This past Wednesday was the final meeting of the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar ’20 class. The dust is settling, and I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what happened in terms of instruction. The good news is, I can say the class was a success!
We ended up with 5 excellent, experience-based short stories. As far as the instructional content goes, I’d rate it 7.5 out of 10. I want to trim some of the readings out and focus more intensely on the ones that resonated with students. I firmly believe we wouldn’t have ended up with the stories that were written without examining the included topics in the intense way we covered them (intense in the context that this is a 5-week community-based writing program for non-writers).
As expected, this course surprised more than a few of its participants in terms of workload. Almost all of the 15 registered students knocked out a good “I Am a Camera” story. I was pleased with this. When we switched gears in week 2, and we started working on the experience-based short story, that’s when 10 of the 15 dropped off. If we wouldn’t have ended up with the stories that we did at the end of the course, I would say I need to dial the workload back a bit next time, but we ended up with quality output at the finish line.
I need to make it much more clear what will be expected early on during the recruiting phase. I want to interview students before I bring them on next time. This isn’t a knock on students that dropped after those first few weeks. I’ve come to realize there’s a certain type of programming and expectation for community-based writing programs, especially in the veteran community. Many of these writing programs are focused on the therapeutic benefits of writing and catharsis. Those programs are expressive in nature. The PCVI Summer Writing Seminar is specifically focused on creative writing skills. I had more than a few students enter the class equating creative writing with mental health and that’s why they were there. Mental health professionals were referring them to the program for mental health gains.
I’m not against programming that is focused on expressive writing and catharsis. I mean, that’s what Endless Beautiful has evolved into in many ways! We hosted a few May is Mental Health Month events in 2020, and I’ve witnessed extraordinary moments of genuine healing and sharing during EB workshops. That being said, I would say that not pursuing skill-focused creative writing programming for veterans is a missed opportunity on many fronts.
The first reason skill-focused creative writing instruction for vets is important has to do with performance accomplishments and self-efficacy.
Here’s Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of self-efficacy:
Perceived self-efficacy refers to people’s beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over their own activities.Cambridge Dictionary
The psychologist Albert Bandura presented the theory of self-efficacy in the late 70s and it has been researched and adapted considerably since. Self-efficacy is not only a critical concept in psychology. It has major ramifications in the world of education. Self-efficacy comes down to an individual’s confidence in performing a specific task. There are many factors that play into this, but a key takeaway here is that the individual’s confidence in performing that specific task might determine whether or not they are even capable of performing the task at all.
The experience of performing that task successfully or not performing it will inform self-efficacy regarding other tasks. It generates a strong feedback loop that can be positive or negative. For example, if you’ve never had success swimming, or performing other sports, and others around you are having a difficult time swimming and telling you not to waste your time, it will be extremely difficult for you to learn how to swim. On the other hand, if someone teaches you how to hold your breath under water first and you master that, then how to doggy paddle, and you master that, and then how to do a breast stroke, and others around you are encouraging you and doing breast strokes, your chances of learning how to swim increase greatly.
I will not dive deep(er) here, but students that are taught to write stories in a comprehensive way and finish those stories will have achieved a major performance accomplishment. Expressive writing exercises don’t necessarily have that “container,” and are often times attached to one’s mental health state. You’re never finished, so you do not get the same self-efficacy boosts as specific skill-based instruction. Skill-based instruction oriented toward performance accomplishments does not exclude emotional growth. In fact, emotional states are a huge part of the process. I would argue there is potential for much longer lasting gains for veterans when you do not stop at perceived gains in emotional state and aim for a very specific goal and related performance accomplishment, i.e. finishing an experience-based story after several drafts.
Another important aspect here is the benefits of skill-based instruction and how it generates more meaningful opportunities to reach the public. Well-written stories by a multitude of veterans can go much further in bridging the veteran/civilian divide. Because of the Summer Writing Seminar, I now have a mechanism to train vets to write these stories, and we can share them with the public via our upcoming website, PVDVETS.org. A purely expressive piece of writing might be extremely meaningful to its author but not have the same impact on the public. The students that finished the stories in our class have reported to me that they are motivated to showcase their work to the public and are excited about an opportunity to create understanding between veterans and civilians.
I’ll finish this post with some words that I shared with students in this year’s Summer Writing Seminar after they read their stories on Wednesday. I’m extremely proud of what has taken place already and we’re just getting started!