A "threshold concept" in Creative Writing is the ability to experience and then write with concretes and specfics about that experience. Once this threshold is crossed for a student, then it is difficult to revert to the old way of seeing/learning/writing. Often, in a classroom, when I say be specific (or show, don't tell), the student adds more adverbs or adjectives or writes more colors or just thesaurus-digs for new words for colors. How can students better learn this concept is an important and on-going question for me? One way to address this learning issue in the Creative Writing class (and perhaps in other classes as well) is to look at issues of the familiar and unfamiliar, especially in terms of travel.
UW-River Falls has a multitude of travel programs and a large percentage of my creative writing students want to study "abroad"or are returning from these programs and I have been working to develop a Travel Writing course as an umbrella course for the many programs. As I pursued this idea and after some productive discussion at our week-long Teaching Fellow Seminar, I thought by looking at one aspect of student learning, then I could further enhance my own understanding of student learning, travel, and creative writing. As a larger issue in the back of my mind, I also see a connection to another course I want to develop as the student-soldier returns to our campuses, in helping these students learn to write this war.
Evidence of Student Learning & Methods of Analysis
I began my project with the idea of asking students to complete a photograph exercise I have them do before travel (going to an unfamiliar place) and post travel, doing the same exercise. I used this exercies this spring but for the year-long study, I narrowed my examination to one student (who has given her permission for me to include her writing). Laura Houlton and I worked on an independent study for both semesters that investigates many of the learning issues regarding travel and the ability to write specifically about that experience.
Ostrom, Hans, Wendy Bishop and Katharine Haake. Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively. New York: Addison-Wesley, 2001.
Metro is the text we use in my Writing Workshop. I was one of the readers for this text as it developed, and unlike many other "creative writing" texts, this one is not divided by genre. Rather it works in helping students write "creatively," developing skills and techniques that can be applied to working in any genre.
The following is from a specific exercise in the text:
When we think of adventure, quest, exploration, or pioneering, we tend to think of people going into unknown or unfamiliar territory; this habit of mind may be especially common to Americans (and perhaps many peoples in the Western Hemisphere), whose cultural mythologies are so wrapped up in people crossing oceans, in westward migration, conquering or taming so-called wild places, and started so-called new lives. Ironically, however, when familiar surroundings become ultra familiar they become unknown again--because we think we know everything about them because habitual responses require less energy from us, and because there is no apparent urgency to be alert, as there is--for example--when we arrive at a place new to us. . . This exercise addresses the writer's work of rediscovery.
Select a place or a routine or a routine in a place; what you select should be so familiar that is has come full circle to become, in its 'invisibility" a frontier. . . . Then select a time when you are able to treat the familiar as a frontier--to look deliberately at it as if you were looking at it for the very first time. What do you notice that, because of familiarity and routine responses, you had ceased to notice? Become aware of as much of the "scene" as you can. Reacquaint yourself. Figuratively and literally, look in odd corners. Make the peripheral central to your observation. Take extensive notes, probably with no thought yes as to where these recorded observations will take you. (57-58)
My methodology so far: For the last year or so, I have been working with a student, Laura Houlton, on developing her portfolio of nonfiction essays. She is particularly interested in travel writing so we corresponded last semester while she experienced the International Traveling Classroom. Now that she has returned, we are working on an independent study together in Travel Writing. Laura has given her permission to use the following exercepts from a paper she developed in respose to the exercies:
Excerpts from Laura Houlton's Essay "Lost and Found"
Laura is a Senior Creative Writng Major at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls
The picture reveals a long row of pine trees tracing a thin line across the center of the glossy print. A thin strip of grey water underneath the tree line reflects a wispy haze of pines off the smooth liquid surface. A thick border of fluffy grey clouds along the top, reflect the same charcoal hue from the water at the bottom. I flip the photo upside down and see a similar line of lush green reflected on murky grey. Again and again, I turn the glossy card and stare. Which side is up I wonder?
Revision: To see again. To visit again.
But still I sit with a ballpoint pen in hand, dissecting and judging my thoughts. I am navigating with external controls as I try to force the story into being. The pressure weighs on me as the due date looms near. Will this ever fall into place? Will I ever find the real story? Only when I recognize its limitations. My story is only the retelling of an experience not the actual experience itself. And again I expect an image to be the reality. How do I bring the reader to the Boundary Waters with me? How can my carefully planned string of words ever bring those five days to life?
I must visit the Boundary Waters again to sort out the perception from reality. So I pull out the black and white map and spot the familiar dot on Lake Two. Our campsite was not an island at all but a mass of land interlocked by a series of lakes and ponds. Had I stayed on the first lake that night I might still be in the Boundary Waters today. But the reality is that I didn't need any external guides to bring me home. My map, compass, experience, and friends, did nothing to bring me back. Sarah and Leanne were enjoying a leisurely evening roasting s'mores while I raced frantically through the woods. They were oblivious and had only begun searching before discovering me yards from our campsite. I was never rescued at all. Maybe the deeper truth is that I don't need rescuing. Only when I let go of the control can I see that I am not lost at all. In fact I never left home. I bring it with me.
So I set my pen down and pick up the picture again. It is the exact spot where I lost myself. Tilting the photo upside down I am on that lonely shoreline once more. The old fear returns as wispy clouds hang upside down and the trees lean inward. But now I know I am onlyseeing an image. I must let go. I pause for a moment with fingers clenching the glossy card. And finally the photo drifts to the floor, as I place a large black dot at the end of my final sentence.
By Laura Houlton
In teaching my Creative Writing classes, I view us all (professor and students) as writers seeking to honor and to improve our craft, so when this project began as our coordinators stressed the distinction between a "teaching question" and a "learning question," I strugged to see the difference, particularly in a student-centered classroom, especially in the creative writing classroom. I suppose I have always focused on student learning, considering myself as a teacher who is also learner. But I persisted.
I wanted to investigate some core principles in student learning and writing, travel, and the ability to write specifically. I intend to pursue some course development in Travel Writing and Creative Writing for the Student-Soldier. As I narrowed my study, I decided (and was advised) to narrow my focus and use this study as a beginning point.
Some ideas behind my study:
Rolf Potts, the new "travel-writer-to-admire claiims: "The one thing I really want to do is capture the dynamic of travel and the changing world. And I want to keep writing about what travel can teach you as a human being."
Annotated List of Helpful Resources & References
Ongoing and in the order of discovery:
Bures, Frank, "The World Over." Poets and Writers Nov/Dec 2008: 62-68.
Potts, Rolf. Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a
Postmodern Travel Writer. Palo Alto:Traveler's Tales, 2008.
Espey, David. Writing the Journey: Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel. Longman: 2004.
Chatwin, Bruce. What Am I Doing Here? New York: Penguin, 1989.
Chatwin, Bruce. On the Black Hill. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Bissell, Tom. Chasing the Sea:Lost Among the Ghosts ot Empire in Central Asia. New York: Vintage, 2003.
Bissell, Tom. The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam. New York: Vintage, 2007
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essay on Fiction. St. Paul: Graywolf, 1997. This book became the backbone of my poster idea from his chapter "On DeFamiliarization." I would suggest this book to all teachers/students of creative writing, no matter the genre. He burns down the house!
The Fourth Genre, Eds. Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, New York: Longman (and any edition is wonderful. This is the best book I've found for teaching nonfiction. The literary journal, Fourth Genre out of Michigan State also publishes the finest contemporary literary nonfiction in the country right now, I think.
New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing: http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/default.htm and especially http://www.multilingual-matters.net/nw/001/0015/nw0010015.pdf I found so many helpful articles in this journal, pulbished out of the UK.
Metro: Journeys in Writing Creatively, Eds. Hans Ostrom and Wendy Bishop. New York: Longman, 2001.
Any books by Wendy Bishop ( Released into Language, Acts of Revison, etc.)
Preliminary Results, Findings, Conclusions, & Implications
The Avalance Metaphor--As more and more students have discovered the Independent Study that I've been conducting with Laura, I have had a flood/avalanche of students wanting to do similar studies with me--both pre and post travel. Students want to write about Wisconsin in Scotland, about the International Traveling Classroom, about the many TESOL programs offered in our own English Department (trips to Twaiwan, to Crimea, and so on). But most importantly, as Laura has workshopped publically the work we've been doing together, students are growing to recognize the value of "defamiliarizing the familiar" of travel writing close to home.
This study has reinforced the need for a centralized "Travel Writing" class at UW-River Falls. As students journey into far-flung places (or not so far-flung), the desire to capture these experiences is growning. One student wants to do an independent study while he is in Scotland. Other travel abroad programs would have to be conducted after the trip due to limited and expensive net time.
Students are desperatre to capture these experiences, perhaps even publish these experience, but more importantly, they want to write to discover what it has all meant to them, to remember, and to record. Recently a student wrote about watching an eclipse from Arthur's Seat--as she has decided to turn all her work in the Writing Seminar into travel writing--and she made some fascinating discoveries about who she is and what she discovered through the writing process.
Career Relevance & Impact
Certainly the strongest part of this process has been working with other professors in the system. Also this project has given me the opportunity to crystallize some of my ideas about the development of two new classes--Travel Writing and Writing for the Student Soldier.
The weakest part of this project, honestly, is working in the snapshot format. It is awkward and for those of us with failing and tired eyesight, working in the editing boxes is almost blinding; the text shows up poorly in the edit boxes, although it looks good on the final snapshot. I just found it more usefull to keep up with my work in a narrative form.
Also, while I appreciate the opportunity to bring more of the humanities into these projects, SoTL needs to do more work with this. I suggest taking a look at the LEAP initiative being embraced across the system. Perhaps OPID should devote more time to this idea--how to bring back the return of the liberal arts into the system, , particularly since the business model hasn't worked well at all--either in the university or in the business world. And that is my two cents. I will certainly be adding more as I watch the the outcome of my studies grow.
I have also found to my absolute delight that doing this project has made me write and write with a vengance. Being a student again for this year has made me a better writer, although due to the snapshot format, it may not appear so!
I have appreciated the chance to be a student again. Thank you for this. And to that end, I am including a travel poem of my own:
Copper Harbor's Telegraph
Sleet ticks against my window--heaven's broken metronome
shattered into bits of glass,
no longer keeping time divinely
but salting us with our own indifference.
Things are out of tune; colonies of bees losing
their way home, pine trees stunted brown
and the shattering sleet of the metronome
telegraphs a message dit-dot-slap-dash--
ten per cent of earth's fresh water just feet from my head,
spreading up and to Canada--
and people want to buy her up to grow
Kentucky Bluegrass in Arizona--slap-dash-dit-dot--
the broken bits of heaven's metronome
are tapping out prayers with water from receding glaciers,
tapping out songs of sorrow in little numbers that all add up
and when the wind howls percussion through the pines
I imagine the way to save beauty is to see beauty--connecting
connecting--connecting but the metronome of heaven
is breaking against my window
while we hold cell phones to our ears,
press faces against screens,
ichat, you chat, me chat, let me friend you, those connecting bytes
talking over the sound of that metronome shattering
while we are not connecting at all--
not enough bars--
but enough chatting friends feeding landfills
as we toss away technology so we can buy "green"
chewing mercury bits of energy-saving lightbulbs
while outside the metronome of heaven is shattering,
breaking, sleet tick, ticking against my window,
its rhythm lost in our disbelief, our own tick, ticking
fooling ourselves into thinking that we know what time