Last Thursday I had the privilege to participate in Dr. Kelly Daniels’s creative writing class.
Daniels is a forty-something Ph.D., with a graying goatee and a tattoo on his left arm that peeks out of his shirtsleeves when he speaks with his hands. He wears one of those caps, with a small brim, like cyclists wear; he pulls it off. He is an accomplished fiction writer and has been an essential part of building Augustana’s creative writing major.
Dr. Daniels engaged in some pre-class banter about Harry Potter with a few of the early arrivals and he used one student’s tee-shirt to make a connection.
The class was in a small seminar room on the third floor of Old Main. I was invited to sit around the table,but chose to observe from outside the circle.
There were two things that stood out to me.
First, Daniels left the door to the hallway open for the whole session. This surprised me (pleasantly) because I knew students would be reading out loud from their short pieces of fiction. It showed Daniels’s confidence in se in what’s happening inside his classroom, I was impressed.
Next, I noticed there was no clock anywhere in the room. Daniels, however, kept close track of the time throughout by checking his iPhone, about which he made a joke at the beginning of class. As he was shutting off his ringer, he told the class he was “turning up his ringer so to make sure not calls are missed during class.” The class chuckled a bit.
The class began with a very brief quiz in which students were asked to supply the proper punctuation to dialog. I was excused from this quiz, for which I am grateful. Daniels explained that that he “is nitpicky” about punctuation.” He added, “Everyone who passes this class should know how to punctuate dialog flawlessly.” It’s worth noting that it looked like Daniels was doing the quiz along with the students.
The “main event” as Daniels described it was four students reading aloud from a brief fictional piece they had written for the class session. I was treated to four excellent stories and remarkable interaction between students and Daniels. In each instance the following happened:
The author read their story aloud as the class followed along silently.
Next, Daniels asked a member of the class to provide a summary of the arc of the story before opening up discussion about the piece.
Then the author was invited the author to respond and reply.
Each author took a different approach to their writing, but demonstrated strong story-telling, dialog (the emphasis of the exercise and class session) and very strong technical writing. One author was particularly animated and entertaining while reading, which seemed to entertain the whole class. Another author’s short gave Daniels reason to describe “Flash Fiction” and how the student’s piece was nearly ready for flash fiction publishing.
The class included 8 women and 5 men who all contributed, meaningfully, to the discussion at one point or another. Really, with only 13 people sitting around a table it’s impossible to hide. Their level of comfort with each other, and presumably me, grew and the discussion was richer as the class session went on.
My take-aways from English/Creative Writing 202 including the following:
*Daniels is gifted at providing generous and constructive feedback. He also is refreshingly affirming of good work.
*Students offered very mature, creative, insightful feedback to their peers.
*Students demonstrated an impressive confidence in discussion and very high-quality writing.
*Daniels offered insights that connected with the students. He talked about stick figure bumper stickers, his seven-year-old son, the Maquoketa Caves and shared that describing the make and year of a car almost always helps in fiction writing.
So, as I drive home tonight in my 2017 Kia Cadenza, I will reflect on Daniels advice to “thicken up” an aspect of a story and his affirming feedback of each of these emerging fiction authors. Creative Writing 202 showcases what is best about Augustana—talented students, gaining confidence and valuable skills, with a talented insightful mentor.
Dr. Daniels has been at Augustana since 2007, and he now serves as associate professor of English.. Daniels grew up on the road, living for stints with his parents in a Hawaiian commune, a waterless, powerless cabin in the desert, and in an old step-van outfitted with bunks. His life story inspired ‘Cloudbreak, California’ which was one of BuzzFeed’s “13 favorite works of nonfiction in 2013.