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Sharing Fear and Creative Writing

Т  Т  Т Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein–each year my students experience a love-hate relationship with this classic text, which translates to my own love-hate relationship when teaching it. The text is long, descriptive (overly so if youТ ask a 10th grader), and old. The novel isn’t as frightening as the premise seems to promise. Summed up, the novel is a title to get through more than enjoy.

Т  Т  Т As an EnglishТ teacher, I want students to understand what this novel meant to its own time while connecting it to ours. I want students to pity the supposed monster and question the assumed hero. As a reader, I wondered if students were allowing their imaginations to carry them away. Sometimes I worry that we’ve moved away from using our imaginations at all by the time we reach high school. This year we spent more time exploring our personal fears and Gothic elements. We opened up our imaginations, heightening our awareness to all things that go bump in the night.

Т  Т  Т Studying the characteristics of Gothic literature of course could become a final essay. Instead, our study centered around reviewing film clips, listening to sound bytes of maniacal laughter and howling winds, and analyzing photographs and paintings to inspire our own creative writing. Т We also read Stephen King’s “The Horror Market Writer and the Ten Bears: A True Story” from Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing. King believes that what scares us as individuals will scare others. We began by listing our own top ten fears and sharing them out whole-class. Students found comfort in realizing that their peers around the room, in and out of their social groups, (and their extremely jumpy teacher) held common ground on what we worried about, startled at, and cried over. I wanted student writing to be more inspired by what they felt and imagined and connected to during each of the latter experiences more than their attempts at emulating the authors we read: Poe, Woolf, King, or Shelley.Т 

Т  Т  Т One of the film clips we watched was the classic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Students actively broke down the details through discussion on perspective, sound and visual effects, and situation. We also explored censorship during the time the film was made versus now, while honestly discussing whether less was more in this particular case. Overall we agreed: Thinking you are totally alone in the shower whenТ you hear a suspicious sound from outside of the room is terrifying. This was our first springboard into writing.Т Т Instead of quizzing students on Gothic elements or writing a literary analysis on the use of those elements, we brought these characteristics to our own work. We learned by doing; we learned by imagining. The only requirements for the assignment were to include a couple Gothic elements, bring in a couple of their listed fears, and cut the story at two pages. We took all of this shared emotion and wrote original flash fiction.

Т  Т  Т The stories were all over the place and amazing! No two stories were the same, nor were students attempting to sound like the samples of Gothic writing we studied. Not surprisingly, we began to find our voices outside of the standard five-paragraph essays, though my hope is that these newly discovered voices will break into their literary analyses, too. They wrote about the fear of disappointing others, losing loved ones, discovering betrayal, and fighting addiction. Students opened up about was real and frightening in their worlds and found their allies around the room. We also discovered that maybe the fears we have aren’t really all that different from the fears Shelley wrote about in 1818.

Т  Т  Т On the day the stories were due, we turned out the lights, held the flashlight under our chins, and told our tales. Not only were students writing in ways that were more reflective of them as individuals, but they were kind and supportive of each other. Writing our flash fiction was just the trust exercise we needed to reignite writing with imagination.

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