Using the Library to Teach Creative Writing

| March 25, 2012

Jeanette Winterson, in her hot-off-the-press new memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, makes continuous claims that reading—and later, writing—lifted her out and away from her otherwise difficult childhood and gave her hope. “Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination. I had been damaged and a very important part of me had been destroyed—that was my reality, the facts of my life; but on the other side of the facts was who I could be, how I could feel, and as long as I had words for that, stories for that, then I wasn’t lost.” If this sounds melodramatic, consider that her adoptive mother, an evangelical Christian, had banned literature from the home, and that upon discovering Winterson’s books hidden under her mattress, her adoptive mother burned her entire collection in a bonfire in the back yard.  Winterson’s point—about reading and writing opening doors—is not a subtle one, but it’s wonderfully illustrative of the power behind storytelling. “A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?”

Gottesman Library has a large and varied collection of books about teaching creative writing, as well as about the power of reading, and of literature, to open doors. Finding these books in the stacks requires knowing how to search for them, and so here are some handy tips:

Subject Terms: searching by subject rather than by keyword allows you to access one of the main entry points created by the Library of Congress. Subject terms are nested, in that the first part of the term describes a broader list of subjects, while the endings, separated by dashes, further specify the topic.  Here are two examples of this:

  • Creative writing
  • Creative writing—Study and teaching

To specify the genre in question the subject will look like this:

  • Poetry—Study and teaching
  • Fiction—Study and teaching

You can also use subject terms to narrow the subject by age group; for instance if you want to research teaching to elementary school students, the subject will look like this:

  • Creative writing—Elementary education

I want to point out quickly how much better a search this is than using keywords. Open up the advanced search option and try entering “creative writing” in one box and entering your age group, say K-8, in another.  You will retrieve exactly two results, both about teaching creative writing to the ages K-8. If you click into the record of the first book and then click “find similar items” you will see the subject heading “creative writing—elementary education” listed. Aha!  Clicking this link will lead you to the rest of the 47 books we have on this topic.

Here is another tip: every time you find a book that discusses the exact topic you’re researching try clicking “find similar items” in the record, and click one of the subject headings, which will lead you to more books cataloged under the same terms. Note, not all books that discuss what you and I might consider “creative writing” are cataloged under this term.

Another set of useful subject terms includes the following:

  • Authorship
  • Poetry—Authorship
  • Fiction—Authorship
  • Autobiography—Authorship
  • Literature—Study and teaching
  • English language—Rhetoric—Study and teaching

And let’s not for get the handy:

  • –History and criticism
  • –Handbooks and manuals

For instance, you won’t find Mary Oliver’s lovely, A Poetry Handbook, without using a term like “Poetry—Authorship—Handbooks and manuals.” That said, you will find her book if you use the keywords “poetry handbook.” The trick, then, with searching any library catalog is to search by multiple tactics, and keep at it. As Francine Prose says in Reading Like a Writer (though she’s talking about writing, not researching): “What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.” Research requires a similar dogged tenacity, an open mind, and a bit of serendipity… plus some catalog searching skills.

Some call numbers of interest:

  • P306+ — Language, linguistic theory—translating and interpreting
  • PE 1400+ —English Language—modern English—composition
  • PN1059-1065 — Poetry—theory—technique
  • PN1660-1653 — Drama—technique to dramatic composition
  • PN3355-3373 — Prose fiction—technique, authorship

Books mentioned in this essay:

Oliver, M. (1994). A poetry handbook. New York: Harcourt.

Prose, F. (2007). Reading like a writer. New York: Harper Perennial.

Winterson, J. (2011). Why be happy when you could be normal? New York: Grove Press.

  • Butler: PR6073.I558 Z46 2011g