Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction


Back to the Survey Monkey survey I gave my students on November 16. This is a fairly long post, but that’s because it’s about one of the most important decisions my students had to make.

Question 3: How would you describe the extent to which you prepared for NaNoWriMo?

Many hours, lots of concrete planning: 5

A few hours, some concrete planning: 6

Hardly any time, hardly any planning: 2

No time, no planning:  0

Are you happy with the amount of time you spent planning? Continue reading

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

CW Programs

In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.

Here’s Michael Nye at The Missouri Review blog, where even Peter Turchi weighed in with a comment.

Here’s another response.

HTMLGiant noticed.

And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”

Novelist and n+1 editor Chad Harbach says:

The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form.

I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without “MFA program culture” to offset “NYC publishing culture,” the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it’s a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.

As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been?

Harbach wonders this, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

And now, back to my novel…

Changing Habits During NaNo


Survey Question 2: Did you start writing on Nov. 1 or before?

9 students started on Nov. 1

4 students started before Nov. 1 (sometime around Oct. 1)

Are you happy with that decision?

All the students who started on Oct. 1 are happy with that decision. And they are all cruising right along, almost done.

Of the 9 students who started on Nov. 1, five are happy with that decision and four are not. Not surprisingly, the four who are not happy with their decision had the lowest word counts. Continue reading

The Gamification of Novel Writing

The Gamification of Novel Writing

For twenty years, my writing practice had no structure. I wrote when inspired and I would keep writing until I wasn’t inspired. If I didn’t have a big block of time, I wouldn’t write. I waited until I did have a big block of time–which happened…oh…never.

I was 25 years old, two years into an MFA program, and I still acted (without really realizing it) as if writing was something I did “for school.” And then one fall, the buzz among all students in my program was that Inman Majors had returned from summer break with a 200-page manuscript, a rough draft of a novel. Of course, we all hated him immediately.

Continue reading

Survey Says!

On Day 15 of NaNo, I created a Survey Monkey survey so that I could check in with my students. This was so incredibly easy to create and implement, I know I will keep using this tool.
This is what the survey looked like.
I have 15 students, and 13 of them took the survey, and I have decided to share this enormous amount of scientific data with you.
And because I am also trying to get to 50,000 words while teaching classes, grading papers, living life, and blogging about this teaching experience, I am going to post the results one or two questions at a time, along with a little reflection on those results. 

Tomorrow’s post: the “gamification” of writing a novel. 

Writing in the same room as your students

Writing in the same room as your students


On Monday, I opened the door to my classroom and my Advanced Fiction students filed inside. I opened up some cookies, scattered some leftover Halloween candy on the desk. I showed them that we’d received another postcard from the students in Lori Rader Day‘s class. They’re doing NaNo, too. I passed around a postcard, and a few students wrote down their words of encouragement. Continue reading

Publicity as a Motivator


The Ball State Daily News ran a story today about National Novel Writing Month.

Seriously. Front page. Above the fold.

The neighboring headline read “Sex Study places BSU 31st.” And right above, there was a huge picture of Conan O’Brien. So: the editors could have led with a story about S-E-X, or a story about a HUGE CELEBRITY, but instead they went with a story about a bunch of students writing fiction.

Which is pretty awesome, I think.

It was a nice article (thanks Keshia Smith!) and it definitely got my students pumped today. They walked into class full of energy and quickly got to work. Making the front page of the student newspaper will do that to you.

This is what my classroom sounded like today. I think it’s a glorious sound.

The Virtual Teacher’s Lounge

Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook status update.

“KYLE MINOR notices that MFA programs are producing more good short story writers than good novelists. Many of my friends from many different programs have had difficulty, post-graduation moving from the short form to the long. Five-plus years into this novel, I’ve come to believe that the novel and the story are very different animals which might require different training.”

And so began an interesting exchange, lots of writers discussing their experiences as students and teachers. One of the responders, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review, just posted his thoughts on TMR blog. You need to read this.

Any veteran of fiction workshops can tell you: the short story is a more workable and practical pedagogical tool than the novel. Nye discusses this at length. I related to many of his frustrations, both as a former student and as a teacher and mentor.

However, I remain convinced that writing programs can (and should) accommodate both long and short-form fiction. I don’t agree that a writing program is only capable of teaching you how to write a short story, that graduates of fiction workshops must figure out how to write novels entirely on their own.

We can do it. We just have to start thinking outside the box we’ve been living in for 50 years.
Do you teach fiction writing in a creative writing program? Then read Kyle Minor’s FB thread. Read the responses to Nye’s blog post. Think about your own pedagogy. Talk about it here or elsewhere. If you’ve figured out ways to encourage novel writing in your classes, share your insights and ideas.

Because it seems clear to me that inquiring minds want to know.

Five (or Six)

Charles Demuth, Figure 5 in Gold

A few days ago, Sonya Chung posted this great essay on The Millions about being a teacher of creative writing and about the uncertainty that’s inherent to the writing life.

She mentions a recent visit from author Jennifer Egan, who confessed to being an unconscious writer. The first drafts of her novels are written by hand on legal pads. The handwriting is illegible. She doesn’t consciously think about craft at this stage. She just goes, and because she’s writing by hand instead of on the computer, she doesn’t fiddle with what she’s written. It’s only after she’s hand-written a full draft that she goes back and revises and shapes and crafts and starts thinking and making choices.

Chung says one of her students raised her hand asked Egan about what sort of goals she sets, given her largely unconscious way of writing.

“Five pages, she said. Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend, I could sit for three hours and not get any pages. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable.”

It’s worth pointing out that a NaNo participant is doing the same thing as Jennifer Egan. Some proceed with a plan, some without, but still, they’re just trying to get pages done every day. Not five, but six pages down every single day during the month of November.
The next time I hear someone criticize NaNo, I’m going to tell them that Jennifer Egan is a NaNo writer, too. And I’m going to tell them to read this passionate, articulate defense, too.

Egan’s not an official NaNo Novelist, of course. She doesn’t sign up on the website or get a widget. She doesn’t need external reinforcement and the behavioral rewards system. Maybe she did once upon a time, who knows? She’s come up with her own regimen, which she self-enforces.

[Which begs the question “Does writing performed with the aid of constraints or rewards make said writing less valid than writing performed without those aids?” I’ll address that issue soon.]

My students are very resistant to the idea of writing a shitty first draft, to letting their unconscious minds run amok. They say to me, “I respect novels too much to write something crappy.” Or “I had three hours to write new pages today, and all I did was fiddle with what I wrote yesterday. I can’t stop myself.” Or “It’s just embarrassing to me to know that I have written all these crappy sentences. Eventually, I will have to fix those crappy sentences, so why not now?”

All their lives, they’ve had to write, tinker, turn in, get a grade. The rhythm of the semester demands that a messy first draft needs to quickly become a polished final draft. It’s interesting to me that even though I’ve said to them over and over again, “You’re not required to turn that messy first draft into a polished final draft. So just write. I’m not grading this.” But the impulse to “revise as you write” is so well ingrained they want to do it anyway. Some days, I have to forcibly tell them to stop it.
[Could it be that it’s the “credentialed writers” especially, those who emerge from writing programs, who have the most difficulty moving from short stories to novels? I’ll address that issue soon, too.]

For now, I’m going to tell my students about Jennifer Egan’s process. Five–or six–pages every day.

“Workshop” to “Writing Group”


I love what Peter Turchi has to say about workshop here. This and Madison Smartt Bell’s introduction to Narrative Design have really informed my thinking about how I teach workshops.

When I’m teaching a workshop in which students are sharing “big things,” I ask them to read Turchi’s essay, especially this part:

The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)

How do we recognize the intention of a work in progress? When students are workshopping stand-alone short stories, my mantra is: The story must speak for itself. But when students are workshopping big things, I think it’s okay (and necessary) for the author to speak on behalf of the manuscript. Not during the workshop itself, which causes much awkwardness, but before class, outside class.

Idea: require students to use the Blackboard learning environment to create a process blog about their big thing. Ask each writer to articulate the larger goals of the project, its structure, the character’s overall arc, the possible chapters to come, where things are going.

Another idea: require students to turn in their pages presented like 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 book 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.” Basically, they need to teach us how to read their book. We need to know: are we reading stand alone stories, related stories, or a novel?

This approach often shifts the default setting of the class from “workshop” to “writing group.