I balance an awareness of the emotional and imaginative process behind creative writing with the practical study of craft. My goal is to help each writer gain greater freedom in his or her work—because the ideal result of technical mastery is expressive freedom. Technical mastery is gained through the close, careful reading of other writers—and sometimes through simple trial and error, instinct and intuition. I help students find their model writers, and guide them in developing the ability to analyze just how those sentences are doing the seemingly magical things they do.
I believe half the hard work of writing is being fully yourself, and honing your own sense of reality and truth. I encourage my students to develop their own internal awareness of what their writing needs, and to follow that above all. I believe that it is always possible to be both candid and constructive. I believe it is never my job to discourage any writer, or to impose any aesthetic. I have seen that you never know when a writer will suddenly strike something true and beautiful.
I believe that the practice of writing is an unfolding dialogue, and part of my job is to welcome new writers to the conversation. I believe that the writing life is one of the richest lives I can imagine. I tell writers to read voraciously and to experiment fearlessly—because in writing, as in life, there really is nothing to fear.
The “Craft Annotation”
My teaching is highly influenced by the approach I experienced through the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. This program requires students to write “annotations”–a special form of critical analysis in which we investigate techniques used by model writers. To get a sense of what an “annotation” involves, read former Warren Wilson MFA director Peter Turchi’s guide to annotations here.
I ensure that workshops are both candid and constructive by guiding writers to first set aside their preconceived aesthetics or notions of what “good literature” should be, and to concentrate foremost on clearly seeing, and precisely reflecting back to the writer, the work. I ask each participant to prepare a response letter, which must start by summarizing what the piece is “about,” on three levels: 1. Literal 2. Broader themes. 3. A universal abstract question, short enough to fit on a Post-It Note, that seems to encapsulate the work’s “aboutness.” The Post-It Note exercise comes from Eileen Pollack’s craft essay “What We Talk about When We Talk about Theme,” and whenever possible I have students read and discuss Pollack’s essay before our workshop. This kind of close observation and deep thinking on the emerging meaning of the piece naturally reveals where confusions and opportunities for revision lie, particularly when writers are primed by their work doing annotations to speak a common craft language. Starting with a discussion of “aboutness” also creates good will and receptivity to criticism, because the writer being discussed appreciates the depth of engagement.
I ask the writer up for discussion to read a short passage. We then begin by sharing our “aboutness” statements, and pointing to the places where the language “popped,” and to passages that engaged us, precisely describing why those passages did. We then move on to “questions and opportunities,” pointing out where we had confusions about the intention of the work, and places where we felt it could be pushed further towards the work it wants to be. At the end the writer up for discussion has 10 minutes to ask us questions—either clarifications of comments, or concerns about the work we did not address.
I was beyond fortunate to gather a core group of thoughtful, incisive, dauntless students in my Summer 2017 Writing About Spirituality course for Stanford Continuing Studies. Below are their anonymous, unedited, unexpurgated comments on the teaching evaluations:
Rachel Howard went above and beyond my expectations for a professor. She offered her valuable time and insight to every students’ writing submissions. Her feedback was practical and balanced giving both encouragement and constructive input to sharpen our writing skills. Each week’s assignments built upon the previous reading and writing assignments cohesively, taking the student deeper into the subject matter.
Her manner is gracious to the various beliefs of students, creating a safe environment to hone our individual goals. These ten weeks have been worth every moment and dollar invested. I highly recommend this class and this professor.
Rachel was amazing. Thoughtful, articulate and sensitive, she guided all of the participants through their strengths and gave phenomenal feedback on improving. She was always encouraging and was very effective in bringing the class together in a community. She navigated through multiple spiritual traditions deftly and encouraged cross cultural learnings as well. I.will miss Rachel and this class. Its helped me re start my desire to write.
I really enjoyed this course. It allowed me to explore my writing voice and my own spirituality in a safe and tolerant environment. All of the classmates and the instructor were respectful of all the different religious traditions and beliefs, and that was very refreshing in today’s political climate!
Rachel was a very knowledgeable and thoughtful instructor throughout the course. Always well prepared yet open to suggestions for discussion with a keen understanding for what makes writing work and how to improve our in-class pieces. I learned a lot from her comments and suggestions on my work.
Rachel is compassionate and encouraging. Her comments were timely, thorough, and astute. She has great editing skills and a sharp eye. She guides the course with openness and clarity. Her presence on the boards is very human and she shares vulnerabilities while at the same time. It’s poised and curious. I thought she did an excellent job and would be happy to take another course with her and would recommend her highly to others.
Rachel is an incredible instructor. She is kind, knowledgeable, and always willing to go the extra mile to help the students. She is always commenting and giving solid advice to us all. She is amazing is every way and compassionate and insightful. I really enjoyed our interactions and Zoom calls.
This course was fascinating and Rachel was engaging, informative, inclusive and encouraging. I would recommend this course to anyone who is interested in deepening their understand of spirituality. It had a profound impact on me.