How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now

How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now


Last April, I was on an AWP panel moderated by Joseph Scapellato which included Matt Bell, Jennine Capo Crucet, Derek Palacio, and moi. The title was “How I Taught Then, How I Teach Now,” a subject that is near and dear to my heart.


Matt Bell discusses "the privilege of early access."
Matt Bell discusses “the privilege of early access.

When experience forces us to challenge the assumptions that underpin our teaching philosophies, how do we sensibly revise our syllabi, course element by course element? In this panel, five teachers of writing share what they grew into knowing. They will describe how an active awareness of their changing assumptions changed their courses for the better. Practical before-and-after examples of course materials promise to make this panel useful for beginners and veterans alike.

Topics covered:

  • Matt talks about what he calls “the privilege of early access,” a way of framing workshop discussion.
  • Jeannine had some great suggestions for teaching students how to better analyze craft.
  • I talked about helping students to develop a writerly identity.
  • Derek describes a semester-long reading/craft project using Prezi.
  • Joseph read a great and hilarious essay called “Respect.”

Many thanks to the folks at AWP for turning our conversations into this podcast.


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This Blog is a Waste of My Time: Thoughts on the Three-Year Anniversary of The Big Thing

Teaching Writing

waste of timeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about this blog. Last week, I wrote about “lore” and informally trading teaching information vs. formally publishing teaching research.

This blog began because in 2010, I wrote an essay about teaching.  I realized that the default setting of all my classes–of most fiction-writing classes, really–was the short story. I wanted to tweak that default setting. Not just in my own classes. I wanted to inspire other people to tweak theirs, too. Continue reading

This Blog is Lore: How We Talk about Teaching Creative Writing

This is me in 1997 when I got my first TT teaching job at Mankato State University.
This is me in 1997 when I got my first TT teaching job at Mankato State University.

This blog began because I like to talk about teaching. I always have.

I stepped in front of a class for the first time in 1991.

I was a rookie grad student, and once I got over my stage fright, I realized that teaching is like an incredibly interesting puzzle or math equation that always needs solving.

It’s absorbing, fascinating work.

And I love to talk shop. It’s my virtual teacher’s lounge.

Teaching Creative Writing

Next semester, I’m teaching a grad course called “Teaching in English Studies: Creative Writing,” which is offered every other year.

Given how much I like to talk teaching, you’d think I’d be really into teaching this course, and I am! But it troubles me, too, and it relates to the things that trouble me about the position of creative writing in English departments, and the things that trouble me about the work I put into this blog. Continue reading

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Teaching Writing

Every time I teach novel writing, I end the semester with a “Last Lecture” on a topic that’s been on my mind all semester long. Last spring, I wrote about learning to self-identify as a writer; this post, “Am I Writer?” has been viewed about 1,500 times. And Google Analytics tells me that people spend an average of eight minutes on this post–which is not that surprising when you consider how urgently people need an answer to that question. This semester, I’ve decided to write about whether a novelist should focus more on The Story or The Sentence.

Kameron and Kayla won my “Most Words Drafted Contest”? Why? What set them apart? 

Both wrote scene-driven fiction with lots of dialogue. They took my advice and “sketched” their novels, temporarily suspending concern for “good writing” at the sentence level and focused on “getting the story down.” Continue reading

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I can’t do this anymore.”


I’m having a real crisis.

I’m starting to wonder if teaching a novel-writing class with 15 students can really be done.

Let me explain.

This semester, I taught Advanced Fiction, a 400-level course at Ball State which I teach as a novel writing class. The course is capped at 15, and so, because I was assigned two sections, I had 30 students writing novels for me this semester.

Let’s do the math.

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Is “literary citizenship” just a nice way of saying “hype?”

Is “literary citizenship” just a nice way of saying “hype?”

Literary Citizenship Teaching

Last week, I created a mid-term survey for my novel writing class. I wanted to know how things were going. Fine, it seems, but I did get this comment: “Though the class has a solid layout, I feel it’s taught with an assumption that each student intends to measure their success with book sales, awards, and film adaptations. It might help to keep in mind some of us are more motivated by art than the latest trends and approaches to win a broad audience and sell a ton of books.”

Reading your own teaching evaluations is a deeply humbling experience, not much different from reading workshop critiques. Scary as it can be, it’s also kind of fascinating to read what people think about you. Positive critiques are great, sure, but it’s what you do with the negative ones that determines what kind of person you are.

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David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things

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?


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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

“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.   Continue reading