Back to Basics
By Nick Chhoeun
This past summer I had the opportunity to teach Creative Writing for two months to students from fifth grade to freshmen in high school. As a whole, the experience was a mixture of “why am I doing this” and “I’m doing this all wrong” thoughts constantly flowing through my head (but that’s probably an exaggeration). I couldn’t blame the students who didn’t show interest or who barely put in effort. When I was their age, the last thing I wanted to do in the summer was go to school.
My daily lessons included exercises on different literary devices like dialogue and character, observing the poetic elements of their favorite songs, and working on their own stories, poems, and plays. Their final assignment was a presentation of 10-15 pages of their own original work: a collection of poems, a short story, or a play. I thought it was an optimistic and possibly unachievable goal but I was pleasantly surprised when all of my students handed in work that was exemplary. Even though most of them ended their stories with the cliché “he/she woke up and realized it was just a dream,” I saw their work as a success.
This experience really made me believe that we learn by teaching. It made me step back and look at my own writing with a bigger lens. We all start as beginners at writing and sometimes those beginning lessons, like transitioning from paragraph to paragraph, and adding sensory details, are the ones that matter the most. In teaching my students these literary elements, I was reminded to slow down and nail the basics before I made things complex.
For instance, one of the exercises I gave them was on creating their own original character. I told them to imagine a very unique person and then write down all the details about him or her. I gave them many questions, both serious and random, to answer about the character. The details ranged from the character’s height to the person’s favorite ice cream. As the class went on I asked even more outrageous questions about their character until they had pages of information on him or her.
This exercise let them be as creative and free as possible. Many of them really got into their character’s head. For me, this exercise helped me fully understand my own characters. I should know all the answers to the random and outrageous questions that could be asked about my characters—but I had never taken the time to really put thought into those details. As we worked through other exercises, I began to fully remember the importance of other elements across genres like plot, conflict, climax, line breaks, and metaphors.
Teaching young students creative writing made me realize that the basic elements in writing are not so basic and that they need my full attention. I’m grateful for my students’ willingness and even their not so interested attitude toward my teaching. As writers, we sometimes need to remember to look back before moving forward.
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.