This is important: no matter what Chad Harbach and John Stazinski say, my little informal survey did NOT indicate that MFA programs concentrate solely on short stories. They are not “anti-novel.” At least not on purpose anyway. The perception that they are “against novels” (discussed here) is a product of the fact that they try to fit novels into a workshop pedagogy that’s built to accommodate shorter forms.
A lot of people showed up for the panel “A Novel Problem” at AWP 2012. David Haynes told the packed room at the Chicago Hilton that it’s not just a question of whether or not individual instructors “allow” novel chapters to be brought to workshop. It’s this: Do the primary pedagogies of workshop serve novel writing?
Here is a summation of David’s excellent remarks, with a little elaboration by me.
The traditional workshop is predicated on:
1.) The valorization of a “whole text.” Students are expected to submit a “complete draft” with a beginning, middle, and end. The only way we know to talk about the effectiveness of a workshop submission is for students to get those submissions as close to done as they can. If they don’t know how to end the story (which happens, oh, 90% of the time) they come up with a provisional ending. Even a provisional ending gives students something to discuss. Admit it: if a student turned in a piece that had a beginning, middle, and then…an ellipses, you’d probably be pissed. You’d think it was lazy, disrespectful. You’d think the writer expected you to end the story for them.
In a novel-writing class, you almost never submit a whole text.
2.) A focus on sentences and line edits. In her essay “Shitty First Drafts,” writer Anne Lamott delineates between three different phases of the writing process: 1.) “the down draft” (get the ideas down), 2.) “the up draft” (take the shitty down draft and fix it up), culminating in 3.) the “dental draft” (careful tweaking). In most workshops, we assume we’re reading something that’s gone through both the “down” and the “up” draft. Or we assume that students do “down” then “up” for each sentence or paragraph as they write. We read with pen in hand. We tweak and edit. We underline great images and sentences, bracket clumsy ones.
In a novel-writing class, too much focus on sentence-level concerns can detract from the larger concerns of scene and story. You might read 50 pages and never mark anything–even when you see things that could be marked. Students don’t always know how to respond to a manuscript in any other way except line editing.
3.) The assumption that the text is a problem that must be solved, that something needs to be fixed. Students want to say, “I had a problem with…” They only see the problems. And often, there are so many problems. It’s hard for them to do this new kind of cognitive work—NOT fixing. Sometimes, students don’t know what else to say if it’s not to tell the writer WHAT’S WRONG.
David Haynes says it is more useful to consider these pedagogies instead.
A novel workshop is predicated on:
1.) Focus on MACRO, not micro issues. Questions of structure, narrative design, pacing. Yes, by sacrificing time spent on the micro issues, some “bad writing” goes unaddressed. But “writing” isn’t just about what’s happening at the sentence level, but also what’s happening at the level of story. You must give that level primacy. Other courses in our curriculums focus on the micro. Novelists desperately need macro knowledge and skills.
2.) Providing models that represent a range of forms. You must emphasize to students that the reading list isn’t about subject matter–it’s about forms and structure. Here’s a linear novel with a single first person narrator told in the present tense. Here’s a novel that employs multiple points of view. Here’s a novel that is non-chronological. Here’s an episodic plot, there a “mountain” plot.
3.) Directive, not open-ended discussion. The instructor probably needs to control the conversation more than usual, Haynes said. Later that day, I heard the writer David Huddle talk about how easy it is to let a workshop have its way, to let “students learn from each other.” Students often balk at a more directed approach. I often get dinged for this in my evaluations. “She shouldn’t try to steer the conversation so much.” But when you’re trying to talk about a big thing, you have to keep the conversation purposeful, pointed, on target, or else it has a tendency to veer widely into unhelpful territory.
4.) Predictive, not evaluative reading. You have to teach students how to do a “predictive” reading of the novel-in-progress. “What does this section suggest about what’s to come?” They often don’t know how to do this. If it’s not on the page, they don’t know how to talk about it. A great way to teach students how to read predictively: read the published novels a “half” at a time, focusing the first discussion on what students predict will happen in the second half. (Patricia Henley’s “Suspense” class does just that. Here’s the syllabus.)
5.) More focus on scene craft. You must focus on creating a vivid, continuous fictional dream. You must not focus on compression and summary, but rather expansion and dramatization. The first day of my novel-writing class, I gave my students a diagnostic exercise. I showed them a prose poem by Robert Hass, “A Story about the Body,” and asked them to write a dramatized scene (with dialogue) that featured the two characters meeting for the first time at the artists colony. About half of my students didn’t do this—they summarized the scene or wrote exposition. This is why the first unit in my class is on Scene, and I give them this mantra: Think scene, not sentence.
6.) Instructor-selected (not student-selected) manuscripts. Typically, we let students decide what to show the workshop, but when dealing with a big thing, it might be a good idea to suggest particular parts to them rather than letting them choose. Especially fruitful are segments which contain major and minor turns in the novel.
If any of these items strike you as somewhat blasphemous, then Haynes has made his point. Each of these pedagogies goes against some received and accepted notion about fiction workshop. Sometimes, you don’t realize the degree to which your workshop pedagogy is geared for short forms until you’re presented with pedagogies that favor long forms.
In five minutes, David articulated exactly what I’ve been trying to say for a year on this blog. [Sigh.]
Teaching novel-writing necessitates that we do more than simply “allow” novel chapters to be submitted to the story workshop. We have to run the show in an entirely different way.
Today, in an email to me, David wrote: “My goal is not to produce novels but novelists, and this is where the complications come in related to the necessary ‘product’ at the end of the degree.”
Next time, I’ll share with you a summary of how Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French have done just that. I’ll also share more results from the Survey Monkey survey!