more than 20 years and have a growing list of former students who became published writers to show for it. Although few students are likelyto be born writers, I've come to believe we can unlock the abilities of even the most hesitant. There is one approach to creating a story that works very well in this task, especially with beginners and I've used it for many years.
One semester, a group of dubious students asked if I constructed my own fiction according to this method that I expected them to trust. I hesitated to answer, because after three decades of writing and publishing, I've developed shortcuts. Whereupon, one young rebel issued the challenge, “Practice what you preach, Teach!”
In other words, write a story from start to finish in the fishbowl of the classroom. Credibility on the line, I accepted. What followed was both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
Beginning at the Beginning:
The first step in every class is for each student to find an idea to work with. I tell them it's no use waiting for the Muse to deliver the goods fully-assembled. We discuss where ideas come from–newspapers, dreams, other art forms, personal history, and so on–and we identify the heart of fiction: Conflict, inner, outer or both. Here I use Ray Bradbury's advice that writers do well to keep updated lists of personal likes and dislikes, the more specific the better. We practice putting together random lists of goals (likes) with problems (dislikes) to produce a statement of conflict: My character wants [fill in the gap] but is blocked by [fill in the gap].
Some of the results of this exercise are hilarious and achieve my aim of making them relax. Creativity is playfulness, something we understood instinctively when we were small. I ask a couple of questions of this sentence before we let it go: What would this story be about? What kind (genre) of story would it be? Even the silliest exercise can stir up the imagination. As soon as they draw a blank, we let it go.
Then we move on to writing this statement for their own, real stories. I tell them not worry, to act “as if,” secure in the knowledge they can modify the sentence over and over again as their sense of the story develops. Many beginners get hung up at this stage, afraid that if they don't get things perfect at the start, they won't be able to proceed.
I already knew–vaguely–what I wanted to write about for my part of the demonstration. The annual Long Beach Marathon runs past the bottom of the road where I used to live; I was fascinated by the wheelchair racers, especially one who lived nearby and exuded strength and sexiness even when he wasn't racing. He had constructed an athletic identity of some power, and I wondered what his life would be like if he couldn't race. I wrote my statement of conflict: My character, a wheelchair athlete, wants to enter the race, but discovers they have discontinued the category.
I explored this statement with the class. Why might there not be a wheelchair category in this future marathon? Perhaps the sport was no longer popular? That didn't seem likely; more and more people are surviving spinal injuries and participating in wheelchair sports. What if medical science came up with some marvelous prosthetics to let these patients walk again? I wasn't totally satisfied with that idea, and I allowed the class to witness my meditations and noodlings with it at the same time we were discussing their own story beginnings.
What we were doing was clarifying the central problem of a story, something as writers we often do unconsciously. Then, coincidentally, I found an article in Science News about Schwann cells and the prognosis for their use in spinal injury patients. That seemed more promising. It was the kind of “engine” I was looking for, an idea that will propel the narrative. I explained that later on, before the story actually got written, I'd have to do some research on stem cells, but not just yet.
Who Are These People?
When I later shared my character sketch with the class, I commented that this was one story I couldn't write in the first person point-of-view because I'd uncovered an extremely angry character who sprinkled his speech with four-letter words, and who might also turn out to be an unreliable narrator of his own story. “Are you saying you're personally offended, or are there are taboos in science fiction?” somebody asked. A useful question that led to a discussion of writing for yourself or writing for a market. Unless I chose to send the story to Penthouse, I explained, my choices were a) tone down the language–and lose the character, or b) choose a different point-of-view. That led in turn to a discussion of which p-o-v works best for which story, and how the writer decides. I made the decision to use third.
“Jeff” had revealed how much racing meant to him, how he'd been a lackluster student who never succeeded with women, what it felt like the first day in the wheelchair, his mother's stifling pity, and his dream of leaving a racing legacy when he retired, all good stuff which I could use. But he also told me he was a wounded Vietnam veteran, and as I began to work with the story, I realized the time frame for this wasn't possible. So I shared the problem with the students again. Just because this detail had come from the character's own mouth, so to speak, didn't mean I was stuck with it. He'd be too old still to be racing when stem cell research pays off. Some students seemed a little bemused by the fact that character details can be tinkered with. “But is that really creative?” one sceptic wondered. “You play God in your own story,” I said. My wheelchair racer had to suffer his paralyzing injury in a more mundane setting; I decided on a motorcycle accident.
Developing the Plot
By now, I knew the plot revolved around the effect of stem cell research on people with spinal cord injuries. But what had happened to those other racers who weren't racing anymore? If they'd all had stem cells implanted--and if over a period of a couple of years, say, they'd all stopped racing--then why didn't Jeff know about it when he came to register? I toyed with having him in France, out of touch with the state of American medical research, having a good time with French starlets. That overlooked the ubiquity of CNN. What if the procedure was new, untried, offered to Jeff for the first time? Characters can't just be doing the same old thing others have already done if the story is to be interesting to the reader. The class agreed; Jeff needed to be a pioneer–or even better, a guinea pig.
At that point I had the insight that finally made the story come alive for me. Jeff's character sketch had revealed the great thrill he got from racing, and the chance it gave him to be noticed by beautiful women. In my head, I heard the orthopedic specialist who wanted to do the experiment say, “You could be just the way you were before the accident,” and Jeff replied, “A straight-C bozo! Great. Fucking great!” Working through this stage in public was an eye-opener; my writing processes have long since become unconscious, but this time I had to share them as I went along, missteps, dead-ends and all. When I revealed my own hesitations and false starts, then noted what worked and what didn't in the students' synopses, they were much more likely to accept my comments.
Getting the Details Right
I contacted an orthopedic surgeon to find out. That introduced a class discussion of research sources, useful books for the writer's shelf, and how to approach experts you don't know personally, something that we writers of science fiction frequently have to do but which is a mysterious undertaking to most beginners. I made plans to run a draft past a couple of my former students who were wheelchair users themselves to make sure I got the feel of it right.
Weaving the Story
I felt that the race passages should be in a different tense (present)
and a different p-o-v, not the close third, sometimes slangy language
I was using to follow Jeff but something more distant and lyrical:
And finally, as they settled down to produce their stories, I shared with them that once I start writing, I never look back at the plot I've so carefully worked out. (Indeed, a number of things changed between plot and finished story in this one, including the title which had started out as “The Last Wheelchair Racer.”) As my skeptical student commented, “You're finally getting creative, huh?”
It was a risk, writing under pressure in full view of my students. I often start stories that I can't immediately finish; my desk drawer contains several right now. For me personally, it's no big deal. But if I couldn't follow my own prescription and produce the finished story as promised, it would've been discouraging for the class. Yet athletes and artists demonstrate their skills for students, why not writers? I can't say the pressure was bad for the writing process; the story turned out successfully. (“Miles to Go” appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, June '02.)
What it proved to me was that the stripped-down version of writing fiction that I'd been teaching actually did work. I can't say that many of the stories that resulted that semester were immediately publishable, but I'm willing to bet they were several times better than most of the stuff that turns up in the average slush pile.
So, do you need a degree in teaching to lead a class in writing fiction? My experience says not. I'm happy to teach sound storytelling technique–and leave talent and style to the individual writer to develop. If nothing else, I find it richly satisfying to coax hesitant beginners through the writing process from start to finish.
And it puts bread on the table while you're waiting for that big check that's “in the mail.”
*a version of this article was published in SFWA Bulletin, Spring 2003