Creative Writing Tutorials: Don’t run for the hills just yet

Lurking in the shadows of walk-in tutorials, obsessing over sections of the UCWbL Handbook, guzzling Starbucks coffee by the pot, the new tutors wait to be unleashed upon the DePaul student body. One new tutor (let’s say her name is Marge) reviews grammatical concepts like parallel structure and the sequence of tenses. She studies the ins and outs of the five paragraph academic essay and all of its variations. She scowers the St. Martin’s Guide for the proper way to cite a journal article in APA format, then reads the chapter three more times to commit the information to memory. Now Marge sits near the front door of the UCWbL Office, waiting for an innocent ‘walk-in’ to become her first victim.

That’s when little Edgar walks in.

“You think you can help me with something for a poetry workshop?” he asks.

Marge’s new tutor intuition clicks from “standby” to “emergency evacuation.”

“DANGER MARGE.”

“HOSTILE DETECTED.”

“MAINTAIN SAFE DISTANCE OF FORTY METERS FROM POETS AT ALL TIMES.”

“TAKE COVER IN WRITING CENTER STAFF CUBBY.”

Though it is not a genre of work that is brought in frequently, creative writing shouldn’t be ruled out as a potential encounter in the UCWbL. To prevent the above reaction to poets and other creative types when they visit, it is important for tutors to consider how they will work with this type of material. Contrary to what you might expect, Marge can approach this poem in much the same way that she would approach an academic essay, saving little Edgar the tell-tale response of a terrified tutor, “excuse me while I run to the bathroom (and suck my thumb in cowardice).”

To all writing center tutors, but particularly the newbies like myself, when a student walks in with a short story, screenplay, or other creative work, DON’T PANIC. And before you frantically scan the St. Martin’s Guide or AP Stylebook for a poetry section, please save yourself some gray hair by reading what Kenneth G. Pobo (Widener University) has to say about creative writing tutoring.

In his article “Creative Writing and the Writing Center (The Writing Lab Newsletter),” Pobo argues that a poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction writer and a composition writer have more in common than most tutors and instructors would think.

“What the student needs, ultimately, is a sensitive reader, one who is willing to ask questions, show concern, and gently push the student to ask his/her own questions…”

Though Marge may not be familiar with poetry, she can still give the piece a read and comment on structure, word choice, and clarity of images and themes. By encouraging the writer and asking questions, Marge can help Edgar to think more critically about his work and remain open to suggestions for improvement. As is often the case with academic essay tutorials, simply reading through the work a few times can help the writer notice areas that need further attention during the revision process.

Pobo makes an important point about the writing process when he states, “The more students are able to articulate their thinking about the creative work, the sharper the work will, in the long run, become.”

Take out the word “creative” and this quote can be applied to any genre of writing. From writers of research papers, to writers of silent plays, all are following the same basic steps toward a completed work. Fear not writing center staff, you already have the necessary skills to provide useful feedback for any creative writer, even a timid poet like Edgar.

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Mia Amélie says:

    Great points, Ricky! I, personally, love working with fellow creative writers, though I understand not everyone feels comfortable with that realm. That said, your post succeeds at touching on the reality that tutors do not need to be (and often aren’t) experts in any given style of writing. Indeed, working with writers and written works from various disciplines and genres as readers rather than experts is a large part of what makes us peer writing tutors. Thank you for the additional reading, too!

  • Hooray! I love creative writing tutorials, and this is so true. It’s all about asking questions. If you can be an engaged reader, you can be a tutor of creative pieces. I had one this weekend, and it was maybe the best session I’ve had this quarter. I was able to speak with an author of a creative work, ask questions of motivations, and basically do what I always want to do with the novels I read. This piece does work to bring the joy of tutoring these unconventional pieces to the forefront. I thank you.

  • David S. says:

    I agree with all of you! I believe that because my UCWbL bio discusses my background in the arts, I have tended to have a number of creative writing consultations, or sessions with people in artistic disciplines. For example, during spring quarter, I had regular appointments with a woman who taught in CDM who used me as a discussion partner as she composed a screenplay for a film short she was developing. Simultaneously, I had regular appointments with a man who wanted me to help him develop his personal essays in support of his MBA application for the U of C. I found his essays to be as much a creative project as her screenplays.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that even the most “academic” writing can have a strong creative component. And even if we might not think of ourselves necessarily as creative writers, we are certainly knowledgeable consumers of creative writing. Our views are educated and relevant.

    One other very valuable service we perform is reading pieces out loud! Creative writers may forget how important the spoken performance of writing really is, and how it puts many of the aspects of writing into high relief.