Lisa Levine, "Between Gift and Grit," April 3, 2018

          Many writing teachers light up workshop discussions with big, beautiful personas. Yet the persistence of a discussion-based model means that an inspiring persona may supplant pedagogy, the practice of teaching and learning, in workshop. In a 2012 graduate student assistant meeting at the University of Arizona, the essayist Daisy Pitkin told colleagues, “I run my classroom like a revolution.” To make practical meaning of her quip, creative writing teachers have to create and implement differentiated activities alongside, or within, workshops so that teaching comes from a multi-modal approach. Workshop, being discussion-based, preferences extroverts and well-trained introverts—students who come to class ready to speak, interact, and engage. Not all do, so the following three exercises intend to upend workshop dynamics and shuffle classroom roles. Each acknowledges that powerful cognition will always redefine the room’s center.

          "Imp" is my adaptation of a racially suspect John Gardner prompt [1]. In the version my fiction workshop played, each person in the classroom wrote one sentence from a yarn (or a tale, for younger groups). Their sentences shared an agreed-upon speaker and point of view, and I assigned parts of a story (beginning, middle, end) to groups of students for coherence. After writing, each student read their sentence out loud. Two students recorded all the sentences as a single unit of prose, like a long paragraph, and a third refereed the sentences for errors that interfered with readability–transitions and personal pronouns, for example. In a second session, each student individually revised the collaborative prose by changing words and moving

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    ARABIC    1       Flute Guy Imp story by Intermediate Fiction students at the University of Arizona, 2018

Figure 1 Flute Guy Imp story by Intermediate Fiction students at the University of Arizona, 2018

sentences–30 words and 2 sentences worked well, though the amounts will vary depending on group size.

          The second exercise risks producing derivative writing, so I call it "The Derivative" [2]. More revision-oriented than generative, it draws formal attention to the sentence. Its steps are as follows: Select a passage from a story you are reading, or a novel, in which you admire the style and syntax. After reading, have students rewrite the passage by changing all nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as pronouns or prepositions when appropriate. Leave as written word order, conjunctions and articles. The exercise can be tailored to draw attention to any part or parts of speech you choose. The derivative may also be played with students’ work.

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   2       Sample from Eric Aldrich

Figure 2 Sample from Eric Aldrich

          "Knock" [3] pleases every age and writer I have introduced it to, although beginners may get hung up on the logistics. For knock, divide the class into groups of four. Have each person mark off ten lines of notebook paper, and make ten slash marks (/) at random intervals, at least a word’s length apart. Start writing. As each person arrives at a slash mark, they knock the table and a group member supplies a word—one they’re writing, or any word. The writer who knocked writes that word immediately after the slash, or knock mark. It’s fine to alter the word by, for example,

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    ARABIC    3       Knock with the author and Jamison Crabtree at Seven Cups, Tucson, Arizona, 2017

Figure 3 Knock with the author and Jamison Crabtree at Seven Cups, Tucson, Arizona, 2017

adding a suffix or an article to fit the word into an existing line. If two people say words at the same time, writer’s choice. The game continues until all ten lines are complete.

          All of these activities can be modified. Knock can open up to larger groups; Imp revisions can change any number of words, and so on. Tailoring exercises to a particular class is expected. Creative writing teachers reliant on a workshop-centered structure might use any of these as an anticipatory set or closure exercise, or to rupture an unproductive silence. Using them will force students and teachers to reorganize their assumptions about how the workshop space constructs itself, and about what it is meant to produce. Because the teaching of creative writing carries inherent flaws, among them the real boundary of talent—possible to nurture, but not teach by explicit means—tiptoeing along the border between gift and grit with differentiated activities may be a key to unlocking ability.

Work Cited
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. Vintage Books: 1983.

[1] His reads: “Write, by oral cooperation, the first paragraph (a description of the yarn-spinner told in the voice of the poor, dumb credulous narrator) of a comic yarn. Consider using not the traditional yarn-spinner (a backwater Southerner or New Englander) but some interesting variant: a canny old woman, a black, or a first-generation Chinese-American” (Gardner 197).

[2] Eric Aldrich, Lead Faculty at Pima Community College Downtown, does not—he shared the exercise with me, and uses it to teach parts of speech to developmental writing students.

[3] Jamison Crabtree, who taught me Knock, answered my origin question by texting, “I’m pretty sure Matt [R]otando invented it—we played it a little in our writing group (Megan Coe, Cybele Knowles, Matt and I) but he was always trying new games/ideas and that one caught.

Read Lisa's 2014 Pushcart-nominated short story, "Shelter." 

Lisa Levine’s realistic fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Manifest West, Furious Gazelle and Bird’s Thumb. Lisa earned a 2015 Pushcart nomination, and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. Alongside her dog and friends, she’s a rock climber, Arizona teacher, and working writer. Read more at

       Photo by Byron Hempel

      Photo by Byron Hempel