Impressions from Summer School 2018

Getting a Closer Look at the Craft and the Learning Process

I came to Yasnaya Polyana as one of the invited lecturers, but I felt much more like a pupil in the finest sense of the word. All three days of the summer school I spent learning rather than participating or observing, and that intense short-term education is, I am sure, going to benefit me and my students.

First of all, I am grateful to have witnessed Maya Kucherskaya, Chris Merrill, Maureen Freely and Andrey Astvatsaturov, four writers teaching creative writing, interact with each other and with us, participants. Their lectures and workshops helped me understand much better how exactly creating writing is taught. Some time ago already I understood that storytelling can and should be taught, like other arts, and that it is not a way of tricking people into spending money and time for something they should figure out on their own (and I have to admit that a few years backI had really had this prejudice). Since I started teaching narratology at the Higher School of Economics masters program on creative writing, a lot more of my misconceptions disappeared, and yet I was almost completely unaware of the craft of transmitting the knowledge and the skill from writer to an aspiring writer. Looking at magicians explain their tricks is always rewarding as it gives you hope to achieve something and shortens the distance between their magic and yourself, even if for a minute.

This summer school also gave me a lot in terms of understanding the US approach to teaching creative writing, which is to a large extent based on giving the students the tools for expressing themselves and for interpreting and elaborating on their own experience. This method seemed to me uneasy to apply with Russian students as our culture values personal experience in a different way, and showing vulnerability or describing your own failures is
considered shameful. Yet I was in for a surprise during Ekaterina Lyamina’s lecture on writing about oneself and working with Ego-documents when I found out that the workshop on writing autobiographical texts is an important part of Creative Writing School in Moscow and that its attendants really open up and show great results in terms of writing progress. Alexey Vdovin’s presentation on writing biographies was a very clear and easy to follow description of the working process, which created a sweet albeit false impression that writing biographies is definitely achievable due to a well-thought-out teaching method and the help from the editors.

Diana Nemec Ignashev’s film screening and discussion as well as Maya Kucherskaya’s workshop on Tolstoy’s short story “Three Deaths” were very useful, especially because they gave me an opportunity to discuss some of the vital questions of teaching creative writing in small groups of colleagues who were open-minded, curious and sharp-sighted. Working in groups and speaking with other participants of the summer school may have been the most eye-opening experience as I found out that people from different education facilities in different parts of Russia are eager to establish creative writing programs in their institutions and are ready for it.

As for my own presentation, despite being scared to death by the prospect of speaking in front of the people who knew more than me and achieved more than me in philology and in literature, I was relieved and grateful to see that my colleagues and teachers reacted positively to what I was saying and showed real interest in narratology as a discipline. I was given a few great advice and was asked some important questions that I am working on right now while preparing for the autumn semester.

Last, but definitely not least, I am thankful to the summer school for a chance to discuss some of the organisational topics that bother or even alarm me as a teacher, such as emotional and psychological well-being of the students in creative writing programs as artistic work is always unbalancing, and producing art for a school deadline is one of the most nightmarishly stressful experiences I can imagine. It was especially important to hear some of the insights on this from our American colleagues who have come across such problems time and again.

I have written down many titles of books and textbooks, I have put down questions for myself and ideas for the new tasks for my lessons, I have met like-minded people and I have posed myself many a question that I still have to answer regarding my own relationship to art production. I was thrilled to spend three days in Tolstoy’s family estate and despite the fact that the work was really intense and we had very little free time, I came home exhausted, a little ill, but above all happily overwhelmed and inspired.

Александра Баженова-Сорокина
Кандидат филологических наук, старший преподаватель
Школы филологии Факультета гуманитарных наук НИУ ВШЭ