What I Learned from John Keeble

What I Learned from John Keeble

Teaching

Keeble 2I attended the University of Alabama’s MFA program between 1991-1995. During that period, I took two workshops with writer John Keeble, a visiting writer who taught at Eastern Washington University. He made a great impression on both my writing and my teaching.

In fact, the title of this blog, “The Big Thing,” comes from Keeble. I wrote about that here, and how I might not have written The Circus in Winter had he not changed the default setting of a pivotal workshop.

Here’s something else I learned from him.

Plant the Seed of Your Story

In workshop, Keeble talked to us a lot about “planting the seed of your story.” Once you figure out what your story is really about, you have to return to the the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence! and plant the story’s “seed” that you will nurture and grow for the next 5-30 pages. Continue reading

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!

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. 

Novels to Stories, Stories to Novel

Teaching Writing

If you’re looking for a way to turn a novel into short stories or (more likely) turn stories into a novel, try these activities.

First, novel into stories. 

1.) Read “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” a short story by Evan S. Connell published in The Paris Review 10, Fall 1955

2.) Take a good look at this short story. If you’ve read the book, then you know that Mrs. Bridge the novel is comprised of 117 titled vignettes. But “Mrs Bridge” the short story pre-dates the novel. “Beau Monde” the short story contains 12 of the eventual novel’s vignettes (in this order: 61, 39, 37, 60, 91, 99, 84, 86, 18, 102, 41, plus one titled “Equality” not found in the novel).

3.) Pretend for a moment that you are Evan S. Connell. You wrote the short story “Beau Monde” because you wanted to satirize the small-minded racial and class politics of your hometown. And you did that. Quite successfully. It’s just out in this new magazine called The Paris Review. But now what? Maybe you’re not quite done with this Mrs. Bridge. What about her husband? How did they meet? What would happen if this very American couple went on a European tour? What of her children? How will she respond when they grow up and challenge her worldview? And what about her best friend, Grace Barron? You open up the pleats. You write more vignettes. Most fit on a single piece of typing paper. They’re more than scenes, but less than chapters. They’re what Mark Oppenheimer in The Believer calls “chapterlets.” In fifty years or so, people might call them “flash fictions.” Each vignette is a building block, a movable unit, a piece of paper. You lay them out on the floor, tape them to the walls, trying to figure out how they go together.

This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished the book: tear out the pages and lay them on the floor, tape them to the walls. I wanted them to be tangible, detachable things. So, I used post-it notes to create a thumbnail sketch of each vignette. This really didn’t take that long because I’d just read the book. A few hours.  

4.) Now you do it. Using index cards or post its, summarize each vignette. Use different colors to trace different “through lines” and subplots.

You  can do it by character:

  • Ruth in red. 
  • Douglas in green. 
  • Carolyn in yellow. 
  • Mr. Bridge in blue. 
  • Grace Barron in purple.
  • etc.

Or do it by subject matter:

  • Self-improvement. 
  • Americans in Paris. 
  • The Car. 
  • The Help
  • When the Children Start Dating

5.) Move the cards around. That’s the point. Lay out a line of red cards, followed by a line of yellow cards, followed by a line of blue, etc. See how the book would read less like a novel and more like linked stories if you followed one character, one plot layer, one color at a time.

When I did this activity, I realized that the way I had written fiction for many years was to take it color by color, one plot layer or subplot at a time.

Or to use another analogy: If you handed me the 117 vignettes of Mrs. Bridge out of order, I would have made piles—one for each character, then maybe smaller piles within the large ones. And that would have been my book manuscript. Hey, that’s almost exactly what my first book WAS.

I thought: Maybe a novel could be fashioned from stories by breaking up the piles and laying them out chronologically?

I considered re-typing Mrs. Bridge word for word, or xeroxing the entire book, just to test my theory, to see if these extracted stories would actually read like stories.

Confession: I have done this before with two short stories: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, which I xeroxed, cut up and reassembled into “The Jimmy Cross Parts” and the “Alpha Company Parts,” and with Ethan Canin’s “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” which I reassembled into chronological order.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to retype or xerox Mrs. Bridge. The full text of Mrs. Bridge is available online. You don’t want to know how excited I was about this. 

6.) Now, extract some short stories from the novel. Go back to your groupings of colored post-its, find the corresponding text online, then cut and paste it into a Word document.

For example: I extracted one short story from the novel called “Etiquette Lessons.” It’s the story of Carolyn’s friendship with Alice Jones, alternated with vignettes of Mrs. Bridge “teaching” her children about manners and “teaching” her children about race and class. The climax of the story is a scene late in the novel when Mrs. Bridge wonders why her daughter uses a racial epithet and mentions her childhood friend Alice Jones who “looks very black” these days.

7.) If you can reverse engineer Mrs. Bridge, envision this novel as stories which were pulled apart, rearranged, and turned into a novel, then maybe it’s possible to forward engineer your own novel narrative from all those short stories sitting on your hard drive.

Next, stories into novel.

Backstory: When I was finishing The Circus in Winter, a few agents read the manuscript. One said, “I will take you on if you let me help you turn these linked stories into a novel.” I said I’d think about it. A few days later, another agent got back to me and said, “I think you should write the book you want to write.” That’s the agent I chose, and I’m glad I did, but if I’m being totally honest here, and I am, I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to figure out how to turn my stories into a novel. I didn’t think it was possible.

Backstory: Flashforward ten years. A group of college students adapts my book into a musical—and they find a linear storyline in my book. They broke up my piles of stories, laid them out chronologically, and focused on the events of the first five stories. They gave the narrative its “clock,” its basetime (a few months), decided that the flood would be the climax, followed by the denouement. Beginning, middle, end. Badda bing. Badda boom.

If they can do it, so can you.

Consider some linked stories, such as the last three stories in Patricia Henley’s Other Heartbreaks (“Skylark,” “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland,” and “Ephemera”). List all the events (25-30) that transpire in chronological order. Imagine cutting the stories up, moving the pieces around into a more linear or chronological narrative, like Mrs. Bridge. Consider a flashforward prologue to begin the novel. Describe the structure of this pretend novel–where it starts, where it ends. It might help to decide first what the climax will be–and work backwards and forwards from there. You might be interested in reading this interview with Henley, in which she confirms that “Other Heartbreaks” WAS a novel that she broke apart and turned into linked stories.

Henley is visiting Ball State on February 15, and my students are eager to hear her talk about writing novels, writing stories, and writing novels that turn into stories.

Or try this with The Things They Carried. Or with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Please understand: I’m not saying those books should be anything other than their own wonderful selves. 

Please understand: Malcolm Cowley did exactly what I’m suggesting when he cut up, chronologically assembled, and edited The Portable Faulkner. And thank God he did. In his now-famous introduction, Cowley writes: “All the cycles or sagas are closely interconnected. It is as if each new book or story was a chord or segment of a total situation always existing in the author’s mind.”

My novel-writing students did these activities. When I asked them, “What did you learn this week,” one woman said, “I have to figure out a way to SEE my novel, to visualize it.” Another said, “It really matters what you decide to put first,  but you probably won’t write the book in the order that it will eventually be read in. I have to stop worrying about my first chapter.”

Exactly.

Aesthetic Diversity + Imitation = My Short Story Class

Aesthetic Diversity + Imitation = My Short Story Class

Teaching Writing

In honor of National Short Story Month, I thought I’d share this course with you, a short story survey that focuses on imitations. I always include this picture on my syllabus, a visual representation of my pedagogical approach.

In the film, School of Rock, Jack Black draws this diagram on the chalkboard as a prelude to teaching his students how to be a rock band. I tell my students that my course is about constructing a similar chart for contemporary short fiction, not simply to “label” styles or approaches, but because I want to teach my students how to have a comparative and genealogical conversation. Continue reading

You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel: by Rebecca Rasmussen

Teaching Writing

If you would like to write a guest post for “The Big Thing,” by all means, let me know. Maybe we could trade? That’s what debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen and I did. My essay on “Literary Citizenship” appeared on her blog, The Bird Sisters. I’m really looking forward to her book, which will burst into flight on April 12.

You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel

By Rebecca Rasmussen

You’re not ready to write a novel. If you can’t write a proper short story, what makes you think you can handle the scope of a novel? Why would you want to write a novel, when short stories are the far superior art form? Stick with what you know. Haven’t you heard of Poe’s unity of effect?

It seems unbelievable to me now that anyone was ever not in support of me writing a novel, but after attending two MFA programs, I have to say that the above statements are generally what a student of fiction can expect to hear over the course of their time in a writing program. The question now that I have written a novel that’s being published in April is why?

My general feeling is that a lot of professors who teach in MFA programs write short stories (often because that’s what they were taught to write) and therefore teach short stories. Some love novels, others don’t. I think it’s safe to say that in a lot of programs novels get a bad rap because people are so busy defending the merits and the superiority (artistically) of the short story. Not that they don’t love novels; they just don’t love them in a workshop.

But why?

First, the basics. I think the committees that decide which classes will be taught often don’t know how to approach a class on novel writing in terms of workload and description. Will the students be writing a chapter? A whole manuscript? Either option doesn’t seem to win many over, including the professors that will be teaching the courses for two reasons: 1.) A single opening chapter doesn’t aptly teach students how to write a novel, and 2.) A whole manuscript from twelve or so students is a workload that is too large and would send said professors very far away from their own writing projects that semester, which I sympathize with completely.

In my first MFA program, no one said, “Don’t write a novel,” but no one said, “Give a novel a try” either. Experiment. Probably my writing was so unkempt at that time that reading the shorter version of it was grueling enough, so I am thankful that such care was taken with my work back then by my hardworking professors. And it didn’t seem a completely obvious thing to do (to write a novel) when most of what I was reading was short stories. A novel? What was that? You mean like Dostoevsky? I think I studied that guy in college.

When I was in my second MFA program at UMASS-Amherst, the faculty there managed to reach an interesting and workable balance. (Also, I was older and more mature by then.) One of my professors, Sabina Murray, taught a novel writing class, where we were expected to produce or come into the class with 150 pages of a novel. Each week, we workshopped one student’s novel-in-progress. The class was capped at ten students. I learned a great deal about novel writing by reading the first halves of other novels and by writing my own (and making my own mistakes-many, many mistakes). I learned that I was trying to stuff my novel full of plot because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I learned that my first chapter confused people and even made some angry. Yikes! Not my intention.

What I value about that experience even though I didn’t end up finishing that novel is that I was no longer afraid to deal with a never-ending manuscript and that I actually enjoyed the mess of a first draft much more than the constraints I put on myself as a short story writer (including that obnoxious little self-imposed epiphany to round out the arc of the story). I have published a handful of short stories in wonderful literary journals, but this isn’t the form that is most natural to my storytelling.

I love thinking about plot and character on a larger more layered scale than what I am personally capable of achieving in a short story, but don’t get me wrong: some of my very favorite writers are short story writers. Alice Munro, Alan Heathcock, and Siobhan Fallon. I admire these folks very much, and maybe one day I will be in the right frame of mind to write short stories again. For now, though, I am sticking with the novel even though it goes against 90+% of my training. And at some point, I would love to teach a novel workshop because I think it’s simply not accurate to say that a writer isn’t ready to write a novel if he or she can’t write a short story. Who can really say such a thing? Who has the right? Leap, is what I say.

Though many people disagreed with her, Sabina also said three very practical things in her novel workshop that stuck with me:

1.) You need a book, often with a major press, to get a job in an MFA program these days.

2.) Major New York presses generally veer away from short stories.

3.) How much do you like teaching freshman composition?

I’m not going to tell you that I started writing a novel for purely practical reasons because I didn’t. (I fell in love with the form after writing 150 bad pages, if you can believe it!) But at the time I had just given birth to my daughter and our dismal financial situation was on my mind. I may have fallen into the trap of saying these dangerously potent words: “If only I can sell a novel.”

It turns out that being broke is excellent motivation for writing and finishing a novel, for continuing when the going is rough and it looks like no one wants it, and for knocking on doors until someone says yes. For revising and revising and revising. The way I figure, writing a first novel is a lot like writing a first short story: there is a lot of muddling through to be done, a lot of failing, and maybe, if a writer is really lucky, a little success to be had.

Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. Visit Rebecca at http://www.thebirdsisters.com for more information.

How I Taught Myself to Write a Novel

Writing
night road

E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing a novel to driving a car. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

My first book, The Circus in Winter, a novel-in-stories, was written over the course of twelve years-one story at a time-and thus provides a wide-ranging experience as the reader observes me trying on different aesthetic approaches. There was one narrative hurdle, however, that I couldn’t seem to surmount: sustaining a plot for more than 25 pages. The book contains many big, maximalist stories that span large spans of time, even multiple generations, but I always compressed them until they fit into the short story form.

When I published the book in 2004, the inevitable questions arose: Why is that story a story and not a novel? What are you working on now? And please say it’s a novel, right? I resented this insistence on novel, novel, novel until I asked myself why I felt so much disdain for the form and for its fans. People who love to read-myself included-love being “inside” a story for three days or three weeks, entering John Gardner’s vivid and continuous fictional dream. Certainly this kind of loving is what brings most of us to writing fiction in the first place: the desire to create a reading experience that we ourselves value. As much as I enjoy the 30-minute thrill of short stories, I was raised on novels. I spent my youth living inside them, a perfectly normal dissociative state that allowed me to blessedly not be me for short periods of time. I think most writers are familiar with this condition, and it’s one of reasons we like losing ourselves in stories-those we read and those we write.

Everyone seemed to want me to grow up and write a novel. I had an idea for one, but to be perfectly frank, I had no idea how to do more than write a short story. Then I happened upon an interview by Karin Lin-Greenberg (who would, one year later, become a student of mine at the University of Pittsburgh!) with fiction writer Dan Chaon. I’d long admired his short stories, but he’d recently published his first novel, You Remind Me of Me. How did he move from story to novel, I wondered.

Chaon said, “This seems simple-minded, but the architecture of a novel is really important. In some ways, with a short story, when you’re writing it, you can just feel your way. It’s like being in a house in the dark and you can find the walls and you can figure out where you’re going-If a short story is like being in a darkened room, then a novel is like being in a darkened field-it was a process of finding the architecture of the novel before I even knew what was going to happen in it. The process of finding a story is more intuitive for me.”

These comments resonated strongly with me. Maybe writing a novel necessitates that you know more up front-the big picture, the shape, the arc, maybe even the rough plot-unlike writing short stories, where you are strongly encouraged not to know too much.

E.L. Doctorow famously compared writing a novel to driving a car. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” True for some, perhaps, but I’m one of those map loving, visual memory people who drives with at least a hazy picture of the route in her head. In writing and in life, I tend not to do well in the face of uncertainty, so, as I moved from story to book, I looked for an already mapped narrative route.

For me, the answer was to write a nonfiction novel.

Instead of wondering fearfully what would happen past page 25, I started with an already lived plot, the architectural bones around which I shaped a novel-length reading experience. I embarked on my next book project in the investigative mode of documentarian-accumulating 350+ pages of very raw material/journaling/”footage” over the course of a year, followed by an intense six-months in the editing booth/at the word processor. (I can’t tell you the joy I felt inside when I saw numbers like “52″ and “173″ appear in the top right corner of my document.) Then, I spent a few more months on final edits, and boom, I’d written a book in two years. This was Comeback Season, a book that didn’t do well, really, but from which I learned a great deal.

Twelve years spent trying to write one perfect sentence after another, one perfect story after another, vs. two years spent (first!) writing a really shitty first draft, followed by (second!) revising that shittiness, and (third!) editing, tweaking, cutting, clarifying, controlling, polishing that shitty draft into a shiny new book of which I am extremely proud.

Next time: the first in the series, “This is How You Do It.”*

*”It” = better encourage and accommodate big projects within a semester, within a busy life.

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

CW Programs Teaching

In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.

Here’s Michael Nye at The Missouri Review blog, where even Peter Turchi weighed in with a comment.

Here’s another response.

HTMLGiant noticed.

And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”

Novelist and n+1 editor Chad 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. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form.

I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without “MFA program culture” to offset “NYC publishing culture,” the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it’s a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.

As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been?


Harbach wonders this, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

And now, back to my novel…

The Virtual Teacher’s Lounge

Teaching
Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook status update.

“KYLE MINOR notices that MFA programs are producing more good short story writers than good novelists. Many of my friends from many different programs have had difficulty, post-graduation moving from the short form to the long. Five-plus years into this novel, I’ve come to believe that the novel and the story are very different animals which might require different training.”

And so began an interesting exchange, lots of writers discussing their experiences as students and teachers. One of the responders, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review, just posted his thoughts on TMR blog. You need to read this.

Any veteran of fiction workshops can tell you: the short story is a more workable and practical pedagogical tool than the novel. Nye discusses this at length. I related to many of his frustrations, both as a former student and as a teacher and mentor.

However, I remain convinced that writing programs can (and should) accommodate both long and short-form fiction. I don’t agree that a writing program is only capable of teaching you how to write a short story, that graduates of fiction workshops must figure out how to write novels entirely on their own.

We can do it. We just have to start thinking outside the box we’ve been living in for 50 years.
Do you teach fiction writing in a creative writing program? Then read Kyle Minor’s FB thread. Read the responses to Nye’s blog post. Think about your own pedagogy. Talk about it here or elsewhere. If you’ve figured out ways to encourage novel writing in your classes, share your insights and ideas.

Because it seems clear to me that inquiring minds want to know.

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.