I give exams in all my creative writing classes. I think it’s a great practice.
This semester, I assigned a substantial mid-term in my fiction workshop, meant to serve as a marker and point of reflection between the first half / two-thirds of the course, and the final round of workshops with which we concluded the course.
I like to set exams because I believe the central student problem in a writing class is one of knowledge.
Students just don’t know how to write the thing they are aspiring to write, whether that be a generic academic essay or a gripping short story.
The teacher’s job is first to explain to them how to do the thing they want to do, to break that “thing” down into a few key skills — skills that are simple enough to be quickly described, but significant enough to make a difference and be relevant to a lot of stories. Then the teacher has to design a sequence of lessons, of assignments and exercises and reviews, so that the students can begin to own those techniques.
I’ve argued this in relation to essays in Comp classes, but I believe it even more strongly as it relates to writing fiction. The goal is impart knowledge, but knowledge of a particular kind, one that is held both in the head and in the fingers, a concrete, fleshy sort of understanding.
A few years ago, I wrote this:
Before we can teach our students how to produce “unique” stories, we first have to teach them how to make this communication happen, how to get the magic started.
Students do not write dull stories because of inhibition, or lack of creativity (at least not always). Students produce dull work because they attempt to write a conventional story, the kind that has hooked audiences for millennia, without knowing how. They can’t pull off a classic story because writing a good one—like nearly everything worth doing in life—is so much harder than it seems.
In other words: most of the trouble aspiring writers have comes not because they lack imagination or discipline or subtlety or whatever. A bit more of those attributes would be nice, obviously, but the central issue is that their brains do not yet know how to write the thing they want to write. Therefore the course’s goal is to show them a whole series of tools, and to help them develop those tools for their own use.
This semester, I perhaps tried to do too much. The class was a general introduction to fiction, and because my students asked to try out a range of forms — short stories, experiments, the beginnings of novels — we worked through a mix of readings, workshop rounds, and craft sessions. The craft sessions began at the smallest level, that of the sentence, and then worked up to questions of point of view, plot, and story development.
My goal, perhaps achieved only in part, was to return to and repeat every technique I taught, to help students re-see that craft tool over and over as the course progressed. The mid-term, then, was meant as the penultimate reminder, so that when we got to their workshops at the end of the term, I could say, “Look at this sentence. See how EXAMPLE TECHNIQUE would be helpful here.”
Here’s the exam. All of the terms below were discussed in previous classes; nothing should have been new to the students. If any of the ideas below sound interesting, I can expand on them in another post.
One. Write a sequel: Tully Mills is a campaign worker for the Bernie Sanders campaign in Michigan during the 2016 Democratic primary. In the first scene of the story, at a conference call in the small, bare office set up for the campaign, she is overjoyed that her team is at the top of the region’s fundraising efforts. She pictures future success, the admiration of cool political types. She is so proud of herself. The call ends, and her co-volunteer and college friend Baxter confesses, to Tully alone, that he artificially inflated the donations. He went out to the bank and withdrew four thousand dollars and pretended they came from small personal donations. Tully is aghast: this is almost certainly illegal and it will ruin her reputation. And she doesn’t know if her snide, cold superior in Ann Arbor, whom she has a hopeless crush on, will believe it was Baxter working alone. She doesn’t know what to do.
Write a “sequel” to this “scene” in which Tully weighs up this shocking news, reviews what it means for her dreams of political success, and forms some kind of initial plan of action, some goal for the scene that comes next in the story.
Two. Imagine that narration has colours. Narration describing the physical world is black; narration describing the character’s emotions and reactions is red; narration describing the story as a whole is blue. Identify the “red” and “blue” parts of the narration: underline the red, and circle the blue. Leave the black parts alone.
That night, he gave up jujitsu for good, never returning for another lesson. It was 9pm when it began: he and his friends were walking down the central street of Leamington Spa when four local boys began to follow them, yell at them, shoving them from behind. The night was dark and damp and the street lights were out. He felt afraid, helpless. He and his friends kept walking, not looking the other boys in the face. They kept their heads down and marched as quickly as they could. He thought if he walked quickly enough, he could get to the brightly lit part of the street, up on the hill, before the bullies tried to really hurt one of them. None of his weekly jujitsu lessons, he suddenly, understood, meant anything at all. He felt ashamed, panicked. He had no idea how to defend himself.
Three. The technique “every sentence is a question” proposes that cohesive, smooth prose operates by posing and answering a series of questions for the reader. Each sentence poses a question, an implied question, which the next sentence answers. That following sentence, however, poses a new question of its own, which generates a new sentence to provide an answer.
The first sentence is “I was afraid of meeting my cousin, especially now that I was single again.” Write four more sentences developing this paragraph.