Draft #1: Technology Was Scary, and Then I Became a Diabetic
One may as well begin with the diagnosis:
Five years ago a doctor at an urgent care center in Mississippi told me I was diabetic. I had all the classic symptoms: rapid weight loss, dark urine, fatigue. My blood glucose level was so high the meter couldn’t read it, simply blinked “High” and made this odd keening noise like my blood—so sugary it was, I imagined, the consistency of maple syrup—had offended it. “Oh, boy,” the doctor said. “You got the sugar!” I was given an insulin pump, which is basically a mechanical pancreas in the form of a mid-1990s pager. It attaches to a port on my abdomen and, aside from being useful in managing the levels of sugar in my blood, seriously compromises my ability to tuck in a shirttail. But this post isn’t about my diabetes. This post is about how it took a life-threatening illness before I first brought technology into my creative writing workshop.
My policy for using technologies (of any kind) in my workshop was simple: don’t. No laptops, no iPads, and certainly no cell phones. I wanted to cultivate a workshop space free from distraction. A space where my students and I could concentrate on the serious business of critiquing each others’ stories. If some device beeped, or chimed, or rang, or dinged, the owner of said device was then responsible for making reparations to the class, usually by bringing a delicious treat to class the next time we met (this tactic I copied from Zadie Smith syllabus). This strict (somewhat fussy) policy underscored not my distrust of technology, but my fear of it. I knew how to write on Microsoft Word, make a halfway decent PowerPoint, and send an email. Technology was uncharted. I wasn’t open to the possibilities of a multimodal workshop: a workshop that used digital texts to enhance and complement how we work with traditional alphabetic texts.
But as my body was revised, as I became dependent on technology to survive, so too I became less apprehensive of technology in general and more amenable to incorporating relevant digital media into my creative writing workshops in particular.
Draft #2: An (Im)Modest Proposal
On second thought, that sounds all wrong. Too simplistic, too pat. Using the insulin pump changes my stance on technology in my classroom? I don’t buy it. (Do you?) Perhaps I am reaching.
So, I’ll start again. This time with a pitch:
While certainly useful, purely craft-based pedagogy can privilege the theories of
producing creative work, rather than the multiple modes in which creativity can flourish. The multimodal workshop de-centers craft-based pedagogy by asking students to
extend their work beyond the traditional page. In this panel, instructors discuss how
they include visual, audio, and tactile texts in their teaching as well as share practical
methodologies for cultivating interdisciplinary projects.
Next semester, Raul Palma and I will present papers on incorporating digital media into workshops on the panel “The Multimodal Workshop: Digital Pedagogy in the Creative Writing Classroom” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles. We composed this pitch together, and wanted to focus on how digital technologies can aid in revising and multi-genre work. We are experimenting with various activities in our classes this semester and hope to write more about our discoveries here. Raul’s students are responding to each others’ work without using words and adapting their stories into plays. Last semester, my students used Prezi and PowerPoint to “map out” the plots of their stories to help them in revising for their final portfolios, and this semester, in addition to writing editorial letters for one another, they are using Photoshop and iMovie to construct book jackets and trailers for each other’s short stories, so that writers can see visual representations of how their stories are being “perceived” by others.
Perception is key to revision. In essence, we are using digital media to help writers get a better sense of their audience. For instance, we believe that when students see their work translated into another medium by someone else, it becomes immediate to them how their work is (and isn’t) being perceived by others from what their peers choose to highlight and disregard in their designs. It is also our belief that the act of translating someone else’s work inspires a certain amount of empathy in the translator for the writer and her work, a close reading that engages both writers in cooperating to make better art.
Draft #3: Revising Revision
But that doesn’t seem right either. I’m thinking I need a secondary source. The fancy theory bloggers use sources: Derrida, Foucault, Butler, Joni Mitchell—all the big names. Let me try a craft person. In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern tells us that “A story grows with each draft, finding itself, developing its textures, and eliminating what is extraneous” (213). Perhaps most usefully, Stern goes on to describe ways in which we can get sidetracked in the revising process: “Some writers get hung up on first-draft ideas, as if to abandon any one is to betray some primal creative impulse,” while “other writers are too quick to cut their freshest passages” (213). Stern believes (as do I) that it’s “the thoughtful shaping of these impulses that creates art” (213); however, he offers little to help us develop and fine-tune these impulses, save “thought and experience” (214).
He seems to suggest what I believed for many years: that revision should happen outside of workshop. In other words, students bring their story drafts to class, we tell the writers what we thought of the work, and they revise another draft of their stories to include in their portfolios, which is typically only ever seen by the instructor. Isolating revision—not allowing the workshop to see the development of the stories post-workshop and offer additional feedback—seems to limit the potential of the workshop model. For my workshops, in the final two weeks of class, I give revision center stage. Students bring new drafts to class and with do things with them, usually things that involve digital media.
They use PowerPoint and Prezi to talk about their revision strategies to the class, explaining how they interpreted the responses to their stories and detailing what they chose to listen to and what they chose to disregard. They play sound recordings of themselves or others reading their work, using background music and special effect sounds to augment their stories. As I mentioned above, this semester they are exchanging stories and translating each other’s work into book jackets or movie trailers. My main purpose as a creative writing instructor is to teach students to develop writerly habits, such as reading actively and widely from authors they wish to emulate and challenge, studying narrative as a series of linguistic choices, and—most importantly—understanding the need for intense revision. I hope these activities underline for them how they must continue to revise long after workshop has ended, and what’s more, they must seek out people to respond to it. What is perhaps most radical about the workshop model for creative writers is that it is predicated on the belief that art doesn’t happen in a vacuum, that our writing is only as good as the community in which we exist and contribute to.
Draft #4: The Beginning
And yet here I am, at the beginning of things, nervous.
Raul and I are trying out new methods in our classrooms this semester, and with this experimentation comes risk. Before posting this, I sent Raul a text (see! more technology) telling him that there’s a good chance my activities surrounding revision turn out to be failures. So much could go wrong. So much often does. He said that “we can learn from failures too,” and I want to believe that.
(So much of what we, writers, do seems rooted in belief and hope and faith—it amazes me that more of us aren’t in the clergy.)
Since I’ve spent so much time on beginnings, I’ll leave it to Raul to focus on our conclusion in his post.