This is How You Do It: John Vanderslice (Part 1)

This is How You Do It: John Vanderslice (Part 1)

From time to time, I’m going to interview people who have figured out ways to teach “Big Thing” creative writing courses. John Vanderslice is one such writer-teacher. He teaches at the University of Central Arkansas, blogs at Creating Van Gogh, and was kind enough to answer a whole lotta questions for me.

What made you decide to try this? Had you ever taken a Big Thing class? How did you figure out what to do?

For the most part, I’ve taken, as a student, and run, as a teacher, creative writing workshops that are organized around composing the “small thing”: the essay, the poem, the short story. Smaller forms rule the workshops because they are better suited for the machinery of the workshop class–even if they are less suited for the temperament of the individual writer. I’ve been guilty of running the same machine. For several years, now, however, I have been open to, and even encouraging of, students workshopping parts of the larger works: chapters of novels, essays or stories that are part of a cycle. I appreciated that the students were “thinking ahead” to the larger forms, for heftier and more expansive ways to explore a story or a theme.

A lot of people responded to my piece by saying, “I/We don’t prohibit larger works!” but I think there’s a difference between “not prohibiting” and “actively encouraging.” How did you move towards “active encouragement”?

First, I tried having an undergraduate fiction writing class work on a group novel. We had some of the most animated, life-or-death workshop discussions in that class that I’ve ever experienced, because everyone had a stake in the project under discussion. The project taught the class something about the state of mind required, and the obstacles one has to overcome, in order to complete a book length work of fiction.

But I must have known all along that even with a liberal, welcoming attitude toward bigger projects–and the willingness to try a crazy experiment once in a while the traditional workshop just wasn’t encouraging and enabling most students to tackle the larger works that are what most people in the literary marketplace want to read and buy, and, more importantly, what most writers dream of creating.

Thanks for saying that. It’s not about responding to market forces, or at least, not directly. It’s also about recognizing that writing a novel is what most students want to do, what many of them are already trying to do outside of our classes.

So I then I tried my first Novel Writing workshop. I more or less organized the course as I do any other workshop. Instead of workshopping stories or essay the students were workshopping novel chapters.

I think that’s what most teachers do–replace “the story” with “the chapter.” What else did you do differently?

I had them write brief explanations of their ideas for their novels. I made them compose a chapter-by-chapter plan for the novel, not just telling me what would happen in those chapters but how the chapters served the greater purpose of the novel. I stressed emphatically that these outlines were not set in stone, that they were just starting points and that over the course of the semester their plans could and probably would change. That was okay, I said, but I still wanted them to at least begin with a plan. And they were less resistant than I feared. Several told me later that they really enjoyed seeing how their novel could unfold from the kernel of an idea they brought with them to the classroom on the first day.

I assigned a book on novel writing, and I set aside classes in which the students would do focused journal writing about their novel, writing that was designed to get them to understand their characters better and to suggest new and interesting developments to them.

I called that “Studio Time.”

Also, they were required to pick a novel from a list I presented and give a presentation on that novel. So that was the week-to-week rhythm of the course–read in textbook, write in journals, turn in chapters, workshop for a while, read in textbook, write in journals, etc.

So, pretty much a typical workshop + in-class writing time. What happened? Was it successful?

My students imagined and began some marvelous novels. Truly marvelous. But the big drawback is that workshop and presentations take up so much time and energy. The students only composed three or four chapters of their novels. And I never expected any more than that. I expected that their books would get a firm start and, having pushed off so decidedly, they of course would keep going once the semester was over. Hah! Only a few carried on with their novels after the semester ended and virtually all them stopped long before a first draft was completed. Only one of the fifteen students who took the course the first time I taught it actually ended up finishing her book. Given how promising their novels seemed, this result killed me.

Most people would say that outcome is exactly how things are supposed to be, that the desire to finish a book has to come from within the students. But I also know that young writers can often prove themselves capable of more than they realize–with the proper structure and support. I like how you kept thinking of ways to maximize their chances at succeeding.

Truthfully, after the first time I ran the course I already knew something was amiss. I didn’t change it for the second time around because I honestly didn’t see how else to run it and–with our teaching-heavy burden (4/4 is typical)–I felt so pressed for time that I did the easy, foolish thing and just decided to run it the same way, the way I had a pattern for, and hope for better results.

That’s what most of us do, I think. Nobody has enough time.

Unfortunately, the results were worse. This time around, not a single student went on to finish. I knew I simply could not run the class that way any longer. I realized that the class had become not a class in which the students would write novels, or even start novels they would go on to write fully–but rather a class in which they played around with, talked about, made notes on the idea of writing a novel. And because they were not going through the process of composing an entire novel, what they were actually learning about novel-writing was minimal. All the novel writing books in the world won’t teach you as much as writing a novel will.

So: how did he do it? Stay tuned until next time.

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  1. Sheila says:

    Really interesting interview, I love to read about what’s going on in the CW world. This format was very different from my two “big-thing” courses–so it gave some food for thought. In a truly radical move, I don’t use workshop at all.

  2. Nicole Grieco says:

    Don’t know if you remember me from your class back at TCNJ, but I’m loving your blog and really admire the conversation you’ve started on fiction workshops. Looking forward to the rest of this interview! (Oh the cliffhanger.)

  3. Bryan Furuness says:

    I love this blog, C-Dazzle. I’m thinking about many of these same things, and this is spurring my thoughts along in the best way. Keep it up!

  4. Sorry to be behind on responding. As Part 2 mentions, I used Chris Baty’s No Plot No Problem, an extremely entertaining and fast read. The students really liked it. If nothing else it encouraged them to keep going. I’d had the book recommended to me for years from different sources. I’m glad I finally listened and read it myself. I think it was perfect for how I ran the class this time.

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