James Barkman, "Perspective." Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

Creative Writing Assignments in Composition: Creative Retellings

As summer winds down and our thoughts turn to trimming/pruning/burning and razing our syllabi, I thought I’d share a creative writing assignment I use in my second-level composition class, ENG 102: Writing Through Literature. This Creative Retelling assignment is cobbled together from prior work done by Amy Cummins, Pam Regis, and Stephen M. Park. 1 

At some point, the act of slogging through dozens of research papers on literature chips away at my resolve, and deadens my soul. It’s just boring AF. 2 I work all semester on the nuts and bolts of writing and responding to literature: close readings, paragraph construction, quotation sandwiches, citation methods, etc. We use journals and informal writing assignments to practice these skills ad nauseam. In addition, I want my students to see that literary texts are open to multiple interpretations, and to see how particular choices authors make (in this case, POV) impact a text. I want them, of course, to be able to read and utilize secondary sources and literary criticism on texts, and to assess these sources in conversation with the text at hand in their written responses.

Before I get too deep into the assignment here, let me start off by saying that it is important–nay, imperative–that anyone teaching literature procure The Pocket Instructor: Literature immediately. It is freakin’ fantastic. And it has completely changed the way I teach literature, on both a daily basis and as part of larger written projects. Most of the assignments presented are meant to be informal tasks that take place during class time, and each entry helpfully tells you a lot of logistics for facilitating the activity (genre, course level, difficulty level, time required, and outside prep needs to occur), as well as the level of reading/writing each task demands. The theatre section alone had me smitten: major scholars in the field, showing how they take pedagogy seriously, making fantastic suggestions on how to teach drama. As a Theatre PhD, the drama section alone has compelled me to preach the gospel of this book far and wide. But every section is stellar, frankly. I use many of the entries to guide my teaching activities in class, but I have also expanded and elaborated on several of these to create scaffolded formal writing assignments–like the Creative Retelling assignment.

To ground us in point of view, I use Pamela Regis’s “Understanding Point of View” exercise in Pocket Instructor, and the included 55-word short story “That Settles That” by Terry L. Tilton. Following Regis’s suggestions, we first discuss what POV is at play in the story, and then students work in groups to re-write the story from another assigned POV (I tell them it is not necessary to stick to 55 words, because they invariably ask). They keep their assigned POV a “secret” and post their rewrite in a GoogleDoc, which I then project. The rest of the class reads, discusses, and guesses what POV the authoring group was assigned (and, if there are any issues or discrepancies, we address them together). In a class for English majors, Regis follows up “with a paper assignment that asks them to assess the contribution of point of view to the theme of a given work of fiction” (78). This is what I hone in on in my own assignment.

You’ll see in the prompt I made that–along with asking students to retell a scene from a short story we’ve read together–I ask them to include a (minimum) 800 word Writer’s Statement explaining what POV they selected, outlining the themes or motifs in the original story, and how their changes either altered or enhanced those elements of the original text. Amy Cummins outlines this critical component in her assignment, saying that:

the first paragraph of your analysis should explain what you chose to do with the creative adaptation; the second paragraph describes the literary effects or thematic implications of your adaptation; the third paragraph describes your writing process and identifies one or more sections of the creative component upon which you worked particularly hard to achieve your desired goals.

Clearly, my own prompt drew upon Cummins’ ideas and language (as well as Park’s in Pocket Instructor), but I also ask students to use scholarly and critical sources to outline some interpretive claims already in circulation about the text, and to support their own reading and take on the work at hand using these secondary sources.

The results have bee remarkable. Students engage deeply with the stories and their worlds, showing that they have a nuanced understanding of the content and themes, and are given an opportunity to bring their own interests and readings to a text as well. In my ENG 102 classes of late, the theme is post-apocalyptic literature; here is the syllabus from last semester, so you get a sense of where this assignment falls in the class.

The prompt is below. When I taught Junot Díaz’s “Monstro,” students consistently and rightly pointed out the problematic portrayal and treatment of women, and Mysty in particular, in this short story (and many had encountered other work by Díaz as well). It seemed fitting, considering the #MeToo moment and the ongoing conversation around Díaz’s work, to showcase a student example that questioned or interrogated the representation of women in this short story, and moved the POV to a woman. If I teach “Monstro” again, it will be with these types of student examples to both serve as model assignments, and to highlight how you can critically engage with a text. 3

 

 

The Prompt

(also available here)

 

Student Work

Last fall, student Alyssa Perez (who gave permission that her work be shared here, and asked that her name be included–thanks Alyssa!) took Díaz to task for what she identifies as the “constant machismo found in his writing” (3).

As always, feel free to give me a shout (below/social media/email) with any questions, or any tweaks/improvements you make, so I can make things better in turns.

Notes:

  1.  Amy Cummins, “Tell Me a Story: Effective Use of Creative Writing Assignments in College Literature Courses.” Currents in Teaching and Learning 1.2 (Spring 2009): 42-9; Pam Regis, “Understanding Point of View” in The Pocket Instructor: Literature edited by Diana Fuss & William A. Gleason, pp. 75-78; Stephen M. Park, “Flip the Script,” ibid., pp. 78-81.
  2. This post grew out of a conversation I was having last week with the brilliant and talented Sarah Hildebrandabout course prep and the soul-deadening task of grading piles of research papers, and in which I promised to share materials, and realized I just needed to get my ass in gear and post this stuff already.
  3. In my fall sections of ENG 102, I plan on teaching Ken Liu’s “Mono No Aware,” Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “Inventory” for short stories (and will probably add a couple more before the semester starts). As I said above, if I include “Monstro,” it will be for modeling purposes for this assignment, and the other short stories will be fair game for the assignment itself.

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