This is How You Do It: Stop Using the Word “Story”

Teaching

You need to know this: I never forget my students. I forget their names, but never their faces, and I usually remember their stories.

When my essay came out in The Millions, I read the comments with fascination and interest. One of the comments was from a former student of mine, “Liz B,” who wrote, “You may not remember me…”

Actually, I remember her very well. She took me for Intermediate Fiction the horrible summer I quit smoking. Indeed, she mentions in the comment that I once yelled at her. (I’m really sorry Liz. I was a real basket case that summer.) And she took me for Senior Seminar, a class in which I required students to produce a 50-page manuscript, a Big Thing.

 

Senior Seminar, Spring 2008, class of "Liz B"

 

Liz B. writes: “It always drove me crazy having to submit short stories for your classes since all I wanted to do was write a novel.”

What interests me about this statement is that, while it’s true I focused on short stories in the Intermediate Fiction class, I still have the syllabus for the Senior Seminar, and it clearly states that it’s fine for students to submit novel chapters.

Now, I’m not trying to argue with Liz B., but to point out–to you, the reader–that there is an obvious disconnect between what was on my syllabus and what a student understood to be an unspoken convention of the class.

Some of the response to the Millions essay has been along these lines: I don’t prohibit students from working on novels or linked stories! I encourage it! Our program encourages it! The “problem” of which you speak does not exist!

Okay. That is probably true. But if the problem doesn’t exist, then why the reaction?

I mean, I’ve been trying to foster “big thing” writing in my classes for years, and my own students are telling me they felt discouraged from doing so.

Why does this happen? And what to do about it?

One thing I’m doing in the classroom now that I didn’t do when I had Liz B.: I don’t use the word “story.” I used to use say things like “Your story is due on Monday at 6 PM.” And “Let’s talk about Chuck’s story.”

“Story” was short hand for “chapter” or “linked story” or “series of flash fictions” or whatever they wanted to turn in for workshop. I didn’t necessarily mean “short story,” per se, but what came out of my mouth was the word “story.”

Yes, I know, a chapter is a story, too, but let’s be real. What a student writer hears me say “story” it means “short story,” which to them means 8-15 pages–unless they hear different from me.

Slowly, I’ve broken my habit of using the blanket term “story” to refer to any kind of submitted fiction. Now I say, “Your manuscript is due on Monday,” and “Let’s talk about Chuck’s manuscript.

“Short Story” is not a dirty word. But it is not the only word to describe what we’re asking students to produce in a fiction workshop.

Good luck to you Liz. I remember you were working on a piece about a family, two brothers, two sisters. Are you still working on that? Or something else? In any case, I’m really happy you’re still writing.

It’s not a story. It’s a manuscript.

Teaching
I know someone who took a Novel Workshop in college. This is how it went down.
First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.
Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.
Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.
And then the semester was over.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s a pretty stupid way to encourage the writing of novels in a creative writing class.
Most courses labeled “Fiction Workshop” are actually “Short Story Workshop.” Nobody says you must write a short story, but that’s what everybody does anyway. Why?
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we transmit this subextual message to our students: “You will learn to tell a story in 8-15 pages. If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you must artificially inflate your story so that we will not think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you must artificially deflate your story because more than 15 pages makes us very cranky. Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We like minimalism. Show don’t tell is-amazingly-a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. Show don’t tell is reassuring, like a lucky sweater, like “Sweet Home Alabama” on the jukebox. The opposite of show don’t tell, the tell tell tell of artful narration, well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, show don’t tell virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.”
Here’s one simple thing you can do to encourage the making of big things in your writing workshop or your writing practice: don’t call it a story. Call it a manuscript. Show them an example of 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 big thing 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.”
I don’t put the word story in my syllabus, and I don’t use it in class. I say, “So, how are you doing on your manuscripts?”
“Turn in around 15 pages of your manuscript to discuss. This can be one 15-page short story, or two 6-page stories, or fifteen 1-page stories, or one 2-page story plus one 12-page story. It’s your manuscript. You decide.”
“Remember, your manuscript is due this week.”
And later, one of my students came to my office and said, “I have a question about my manuscript.”
She didn’t say “my story.”
And she certainly didn’t say “my paper.”
She’s working on a manuscript, a big thing.