Teacher to Teacher
Talking with ... S.L. (SANDI) WISENBERG
Interviewed by Magdalen Dale
I first met Sandi a year and a half ago when I took her Creative Nonfiction Workshop as part of the Master's in Creative Writing program at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies. Along with teaching writing workshops and co-directing the MCW program at Northwestern, Sandi teaches a seminar course on Teaching Creative Writing and oversees teaching internships at numerous locations throughout the city, including Young Chicago Authors and 826CHI. I was introduced to Bob Boone and his work through Sandi and therefore thought it would be fitting to interview her for this first installment of Talking with Teachers.
MD: I know that you have been influential to numerous creative writing students on their path to becoming creative writing teachers, myself included, and I was wondering if you could tell me about some of the people who were influential to you and what you learned from them.
SLW: My friend Peggy Shinner in my writing group at one point started asking, "What is this about?" and then that would be the first thing we would talk about, just neutrally, saying "This is about a father who can't deal with his daughter growing up" or "This is about loss." Starting this way would really make the discussion big and that was helpful. Otherwise you can just natter away at a piece and maybe not treat it as respectfully as you would other pieces of literature.
I know when I took your workshop during my first quarter at Northwestern, it was really helpful to hear people say what they thought my piece was about. Especially because if it seemed they already knew where I was trying to go with the piece I would pay more attention to their feedback.
It's also useful because the writer can go, "No! It's not about how the world is a terrible place; it's really about hope!" And then ask the group and herself, "What have I written that gave people that reaction?"
The other person who was influential was my editor at the Miami Herald, Doug Balz, who always stressed the importance of the first sentence or first couple sentences. He felt that you should have the seeds of the whole piece in the first sentence and that there should be some sort of conflict then that is dealt with as you write the piece. It's not a hard and fast rule; in some pieces maybe you're just alluding to something in the first sentence, but it helps your structure and it helps the reader feel confidence in you if they know from the beginning what the piece will be dealing with.
Do you have a favorite writing exercise or prompt that you use? What is it?
When I was teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, someone gave me a few pages of Joe Brainard's "I Remember." I wasn't sure who he was or where the piece came from. I think it may have even been typewritten. I Remember is the title of a book by Brainard, and each paragraph begins with those two words. This is how I use his work: First I have students choose a number from 1 to 137 and I read whatever is written on that page number of his book. Then they use Brainard as a model, writing their own sentences that begin "I remember..." I give them 10 to 15 minutes to do this.
Do you have them do "I remember..." on anything or narrow it to a topic?
I usually do a topic. Sometimes beforehand I'll say "Think about a place" and then we brainstorm places on the board -- it could be behind the bushes at your childhood house, it could be St. Mark's Square in Venice, it could be any kind of place that you're interested in -- and then you write "I remember..." sentences about the place. Or it could be a person. I use this exercise myself usually when I want to report on something and I don't want to do it. I'll start with "I remember..." just to start writing and I think it works because then you know what the first half of the sentence is going to be, so there is less to be anxious about. Also there is a cadence and you sort of get into the zone. You end up with great concrete specifics.
Has the way you teach been influenced by your students at all? How so?
One time I had students read "The Babysitter" by Robert Coover. The story was written in 1969 and is a good example of a fractured narrative. It has sexual fantasies and a recounting of events from a number of points of view. In discussion one student said, "Well this is sexist" and I just didn't know what to say. I don't remember how I responded then, but now I've learned that you don't always have to have an answer. You can just say, "Okay let's talk about it being sexist. It's sexist, but should we still read it? Or maybe you think we shouldn't read it. Should it not be in anthologies anymore? What can we decide about this?" So I've learned that you can diffuse it and not be defensive, because my tendency is to always be defensive and be like, "I chose it ‘cause it's really good" but that doesn't help, so I can say instead, "This is what I thought and I don't know if it's proper to teach this."
And lastly, where do you see, and/or would you like to see, creative writing teaching headed?
It's already headed towards more analysis, I think. Twenty years ago everything was looser, I think. In grad school our readings seemed sort of random and we didn't talk much about craft. Or at least I don't remember. When I was in school 1981 through 1983 at Iowa, we had workshops and then we had some literary class taught by the instructors and it was basically just so-and-so's favorite books, read and discuss. We did have to write a one-page analysis or reaction paper sometimes, but they were very personal, which was fine but I think it would have been more helpful if we had done more craft-based analysis. I remember hearing that the poets did much more with craft. I think that's a trend already -- that students are looking more at craft and asking why: What is this beginning about and how is the structure working? Also, I think in creative writing programs people are reading more in the workshops than they used to, 'cause we didn't read anything in our workshops. So that's where it's already going and also where I think it should go. I think in terms of creative nonfiction there is this huge gap between literary journalism and creative nonfiction. I try to include some literary journalism in my syllabi for my creative nonfiction classes, but a lot of times the people who are writing literary journalism have no idea what's going on in creative nonfiction and they wouldn't know what to do with more experimental stuff by John D'Agata and Ander Monson and Jenny Boully. They explore the line between poetry and prose, writing in fragments that are often cryptic. I don't know what to do with John D'Agata's work a lot of the time. I think that the creative nonfiction people know John D'Agata but don't know literary journalism people and vice versa. I think both groups would be well served to know more, and for courses to be taught in tandem.
It seems to me that all the genres overlap though, sort of in a Venn Diagram way, between creative nonfiction and fiction, and obviously poetry.
Yeah. But the way things are in schools, you have an MFA program in creative writing and then a whole separate school for journalism. And in most programs, students need to choose a genre or track.
Another thing that I find annoying is that there are very few anthologies that are multi-cultural, unless they say they are multi-cultural. If it's just like a normal creative nonfiction anthology the editors don't seem to care that much to make it more multi-cultural and I think that needs to change. What's really interesting is that University of Texas at El Paso has a bilingual MFA program, so there ought to be good stuff coming out from there. I see now that El Paso is offering an MFA online now. That's a trend too, but I don't like it. In a way, writing workshops are the U.S. equivalent of early 20th-century European café society, where writers (mostly male) would meet and discuss their work. I like the interaction with students in person. There are some great low-residency programs out there, and I know that low-residency is the only option for some people. At least in those programs, students spend time on campus, as a community, twice a year.
I'm not against the Internet. This interview will be on it, after all. I do read online, but I like books, too, with pages and covers. I started a blog last year and it will become a real live book next year. I'm grateful for that.
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