Kim Barnes: Learn the Craft, Trust the Process
Recently, a former student emailed to say he’d been accepted into a few MFA programs, but ultimately, he’d decided on the University of Idaho. When I asked him what made the difference, he cited the beauty of the location, the full funding. “And,” he said, “Kim Barnes has created a multi-semester novel workshop, and I think it sounds fantastic.”
I knew this was one person I definitely needed to talk to. So I emailed her out of the blue and asked her if she would mind sharing this experience with the readers of my blog. She was kind enough to say yes.
Okay, first things first: describe this multi-semester approach. What are the logistics?
As I teach it (and other instructors do it differently), the Novel Workshop is open only to candidates for the MFA in Fiction, with preference given to second- and third-year students. Enrollment is limited to six, is by application only, and is competitive. I require that each interested student submit a letter of application/intent and a 1-2 pages synopsis of the proposed novel project (which we all understand will almost certainly change during the course of the workshop).
Our discussions and meetings actually begin at the end of the current spring semester, when I meet the six students who have been accepted into the class to talk about the protocol, process, and content of the course. We also begin preparations for a summer reading class by discussing the students’ proposals and contemporary novels that might prove informative.
Over the summer, the students read and respond to the same six-to-eight novels, and those responses are shared with the entire class, resulting in an ongoing discussion of craft and techniques that carries through the coming academic year.
Once the formal academic year begins, the workshop meets once a week for three hours, and it is a two-semester workshop. The students are required to present the first 150 sequential pages of their novel about halfway through the first (fall) semester and the second 150 pages toward the end of the second semester. Ideally, by the end of the year-long workshop, they have a working draft of a novel.
That’s a good idea: You give them the summer before to get those first 150 pages ready. What happens during each semester?
The first half of the workshop each semester is taken up with discussion of craft, and, more importantly, visits from established novelists. We are lucky to be rich with novelists in our area, and even more fortunate that many of them are willing to come and speak with the workshop for little more than a bed and a meal. The published authors spend the entire class time with the students in a very informal setting, answering questions about everything from revision to how to end a story to effective writing habits to the inevitable cycle of depression/elation/depression/elation. It is an intimate discussion and often continues at a local bar. Past and future visiting novelists include Claire Davis, Anthony Doerr, Jess Walter, Kevin Canty, Debra Magpie Earling, Sam Ligon, and Brady Udall.
What else is unique about your approach?
I involve the students in my own writing process. I share with them my new ideas, old drafts and edits, send them copies of my email correspondence with my agent and editor, show them reviews of my novels, good, bad, and ugly, and generally make myself vulnerable, open, and available. I tell them about my fears and confusions and how I make my decisions (both good and bad) about characters, plot, you name it.
That’s an amazing idea: you basically create a writing group with your students. What are the advantages of giving your students such “behind the scenes” access?
I remember that, in the first workshop, I was finishing work on my second novel and had a disagreement with my editor over a scene that happened to be my darling. I resisted changing it and told the class so. They wanted to know how writers make those kinds of decisions, when to listen to the editor, when to refuse in the name of “artistic integrity.” “You have to draw a line,” I told them, “and this is my line. This is the sword I will fall on.” I laugh now because, of course, I was taking a prideful stand. My editor was able to articulate why the scene needed to be changed in such a way that made me see that she was right, and I had to put my sword away. What is important here is that the students were a part of the discussion and were able to witness my resistance, indecision, and decision first-hand.
I think it’s incredibly rare for writer-teachers to bring their students inside in this way. Why do you think that is?
I think that, all too often, as writing instructors, we try and keep distance between our lives as writers and our students’ lives as writers. But mentoring isn’t only about craft, it’s much more complex than that. It’s saying, this is how I stay in the room and persevere. These are my fears and uncertainties. There is no magic here, only dedication to the craft, discipline, and stubborn resolve.
I think this is a great idea. Writing programs should teach students how to professionalize themselves, and what better way than for practicing writer-teachers to make their own professional lives transparent to their students.
I like to talk about the business of writing. It should never be confused with the art of writing, but I never shy away from the realities of the business. We discuss query letters, synopses, finding an agent, small press versus New York publishing houses, everything and anything that has to do with the writing life. I email the students’ questions to my agent and editor, and they send back short answers. We talk about networking, making connections, writing conferences, how to balance making a living with making a novel, I call it a full-immersion class, and it is.
Okay, so for the first half of the semester class time is given over to the visits by novelists. Then what happens?
The second half of the semester is spent in formal workshop. The first willing student hands out his/her 150 page manuscript two weeks before the first formal workshop so that readers have at least two weeks to read and compose written comments. (Students are required to provide copies of their comments, which often run 10-20 pages, to the author and to me.)
The workshop discussion focuses on observation, process, and possibility–on craft–and what revisions might be considered to bring the story into its most integrated, unified, and ideal form. It is essential that the group works together, is critical but supportive, and offers not only observation of strengths and weaknesses but possible approaches to revision. Simple response and observation is never enough. My goal is to have the student writer leave the workshop with a set of concrete approaches that he/she can consider and possibly apply. The student writer should never leave the workshop feeling lost and disheartened. Frustrated, yes, but confident in the process. My mantra: learn the craft; trust the process.
What inspired you to create this course?
Like you, I have always felt that MFA programs struggle to find ways to support and implement a novel workshop–it is such a baggy monster of a class, but how can we not teach it? I have an absolute conviction (more so since developing the novel workshop) that teaching the novel is really nothing at all like teaching the short story. The novel is not simply an elongated short story–it is a different animal altogether.
When, four years ago, several MFA candidates in fiction came to me to ask that I lead a directed study in writing the novel, I said, no (too much time–really, I couldn’t imagine). I encouraged them to talk with our department chair about formally offering the class, and to our surprise, he agreed.
People don’t understand that running such a small course costs a department a lot of money and can be difficult to staff; you have to have room in your teaching schedule to commit to this class for a year. Your department is clearly very supportive of students who want to write novels.
I feel very fortunate that we have the support of our department and administration because the class requires a great deal of time and resources yet enrolls only six students each semester. It is a privilege, really, to offer it, and I think it speaks very well of our university’s willingness to be innovative and entrepreneurial. The class had garnered quite a bit of attention; in fact, one of the reasons award-winning novelists are willing to visit the class for a thin slice of their usual honorarium is because they are interested in and eager to see how the class works, and some are interested in attempting a novel workshop at their own universities. What I most appreciate about these visiting writers, however, is their desire to mentor and bring the student novelists into the circle of shared writing experience.
[Dear reader who wants to try this, Kim Barnes has just given you the talking points you can use to persuade your own department. No, it won’t be easy. But have you ever REALLY tried?]
What would you say to that fictional colleague who comes up to you at the copy machine and says, “Just six students! That’s easy. You must get tons of writing done.”
Outside of the published novels, articles, and secondary texts that we read, the student work alone: novel drafts, revisions, and critical responses, often comes in at over 1500 pages a semester. A one-semester class is considered three credits, but the workload per semester easily equals that of a six-credit course, which is one of the reasons I hesitate to teach the novel workshop. I find it exhilarating but also exhausting, as do the students. You have to mean it and really commit to the process.
Tell me about the results. Did the students finish their novels?
My goal in teaching this class is similar to the old adage about fishing: Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime. I don’t expect the students to have finished a novel by the end of the year, only to have attempted a working draft of a novel. Where possible, I want the process of the class to mimic the process of the real writing life. We all know that writing and publishing a novel can take years, and maybe a lifetime. I think of Ron Carlson’s short story mantra–just stay in the room. In his wonderful book Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he takes us through his process of writing a particular story, which he drafted in a single day. But to write a novel, you have to stay in the room for, well, sometimes thousands of days. I also quote Carlson when he says that the only advantage a seasoned writer has over a beginning writer is the ability to withstand the “not knowing.” This is what I want to teach: craft, process and perseverance.
That’s the hard part, isn’t it? You can’t know how long it will take you to figure out your novel. Coordinating that learning process with a bunch of other people during a finite amount of time, well, it’s complicated, I’m sure.
I taught the first novel workshop in 2007-2008. Unlike this years’ incoming class, none of the students came with a draft in-hand, and I kept reminding them that first drafts are always flawed. It’s the nature of the process. All of the students found that their first 150 pages would require extensive revision. One of those students realized his main character probably wasn’t his main character. Another struggled with back story, another point-of-view, another pacing. The majority of the story arcs weren’t yet arcs at all but fragments of arcs. In other words, the dilemmas they faced were the dilemmas that most every novelist faces at some point in the process.
And this presented me with a problem I hadn’t wholly foreseen: If the first 150 pages aren’t yet working enough to support the next 150 pages, do I still require that the students write and submit the second half of the novel the next semester? I ended up making the decision on a case-by-case basis, which also corresponds to real-life writing scenarios: as novelists, how often do we have to make the same decision to stop and revise or move forward and then go back and revise? If the novel’s story line was not sufficiently developed but was, nonetheless, clear and firm, I instructed them to move forward. If the story line still wasn’t clear and whole-scale revision was required, I suggested working on the revision second semester rather than moving forward. What happened was that the students who revised did so quickly and were able to turn-in at least some part of the next 150 pages as well as an outline of the remaining pages, so, in that way, the structure of the class remained successful.
But here is the thing: the workshop remains an academic exercise. There is no perfect formula, and any approach necessitates compromise and flexibility. In the “real” world, every writer has a different process: some start at the end; some write spatially or in fragments that they then flesh out; some, like Jo Ann Beard or my colleague Daniel Orozco, seem to never set a word to page that they haven’t considered in their heads for months or even years; I most often write like I’m building a house: I pour the foundation, nail together the frame, wire and plumb, put up drywall, until, by the last revision, I’m situating the furniture and hanging pictures on the walls.
Yes, I’ve been using the “building a house” method for my own project, and I show that process to students, but let them work in a variety of ways, as you describe, which is as it should be, I think.
The process is, by necessity, arbitrary. I always say it’s like taking a Pilates class: I force you to conform, to work certain muscles, to strengthen the core. What you do with that discipline and strength once you leave the class? That is completely and delightfully up to you.
In so many ways, the workshop is a microcosm of the writing process. I remember being at a party in Missoula with the great writer James Welch and sitting down beside him because he seemed uncharacteristically quiet and glum. When I asked him how he was doing, he shook his head. “I’ve got it all wrong,” he said, “the point-of-view is all wrong, and point-of-view is everything.” He had just come to the realization that the 300-plus pages he had been working on for years would have to be completely revised, and, because he was already a critically-acclaimed novelist, he knew just how long the process would take: another year, at least, and maybe more.
I share these anecdotes with my students, and I tell them about my own trials and tribulations: When I gave my first novel manuscript to my writing group (we’ve been meeting for over twenty years), they said, “We don’t know who your main character is, and we don’t know what this story is about.” Gaaah! I was disappointed, of course, despondent, really, but I simply had to go back to work. The answer to the problem is always at the level of craft. I changed the point of view, which helped me identify the main character, and I began to begin again. As writers, that is what we do.
We talk about “revision” in fiction workshops, but revising a short story isn’t like revising a novel. It’s just not.
No, because as novelists, our scale is larger in every way: number of pages, number of hours in the chair. I’ve written short-form, poems, essays, and short stories, and I have never felt despondent. With short-form, the process of revision feels so comparatively manageable. I know short story writers who work on the same story for years, polishing and honing, but what is different is that you can keep those ten or twenty pages in your head, literally see them by laying them out on the floor. When I’m working on a short piece, I can go to bed at night and scroll through those pages in my mind’s eye. But four hundred pages that you discover aren’t working? I’m just sayin’, it’s different.
Oh, I totally agree.
So when the students become frightened and frustrated by the process of revising a novel, I’m right there with them, simpatico. “You can do this,” I say, “because I have been there and survived.” The big issue is this: Do you want it bad enough to persevere? This class will teach you that, if nothing else.
Tell me about the students who took that first class. What happened to them and their novels?
That first class of six became very tight-knit, and we still stay in touch and send out group emails and updates. Most of those six writers continue to work on the drafts of their novels; some have received positive responses from their queries to agents; some have had excerpts from their novels published. Some of them have set the novel aside to focus on short stories or on essays but plan to revisit and revise. One of the former students recently mentioned that she wasn’t interested in her main character anymore, which is another aspect of this process to consider: the novel that you draft when you’re a twenty-three-year-old MFA candidate may not to be the novel you’re interested in when you’re twenty-seven and working for Teach for America in Mississippi. Another one of the students, who continues to work diligently on his novel, recently wrote to say, “Tell the new students to beware of the minor character who will rise up and take over the story.”
That first class is now a part of the ongoing (email) discussion that takes place outside of the workshop, and those first students are there to mentor the new students, which is another aspect of the novel class that I am intent on, creating and sustaining a community that can function as resource and as a network of support. I’ve laughingly said that the novel workshop is a kind of self-help group, but I’m somewhat serious. We always say that writing is a lonely endeavor, something you do in solitude while, simultaneously hoping that your words will reach a multitude. We all know how isolating it can become, how impossible the endeavor can feel, how improbable it can seem that you’ll ever realize your goal of finishing and publishing the book, and this brings me back to my earlier assertion that, finally, my most absolute instruction is this: learn the craft; trust the process.
Thank you, Kim Barnes, for sharing this with my readers. Your students are very fortunate. I’m glad that my student, Brian Scullion, will be joining you in the fall. And you, reading this, stay tuned for guest posts from some of Kim’s students.
Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two novels, most recently A Country Called Home, winner of the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian. She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction. Her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals and anthologies, including The New York Times, MORE, O Magazine, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her next novel, In the Kingdom of Men, an exploration of Americans living in the Aramco compounds of 1960s Saudi Arabia, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2012.