Kim Barnes’ Novel Club at University of Idaho
Last week, I talked to Kim Barnes, who teaches a novel-writing course. This week, I’m talking to students who’ve taken (or are about to take) that course at the University of Idaho, a program which regularly offers a year-long novel workshop capped at six students.
Did you need this course in order to write a novel? If it hadn’t been offered, or if you’d ended up at a different program, would you have written your novel anyway?
Anesa: The pages I produced for Novel Workshop became part of the third novel I’ve written (the previous two still unpublished but dreaming of resurrection). So it’s likely I would’ve written the novel I recently completed even without the support and structure of workshop. It also would probably have been a longer and more agonizing process.
Annie: I came to the program with a novel in mind, and a short start to it, but without this class I think it would have taken me 15 years to actually write it. The process was completely overwhelming–all those blank pages yawning for miles ahead. It took the prod and encouragement of a concerted novel class for me to really put myself to it and risk the failure.
Jerry: My primary desire was to write the novel, so I would have written one. It just wouldn’t have been this one.
Andrew: I entered the MFA program knowing that I would have to write a novel, if not for the program then for myself. If we hadn’t gotten this class off the ground, I would still be chipping away at the novel I brought to the novel class the first semester – an anemic, plotless, themeless novel about a boring character. The class changed everything for me, and showed me that throwing away my first 150 pages and starting fresh was the greatest thing I could have done. Sounds terrible, but it might have been the most valuable lesson I took away from the MFA.
What is the ONE THING you learned about writing a novel that the new group coming in absolutely needs to remember?
Annie: Endurance and stubbornness (applied wisely of course!)
Craig: Actually, I took the long-form class during the 2009-10 academic year with novelist/memoirist Mary Clearman Blew. My experience was one, I imagine, similar to that of a lion tamer training a new big cat. Expect to be knocked down. Our class was to show up on day one with a finished 300-page manuscript. Every student was undoubtedly a talented writer, and after having worked exhaustively for the deadline we all had high expectations. I remember, specifically, walking into my workshop ready to knock the socks off of my colleagues with my masterpiece only to leave that little room a few hours later needing a stiff drink. By no means was anyone cruel, but what brought that punched-in-the-gut feeling was the realization that, “I’ve no idea what I’m doing.” The novel was an animal like nothing I’d ever faced, and it took a couple drafts to even understand what I was trying to say, let alone to make it any good. But after one semester we all understood that this was part of the process. After the second semester and two or three brand new drafts later, we came to understand that writing and then re-writing from page one was also part of the process (and that process was probably going to last for a few years). It’s been over a year since the course, and I’m still wrestling that lion. It knocks me down, but each time I get up understanding the novel a little better. One of these days, I’ll tame it. Until then, I keep writing.
Jerry: I feel that anybody can write 300 pages, but it’s quite another to throw them all away and then go back and sift through them for what is salvageable (or not) over a course of years and form it into a compelling narrative and then throw it out again. I have burned my manuscript six times and each of the six times I felt better. So that would be my advice: it’s all disposable, but it’s all valuable.
Andrew: Jerry is right – to be able to let hours of work go “to waste,” especially on a long-form project, is a difficult but valuable ability. Along those same lines, Kim will tell you to kill your babies. She knows what she’s talking about, and it applies to the sentence level, the chapter level, or even character and plot level.
Larry: You can write 300 pages and still have no idea what your main character desires, and there’s the rub.
How did this class compare to other creative writing classes you’ve taken?
Anesa: In my limited experience, the pitfall of workshops is the tendency for egotism to dominate the tone of discussion. Most of us experience it at one time or another: the impulse to flaunt our own talents and hog the group’s attention at others’ expense. It doesn’t matter that this can be unconscious; even without an intention of breathing up all the air in the room, the pattern is unhelpful. The format of Novel Workshop seemed to insulate us from this corrosive tendency. Maybe it was the luck of the draw, or maybe we realized at a gut level that, given the small group size and significant investment in time and output, we HAD to go the mile to be constructive for each other.
Craig: Unlike previous workshops, the long-form course was an open discussion. The writer was not the silent observer in the room as everyone else spoke of their work. Instead, the writer helped guide the discussion, freely asking and answering questions. This helped incredibly as the discussion wouldn’t get hung up on one particular point (or flaw), which can sometimes happen in workshops. The writer could simply say, “I’ll work on that, but now can we look at this other aspect that’s troubling me?” In our class, that openness made all the difference, especially when there were a few hundred pages of material to work through.
Jerry: What they said, but with horns on it. The intensity and closeness of the group set it apart from anything I’ve been a part of in school.
Larry: In most fiction workshops, I felt that at any moment somebody might “smash” my work. That’s the best way to explain how it felt to me, I can’t guess their intent. In the novel class, it felt like an honest but gentle process. The pain was not instilled by others’ egos, but by knowing how much more work we ourselves had to do on the novel. If someone in this class said, “I don’t get the point-of-view of the narration,” it wasn’t an evaluation of your worth–as workshops sometimes feel–rather it felt constructive and encouraging, and in the end as if we were all subjects to a higher power called the Novel.
Are you, in the words of NaNoWriMo, a planner or a seat-of-the-pantser or a combo of both? Did you use an outline or storyboard? Meaning, what did you learn about your own particular writing process that you might not have figured out otherwise?
Annie: Without the “forced” writing, I doubt I would have pushed myself to the levels of discomfort I did–the not knowing, the doubts, the confusion, the just downright hardness of it all. Going there over and over again created the kind of familiarity I needed in order to understand the process–my process--and foster the patience to wade through the hours and years, to understand the failings and the successes and be willing to keep working, without taking either too seriously. This is what truly has made me able to “trust the process.”
Jerry: Mostly I sit down and rattle shit out and then go back and work in the outline of the rough draft. For my nonfiction book proposal, I sat down and wrote out a complete proposal with chapter outline so I can send it to an agent. So in the words of Forrest Gump: “It’s both.”
Larry: I write and write and write and love the deadlines. May I please have another deadline? I have enough digressions to fill ten novels I suppose, and still no clear idea about where I’m going except something about a carousel. I trust the process and have faith but it’s hard. When I lose faith–which is quite often–I buy myself books on how to structure or outline a novel. They haven’t helped much. Life throws you curve balls to test your faith; novels don’t, so you have to constantly pitch to yourself, and try to get yourself out.
Did the existence of this course affect your decision to attend this MFA program?
Amy: No, I had no idea this course was offered when I applied or accepted. Even though my primary interest is novel writing, I came to the program expecting to spend my workshop time on short fiction, and have to work on a novel on my own time. I’m intensely grateful for the chance to work on the stuff that’s most important to me as coursework, instead of on top of coursework.
Jeremy: I also wasn’t affected by the existence of this course in choosing to attend UIdaho. I do remember seeing this course on the published schedules of past semesters after I got accepted into the program, and it did interest me a lot. I tried working on the novel I’ve been re-drafting for several years now in between my other coursework, and I even tried using some parts of it for my fiction workshops. The results usually left me more confused about the novel than I expected though, and I’m beginning to understand that short story workshops aren’t conducive to novel excerpts, at least in my case. That’s why I’m also excited about the opportunity to workshop a novel, the entire novel, and combine it with talking about how other people write novels, too.
Terry: I had written novel length fiction before coming to the program, and I had “written a novel” in the back of my mind, but I came to the program thinking I would write a collection of short stories or short stories and a novella, as I had done before. That said, I definitely became excited when I heard about the novel writing class, though it didn’t factor in to my decision to come here. I tend to believe in the unconscious trajectory, though, so it strikes me now as entirely logical that I would be in this program at this time and with this set of faculty and students.
For those of you who have yet to take the course, what is your BIGGEST FEAR about writing a novel?
Amy: Although I’ve written two (failed) novels before, what scares me about this format is the speed with which I’m going to have to do it. n the past, my process has been to spend a few months drafting what I call a â€œgarbage draftâ€, what some people refer to as the “zero draft” — basically, getting all my ideas on paper, finding out who my characters are, and what the shape of the story is going to be, but not worrying about it being at all readable, let alone *good*. This draft is written mostly in notes and questions to myself — “but why would she do that? What might happen if she did this instead?” — and is free to contain any number of false starts, alternate versions of scenes, snippets of dialogue with no context, etc. Once I have this down, I go through and turn it into a draft that at least looks like a story with scenes and narration and whatnot, and makes cohesive sense, even if it’s still not any good. In the next draft, I start working on things like voice, description, language, and nuance — only after this draft, am I ready to show it to my first readers. All this takes a little under a year. Obviously this time I’m going to have to produce a readable, and preferably a “good” draft in much less time than that, and I’m really not sure how I’m going to do it. That’s scary. On the other hand, I make no claim that my old method brought me any great success, so I’m hoping that the requirements of this class will force me to tinker with my process in a productive way.
Jeremy: I am most afraid of not being able to oscillate between the reader feedback I want and will now have and my own vision of the novel. Which one of us is right? Is it me, with this idea, or my classmate, with this other, perhaps more reasonable, idea. I’m afraid I can’t combine the suggestions of my classmates for improving my novel with the way the novel already is without completely losing track of the whole thing and watching it fall apart. I hope to learn how to keep it all going, the novel, the thinking about the novel, the incorporation of feedback on the novel.
Terry: My biggest fear is that I will not honor the story. This is always my fear. I can come up with a draft that seems interesting or that has a sense of itself, but I have noticed that often it has little to do with what the story itself may need. I get in the way with my agendas and conscious motivations, or the characters seem too foreign, and I want to make them more comfortable for myself. The struggle is to let the characters be what they want to be in this story and to let myself, as writer, embrace them and get to know them as they need to be.
Did you pursue an MFA degree because you wanted to write a novel? Did you go to grad school with a particular book project in mind, even just a general idea in your head? Or were your goals not as specific as that? (Any answer is fine, people go to grad school for many reasons.)
Anesa: Yes, I intended to expand a short story I’d written several years before into a novel. When I applied to the program at U of Idaho, it was my hope to make this my thesis project. At that time, I’d heard nothing about a workshop on novels being offered.
Amy: My primary reason for doing an MFA was to improve my writing. I had taught myself a lot by writing two novels, but I felt like I had reached a plateau, and that I needed an external structure to push me harder. I figured that writing short stories would help me with craft, and that I could apply that to novels — and I guess that has been both true and not true. I have gotten a lot out of my short-form workshops, and they have made me a better writer. But I’m confident that the novel workshop will address issues that are simply beyond the scope of a regular workshop.
Jeremy: Like Amy, I too feel that workshopping short stories improved my writing skills. I have more tools in my toolbox than I did before–far more tools, actually. Before coming here, though, I didn’t realize how little I knew/know about writing the novel. I’ve had practice reading and writing short stories far longer than I’ve had doing the same with novels. I’m, comparatively speaking, a novel neophyte. I was talking with my creative writing professor from undergrad, asking him which I should focus on as it comes time for me to pick a thesis project (I’d always assumed I’d use my novel,) and he asked me which, the novel or the short story, do I feel most confident in. In looking at it that way, it was obvious to me that it was the latter. For some reason, I hadn’t considered before how little practice I’ve had on the former, how unsure of myself I am on it.
Jerry: Yes. No. And I did want to write across the genres. And because it came up: I think writing short stories to teach you to write a novel is like saying playing American football will teach you to play soccer. Sure. Keep running and it will build your cardio.
Andrew: Again, to play off Jerry, cross training only gets a person so far. Studying the craft of short story writing isn’t a waste of time for would-be novelists, but it doesn’t cover all bases (too many sports analogies). This might sound a little basic, but a novel is not a long short story. It’s not sitting at the computer for longer, typing more words. It’s thinking about more elements at once. I came to the MFA program with short fiction experience, and it didn’t magically translate to novel writing until I saw the novel as a different task.
Larry: Well, I want(ed) to write a novel. But my main goal was to finish a story, any story, a short story even. And I did, hooray! I published one and I’ve finished two more, and sent them out. The novel, well, no pun intended, but that’s a whole other story.
Terry: I entered the program to continue the momentum I had developed as an undergrad writing a creative thesis of short stories and a novella. I specifically wanted a program with a less competitive atmosphere among students, and one that encouraged cross -enre writing. I had experienced the benefits of a good mentor/student relationship with my undergrad thesis advisor, and I hoped to continue that kind of relationship here. I thought I would continue to work with short stories and possibly essays, but I wanted to work on craft very particularly. I am surprised to find myself interested in writing a novel for my thesis.
How dedicated were you/are you to the important task of helping others write their novels in relation to the equally important and sort-of-enormous task of you writing your own? In other words, why write together, when reading other people’s stuff will probably just slow you down?
Anesa: I have found that when we share work with a small group of fellow writers, especially if we put the critical faculty aside at least at first, we can experience literature in a way that’s possible nowhere else–at its first inception, where it may be cautious or incautious, a wallflower or an exhibitionist, wise or foolish or hyper or grandly unconcerned. But definitely not to be missed.
Amy: You learn a lot more from critiquing than being critiqued, and I believe that. Anyone can say “this isn’t working,” but being forced to identify precisely what isn’t working, why, and how it might be fixed ultimately teaches the critic as much about craft as the author.
Jeremy: When I was a member of the community college jazz combo, in another town, I learned a lot about how art is a community of people who, at its best, wants to contribute to the bettering of that community, to the persons within it. When we engaged in improvisation, we weren’t, or shouldn’t have been if we were, improvising for our own selves, for the betterment and enjoyment of our selfish egos. I learned that improvisation in jazz music is the most about reaching someone. Jazz is a conversation, our professor (and combo piano player) said to us. If a jazz combo is a microcosm of the artistic community, and I think it is, than it teaches us that we each get our say, with equality, but that we are also all working for the same goal. Encouragement beats discouragement–it beats it every time, I’ve found, but that’s my situation. A supportive jazz combo gets me to go home and practice my scales, with fervor. A discouraging jazz combo gets me to go home and want to throw my horn in the river (and not practice anything.) That’s why I feel it’s important to be a part of this writing group; I can appreciate the value of encouraging feedback, how an artist might actually need it in order to keep creating. Receiving encouragement and support is what I want as an artist. To me, it makes sense that I participate in the world of writing by offering some encouragement of my own.
Craig: We read each other with a passion because ultimately we learned from all the mistakes that others had made. Our group frequently continued the workshop discussions after class, having drinks or going out to dinner, still talking about how to improve those manuscripts. We talked about each others’ projects like most people bring up the weather. The group seemed necessary for surviving the novel during those early stages. Reading their manuscripts inspired me, leading me to better and better writing.
Jerry: What they said and, as we say in fire: You don’t know it until you have to teach it in the field. There are no shortcuts.
Larry: From a purely selfish perspective, you learn from editing and critiquing others, even if at the time, you feel like you have no idea what you are saying. You finish the program and you wake up and realize that although you still have a long way to go, you can absolutely give yourself constructive and helpful criticism without always having to rely on others.
Terry: The community of writers, at all levels, is a dynamic, transformational force. I feel privileged to have readers, and I feel equally responsible to read their work. As I read, I learn to read more effectively, and as I comment, I have to question my assumptions and my prejudices. If all I ever read was my own work, I would be the same sorry writer I was ten years ago. Yes, the work of writing is labor intensive, and so is the work of reading others’ writings, but I don’t think we walk alone. Ever. Period.
I want to thank these writers for sharing their experience with the readers of this blog and commend them for sharing their wisdom with each other.
A native of Wichita, Kansas, Anesa Miller holds a Ph.D. in Russian Language and Literature, which she taught on the college level for some 12 years. She has published poetry, short stories, essays, and translations. She completed the MFA in creative writing at the University of Idaho in Spring 2011.
Amy Danziger Ross is currently working toward an MFA degree at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Microliterature, DIY Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and Providence Monthly. She is originally from Providence, RI.
Jeremy Vetter grew up in the forests and mountains of Newman Lake and North Idaho. He received his MA in English from Central Washington University. In the Sonora Review, he published a piece nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He attends the University of Idaho, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction.
Annie Lampman grew up in the woods of Idaho where she taught her three sons to run feral. She has an MFA in fiction (2009), teaches writing at the University of Idaho, fields teen dilemmas, and coaxes a fearful African Grey parrot to give kisses. Her work was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize special mention.
Craig Buchner received his MFA (fiction) from the University of Idaho in 2010. His work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Pisgrah Review, Word Riot, and others. In 2006, he won the AWP Intro Journals Award for fiction. He currently resides in Portland, OR, and teaches writing at Portland Community College.
Terry Lingrey is an MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in Main Street Rag and Scribendi. She was raised in England, Germany, and the United States, and consequently feels perpetually homeless. Before she became a writer she was a riding instructor, horse trainer, and equine massage therapist for twenty years.
Jerry D. Mathes II is a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar alum, publishes in numerous places, fights wildfire on a helicopter-rappel crew during the summer, and taught the Southernmost Poetry Workshop in the World at South Pole Station, Antarctica. He loves his two daughters very much.
Andrew Millar received his MFA from the U of Idaho in 2009. He has published short stories and poetry, has edited a lit journal, and currently edits and writes for a sustainability news website. His band is called The Free Sweets.
The son of Polish Holocaust survivors, Larry N. Mayer grew up in the Bronx, NY. His first book, Who Will Say Kaddish?: A Search for Jewish Identity in Contemporary Poland was published in 2002. His first short story, “Love for Miss Dottie,” was selected for publication in the Best New American Voices 2009 anthology. He lives with his wife, two daughters, six chickens, two bunnies, one chihuahua, one anole, and 10,000 honey bees in Cambridge, Mass.