How Structured Writing Assignments Can Unleash Creativity

In July of 2011, I was beginning the third semester of my MFA program, and I had some very definite goals.  I was going to start a new teaching job, so I knew the first few months of the school year would be especially busy.   To make the beginning of the year more manageable, I wanted to push through an ambitious amount of MFA work—my full critical thesis and a completely unreasonable number of pages of my new novel—before September.  So when my new advisor, Mary Quattlebaum, asked me to write a fractured fairy tale in addition to working on my critical thesis and novel, I wasn’t entirely thrilled.

But that fractured fairy tale turned out to be one of the most important writing assignments I’ve ever completed.  The project had clear guidelines: to take an existing fairy tale and make it my own by changing the perspective, setting, or other elements, and to tell my story in no more than 1,000 words.  At a time when I was wrangling numerous academic sources and big ideas for my critical thesis and trying to wrap my brain around how to structure a novel, it was a relief to have a short assignment with clear expectations.  I learned some helpful and transferrable writing lessons as I wrote and revised my fractured fairy tale—lessons about crafting a surprising but logical ending and managing multiple characters—and the stakes felt low, so I was able to relax and have fun. I made the story funny, and once my advisor Mary had seen the humor in my fractured fairy tale, she encouraged me to enhance the humor in the novel I was beginning.

That fractured fairy tale assignment showed me that structured creative writing projects can set writers up to experience success, take their own individual approach, and enjoy the writing process.  It seems like the best way to spark young writers’ creativity should be to give them a chance to write whatever they want with no restrictions.  Open-ended writing opportunities are valuable, too, but I’ve found that giving more controlled writing assignments with clear criteria can free students up to be creative and relaxed.

My sixth grade students are currently working on a very specific writing assignment, and I’ve been amazed by how original and full of personality their stories are.  We read Donna Jo Napoli’s novel Bound, which tells a Chinese Cinderella story, and then we read picture books that tell other Cinderella stories: Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story, The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Story from the Jewish Tradition, and The Korean Cinderella.  We decided on several elements that all these Cinderella stories share: a main character who is separated from his or her parents; one or more helping characters; one or more cruel characters; a special event the main character wants to attend; an article of clothing/possession/feature that proves the main character’s identity; and an ending in which the main character finds a romantic partner, family, friend, or passion.

The variety in my students’ stories is remarkable.  One student is writing about a gingerbread Cinderella named Gingerella whose father was eaten by the king.  One is writing about a mouse Cinderella named Henry, who gets separated from his family when they are on the way to the National Subway Dwelling Mouse Association’s annual ball.  One is writing the story of how Prancer became one of Santa’s reindeer, one is writing about a boy with a wand that is supposed to grant wishes but keeps backfiring, and one is writing about a shy girl whose beautiful singing voice catches the attention of her “prince” when she sings at a masquerade ball.

It’s been fun to break down the key structural elements of a classic story and then see all of the variations they can come up with.  And these key elements provide a skeletal story structure, so students get experience writing a piece with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and they can be freed up to focus on developing vivid scenes within that structure.  Plus, in January, we’ll get to experience another take on Cinderella’s story when we go to an inventive production of Cinderella at the Arden Theatre, where a very dear friend of mine is starring as one of the stepsisters.  I’m looking forward to our discussions analyzing the story structure and creative choices after we see the show!