I had asked the students to write a one page story about anything they wished. In fact, the "one page" requirement was not set in stone. I just wanted them to begin somewhere so I decided to resort to what I thought would be a good, safe, place to start: the one-pager. Many of them surprised me; they wrote complete stories. One story I found very compelling was about a man's visit to a whore house. Surely, the provocative topic kept me interested but as I kept reading it became very clear that the writing was very good. The story began with a meaphor. A metaphor that craftily linked the allure of prostitution and common childhood events. It was actually pretty damn cool. Others got more personal than I expected. Mr. Enthusiastic wrote an essay (again, I told them they could write whatever they wanted so some opted for essay-style pieces) on his bout with anorexia. Reading such a personal acocunt on male anorexia was eye-opening, especially since I usually think of anorexia as almost exclusively female. In short, some exceeded my expectations, others met my expectations, and a few went in a different direction than I had hoped - but I can't blame them since I gave them all the freedom in the world.
After reading their stories, I decided to steer them in a more "creative writing" direction. It was clear that some were already on that path but others were not. In order to get them all to start thinking about things like characterization, conflict, and plot, I went into class with Hemingway's "Hills like White Elephants." We read the story in class and discussed the obvious - but at times hidden - theme of abortion. The students agreed with me that the very simple dialogue was effective in telling a loaded story. Thomas informed me that most of the students he had taught the story to did not always pick up on the theme of abortion. My students picked it up immediately - I guess they really are as smart as I have always thought.
For next week (actually, in two weeks - the students have a half day next week), I have asked the students to take two characters from their "one-pagers" and create a dialogue between them in the spirit of "Hills." Some of the stories had no characters or only one character; I have asked those students to create two new characters who have a dialogue that is either based on their one-pagers or revolves around a whole new story. This time, I stressed that the dialogue be only one page because we're going to workshop them in class. Forty minutes goes by so quickly; if we have to workshop anything longer than one page we will never move on to creating longer pieces.
One last point: it seems like the students really care about what they are writing. After class, one student came up to me and wanted to talk about how she could make her story better. It turned out that I had improperly interpreted her story. The world she had created in her story was supposed to be an alternate one - that was not clear. I really want to be able to have one on one discussions with the students because it seems like they have really cool ideas but need more focused help expressing them in clear and still creative ways. I am still thinking about a way to be able to do this in the alloted time while keeping others occupied.