Just so you know: I’ve been thinking about this idea–THE BIG THING–for ten years now. Ask my students.
How many have worked with me on a Big Thing?
This is the statement that goes in the syllabus of a Big Thing Workshop.
Your goal is to produce what I call a “big thing,” fifty pages of polished work. This can be the beginning of a novel, a novella, a series of interrelated stories, a collection of non-related short stories, fifty one-page stories, or a combination of things. I want you to aspire with this project. I want you to aim high. I want you to start writing the book you’ve always wanted to write, but never seem to have the time for. I want you to care deeply about whatever it is that you’re writing about. Much of the work you have to do will take place outside of class, in solitude. But when we are together, we will work collectively to help each other achieve our individual goals. In other words, you must expect much from yourself and give even more to each other. If you aren’t ready for something like this, then please bow out gracefully now.
But they never drop.
Most people think they have at least one book inside them. Sometimes all you need to do is tell them that it’s time to try and write it.
Sometimes that big thing is published. Usually it’s not, but does that have to be the point? Sometimes the big thing becomes part of an application to a writing program or a fellowship program, an opportunity that leads the writer to another place, another subject, another big thing. Sometimes I recognize bits and pieces in their blogs. Sometimes those 50 pages become a single poem. Sometimes the humbling experience of having attempted a big thing leads to a life-long appreciation of books. Sometimes they never write another word of fiction, but they write other things instead. They teach. They read. They write. They blog. They review. They edit. They participate. There are about a million ways to be a writer, and you don’t have to publish a book with Random House or get a job teaching creative writing. You just need to write.
So, I decided to use my blogroll to show off the different ways my former students are making literary lives for themselves. Today I reached out to a young woman who graduated last year and is going through what Ted Solotaroff called “writing in the cold.” And she responded right away: “I’m so excited for this now. I’ve been trying to read as many writing blogs as I can because it helps the feeling of isolation when you’re working on a project for hours and hours all by your lonesome. I’m so excited to get back to work on my Big Thing but also TERRIFIED. Time to conquer that fear and keep on learning!”
My blogroll, then, is a kind of family tree. It’s a link to my students’ blogs and websites (some personal, some professional, most a little of both), and I hope it gives you (and them) a sense of how many different ways there are to lead a literary life. Each link, each person is different, but what connects them is the shared experience of having written a Big Thing.
If you were a student of mine in a senior seminar or graduate workshop, please send me a link to your blog or website. If you’re reading this and you’re friends with someone who was in one of my classes, please pass it on. Thank you.
On the first day of my Advanced Fiction course, I dropped the bomb. “Everyone in this class is going to participate in National Novel Writing Month. Even me.”
You should know this: not a single student dropped. In fact, many of them got pretty excited.
I’d never tried this before–as a writer or as a teacher–and, to be perfectly honest, I wish now that I’d called it “National Novel Drafting Month” instead.
To draft. To draw up a preliminary version of or plan for. To create by thinking and writing; compose: draft a speech.
“The great defect of craft-driven programs is that they ignore the writer’s inner process. Creativity, the inner process of imagination, is not discussed. So far as the craft-driven workshop is concerned, creativity is sealed in a black box; you’re supposed to remember that the box is there, but there is a tacit agreement not to open it in public.”
I’ll be in Indianapolis tomorrow, Saturday, October 23, to talk more about making big things at the Gathering of Writers. If you’re in Indy or there bouts, please drop by.
If the technology gods are shining down on me, I’ll be presenting my thoughts in the form of a Powerpoint, a form which I like to call The Illustrated Essay.
I don’t use bullets. I use metaphors. I use my own experiences. I have been known to use the word “I.”
I know someone who took a Novel Workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s a pretty stupid way to encourage the writing of novels in a creative writing class.
Most courses labeled “Fiction Workshop” are actually “Short Story Workshop.”
Nobody says you must write a short story, but that’s what everybody does anyway.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we transmit this subextual message to our students:
“You will learn to tell a story in 8-15 pages. If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you must artificially inflate your story so that we will not think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you must artificially deflate your story because more than 15 pages makes us very cranky. Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We like minimalism. Show don’t tell is-amazingly-a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. Show don’t tell is reassuring, like a lucky sweater, like “Sweet Home Alabama” on the jukebox. The opposite of show don’t tell, the tell tell tell of artful narration, well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, show don’t tell virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.”
Here’s one simple thing you can do to encourage the making of big things in your writing workshop or your writing practice: don’t call it a story. Call it a manuscript.
Show them an example of a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their big thing will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.”
I don’t put the word story in my syllabus, and I don’t use it in class. I say, “So, how are you doing on your manuscripts?”
“Turn in around 15 pages of your manuscript to discuss. This can be one 15-page short story, or two 6-page stories, or fifteen 1-page stories, or one 2-page story plus one 12-page story. It’s your manuscript. You decide.”
“Remember, your manuscript is due this week.”
And later, one of my students came to my office and said, “I have a question about my manuscript.”
She didn’t say “my story.”
And she certainly didn’t say “my paper.”
She’s working on a manuscript, a big thing.
These questions have been on my mind for quite a while:
Why did I spend twenty years working on short stories as opposed to novels? Is it nature or nurture? Am I really predisposed to write short stories, or do I write them because it is the only prose form for which I received explicit instruction?
How do you write a novel? And how do you teach a class on how to write a novel?
Is our current and much discussed market glut of short stories due to a genuine commitment to the form, or is it due to the fact that the many, many writers we train in creative writing programs simply don’t know how to write anything else?
Is a workshop antithetical to generating a big thing? Is it possible to teach a class that is a “writeshop,” not a workshop? What would that look like?
Gradually, I’ve incorporated all this thinking into my classes. And also–because for me teaching and writing are inextricably linked–I’ve incorporated all this thinking into my own writing practice; I’m in the beginning stages of a novel. Not a novel-in-stories this time. A novel. I created this blog in order to share this journey with others trying to make the same shift from “story” to “book.”
There are an infinite number of venues to talk about creative writing, but not as many to talk about teaching creative writing–which is unfortunate, because I absolutely love to talk about teaching creative writing. That’s one of the reasons I love being friends with writer/teachers on Facebook; we share what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, what’s not working, what is working.
I’ve never blogged before, but I’ve wanted to for a long time. The best way to begin, they say, is to begin with what you’re passionate about, and right now, this is what I’m passionate about: the big thing–generating one, revising one, publishing one, teaching others who are interested how to do it, too.
This blog isn’t very slick, and I know I have a lot to learn. I came very close to not starting the blog for those reasons. I’m a Virgo, a perfectionist. My impulse is to spend hours fiddling with the format, figuring out everything about how this works–but I can’t. I have a big thing to write. And students who have a big thing to write.