Chaos in the Classroom 

by Francine Ringold

Theodore Roethke, that marvelous lyric poet and passionate teacher who died in 1963, liked to begin his first lectures to freshman creative writing students by saying, much to their amazement, “Today, I’m going to lecture on confusion. I’m all for it!” Well, so am I—for confusion and uncertainty and turbulence and Dionysiac energy, and a healthy bit of chaos now and then.

Obviously I am not a systematic thinker or a very orderly teacher.

On the other hand, I do have a firm belief that art is form, that good writing must be shaped and pruned if it is to have power and clarity and move from individual experience to the readers’ hearts and minds. Is my seeming lack of system purposeful? Indeed! It leaves doors open. It allows even strange ideas and characters to enter. Or, to put it another way, Apollonian order only results when Dionysiac energy is engaged.

I don’t deny that I walk into class with a plan, that I worry about what I’m going to say or not say, and that it would be much easier for me to lecture, to lecture alone, to have all the movement going from me to them and not ever to let them enter, not ever to let them motivate me, change my ideas, or even the shape of those ideas. But I have found that that just doesn’t work. Somehow, once an idea is down on paper and I am reading from it (no matter how eloquently), it becomes fixed; I hate to part with it. The paper from which I am reading becomes more absorbing than the faces before me.

And how quickly the audience recognizes that as we lecture we are fulfilling our need to be secure, not asking to know their needs, what “turns them on.” If we permit ourselves only a modest amount of lecturing, we are affirming that there is a dormant body of energy ready to be moved if only someone provides the awakening spark.

But here too there is a potential trap. So often when we say “motivate” we mean push, shove, get our listeners to do what we want them to do, what our plans on paper have foreseen. That attitude, of course, assumes not that our students’ creative capacity lies dormant but rather that it is dead or non-existent, that there is no spirit to give trouble, that each person before us will be molded to our pattern, to our beat.

What we want, then, is to help each student move in his or her direction, to allow each person before us to become a finely-tuned instrument, flexible enough, varied enough, and ultimately disciplined enough to express his or her unique voice in a manner that finds its mark.

And so, to that end, we break from our carefully designed lecture with a sincere question to the group, a conversation, a writing exercise, a physical exercise related to the writing. We reach with our arms as we reach for our words. We “dig” as well as “delve.” We acknowledge that words have muscles: prestidigitationoily, lull. . . aby. We may ask our students, no matter how old they are, to wither, bloom, curl, uncurl, flop. In essence, we feel the words, and in so doing begin to know the importance of choosing the right ones. We ask that everyone close his or her eyes and repeat words like crash, plunk, slither, warble. We remember together the importance of sound in writing, and then of rhythm, of stopping and starting. Nothing is too silly if it works, and a flexible, varied approach seems to work much better than a lecture about the importance of muscularity, sound, and rhythm, as well as sense, to make one’s writing roar.

All of the above may seem obvious.Yet if you attend any section of an MLA (Modern Language Association) conference or even the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs)conference/bookfair, you will find a great proportion of presenters boring one another, seemingly in an effort to impress, by lecturing instead of demonstrating by example the chaos, confusion, energy, and uncertainty of the classroom we choose to inhabit and make productive.

I do not claim to have a mainline to creativity. What works in one class falls flat in another. Each group seems to have its own character, just as each student his or hers. This composite of personalities, of those with you and agin you, the trusting and the hostile, the writers and the analyzers, shifts proportions and demonstrates that perhaps the only thing of which we can be certain is uncertainty. Rather than finding that fact depressing, we might welcome it, finding uncertainty, chaos, and confusion both a stimulation and a welcome challenge.

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book is From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

Image: Alpha Stock Images,


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