Writing Richmond

May 30, 2014
City provides a backdrop for students exploring the writing process

“In the creative writing classroom, we often talk about finished products,” English professor David Stevens says. “We rarely talk about the front end of production. We rarely talk about inspiration. We rarely talk about those elements of craft where writers begin.”

In his Writing Richmond community-based learning course, Stevens is using the city to give students new ideas for how to approach both fiction and nonfiction writing.

In some cases, excursions were a way to explore broad questions in writing. Maymont Park provided a backdrop for studying the intersection of suburban and urban environments and natural spaces. When thinking about how the literary arts interact with other forms of art, the class toured the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Other outings were an opportunity to equip his creative writing students with the experiences they’ll need to write authentically about different situations. For instance, they visited the Colonial Shooting Academy for a history of guns in America and a test run at the range — an experience students could then draw on in their own writing.

“It occurred to me that in fiction or nonfiction students might want to write about these things and some of them had never had this experience,” Stevens says.

The same goes for cooking. With ramen as the standard for residence hall cooking, writing about a character preparing a complex meal or new foods might prove challenging for someone with limited experience in the kitchen.

As a result, the class met at the University’s Center for Culinary Arts for a few lessons in elementary cooking. Using locally sourced ingredients, like cheese, mushrooms, fish, apples, and peanuts, the class produced a menu of mushroom pizza, fish in a butter sauce, a microgreens salad with goat cheese, and peanut brittle.

It’s a partnership the culinary center — which is located a few miles from campus — hopes to offer with more classes.

“One of our goals here is to constantly try and engage the University community, including undergrads, as much as we can,” says Martin Gravely, program manager at the center. “Culture, language and history classes — it all just ties into food. It’s a natural fit.

“We love what we do day in and day out, which is classes for the general public, but we also want this to become more and more integrated within the University. It was really great for both sides, I think, to do that.”

Stevens agrees that this, and the other community partnerships he formed during the semester, added a new layer to the traditional workshop model and, he hopes, made students more aware of the world they live in.

“What I really want the students to take away from the class is the notion that wherever they come from and wherever they’re going, the spaces in which they find themselves will offer up material that they can use,” he says. “It’s a matter of exploring and, in a positive and artistic way, exploiting those spaces for the benefit of their work.”