Tag Archives: creative writing

Book List for Creative Writing Classes

14 Sep

I’ve been teaching Intro to Creative Writing at my college for five years and I’m so fortunate that for the first time, I’ve been given the green light to choose my own texts beginning in 2014.  I just put in my book order and would like to share the selections that I made (and some that I didn’t, but that I still highly recommend).


My top picks

My top picks


I teach the Intro to Creative Writing section, which is a mixed genre class that is part workshop model and part lecture/in class work.  For reference, the majority of my students have very little experience with writing, but are interested in it.  Many of these students are also unfamiliar with contemporary work and have never picked up a literary journal or been to a reading (which is something that I have them do).  In deciding which books to use, I had to take all of this into account so as to not scare them off of literary writing nor overwhelm them straight out of the gate.  It is my sincere belief that if you, as an instructor, overwhelm students who are just getting their feet wet, you’re not doing the student any service and in fact, many may end up so overwhelmed, that they may never return to writing or reading.

Here are the books I chose to use in 2014 (starting in the Spring term):

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo: this is a classic resource used in CW courses nationwide, and my department has been using it for as long as I can remember.  It has wonderful essays on writing in it, and I always begin the semester by having my students read the one titled, “In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes” as this begins the discussion on why CW courses are important and what gain be gained from taking them.

The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland: I used this book in a CW course when I was an undergrad in English/CW at the University of Houston.  I found this book to be exceptionally helpful.  The book not only showcases traditional forms (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, etc.), but also includes “open” forms as well.  Each section of the book focuses on one form and gives a page of information/”how to,” a page or two about the history of the form, a page or two about the contemporary use of the form, and then quite a few pages of examples from both canonical and contemporary poets.  I highly recommend this book for beginning-intermediate undergraduate CW classes.

A Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey: As my class is a mixed genre class, I needed to find a book that would function in a similar manner to The Making of a Poem, and this book fits the bill.  It discusses and gives examples of the basic elements of fiction writing, which is something beginning CW students need.  It also discusses the importance of drafting and revision, which is something  that I teach in my class as well.  I have found that first time CW students are not in the habit of drafting and revision, so this was a great selling point to me for this text.


There are so many texts I would love to use, but I just can’t justify having my students plunk down loads of cash for a lot of books.  However, if I could use more books in a perfect world, here are the rest of my recommendations:

On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura: I went back and forth on this book, and I ultimately decided against using it (even though I love it so) because they style of writing might be a bit over my beginning CW students’ heads.  In past semesters, my CW have read one of the essays in the book, “Red,” and it was near-mutiny.  I’m all about challenging my students, but sometimes you have to ease them into the challenge for best results.  I do recommend this book for intermediate-advanced CW classes.  It’s a wonderful book on inspiration and looking at things from a writer’s eye.

An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes: I also used this book when I was in my CW classed at UH and found it helpful.  It’s very similar to the The Making of a Poem book, but is slightly more advanced in that it delves deeply in the specifics of form, meter, etc.  For an Intro to CW course where students are not very familiar with poetry at all, I think that introducing them to anapests, trochees, and syllabics might be a bit much.  We do discuss some forms in my class: sonnets, villanelles, and occasionally the ghazal in particular, as well as some contemporary forms (the found poems, contemporary ekphrasis, the cento), but this book is definitely for the more advanced student.  I recommend this book, however, for use in a forms class or an intermediate CW course.

American Women Poets in the 21st Century by Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr:  Claudia Rankine had me read this book when she was my senior honors thesis advisor at UH and I loved it.  The reason I didn’t choose this book is because it didn’t offer the breadth of “lessons” that The Making of a Poem did.  This text is wonderful and offers a wide variety of voices from contemporary American women poets and annotations of their poems.  I would use this book for a class on American Women’s Lit, Contemporary American Poetry, or an intermediate-advanced CW course.

The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux: This is another great stand-by and I have been using it for the past 5 years, which is why I decided to switch it out for the The Making of a Poem text.  I love this book for how it discusses inspiration and breaking boundaries (death, love, etc.) and offers writing prompts/suggestions at the end of each chapter, but I think that the specifics that The Making of a Poem offers might help a beginning CW student a little more.  My previous students have enjoyed this book, but have also commented on how they would like a book that has more examples and “how-to” instruction than TPC gives.  I do highly recommend this book for any intro-intermediate CW course and I am very likely to use it again in the future.

Contemporary American Poetry edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters: I used this book when I was in Jericho Brown’s advanced CW workshop at UH.  It’s a great book, but is actually more of an anthology (similar in the manner of Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, edited by Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, which I also highly recommend).  It’s a great assortment of contemporary poets, such as James Dickey, Kimiko Hahn, Robert Haas, Louise Gluck, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Naomi Shihab Nye, David St. John, and others), but there isn’t any discussion of the poems, the forms, etc. that I wanted for my beginning students.  That said, I think this would be a great book to use for an intermediate-advanced CW and would be great even for grad students in poetry to use as a model and launching point for discussion and critical analysis of contemporary poetics.

I hope these recommendations help you if you are building a CW course or looking to purchase books on writing, whether fiction or poetry.  What are your must haves when it comes to books on writing?  What texts have worked for you in previous courses that you’ve taught?  I’d love to know!

Hot Object: A Lesson Plan w/ Samples

17 Sep

“Hot Objects” inside the bag!


I have been teaching college-level Intro to Creative Writing for 4 years now, and taught Creative Writing for about a year (2007-2008) with Houston’s Writers in the Schools (WITS) program.  I always try to come up with innovative, fun ideas to teach objectives to my students, most of whom are 18-20 years old and have had little to no experience with creative writing.


My “Hot Object” exercise (the actual title of this lesson comes from–gasp–an epidose of “Felicity” where Ben was taking a theatre class and had to bring in a “hot object” (as the professor called it) that would say something about who he was or where he has been) is always a show-stopper and I think could be used for almost every grade level (K-12 and Intro to CW at the college level).


Objective: To have students become familiar with elements of point of view and perspective in creative writing.


Materials:  A bag (or box) of random, classroom-friendly objects such as a balloon, a cary key, an apple, a paintbrush, an eraser, a lipstick, a rock, and a pinecone.


Method: 1) Have students choose one item from the bag at random.  As the students are choosing the item, tell students to think about their item in terms of color, sensory detail, and the history of the item.  Encourage them to jot down notes about the item (this will later become their character sketch).  2)  Next, ask students guiding questions about point of view/perspective to gauge their knowledge of these terms, their uses, and of personal pronouns (first, second, third (limited and omniscient).  3) Next, go over these terms with examples on board or overhead, giving definitions of each.  Explain to students why POV/perspective is essential in creative writing.  Discuss the three main pronouns and discuss how each one can change the perspective of a story.  Discuss with students how to “think outside of the box” when determining the POV they will use in future creative works.  Encourage them to not choose a POV that’s obvious, but one that would be less expected.  Give examples, if possible.  4) After the lesson on POV/perspective has concluded, introduce the second part of the lesson: the students will write a brief introduction, usually 2-4 brief paragraphs, in the voice (from the POV/perspective) of their chosen object using elements from their character sketch.  Stress that they will want to use as much detail as possible to bring the character to life for the reader.  5) Have students complete their character sketches and work on their narratives on their own (20-30 minutes).  6) Finally, have a students volunteer (or choose them if you have a timid class) to share their narratives with the class.  7)  Close the lesson with a revisit of the importance of POV and discuss how students should think about POV in their own writing.  Encourage students to keep their narrative for potential use in another assignment (such as a persona poem).




Item: Door Stop/Door Jam:  “I was made in China in the late 80s.  I’m almost invisible to human beings, especially ones in my same room.  I was created to be behind doors of this cold room and to take care of a boring white wall who doesn’t like to be touched by the door handles.  I really don’t like my function on this planet — everyone hits me at any moment agressively and my migraines are unstoppable. ”


Item: old digital camera: “Hello, guys, my name is Hypster Power.  That’s what the HP on me stands for.  I was born in China in 2003.  I have been all around the world before I made my home at the Wal-Mart in the United States of America.  I have taken  a lot of pictures of a lifetime with my 4.0 megapixel lens.  I have a patch over my eye when I am not being used.”


Item: car key: “Being people’s pass everywhere certainly has its advantages.  My name is Kurt.  I’m 10 years old and I am a Toyota car key.  I’ve seen things in purses, backpacks, keychains, and human hands you wouldn’t see in a lifetime.  I’m a slim guy who has a few jagged edges, but who doesn’t?  I fear entering any other small place besides my designated car keyhole.  People don’t seem to realize that even though we are made with tough, shiny, silver metal, we are fragile.”


Item: Pinecone: “My name is Kong and I fell away from home.  I used to live under the branch of a majestic pine tree.  I fell away from home because I had come of age and now I have to strike it out on my own.”


Item: Watercolor set:  “My name is Rainbow.  I got that name because I have all of the colors of the rainbow around me.  My best friend, who’s always with me, is Slim.  He always has his hair wet and straight up.  I’m usually happy in class when the child that’s using me is gentle and smooth with Slim.  When a child is rough, my colors start to mix together and Slim’s hair gets messed up and then we don’t talk for awhile until we both get cleaned up (usually the teacher makes this happen.)


I can’t tell you how much I love doing this lesson.  I know it’s not “serious,” but it’s such a great, fun way to discuss POV/perspective.  The routine of workshop, lecture, and free writing can get old and it’s nice to be able to introduce a very important topic in a way that will grab the students’ attention.  The students will be more likely to remember POV when its introduced in this manner (or similar) than if it was introduced in yet another lecture or power point.  One thing I’ve learned (among many) in teaching is you have to keep it fresh, modern, and engaging or you’ll lose the students.  Some older students might think this lesson is silly, but I haven’t found an objector, yet.  If you try this lesson, I’d love to hear your feedback and what objects you chose to use!





17 Apr

I am in the middle of many things right now: near-end of semester rush, a quasi-serious health crisis that I don’t have enough information (i.e. test results) to go into at this juncture, putting final touches on my second book for its September release (I have seen the 4 mock-ups of my cover, which my good friend and amazing graphic designer/artist Eddy Roberts has commissioned for me), etc.  I’ve been trying to find quiet, peace.  I’ve been engaged in a lot of prayer, which is something I do every day, but so often half-heartedly.  I’ve been trying to practice mindfulness, deep breathing. And it’s working: despite all that I have circling around me right now — busy schedule, many demands, fear — I feel centered.  I still have so much on my plate, but I’m relatively calm.  And happy.

My creative writing students practiced erasure poems on Monday.  I love erasure poems — they’re so beautiful and fun.  I think the concept of found poetry really inspired my students (or, at least, they liked coloring in a college class).  My students created some really wonderful erasures, and I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites:


original text from Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


original text from the Urban Dictionary: Fularious Street Slang Defined


original text from Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus


original text from Matthea Harvey's "Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form"