This is How You Do It: Stop Using the Word “Story”
You need to know this: I never forget my students. I forget their names, but never their faces, and I usually remember their stories.
When my essay came out in The Millions, I read the comments with fascination and interest. One of the comments was from a former student of mine, “Liz B,” who wrote, “You may not remember me…”
Actually, I remember her very well. She took me for Intermediate Fiction the horrible summer I quit smoking. Indeed, she mentions in the comment that I once yelled at her. (I’m really sorry Liz. I was a real basket case that summer.) And she took me for Senior Seminar, a class in which I required students to produce a 50-page manuscript, a Big Thing.
Liz B. writes: “It always drove me crazy having to submit short stories for your classes since all I wanted to do was write a novel.”
What interests me about this statement is that, while it’s true I focused on short stories in the Intermediate Fiction class, I still have the syllabus for the Senior Seminar, and it clearly states that it’s fine for students to submit novel chapters.
Now, I’m not trying to argue with Liz B., but to point out–to you, the reader–that there is an obvious disconnect between what was on my syllabus and what a student understood to be an unspoken convention of the class.
Some of the response to the Millions essay has been along these lines: I don’t prohibit students from working on novels or linked stories! I encourage it! Our program encourages it! The “problem” of which you speak does not exist!
Okay. That is probably true. But if the problem doesn’t exist, then why the reaction?
I mean, I’ve been trying to foster “big thing” writing in my classes for years, and my own students are telling me they felt discouraged from doing so.
Why does this happen? And what to do about it?
One thing I’m doing in the classroom now that I didn’t do when I had Liz B.: I don’t use the word “story.” I used to use say things like “Your story is due on Monday at 6 PM.” And “Let’s talk about Chuck’s story.”
“Story” was short hand for “chapter” or “linked story” or “series of flash fictions” or whatever they wanted to turn in for workshop. I didn’t necessarily mean “short story,” per se, but what came out of my mouth was the word “story.”
Yes, I know, a chapter is a story, too, but let’s be real. What a student writer hears me say “story” it means “short story,” which to them means 8-15 pages–unless they hear different from me.
Slowly, I’ve broken my habit of using the blanket term “story” to refer to any kind of submitted fiction. Now I say, “Your manuscript is due on Monday,” and “Let’s talk about Chuck’s manuscript.“
“Short Story” is not a dirty word. But it is not the only word to describe what we’re asking students to produce in a fiction workshop.
Good luck to you Liz. I remember you were working on a piece about a family, two brothers, two sisters. Are you still working on that? Or something else? In any case, I’m really happy you’re still writing.