If you wish you could have gone to the ODU Literary Festival
on Monday night, you are in luck! Today, Jean
describes the event and urges us to think about creative
writing in secondary classrooms.
I just got back from seeing Madison Smartt Bell for the Literary Festival. I had not heard of Bell before, but because he was the writer in residence for the past week, I have seen him hanging around Borjo, the coffeeshop where I work. If you Google Bell, you can see some decent pictures of him:
But for the Literary Fest brochure, they chose this picture:
And I just thought he didn’t like our lattes!
Though I enjoyed the story that Bell read, he was definitely not the most scintillating reader I have ever heard, and I do not think he would be an author I would be excited to take my future students to hear.
Nevertheless, he certainly is accomplished. One of Bell’s novels was nominated for the 1995 National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner award. The short story that Bell read on Monday night, “Boy with a Coin,” showed off the literary richness that I assume is characteristic of all his writing. The story would be a wonderful example of detail, description, simile, metaphor, and flashback. Bell has taken a particular interest in Haiti. He wrote a trilogy of books about the Haitian Revolution, a biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, and “Boy With a Coin” was about the recent earthquake in Haiti.
Many of the questions from the audience on Monday night focused on his fascination with Haiti, his travels there, and whether a middle class white man has the authority to write about Haitian culture. Obviously Bell believes that he does, just as much as a Black man has the authority to write a biography of Benjamin Franklin (someone in the audience didn’t seem to agree, however).
I have been to many ODU Literary Festival events that I think my future students would benefit from. But to be completely honest, I don’t think this was one of them. Though he had some good things to say about telling the stories that no one else is telling, I found myself drifting in and out the whole time. He was not particularly upbeat or exciting. I mean, look at his picture again. It might not be the face that gets students thinking that poetry is 'cool' or 'fun.'
I wish he had gone into his writing process a little more. Sometimes students think that good writers are born good writers and can just sit down and create a book on their first try. I think they would be surprised at all the work, rejection, frustration, revision, and time that go into a novel, short story, or poem. Part of our job as composition teachers is to demystify the whole writing process for students, and I think hearing the struggles of real published authors could help with this endeavor. For example, Bell admitted that his trilogy took him 20 years to write!
Reflecting on this presentation also made me a little disheartened. How often do high school students get to practice creative writing? I personally don’t remember writing any fiction after about 6th grade. Even if a student were inspired by an author’s reading, would they ever get to practice the craft of short story in school? The main focus in our curriculum is on expository writing, because that is what students will need to know to graduate and succeed in the world.
But isn’t creativity just as important?
Do you think students get to practice creative writing enough?
Is it even important?
And how can we include it more often in our own classes?