Javier Sagarna: Reading in creative writing teaching

In his intervention during our Pedagogical Conference in Paris, our EACWP president and director of Escuela de Escritores reinforced the need to integrate  reading as an essential tool for teaching processes but also as a meaningful experience for students in the way of shaping their own sensitivity. «Train writers, yes, but also train readers, with an ability for critical reading and personal analysis»

 javier

 

Reading in creative writing teaching

Javier Sagarna

For many years, the teaching in Escuela de Escritores, the same as in the rest of the creative writing schools in Spain, was focused on writing exercises that would be commented and corrected in class sessions. In every class, a technique or literary strategy was studied and a proposal for writing was made to the students, who had to write it at home during the week. In the next class, the texts would be commented by the group and the teacher. Of course, most of the theoretical explanations were supported by examples taken from literary texts, extracted mostly from great literary books, and, in every moment, reading in general and some specific books were strongly recommended. Nevertheless, reading was not considered a part of the learning process itself, but as a complement, something undoubtedly useful for students, but that they had to manage by themselves, in case with some guide and advice from the school.

Five years ago, in Escuela de Escritores, we decided to make a change. We reached the conclusion that, from a pedagogical point of view, it was absolutely essential to make reading a basic tool in our teaching processes. It was not as much to follow this old topical statement that says that you cannot be a writer if you have not read a lot, but to define a double objective for our learning process: train writers, yes, but also train readers, with an ability for critical reading and personal analysis, capable to make reading a pleasant and meaningful experience.

Maybe, in other countries with educational systems designed to do this job at school or university, a focus like this would not be necessary, but in the Spanish environment it looked essential to implement a learning process oriented not only  to making writers who read, but also writers who know how to use this reading to grow as writers.

To start up this process, we defined some basic ideas:

  • Make the students get in contact with literature, not only with books. Show them to make the difference between literature and products in the shape of a book.
  • Use the experience and variety of focus and literary preferences of our teachers, encouraging them to guide their students to the texts that they better know and they like the most, as a way to enrich the reading experience of the students. Contradictions, if they rise up, would make the students take position and build their own personal opinion.
  • Even if showing the most relevant techniques and literary strategies in each book is, undoubtedly, one of the objectives, it is also very important to develop the artistic sensibility of students. Do not give them a way to read the text, but guide them to find their own reading. Anyway, texts must be analyzed from a practical point of view.
  • Discussion of texts must be in group and must be done in class. Teachers can give students some tools for reflexion, as reading guides, list of questions, etc., if they feel it necessary.

Once this starting point established, teachers of all courses and levels were asked to modify their classes. The role of the teachers was to:

  • Define a list of readings appropriate for the level and contents of each course. Teachers are free to select the books they prefer, but students have to read not less than a book per month and not more than one each fifteen days (in some groups it was admitted to read just short stories, that were analyzed in depth).
  • Define the learning objectives for each book. It is not intended to make students read the best ten books in the history of literature, but to read ten good books, literature, useful to show techniques and strategies and how they work in «real»  texts, and help them to improve their writing as well as their artistic sensibility.
  • Save time in their classes for the comment and discussion of the readings. Not less than half an hour in classroom courses. In on line course it was established to make a one hour long chat for each reading.
  • Define and prepare, if needed, the reflexion tools they feel necessary for each case: reading guides, questions to answer, articles about each book, etc.

An example of a list of readings, could be the following:

October – December

  • 84 Charing Cross Road, Helene Hanff.
  • La señora del perrito y otros cuentos, Anton Chejov.
  • El vacío y el centro, Ángel Zapata.
  • King Lear, William Shakespeare.
  • La colmena, Camilo José Cela.

January – March

  • El gran cuaderno, Agota Kristoff.
  • Cazadores en la nieve, Tobias Wolff.
  • 1280 almas, Jim Thompson.
  • Un fragmento de vida, Arthur Machen.
  • Bestiario, Julio Cortázar
  • La Odisea, Homero.

April – June

  • El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, Gabriel García Márquez.
  • Pájaros de América, Lorrie Moore.
  • El espejo del mar, Joseph Conrad.
  • El porqué de las cosas, Quim Monzó.
  • El barón rampante, Italo Calvino.
  • Música para camaleones, Truman Capote.
  • Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.

In the same way, programmes as our Master in Narrative (a two year and 576 hours of classes programme, that meets the Bolonia’s process requirements) were already designed including an important part of readings and textual analysis. It is important to notice that the idea was not to substitute the habitual dynamics of the writing workshop (that we still think are the best way to train people for writing), but to complement and enrich them with this new tool.

After five years, we can say that this procedure has been a complete success. We can underline the following achievements:

  • Most students follow the reading programme. Even students that have a lower commitment with writing, follow enthusiastically the reading proposals and share their opinions with the group.
  • Students discover new authors and the pleasure of reading literature instead of commercial products.
  • A better understanding of the utility and power of a wide range of techniques and literary strategies.
  • An improvement of the perception and analytical capacities, that, little by little, is being reflected in the capacity of students to analyze the goals and defects of their own texts.
  • A measurable improvement in the students’ writing.
  • An improvement in the students ‘artistic sensibility.
  • An increase of the individuality and originality, as they receive very different influences in a short time.
  • As a side effect, an improvement of the abilities of the teachers, that had also grown in this process.

As a conclusion, we consider that including reading as an essential part of ourteaching plan and of our leaning procedures has been a very positive decision and, without substituting the traditional work in the writing workshops, has brought a very necessary complement. Combining reading and writing, with theoretical units and exercises focused to stimulate the creative abilities of the students and to practice techniques and literary strategies, the learning experience becomes richer and more complete.

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