The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘MFA workshop

The beginning of the year has been a whirlwind, in a good way. I was invited to lead a craft workshop for the students attending Carlow University’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, taking place in early Jan, in Pittsburgh, PA.

I was very excited, honored and nervous. I am an educator by training and routinely teach undergraduate and graduate students in my areas of my research expertise (e.g. women’s and gender studies, sociology, and political science). Although I have given craft talks, I have never designed and solely led a workshop for MFA students. Even though I have taught writing workshops alone and with others, I have never taught in an actual MFA program.

I received the invitation in September. Once I accepted, an annoying inner critic voice popped up and said, “Who does she think she is to teach MFA students, especially when she doesn’t have an MFA?”

I had to repeatedly say to myself, “This is not about your ego or degrees. You are here to serve the students and offer up what you think will be useful to them.” One of the reasons why I was invited was because they have had students express an interest in writing speculative fiction. The administrators gave me complete freedom to design the workshop in any way that I wished.

Once I reminded myself that I had something unique to offer and that it was OK not to be perfect on the first round, I totally got into designing the workshop.

The MFA students sign up for the classes they want to take about a month before, so I sent some preliminary questions about their goals, challenges, interests, etc. I used their answers to guide me as I developed the workshop.

I taught about speculative fiction and my path as a winding path as a writer (i.e. why I went to get a PhD in political science instead of an MFA). I integrated mindfulness and contemplative practices as resources for sustaining their writing. I also had them generate lots of material through prompts and free writing. We looked at some ways that writers can play with premise, setting and character as part of speculative work. I drew on a wide variety of authors and my own work as demonstrations of particular approaches.

Boy, does two and half hours fly by!

The students were amazing and generous to me and each other.

I so enjoyed watching students dive deep in the exercises and claim some of their buried interests, including horror and dark fiction.

The fantastic MFA students I worked with at Carlow.

I absolutely loved teaching the workshop.

I’m glad I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. I’m also glad that without acting like a know-it-all, I could share with them some lessons I’ve learned as well as hear what their writing lives are like. As in all adult learning communities, you know some things and they know some things. Learning happens in the middle.

The only thing I would do differently would be to send some of the short readings ahead of time, so we would have more time for in class writing and reading our work.

I was honored to read alongside Patrice Gobo (center) and Lynn Emmanuel. We read poetry, memoir and fiction and our selections all complimented each other.

The faculty and staff were welcoming and it was a joy to be with them. I loved reading with the other faculty, too.

Creatives, don’t we just light up when we are with other creatives?

Below are two of the exercises that I used as warm-up material. I absolutely adore Dena Metzer’s Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey (a more spiritual approach to creativity, but some of the deepest writing advice I’ve ever seen and great prompts throughout the book)

The Dream Police

We are what matters to us. Our identity materializes through images, memories, events and through things.

Suddenly there is a knock on your door. A trusted friend enters to warm you that the Dream Police will arrive in twenty minutes. Everything, everything in your life that you have not written down will evaporate upon their arrival. You have a short time—twenty minutes-to preserve what is most previous in your life, what has formed you, what sustains you. Whatever you forget, whatever you have no time to record, will disappear. Everything you want must be acknowledged in its particularity. Everything to be saved, must be named. Not trees, but oak. Not people, but Alicia. As in reality, what has no name, no specificity, vanishes.

*set the timer for 20 minutes and GO. This is great prompt to help us dig deep and go from the abstract to the concrete. Every time I do this exercise, my list looks different.

The Dream Police #2 (also from Writing for Your Life)

Imagine you are an anthropologist who has unearthed this list of “possessions” that once belonged to some unknown person. Write a brief portrait of fleshing that person out, speculating on his or her character and life.

-The anthropologist writes about this subject in the 3rd person, (i.e. he, she, they)

My addition: circle 3-5 items, images, memories from this list that interest you. How might you approach what you have created as the basis for a new character? What kind of trouble or setting might be interesting to explore with this character sketch?

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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