Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 


Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

How I Answered the AWP Survey

How I Answered the AWP Survey

CW Programs Teaching

Take the survey! You have until March 22. It’s important. I filled it out the other day, and I found that I had so much to say in that little comment module I decided to cut and paste it into a document and share it with you. FYI: I also provided my email address on the survey, so I didn’t say all this stuff to them anonymously.

[Question 21. We welcome any additional comments, feedback, and suggestions you would like to share with us through this survey or at]

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Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

CW Programs Teaching Writing

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion. Continue reading

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices


If you’d like to teach a class in novel-writing but don’t know how, have no fear. My panel is here!

David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and I have all taught the course, and we’ve compiled a Best Practices handout: syllabi, exercises, and other resources to guide you on your way.

Some of us focus on the early stages of writing a novel–generating ideas, writing a summary or treatment, studying published books as models, getting scenes on the page–while others focus on later stages and include all-group workshop of novels in progress. There’s 16 pages of material here, and we hope you find something that works for you.

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs Teaching Writing

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 


Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

Celebrating (and Celebritizing) Teaching Creative Writing

CW Programs Teaching Writing


Today, Fiction Writers Review is running “Where Are We Going Next? A Conversation about Creative Writing Pedagogy (Pt. 1),” a co-written article by myself, Anna Leahy, and Stephanie Vanderslice. This lively, wide-ranging conversation took place during the summer of 2010 via email exchanges.

I just want to thank FWR for publishing this article. You might be wondering why it appears there and not in, say the AWP Writers Chronicle or a pedagogy journal. Well, the truth is, we did submit it to the Chronicle, but they passed, as is their right, of course. When we got the very kind rejection, we discussed what to do next. Where else do you publish an article about teaching creative writing? (I’ve discussed this problem at some length here.) Since most creative writing teachers don’t (won’t?) read pedagogy journals, we decided to shoot for more mainstream publishing venues. Our first priority was making these ideas “findable” and “share-able.”

I’d like to take this opportunity to make two suggestions that weren’t included in this conversation:

A keynote address on Teaching Creative Writing at the annual AWP conference. I would pay good money to hear anything Charles Baxter or Peter Turchi or Janet Burroway had to say about teaching. Why can’t Good Teachers be “celebritized” at AWP alongside the Good Writers?

More “teaching-creative-writing blogs.” This blog has invigorated my teaching in many wonderful ways, and it’s brought me many new friends. Yes, it takes time, and I know we all struggle to find the time to write, to teach, and to live our lives. In the midst of a busy life, why make time to write about teaching when it doesn’t “count” for tenure and promotion?

Because when you force yourself to articulate what you do and how you do it, your teaching improves.

Because. Teaching. Matters.

Anxiety + Community = AWP

CW Programs Teaching Writing

"Are you somebody?"

[Note: This post has nothing to do with snow. ]

AWP is like my Facebook feed.

It’s where I go to feel connected to and learn from other writer-teachers. So many panel topics! So many great discussions! Sometimes I just show up to listen and learn, taking notes. Sometimes I propose a panel and start a conversation. It’s often energizing and enriching. I’m part of a community, a profession, a discipline. If this is what it feels like to have “a calling,” to be doing the thing(s) you’re supposed to be doing in life, then that is what I feel like when I’m there at AWP, on Facebook.

Continue reading

Who says that nobody cares about creative writing pedagogy?


I’m still trying to process the response to my essay in The Millions, and all I can think to say is: holy shit.

Thanks to analytics and Google Alert and trackbacks, I’ve been able to follow much of the unfolding conversation. A dialogue has begun. This makes me happy.

I learned a lot this week. It was sort of like going to AWP without having to go to AWP. It was a standing-room only panel in an enormous hotel ballroom, the inspiring kind of panel that recharges your soul-weary batteries.

I laughed! I cried! It was better than AWP!

What’s clear to me is that many, many people in this world identify as writers, and they’re all working to lead literary lives. Many have experienced some form of creative writing instruction, and thus, they have very strong feelings about pedagogy and creative writing curriculum-even though they might not use those terms to describe those feelings.

How do you change the default setting of the traditional workshop so that big things can be brought class and discussed meaningfully? Twice in the essay, I provide bad examples, how not to do it.

Okay. Very funny. So how DO you do it?

The first draft of my essay described the ways in which I’ve been trying to practice what I preach-in the classroom and in my own writing life-but I cut it. The essay was getting really long. I opted instead to include a link to this blog.

Please, check out my previous posts (Tags/Topics)and consider subscribing. [See right column.]

I will post at least once a week about teaching and writing big things. I will endeavor to make these posts worth your while-and believe me, I know you already have too much to read.

Many creative writing students and teachers responded to my essay by sharing their own experiences and best practices. For the next week or so, I’m going to make frequent posts highlighting those.

I’m calling this series: This Is How You Do It.

Thanks for being here.

Pedagogy Disguised as Humorous (But Completely Serious) Essay

CW Programs Teaching Writing

[The composition history of my essay, "The Big Thing," now titled "The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia's Novel Crisis," is up at The Millions on 1.18.11.]

  1. In January 2010, I write an informal mini-lecture to deliver to my graduate fiction workshop.
  2. I adapt said lecture into a real, honest-to-goodness pedagogy article (with end notes and everything). I submit this article to the AWP Writers: Chronicle (30,000 subscribers), a magazine that should be familiar to anyone who resides in or emerged from a creative writing program.
  3. A few months later, I receive word that AWP is considering my article for their pedagogy forum on their member-only, password protected e-Link.
  4. Wow. I had no idea there was such a thing as the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum. It contains many great “exclusive” articles about teaching. In particular, I admire “Toward a Pedagogy of Process for the Creative Writing Classroom by Jenny Dunning and “More Than Just Mentorship and Modeling: Creative Writers and Pedagogy” by Gerry LaFemina. Here is the link. I hope you can access it.
  5. Unfortunately, AWP decides not to publish my essay. Not in the print Chronicle. Not in their Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum.
  6. Damn. [feel disappointed]
  7. Okay. [get over feeling disappointed]
  8. Make important realization. An essay about Novel Writing can be submitted to a magazine like Poets & Writers, Writer’s Ask, Fiction Writer’s Review, etc. But an essay about Teaching Novel Writing cannot, because that’s pedagogy. And nobody likes the p-word.
  9. But every time I post a status update on Facebook about teaching, I get beaucoup notifications. Everyone I know (granted, a particular segment of the population) wants to learn more about teaching creative writing, but nobody seems to know anything about the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum.
  10. Instead, everyone is still talking about Louis Menand’s New Yorker essay/review of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era.
  11. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on MFA programs in the Huffington Post. [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  12. What to do with my pedagogy article? A colleague suggests that I submit it to Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. This publication would “count” as serious scholarship. But if my creative writing teacher friends can’t find the AWP Password-Protected Pedagogy Forum, will they ever find my article in Pedagogy? I mean, College English devoted its January 2009 issue to Creative Writing, and wow, didn’t THAT just rock the world. [no dialogue/silence]
  13. On The Rumpus, Anelise Chen publishes “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  14. Someone suggests that I send my pedagogy article to Creative Writing: Teaching, Theory, and Practice. Again, wow. I had no idea there was such a thing, and again, I find great essays about teaching creative writing. But no one hangs out at this journal which has been around since 2008. Its online forum contains two topics and a total of seven posts. Meanwhile, over at HTMLGiant, Roxane Gay writes an essay about teaching and receives 73 comments, a response which represents but a small fraction of the number of eyeballs that have been on that piece.
  15. Inspired by other writers (here and here and here and here and here and here) who occasionally blog about or share info about their teaching, I start a blog called “The Big Thing” to talk about my experiences teaching a novel writing course in which all class members (including myself) participate in National Novel Writing Month.
  16. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on the Huffington Post. [dialogue/shitstorm ensues]
  17. One night, a writer friend of mine posts a casual Facebook status update in which he muses about the difference between writing short stories vs. novels. Do the two forms require different kinds of training? [dialogue ensues]
  18. Okay. Okay. I decide to revise my pedagogy article into something more provocative so that my ideas can reach a wider audience. I hope that a dialogue will ensue. Not a shit storm. [feel nervous]
  19. I give a talk at a writer’s conference about my “Big Thing” ideas. Someone comes up to me afterwards, a writer who is well known as a teacher of creative writing as well. I tell her the story I’ve been telling you, and she shakes her head knowingly. “No one wants to publish essays about teaching,” she says, “but everyone I know is absolutely desperate to read them.”
  20. Anis Shivani publishes a provocative article on the Huffington Post. Ibid.
  21. I finish a draft of “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book’” just in time for a reading at the University of Illinois. Perhaps the audience came expecting fiction or maybe some memoir. Instead, I give them Pedagogy Disguised as Humorous but Completely Serious Essay. Despite this, people seem to like what I am talking about. [feel jazzed]
  22. Slate publishes an excerpt of Chad Harbach’s n+1 essay, “MFA vs. NYC.” 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.” [dialogue ensues]
  23. What do teachers of creative writing have to say with regard to these matters? Not a lot. Probably because we are absolutely up to our eyeballs with work to do. Classes to teach. Manuscripts to review. Manuscripts to write. When we have a free second, we chatter on Facebook about it or in the comment threads on blogs. We make xtranormal videos. We vent. We feel self-righteous. How dare anyone impugn our discipline!
  24. Why don’t we take the time to write something long and well-considered? Why don’t we write about our teaching? What do we call a piece that’s about teaching, about the classroom, but isn’t pedagogy and isn’t a how-to craft essay? Will it count for tenure and promotion? And who will publish it? Who will read it, for godssakes?
  25. I think about all this for a long, long time. And then I send the essay to The Millions. And a few days later, they say yes.

I hope you like it and will share it with others. [dialogue ensues]