Using Visual Arts in Teaching Creative Writing and Composition

AWP Visual Art“Writing makes our brains pretend to have a sensory experience, but it’s not really having one.”

This was the kick-off statement at one of the AWP writer’s conference panels I attended in March. It stopped me in my tracks, making me realize other art forms – music, paintings, film – are all true sensory experiences. Whereas with writing, I must use words and sentences and paragraphs to lull my reader into a state of foolery. A state where they believe something is happening in the magic of their mind.

Wanting to bridge the gap between words and sensory experience, five creative writing and composition professors talked about how they use visual arts in their classrooms. These techniques are useful if you want to be a teacher someday, but they can also be added to any writer’s tool box. We never stop learning! Having attended art and film school before learning to write novels, I’m a huge fan of these concepts. I think they’re invaluable tools for any writer.

Here are my notes and takeaways from the AWP conference panel:

Visual Arts in Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition Classrooms – A discussion with professors Margaret Luongo, Zackary Hill, David Ebenbach, Jody Bates, and Brian Roley.

Why is using visual arts in teaching important? Particularly for creative writing and composition?

  • On an emotional level the tools of writing are weak (words, sentences, etc.). Whereas images and music and film can have an immediate visceral impact and engage students.
  • Writing makes our brains pretend to have a sensory experience, but it’s not really having one. Where with visual art, the sensory experience is real.
  • The true magic of writing happens in the gutter – in the mind – in the negotiation of white space.
  • By using visual arts you’re getting your students to think critically. Good writing is good thinking.

How can we use paintings and visual art in the classroom?

  • Show students a painting and ask them to list simple adjectives to describe it.
  • Have students draw metaphoric imagery. The act of drawing opens us up to new ideas.
  • Art helps students to visualize and think about how to see an object accurately.
  • Ask students to create a movie poster of their story. Ask them to try and incorporate the themes, main character, story, etc. In addition to creating the poster, have students write an “artist memo” that explains what everything in the poster means. The poster will be worth 100% of the grade, and the memo 0%. Often this assignment causes students do their best writing all semester. This is because they don’t have the pressure of making the writing “good.” Instead they’re focusing on ideas.

How can we use film and movies as a tool for education?

  • Today’s students are more influenced by film than they are by books. As a result, they write like a narrator moving around a space with a movie camera. But we can use film as a jumping off point to help students to understand how to “direct a film” through prose.
  • Use films to talk about how a director is using visual cues to create a discussion with the viewer. Look at lighting, positioning, shots.
  • Play a film without sound or dialogue. Ask students what the images tell them about the story? What is the meaning of what they see? Focus not only on what is being shown, but how it’s being shown.
  • Look at film as a way to discuss narrative discourse in fiction. Narrative discourse is how the story is told and how we understand events. Discuss how you use prose to do the same thing a good director does in a film.

What can we learn from comparing literature to its film adaptation?

  • The Sweet Hereafter is a great example of a film adaptation that is very different stylistically from its book source. The novel is not very cinematic at all. It is also told in four different points of view. Whereas the film is an ensemble that is very cinematic.
  • Other good adaptations to look at are: In The Bedroom, The Remains of the Day.

How can we use music as a tool in the classroom?

  • Play an emotional piece of music. Example: Gustav Holst’s Mars Bringer of War or Jupiter Bringer of Joy. Then ask students to help you list adjectives that would recreate the powerful experience they had listening to the music. Close the gap between the experience and describing the experience. Get as specific as possible by using concrete images that caused the experience.

Will these techniques cause your students to overuse imagery in their writing?

  • Yes, that’s possible. But in general, most beginning writer’s don’t use enough imagery.

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One response to “Using Visual Arts in Teaching Creative Writing and Composition”

  1. Shelley S. says:

    This is wonderful. I will be teaching Creative Writing and English Comp this semester and will use some of these prompts. Thanks for posting.

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