Welcome to the archived website for Creative Writing 14/German 14: the German Big 10


Dear Visitor —

Welcome to the archived website for a course I developed and taught at the University of California, Riverside campus. This particular iteration of the course was given in Spring 2013.

Since UCR is a public university, I made the assignments, syllabus, and as much of the writing as possible available online.

The “German Big 10” refers to 10 writers that any educated person (and in particular any person interested in creative writing) should know.* I — as instructor — insisted that we read Immanuel Kant and Martin Luther. But after that, students were invited to debate and discuss amongst themselves whom they wanted to study. This strategy is based on Neil Postman’s work, in which he argues that students must learn actively rather than passively, and this can only happen if the classroom operates as a democratic space. I was dubious about such an approach, but when used with some limits, it creates a highly engaged group of students who work harder because they have chosen the material they are studying.

Please feel free to browse through the topics. Please remember that they are arranged in reverse order (the oldest are last). If you are interested in the creative writing question, you may want to start with the discussion of a creative writing exercise called a freewrite.

That topic is here: https://thegermanbig10.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/what-is-freewriting-and-why-is-this-a-smart-thing-for-writers-to-do/

A variation on a freewrite exercise is here: https://thegermanbig10.wordpress.com/2013/05/13/slow-write/

Herzlichen Dank and viel Spass (thank you and have fun!)

Stephanie Barbé Hammer

* this class is only the first of an array of classes that could be developed focussing on a particular language/cultural tradition. I have in mind The French Big 10, or the Spanish Big 10, the Arabic Big 10, the Swahili Big 10 and so on. This approach educates students about a particular history of a culture/nation as it enables them to use that information to craft short stories, poetry, plays, and even short screenplays.



GDR/BRD – East/West Germany — a divided history with divided interpretations and how I blundered into the middle of the divide

After World War 2, “Germany” was divided into 2 different countries — the German Democratic Republic (die Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and the Federal Republic of Germany (Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland). The former was dubbed “East Germany” and the latter “West Germany.” The GDR was an officially communist country under the close scrutiny of and in close proximity to the Soviet Union. The Federal Republic was a democratic nation, and a close ally of the US. The history of these two nations and the history of the dissolution of the Soviet Union are stories that are being fiercely debated right now. The fall of the Berlin Wall directly precedes the birth of most of the people in our class, and so most students never knew this two-state Germany, and know only the triumphalist narrative that celebrates the destruction of communism and the triumph of democracy in the region.

As a baby-boomer who was the child of Republicans, I grew up thinking “East Germany” was a scary place — a kind of German-speaking Soviet Union, where everyone hated Americans. But I was interested in German language and literature.  My college boyfriend convinced me to study German, because that’s what real intellectuals did. So I started. My boyfriend went to Hamburg for a junior year abroad and I visited him there. We went to Berlin in the January of 1974. We visited East Berlin during that trip, because my boyfriend had become a Marxist and was very excited to show me the GDR.

I have written about that first experience, which was extremely negative. Years went by. I married a different man. But my interest in German remained, and as it happened, the GDR offered summer school courses for teachers of German for very low prices, and a senior colleague suggested I go to one to improve my German. For a grand total of $250 I was able to attend a seminar for 3 weeks.  That sum of money covered room and board as well as classes and excursions in Weimar, where my favorite German authors once lived. I was very nervous about going. I stocked up on pharmaceuticals, and tampons, took a train over the border, and held my breath. This was the summer of 1985. My teacher was also my roommate in a house owned by an architect and his wife. Everyone was incredibly nice — except for the Yugoslavian poet who wanted to know why the stores were open 24 hours a day in the US, and why everyone insisted on eating steak. I had a tough time explaining President Reagan to my Polish friends who were attending the seminar. “But isn’t he just a really bad actor?” one of them asked.  “And wasn’t he in a space movie with a monkey?” someone else said. It was a strange experience trying to represent American politics in a foreign language, and the interactions that I had with my Polish friends, my teacher, and the many artists I met during my stay in Weimar got me wondering if East Germany was really as “bad” as I’d been hearing.

Perhaps my most startling memory was when I left Weimar by train and arrived in Frankfurt, which was in “West” Germany. Frankfurt was and is a big commercial metropolis. I walked into the train station and encountered an absolute barrage of ads, people trying to sell me things, and stores selling rolex watches, expensive suitcases, and diamonds. I think I realized for the first time, how much we live in a society that is all about buying and selling things. I have never forgotten that shock — that feeling of being absolutely buried in commodities. I think that was my first awareness of living under capitalism.

The second time I went to the German Democratic Republic, I went to Berlin. There though a chance research connection, I met and spent significant amounts of time with a man who was an SF/Fantasy editor. He introduced me to a number of amazing writers. I got to experience that once again the place for political discussion and critique was happening in the world of that kind of writing. It was great. These writers were using sf and fantasy tropes to imagine utopian worlds as well as nightmarish scenarios. As usual, SF/Fantasy had an active fan community who met frequently and communicated via magazines and comics and newsletters.


Then the Wall came down, and all the publishing houses that published those wonderful writers closed down because the government that subsidized them no longer existed, and none of those writers could get published.

My last visit to Berlin was right after the Wall fell, and there was a McDonalds’ going up on every corner. 165844_10150895207024720_2023285528_n

I worry that the more complex history of the GDR is being buried under a kind of rhetoric that does not do justice to the people who lived there, who actually believed in socialist ideals (like my teacher did), and who hoped for something better after the Wall fell. “They” had propaganda but “we” have propaganda too.

As a writer, I feel that it is important to share what I saw of the GDR from my own small perspective.

The unwillingness of many Berliners to part with the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall testifies, in my humble opinion, not only to a wish to celebrate freedom, but also a concern with preserving the complicatedness of the past. The nostalgia for the Wall and for the GDR (sometimes called Ostalgie) is a symptom of a deeper awareness that the truth of the past is somehow eluding these overly simplistic accounts.


practical advice #2: How to get to know a professor

Everybody knows that you need recommendations during and after college for internships, any kind of scholarship, on campus jobs, education abroad opportunities, transfer, and of course graduate school.  And even if you don’t need a letter of rec, you are paying a lot of money to go to college, so why not get to know the brilliant experts who are teaching you? You MIGHT actually find them interesting.

But how do you connect with a professor?

  1. Go to an instructor’s office hours. Teachers often have different personalities when they aren’t teaching. Go and visit a teacher you “think” you might like and:
    1. just say you want to introduce yourself and say hello.
    2. ask your professor questions.  How did you get interested in chemistry, computer science, Tagalog, African studies?  Where did you go to college, grad school? Who’s your favorite scientist, author, film maker, historian, theorist?
    3. Listen to the answers and try to connect if you can.
    4. If you don’t find your professor interesting, warm, kind, or if you just don’t relate to them at all, then you need to go and talk to someone else.
    5. Don’t be a phony. Don’t say you love their class if you don’t, or love their book, if you don’t. Professors can smell a lie like that a mile off usually (and if they can’t, do you really want such an egotistical person to write for you or get to know you?)
    6. If you do connect with them, let them get to know you. Be open and friendly. If they ask about your interests, say what they are.
    7. Once you’ve met one professor you like, look for others.  Aim for a friendly relationship with 4.

You may not know that:

  1. Professors are themselves often very shy.
  2. Professors usually WANT to talk to students.
  3. Professors are usually INTERESTED in knowing about the things that young people are interested in.  Especially if they are older.  Bring your gameboy and show that professor emeritus how it works (show ME please!).
  4. Professors usually want students to succeed.
  5. Professors usually want to help students succeed.
  6. Professors appreciate being in touch with you after you graduate. It’s true. Some of my favorite people are students I had 20 years ago. And some of my favorite people are students who graduated 2 years ago.

a weekend of free writing workshops at Mount Sac, Last weekend in April


Folks — if you are interested in doing some more creative writing in a no-pressure, no-grade, supportive atmosphere with some amazing teachers, download the above form, fill it out and send it in asap.  Deadline extended til April 12th. When your app is accepted you are eligible to attend a whole weekend’s worth of different workshops with some extremely gifted, and very kind writers.

what is “Freewriting” and why is this a smart thing for Writers to do?

Here is how writer and writing teacher Peter Elbow explains freewriting exercise and why it’s valuable.:

The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. If you can’t think of a word or a spelling, just use a squiggle or else write “I can’t think what to say, I can’t think what to say” as many times as you want; or repeat the last word you wrote over and over again; or anything else. The only requirement is that you never stop. . . .

Freewriting may seem crazy but actually it makes simple sense. Think of the difference between speaking and writing. Writing has the advantage of permitting more editing. But that’s its downfall too. Almost everyone interposes a massive and complicated series of editings between the time the words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come of the end of the pencil or typewriter onto the page. This is partly because schooling makes us obsessed with the “mistakes” we make in writing.” (From Writing without Teachers)

You can read more of Peter Elbow’s discussion here. It’s a great excerpt because it explains clearly how the process serves us as artists.

Have you done a freewrite today?  I try to do a short one every day. This practice is based on the Julia Cameron practice of the “morning pages.” Her book The Artist’s Way, is a book that many artists swear by.  There and in her other books, she asks artists to write 3 pages or 750 words of ‘freewriting” a day.

We will do alot of this kind of writing in our class.

Yoko Tawada — part of the Who’s German? contemporary writing brigade

Just listened to Yoko Tawada’s collage-reading of texts with the help of her Japanese-English translator. It is one of the links offered below. She is from Japan, but lives in Germany and writes in both Japanese and German. She’s a definite possibility for our class, although her work is not viewable online for free at this point. Here’s a bit about her. I don’t always love Wikipedia, but this entry looks pretty well written and pretty extensive.  There is also a blog post about her in The Yorker.