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

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 Blog is Lore: How We Talk about Teaching Creative Writing

Teaching
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.”

Teaching

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.

  • Each student wrote 2,250 words a week (about 9 pages of any quality) for 12 weeks.

Multiply that by 30 students, which means my students produced:

  • 67,500 words (270 pages) a week
  • 810,000 words (3,240 pages) over 12 weeks

They turned in their Weekly Words via email. I created a special gmail account to receive these messagess so that they would not get lost amid the 50-100 other emails I get every day.

  • 30 emails a week over 12 weeks = 360 emails to open, digest, file away.

To make this process easier on me, I asked them to include the following information every single week:

  1. their logline (a one-sentence description of the plot)
  2. the context of the words (“finishing chapter 2 this week,” or “This week, I banged out a lot of plot points,” or “random scenes,” or “I journaled some questions and concerns for awhile, then moved into some scenes from what I think will be the prologue.”)
  3. Then they attached the document that contained their Weekly Words.

I’ve already written about how I “read” these email attachments, which is to say that I look them over but don’t respond.

  • Logging in their Weekly Words takes about 2 hours a week.
  • Meanwhile, I read and grade other things they write. Their quizzes (I give really long in-class reading quizzes), their reverse storyboard projects (where they take a book apart and write about what they learned), short response papers, etc.

This will not surprise you: it’s really hard (but not impossible) to absorb this many stories coming at you at once. But within a few weeks, I do get to a point where I remember what each of them is writing about.

For twelve weeks, they send me the fragile stirrings of their novels. It’s weird feeling to receive those 30 emails every week, something strangely intimate and kind of a privilege. I treat their words very carefully. I acknowledge the receipt of their Weekly Words by sending a brief reply. I don’t say much other than “Thank you,” or “Keep going!” or maybe “I liked the scene at the party.”

It’s way too early to say anything critical.

And pedagogically speaking, it is relatively easy to read through words and pages I don’t need to respond to critically. Yet.

The Consequences

Still, it’s a lot of words coming at me. Even if I’m not commenting, I’m still making room in my head for all those words and stories. There are definitely consequences.

  1. I watched a lot of TV and movies this semester.
  2. When friends and former students asked me to read drafts of their novels and memoirs (this happened about once or twice a month), I had to say “No. I don’t have any more room in my head.”
  3. I worked on my own book project until about Week 8, and then I had to stop. This happens most semesters, though, even when I’m not teaching novel writing.
  4. Eventually, I *do* have to read and respond to them all. (More on this later.)

Comparison

Now, if this were a different class, a “normal” fiction workshop, I wouldn’t be quickly reading 270 pages a week. I’d be carefully reading maybe 50-150 pages of fiction due to be “up” in my workshop that week.

And so would all 30 of my students.

See, the students in my classes aren’t looking at 270 pages a week. Only me. There is no all-group workshop in my class. They’re expected to spend a lot more time writing their own stuff than they spend reading the work of their peers.

In fact, for many weeks, they really have no idea what anyone else is even writing about.

The Climax of the Semester, or Shit Gets Real

Then, in week 14, they have to turn in a partial, which I define as the first 25-50 pages of the book.

By this point, I’ve put them in small groups—the ones writing realism, the ones writing fantasy, etc.—and they read only those partials. I don’t even call these discussions “workhop.” I call it “beta reading.”

But—and you saw this coming, right?—I have to read them all. This is when things get really, really hard.

25-50 pages times 30 students = 750-1500 pages.

This is how I do it

  • I’ve been an MFA thesis advisor. This is nothing at all like that. No way. Thesis advising involves reading at both the micro and macro levels. This is macro only.
  • To keep myself from doing line edits, I send the documents to my Kindle. This keeps me from marking all over them. I try to “just read.” I make a few notes to myself.
  • I don’t type a critique. Each student makes a 30-minute appointment, so I give my feedback orally. They walk out with a rubric where I’ve marked the things they need to work on for the revision (due at the time of the final).
  • I spread these appointments out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, doing about four a day. Which means I read just four a day. That’s all I can hold in my head.

So Tuesday, for example, I had four appointments scheduled, plus a meeting and a class to teach. I read one partial Monday night before I went to bed, then got up about 6:30 to read the other three. Got dressed. Went to school. Taught. Conferenced. Came home. Had dinner.

As I write this now, I have five appointments scheduled for Wednesday which means five partials or about 200+ pages to read, and I’ve only read one of them. And my morning reading time is gone because I’m teaching from 9-12 in the morning.

So every word I’m writing here is cutting into the time it’s going to take me to read those 200 pages.

But I needed to do the math.

Conclusions:

  • There’s a good reason why very few people teach novel-writing classes comprised of 15-20 students. BECAUSE IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD.
  • Even spread out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, I couldn’t handle that many pages coming at me and that many conferences in an otherwise already full life. My physical therapist and my yoga teacher/masseuse and my husband tell me all the time, “If you don’t have time to take care of yourself, something’s wrong.”
  • The traditional workshop structure guarantees that you read works-in-progress at a reasonable rate, one at a time, a few a week. Not 30 at a time in dribs and drabs for 12 weeks and then boom, 30 manuscripts fall in your lap (or into your Kindle).
  • There must be a way to make this work. I think I’ve ALMOST got it figured out. 
  • I can’t ever teach two sections of this class again. Luckily next semester, I have just one section.
  • Rather than schedule individual conferences, I’ll be a part of the beta reading groups.
  • But how can I do that when they’re all discussing at the same time in small groups? Aha. I’ll put them in groups 3 groups of five. The week I spend discussing the mss. of Group 1, Groups 2 and 3 will get in-class writing “studio” time (which they already do anyway). So:   I only have to read five partials a week for three weeks, and I don’t have to schedule conferences because they will have gotten my feedback in class.
  • I’m also considering reducing the partial to 10-25 pages, which is actually more in line with the industry standard anyway.
I started writing this post because I was convinced I couldn’t teach this class anymore. You can only do what you have the resources to do. But of course by the end, I think I’ve figured out a way to make it work better.

More Math.

These are the numbers that count.

Most Words Drafted Contest (top 7) 

ENG 407-2

  1. Kayla Weiss 85,007
  2. Scott Bugher 65,878
  3. Andy House 62, 353
  4. Sarah Hollowell 52, 025
  5. Amy Dobbs 38, 365
  6. Jackson Eflin 32, 971
  7. Samantha Zarhn 27, 393

Each of these students wrote more than the required 2,250 words a week.

I’m convinced that the real test of teaching is figuring out a way to make your students feel like they’re working and learning WHILE ALSO making sure you yourself are staying productive as a writer. Because how can I expect them to write if I’m not? I think I’ve almost got this class to a point where we’re all writing and nobody’s buried. 

I’ll report back next semester and let you know.

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.

As much as it dismays me that the student above thinks that my class is about crass commercialism, I can’t deny that my pedagogy has turned toward the practical in the last few years. I focus less on product and more on process. I teach students (including undergraduates) how to write and sell a novel, as well as how to use social media to connect with other writers and readers. My novel-writing textbook is called Writing the Breakout Novel, for heaven’s sake.

My students have definitely reacted to these changes. Here’s a few comments from my anonymous teaching evals over the last year or so:

“Although Professor Day is knowledgeable and interesting, perhaps too much emphasis was given to social networking (twitter, blogger) rather than to fiction writing.”

“Cathy does a wonderful job of teaching beyond the craft of writing (although she does that very very well) to the “art” of getting oneself published. I appreciate that she is up on the technology and social networking needed to get one’s name out there and be recognized, published, and marketed.”

“Some of the business of being a writer conversations were a little overwhelming at the time, but I think it will ultimately be valuable knowledge.”

A few months ago, I asked here “Should we make it our business to teach the business of being a writer?” and friends and strangers chimed in to say, “Craft should always be the most important thing. With regard to the ‘business of writing,’ a little goes a long way.”

All this is very much on my mind as I prepare to teach my course on Literary Citizenship next semester. My worst fear is that my students and colleagues will think I’m teaching a class called “Self-promotion, Horn Tooting, and the Art of Hype,” which—let’s be frank—is sort of what I’m doing, only I want it to be the exact spiritual opposite and come from a place that’s outward focused, not inward focused.

I don’t know about you, but when I need to think about something good and hard, I teach a class on it. And these are the questions that have consumed me for the last few years as a writer:

  • How can I be a decent human being AND get you to buy my books?
  • How can I be a writer “you’ve heard of” without turning into some version of myself I can’t fucking stand?
  • I know it’s important to write the absolute best book I can, yes yes yes, but how much do I need to toot my own horn in order for that book to be read?

And I’ll bet if you’re my age or older, you think about this a lot too.

Today I read an article on the Virginia Quarterly Review website in which writer Sean Bishop dared to ask the question, “What’s the difference between self-publishing and publishing with a small press?” I found myself nodding a lot as I read it, but I also agreed with some of the nay-sayers in the comments, especially the one who noted “We’re all bloggers now, and no, we’re not readers so much as self-promoters and readers of self-promotion.”

Sigh.

I’m reminded of another recent article on the VQR site, “Quality Work Does Not Speak for Itself—It Must be Marketed.” Amy Lowell’s most recent biographer Carl Rollyson wrote that, based on reading the poet’s voluminous correspondence with editors, journalists, and publishers, Lowell would have been a fan of author websites and social media as a means to promote her work and the work of other poets in the Imagism movement. She forged an “unstinting campaign to find publishers for their work, reviewers who would recognize its value, and, ultimately, audiences that would follow them.” T.S. Eliot called Lowell the “demon saleswoman of poetry” who used whatever means at her disposal to promote herself and the poets she admired. Rollyson writes, “She did not have access to the kinds of social media and electronic platforms that I’m sure would have thrilled her. She did not believe that the work spoke for itself. An author had to speak up for her work and do so with a savvy understanding of the marketplace.”

Rollyson says, “My point is that there has never been a period in publishing when authors themselves were not the individuals most invested in getting their work known. And in this age, for someone like Amy Lowell, that would mean contributing considerable time, energy, and money to produce the best author’s website around. You can bet she would not be against social media, labeling it some new imposition on the author, more comfortable with the easier and cozier ways that prevailed in the old days. Lowell would be the first to say that those old days are largely a chimera. She always felt she was struggling to be heard, even though her books sold out and went into second and third editions. She never let up.”

By the way, it’s no accident that both of these conversations started at VQR. Jane Friedman, a long-time editor and social media expert, is the new Web Editor at VQR, and Jane’s been talking about “the business of writing” for years at conferences and on her blog. Jane is the space on a Venn diagram where the Poets & Writers world and the Writer’s Digest world overlap in interesting ways, and lately–as I work with the Midwest Writers Workshop and teach my novel writing class and prepare to teach a course on Literary Citizenship–I’ve been spending a lot of time in that space, too.

I’ll leave you with a great quote by writer/director Charlie Kaufman I found via writer Julianna Baggott. This baby’s going on the syllabus for my Literary Citizenship class, fer sure. On September 30, 2011, he addressed BAFTA as part of their Screenwriters’ Lecture Series. Kaufman said:

I do not want to be a salesman, I do not want to scream, “Buy me!” or, “Watch me!” And I don’t want to do that tonight. What I’m trying to express–what I’d like to express–is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play….The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind. Think, “Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.

Actually, maybe I need to read that quote in class right away.

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?

Exactly.

Continue reading

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

Teaching

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

Let's put our heads together.

“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. 

Resources

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. 

Weekly Words

Weekly Words

Teaching Writing

I require my novel-writing students to turn in 2,250 words a week for 12 weeks. If they turn in the words, they get 25 points. If they don’t turn in the words (or turn in less than 2,250), they don’t get 25 points. Simple as that.  

Why 2,250 words?

Because 3 x 750 = 2,250. Which means that students can meet their Weekly Words quota by sitting down and using 750words.com just three times a week. If I’m on a roll and I just write without censoring myself, I can write 750 words in about 30 minutes. Which means that all it takes to stay on schedule is about 1.5 to 2 hours of writing per week. And if they can’t manage that, well…  

Continue reading