Nurturing the spark (or not)

lightbulb with ideas

I only ever took one creative writing elective in university. The course was supposed to be taught by one professor, a respected author and editor, but she had to pull out, so we got a new guy instead. This professor wasn’t great. Hell, he wasn’t even very good. I couldn’t tell you a single thing he actually taught us. I haven’t retained any lessons learned or insights garnered from that course.

I do remember the assignments, or at least two of them, and his reaction to them.

The first assignment that I remember was one where he wanted us to write a short story involving a child.

My story took place inside the mind of a young boy as he lay in bed after attending his grandmother’s funeral. The whole story occurred within a few seconds, as a sound outside triggered a recurring nightmare of his, but given his experience that day with the funeral, he reacted to the dream, woke up and took control of his fear. The story was probably 1200 words long.

The professor didn’t like it, because it was ‘too autobiographical.’ As I understand it, I did such a good job of representing the kid’s thoughts that the prof assumed I was writing from my life experience (I wasn’t). I got a B- and got angry.

The second assignment was to write a humorous story. I don’t remember any more of a prompt than that.

My story was about a couple of horny students parked on a country road trying to get it on but continually being interrupted by a couple of drunk aliens (the ‘from space’ kind). At the end of the story, the aliens flew away, singing two lines from “The Future’s So Bright” by Timbuk3.

The prof loved it and read it out loud to the class, until he got to the end, when the whole class started singing along with the song. The prof thought I’d written those lyrics too. He was angry. My grade went from an A to a C.

I think I dropped the course after that. I’m sure I didn’t complete the course. I’d already started my journalism career by that point, editing the student paper, so I just set creative writing aside for something that looked more like a career.

+ + +

I recently taught a creative writing class (12 hours over three days) to a small group of children (10-12 years old). While I’m not new to teaching (almost 15 years’ experience) I am new to teaching and nurturing creativity.

It was a challenge. To begin with, the kids came into the class with all sorts of different expectations and motivations. At least one didn’t even want to be there, but was sent by his parents. Others came with short stories (or the beginnings of novels).

And that professor was on my mind a lot. He’d hurt me. He hadn’t believed me when we’d discussed my inspiration for the first story (basically calling me a liar and substituting his own version of the truth for mine).

So I did my best to guide and nurture. I showed techniques and got the students to practice them. We tried outlining and we tried spontaneous story-telling. And if anyone pushed against anything I said, I decided how important it was for a 10 year old to understand and if maybe just letting it slide was the better approach.

By the end, their stories ranged from 400 word scribbles about nazi dinosaurs that ignored most of the world-building we’d discussed to a 1200 start of a story about girls who disappear into trees (individual trees, not forests) and can’t find their way home.

I hope I showed them that writing can be fun and liberating. Feedback from the parents was very positive and a couple of the kids have sought me out later to ask questions, so I’m happy. I think I did a much better job than my old professor in nurturing the spark, may he suffer writer’s block for eternity.