This is How You Do It: John Vanderslice (Part 2)

Part 2 of my talk with John Vanderslice, a fellow writer-teacher who is experimenting with new ways to incorporate Big Things into the creative writing classroom. (You can read Part 1 here.)

So, what did you do the third time you taught the course?

During Fall 2010, I ran the class in a radically new way. Instead of just beginning novels over the course of one semester, the students would begin and finish them. Period.

That’s definitely a challenge. I didn’t take it that far.

I set a specific word count goal for their projects–55,000–and gave them weekly word count goals as well. Every week one of the first things I did was to check their word counts–fortunately, they all had laptops or could plug a flash drive into a computer.

I found to be really helpful in verifying word counts.

In order to keep my students on track, I had to radically rethink the week-to-week activities. The emphasis had to be on production, not workshopping. In fact, I dropped the “all-class workshop” altogether. This course met once a week in the evening, and every single week, no matter what other activities were on the schedule, we spent the second half of class writing. I just said, “Okay, for the next hour and a half you can work on your novels.” And they did. In fact, what I actually told them was that we would take a short break (as is typical of three hour night classes), recharge, then come back and start writing. But most of my students proceeded to open up their laptops and begin writing immediately. They wanted to use every second possible to work on their books.

It’s kind of awesome to see that, isn’t it? What did the first half of each class look like?

The class read two short novels that I thought would be both instructive and illuminating. We discussed those books, or we discussed chapters in our novel-writing textbook. Otherwise, they did peer review. Given that the title of the class was Novel Writing Workshop I felt responsible to build in some mechanism in which the students could get some feedback on their projects. But I wanted a mechanism that was less threatening and less prescriptive than the typical workshop session.

How did you do that? I sometimes find it hard to get students on board with the idea of a descriptive, supportive workshop.

I broke the class into groups of two or three. They emailed their pages to the group in advance of the scheduled Peer Group sessions. They shared ideas, impressions, reactions. No written critiques were required, although they weren’t forbidden either. I left that up to the individual groups. My only explicit instructions were that they NOT get hung up on line editing. Commenting on another student’s spelling or grammar was forbidden. What they were supposed to focus on, I said, was not criticizing but understanding and providing support, maybe even ideas.

This has always been my biggest hang up. I feel like if I am not personally at the center of a critique session, the students won’t learn anything. Which is both true and not true, of course.

Not all the peer review groups were terribly helpful on a response level, but almost all my students were glad the groups existed. They were glad to have some kind of audience for their novels–they didn’t want to write in a complete vacuum–and they also thought it was very valuable to be responsible to someone else for the word counts. In other words, if they didn’t meet the word count they wouldn’t just be letting me down they would be letting down their peers.

You were writing alongside the students, too. Did you submit the novel you were working on for peer review, too? Were you in one of the peer groups? Or were you reading everyone’s pages all along? This is what most teachers who are willing to try this want to know: how to provide students some feedback without getting buried.

Yes, I participated in one peer review group. It only seemed natural that if I was going to write a novel along with the students that I would join in the peer review. So I read the work of the two students who were in my peer review group as they sent me their sections, but I did not read any of the other student’s novels, not while they were progressing. It would have been simply impossible for me to read all that and respond given my other teaching duties. But that’s hardly a reason not to have the students take on an assignment–like writing a novel–that can be very valuable to them. I think that as teachers we sometimes exaggerate our importance, as if the students can’t survive or produce without our feedback. That’s simply not true, especially if the class is full of third and fourth year majors. In a reflective piece one of my students wrote at the end of the semester, he mentioned that what he liked about the class was the students were kind of teaching themselves. He found that refreshing.

What novel-writing book did your students read?

I used Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem? The focus of the book is on production more than precision, and it’s written for people who do not normally define themselves as novelists.

This is probably the point at which someone reading this is thinking, “But if you’re not focused on precision, on revision, if you’re not critiquing the work, what are you doing? How is this teaching creative writing?” Seriously, it is such an enormous paradigm shift. How would you answer that?

The two aspects of the course that I had the most teacher-ly anxiety about–forcing 20 year olds to write 55,000 word novels and eliminating workshopping from a workshop class–were the aspects that the students most appreciated. Students complete an anonymous survey, and to a person, they said the most useful aspect of the course was that they finished a book. When I asked how badly they missed traditional workshopping, every student but one answered “Not at all.” And that one other student said he only missed workshopping “A little.” When I asked them how useful the class would have been if they’d only been made to write the first part of a novel rather than the whole thing, every student indicated the course would have been much less successful for them. So to kind of touch back on one of your earlier questions, I am convinced that to have made them write less so that I could provide everyone with weekly feedback would have been, in the end, a very bad trade off.

I also gave an anonymous survey, and my results were exactly the same.

Talk about justification. Having taught the course this way, I can’t imagine teaching it any other way. And under no circumstances will I go back to running it the old way. One student actually took the course “the old way,” but had had to drop out. She told me she was extremely worried on the first day of class this fall when I explained how differently I would run the class this time, but she ended up thanking me and asking if I could teach the course again in the spring so that she could write Book 2 in her Fantasy series.

I think I just felt a lot of readers cringing. Thanks for bringing up the Genre Fiction Issue. But you know what? Ever since I stopped forbidding particular aesthetics, I’ve found that I enjoy my teaching a whole lot more. There’s an abiding satisfaction that comes with helping people write the books they want to write. When I was in graduate school, genre fiction was not welcome, and all my peers wrote short stories in a very particular realistic, minimalistic mode that was popular at the time.

I’m actually not a fan of the Fantasy genre, but it’s never made sense to me that in a course called “Creative Writing,” a teach would tell his or her students which kinds of creativity were allowed and which were not. That’s completely anathema to me. And finally you’re not doing the students any favors by stifling and censoring them. You’re not improving their writing but just frustrating them. So many students come to our classes fired up by, entranced by, the fantasy or supernatural or thriller books they read. That passion is wonderful to see; it’s exactly what we don’t want to extinguish, although so many English departments seem determined to. And it’s only natural to follow your reading passion into your writing. All of us do that; all of us did that when we were young. So let them. People who are meant to write Fantasy should. Those who aren’t meant to will eventually figure this out on their own. And in the meantime most of the rules for good writing apply no matter what genre the student is working in, so there’s absolutely no reason for a teacher to claim that he “can’t” provide feedback to genre writing. That’s a coward’s response. A cop out.

Now, like you, I can’t say my teachers in college or graduate school ever much encouraged genre writing, or writing in longer forms. I never had a course like my novel workshop as a student. I never even heard of such a course being offered anywhere. And I can’t recall a single student, even in graduate school, bringing a novel chapter to workshop. It simply wasn’t done. The tyranny of the short story, described in your “Millions” piece, was absolutely true to my workshop experience as a student.

Next time: we talk about the inspiration for these ideas, how “good” these novels are, and the nitty gritty stuff, like grading and getting the pages read.

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  1. Lowry Pei says:

    Thanks for providing this. Even though I’m not teaching such a course and am not likely to have the opportunity, I find this inspiring. I’d love to do it myself.
    I second everything said about genre fiction in the post. Some of my students (all of whom are young women, since I teach at Simmons College) really want to write murder and mayhem. Basically thriller stuff. Why not? Especially because it’s a beginning class. Whatever supplies that drive to write the story, I’m for.
    As for peer review and not being at the center of a critique session: I believe that if we teach how to give feedback, and deliberately structure what happens in peer review groups, there’s no reason it cannot be useful — given motivated students like the ones you’re talking about. I give handouts with questions, both for reflection on one’s own work, and for giving feedback on someone else’s, that reflect what I believe my students need to work on at the time. I nearly always start peer review with the writer putting on paper some reflection about her new stuff; it really helps the responder(s) to focus.

    • John Vanderslice says:

      THose sound like great ideas. I often ask that the writers being workshopped provide such questions. Not always, but usually that guarantees that the workshop discussion is useful to the writer.

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