Monday, December 20, 2010

Once more to the novel class

I know I already bragged up my novel writing students in my last post, but after looking over their Final Folders I just have to go one more time to this subject. Their Final Folders contained a few different items, one of which was a reflective paper about the whole semester and the act of composing a novel in such a short period of time. In reading the folders, I'm amazed by, and proud of, them all over again, especially at the extent to which they get it. What the semester was about, what I was hoping to accomplish, and how by necessity that accomplishment happened. No kidding, I was almost moved to tears a couple of times. (Or maybe that was just relief that I hadn't caused them to lose their minds.)

Perhaps my favorite reflective statement came from a student who is not even a Writing major, but who understood the class and its utility as well as any one. This is a student who on top of taking classes in his major and on top of taking my novel writing class, spent the semester working on an iPhone application called "Video Game Trivia," for which he had to compose 1000 questions, an endeavor that forced him to write another 78,000 words on top of the 55,000 he wrote for his novel (and however many he wrote for his other classes). He didn't tell me this until our very last meeting, after all the novels had been turned in. My jaw literally dropped. Talk about a semester to remember. I quote from his reflective paper: "Going into this class, I had certainly never written anything of this magnitude or scale before. Designing and crafting a story that would span 55,000+ words just didn't seem like something I was cabable of. Maybe in ten years but certainly not as a junior in college. It's removing that roadblock that I believe was the most important accomplishment forward in writing and for my life in general. I know I'm capable of creating another novel if I need or choose to. If my boss tells me he needs a fifty page report on howGoogle uses their public relations (my major), then I'll nod and begin thinking how it pales in comparison to the task that I accomplished when I was 20 years old."

That really choked me up. This student was in my peer review group (I broke the class into groups of twos and threes for semi-regular peer review sessions; that way, they knew at least someone was going to read and keep tabs on their progress), and I know how hard he worked on his book. I think I was even more relieved and grateful by what he said next: "I believe I may have learned more from this class than in nearly any other class in my college tenure. In a weird way, I think it may be partially because we, being the students, kind of act as the teachers in this class." Yes. They certainly were. I took a huge step back this semester and essentially turned the class over to them. Either they were going to leap into the challenge, take it up, and assist each other in the taking up, or they were going to flounder, divide, and turn sour. Remarkably, almost no one reacted in the latter fashion. Unable to workshop in the traditional sense, the learning had to come essentially from the doing and from regular meetings with their peer groups. They had to be almost completely responsible for their own education. All I did was check word counts each week and collect response papers to the chapters we read in our textbook, No Plot No Problem by Chris Baty. (And of course compose a novel of my own right along with them.)

The success of the whole enterprise really did depend on them. Not only did this group rise to the occasion, but I think they found the process of doing so--of just pushing and pushing and pushing ahead on their books--incredibly liberating. As my student wrote: "We create the material we will be discussing by writing our novels, and we don't have to worry about memorizing every ligament in the kneecaps. All we have to worry about is when our cabin is going to be overtaken by zombies and who is going to survive. The work can still be a burden, don't get me wrong, but never once did I feel like it was a waste of time." I guess that what happens when you're engaged in a project you feel passionate about. And so many of them were. How many times can I say it? They were amazing.


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