Teach your writing students not to follow the crowd

“I have no doubt that writing can be taught—but here the burden of responsibility falls mostly on the teacher, not the writer. By this I mean that writing must be taught in a way that emphasizes discovery and growth of the student-writer’s voice, rather than emphasizing adaptation of a writer’s voice to a history of literature or to current trends in literature. I believe that this is the best way to foster originality and freshness in young and so-called ’emerging writers.’” – M.B. McLatchey

Writing programs are sometimes criticized for emphasizing the best of prevailing styles of storytelling so that students end up stuck in conformity, to turning out more or what’s already been turned out by the successful writers of the day. If so, then the teachers are basically saying, “Based on the evidence, this is what editors and publishers want now, so you need to supply it.”

When I was in school, my teachers emphasized the best of the past, the so-called canon of novels we were all supposed to read to become educated. Plus, those books purportedly showed us what we needed to do to become successful authors.

We need to read new stuff and old stuff because we want to be storytellers and for us little is more enjoyable than a good book. In reading, we discover what works and what doesn’t, for we are either pulled into the tales or we’re not. At this point, the students won’t need prescriptions from the teacher so much as a blank piece of paper and a wide open door.

The sky’s the limit out there. Go find it without charts and maps, outlines, lists of DOs and DON’Ts, or recipes for success based on either history or the trends of the day. Given a chance, the student will find his/her voice and style. When s/he returns to the classroom, we can talk about the results–is there a compelling story on the page or not? If so (or if not), we can lead the students into figuring out why there is or isn’t.

If the teacher says “this is why it works” or “this is why it doesn’t work,” then those pat answers begin to channel students down roads being used by the writers that teacher admires or dislikes. When the student sees (without being led) why his/her stories are working, then s/he is ready to emerge from the classroom with the capability of telling unique stories and organic styles that belong to them alone.




Getting comfortable in your writing shoes

Comfortable doesn’t mean complacent. If you hike or climb mountains, you know that new shoes often hurt and need to be broken in before a major trek. The wrong kind of shoes and the wrong size shoes are often worse because the shoes have to match what you’re doing. The same thing is true of writers, figuratively speaking, because while genres and styles have a lot of things in common, each requires an approach you need to be comfortable with.

oldshoesDepending on which survey you look at, romance, action/adventure, science fiction and fantasy usually sell the most books. Unfortunately, some of the sub-genres in those groupings aren’t carried on the coattails of the most popular books.

For me, that means magical realism–which is what I write–is down at the 2% or 3% range of sales. Obviously, the the size of a writer’s audience will skew the figures for individual books, though J. K. Rowling discovered that as Snape said to Harry Potter, “fame isn’t everything” affects authors asd well as wizards. (Her fans hated “A Casual Vacancy.)

For me, “comfortable writing shoes” work best with magical realism. They work as poorly for other genres as wearing flip flops or high heels in the world series. To some extent, finding comfortable shoes is part of the journey to being comfortable with oneself. I’ve always wished I could be fluent in multiple language, play a Bach toccata and fugue on a massive pipe organ, water ski all the way across the bay and back without falling off, and knowing how to repair my own cars. After many years of discord about these things, I had to accept that they weren’t me.

I love writing and reading magical realism, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wished I could turn out a great romance or spy novel from time to time to support my magical realism habit. But I can’t do it even though I have enjoyed many spy and FBI-related novels over the years just as I’ve enjoyed a lot of recordings of Bach over the years. But liking something doesn’t always translate into being good at it–though, it’s a nice start.

The hints and signs about our authentic selves are available for us to see early on, but we either don’t recognize them or actively deny them. Growing up, I spent most of my time out doors or reading about magic. These interests are closely linked in most magical realism. I learned more from nature than I did from school, especially my literature and other English classes. I was a fish out of water in those classes because the approach to writing and the great classics of the written word seemed counterproductive and false to me. I was the worst student in English classes and the most likely to openly defy the teachers.

I had one wonderful writing teacher. He didn’t give us theories, he asked us to write, and then we talked about what worked. This is how most of us learn most of what we know. We try things out. We experiment. Some things fail either because we don’t really like them or aren’t skillful in those areas or are just incompatible with them. Other things work. Finding out why they work is a Nirvana-like experience. You want to shout YES!!!!!!!!!!!!. Learning in this teacher’s class was about the only worthwhile course I had in my English minor in college. In that class, we focused on pure storytelling rather than on an approach better suited to a doctoral dissertation in literary or communications theory.

Like many others, I spent time trying to fit in because when you’re the only one in the class who disagrees with the teacher’s approach, it’s hard not to cave in to the pressure of the rest of the students and the system itself.

Now that I’m not in school–or teaching in one–I don’t have to answer to those who support the system. I can write what I want to write and wear the kinds of shoes and attitudes that fit my chosen genre. I’m comfortable with this now, though I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it in high school and college because I was a rebel when it came to the course syllabus and (as they call them) the expected “learning outcomes.”

I guess it comes down to the fact that I’d rather be happy than rich and I’d rather be comfortable as myself and as a writer than being part of the crowd making the scene at popular parties, bars like the fictional “Cheers,” or being the guy all the girls want to dance with. Life would have been so much easier if I’d figured all this out 40 years ago. So would my writing.

If you’re a writer, you probably know what you love to write even if nobody wants to buy it or Oprah doesn’t call or MGM doesn’t option your novels for movies. If you love writing fiction that catches on with huge numbers of readers, then that’s a mixed blessing. Financially, you’ll be secure, but as Snape said, “fame isn’t everything.” Fame tends to get in a person’s way and keep them from wearing their most comfortable shoes.


ewkindlecoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” a folk magic story set in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. 

Speaking of shoes, Campbell still wears the climbing boots he bought in the 1960s even though his knees really complain if he tries to climb anything higher than an ant hill.


The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life

The Hero’s Journey: A Guide to Literature and Life by Reg Harris and Susan Thompson is a teacher’s guidebook for presenting Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey concepts in the classroom.

As teachers in the 1990s, Harris and Thompson felt that traditional methods of teaching literature left students with a disconnect between the materials studied in the classroom and their lives. When I was a student, I read in class because I already liked to read. But I saw clearly that peers who didn’t come into the class with a love of reading, seldom loved literature when the class war over. In short, old books were viewed as irrelevant.

Harris and Thompson found a solution in the classic hero’s journey structure because it linked what the students read about in a novel (or viewed in a film) with real life challenges, crises and questions. Harris puts it this way on the Hero’s Journey website:

“We discovered that the Hero’s Journey is the fundamental pattern of human experience, so it could be used as a foundation for studying literature and film. As a bonus, we found that when students learned the pattern, they were able to relate the themes from literature to their own experience and to better understand the journeys in their own lives.”  The URL has changed to: http://www.yourheroicjourney.com/shop/

Star Wars – The Perfect Example

The guide begins with an overview of rituals, especially rites of passage, how they serve as validating road maps for day-to-day harmonious living within society and to navigating the major stages. Harris and Thompson use Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars to illustrate the hero’s journey.

Like the rite of passage, the journey focuses on personal transformation. Once students can identify the journey’s major steps and resulting transformation in fictional characters, they will begin to understand how similar journeys are cropping up in their own lives even though they may be less dramatic than a popular novel or feature film.

This well-organized curriculum is organized into ten parts and a supplementary appendix:

  1. Ritual and the Rite of Passage: an introduction to the transformation as a foundation for studying the journey
  2. The Hero’s Journey: an introduction to the eight-stage hero’s journey pattern, its stages and dynamics
  3. Gawain and the Green Knight: a retelling of the traditional legend to study the journey in literature
  4. The End of Eternal Spring: a retelling of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, emphasizing the role that compromise plays in our journeys
  5. The Legend of the Buddha: a retelling of the legend of Siddhartha as a model of the spiritual journey
  6. Hero’s Journey Film Project: uses Field of Dreams (or a film of your choice) to explore the journey in a modern story
  7. Write a Hero’s Journey Short Story: students write their own hero’s journey story using the pattern
  8. The Call Refused: uses Groundhog Day (or a film of your choice) and the Greek myth “Minos and the Minotaur” to explore the dangers of refusing the call
  9. Hero’s Journey Group Presentation: project in which student groups research non-Greek/Roman hero myths and present them to the class
  10. My Journey: two projects in which students to explore their own journeys: a personal mandala and an autobiographical essay
  11. Appendix: materials and handouts you can use with the book and to explore the journey pattern in other works

High school teachers of “English” and “Literature” courses can mix and match modules into their own lesson plans or present the complete curriculum. The guide should also be valuable to writers studying the hero’s journey for use in their own stories as well as for youth group leaders and camp counselors who are presenting “lessons in life” programs.

You can find articles about the hero’s journey in the Mr. Harris’ online library here.



SarabandeCover2015Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the hero’s journey novel “The Sun Singer” and the heroine’s journey novel “Sarabande.”