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.Teaching
Interesting, and I completely agree that what word you use matters. I find when I teach a memoir course, some students insist on calling what they’re writing a “story,” even though I put a lot of emphasis on how a memoir differs from a short story. “Story” seems to be the default form or at least the default word.
When I’m teaching non-fiction writing (which in practice means memoir or personal narrative), I use the word “piece” to name what they’re turning in, or sometimes “item.” When I’m writing something long, I tend to call it my “project,” and I use this for students’ long manuscripts as well.
I have a persistent issue in teaching that relates to the theme of How to Do It when students are writing a Big Thing. I usually have some students in my advanced non-fiction class (whose structure is very open and allows students to define the parameters of their projects) who get started writing something that is most definitely not going to come in at 10 or 15 pages — something that looks like the beginnings of a book-length manuscript. I don’t try to dissuade them from doing this, but what bothers me as a teacher is this: the semester ends before the student and I ever see the whole shape of the thing that’s trying to be written. The student never gets to the point of trying to find a way to end it. It feels to me as though my ability to give useful feedback is limited by not having a clear sense of what the whole is trying to be, and the student misses some potential learning by not being able to tackle the challenge of ending. What do you do about these things?
Lowry, my taste in memoir runs to the narrative side, and I like the idea of using story, although I know many, many creative nonfiction writers who would disagree. As for your last question, I’ve got a post coming up in a few days about just that. An interview with writer-teacher John Vanderslice. But here’s another idea I’ve been mulling over: Andre Dubus differentiated between horizontal writing (moving quickly forward, draft after draft) and vertical writing (moving slowly, deeply). I think that the workshop method all but demands that they write vertically, but is there a way to discuss (even grade) a very rough draft that shows us the beg., middle, end of along project, but is written horizontally?
Boy, that’s a good question. I like the distinction between vertical and horizontal writing, and my teaching emphasizes vertical writing, for sure. But I would guess that because you’re teaching in a different context, you have more advanced students than I do. I’m often teaching students who haven’t taken creative writing before (or none since high school). They may have little experience of really careful revision, or of meta-level thinking about their writing; hence a push toward the vertical is something they need. It would be very cool, if students agreed, to set up an experiment like this: Take a class and divide it in half; teach one half in a vertical, deep-revision way and the other half in a horizontal, fluency-building, block-out-the-big-structure way; then see what you’ve got by the semester’s end.
I believe that thinking structure is one of the hardest challenges in learning to write. Maybe the horizontal approach would set out to teach this. It seems to me the discussion of a draft like the one you describe would be about its entire shape, what it’s trying to do or say, possible changes to the structure . . . I mean, it wouldn’t make sense to take a magnifying glass to any one paragraph. Though of course there would still be gems in the text and people would be saying “This is a great line” about something.
By the way, I also have a great predilection for narrative in memoir (and in general); it’s interesting to me that the last time I taught the advanced non-fiction class, and focused from the start on memoir as a form, the class started resisting it and wanting to say the hell with it and just write narrative. Which was fine with me. Maybe I won’t lean on memoir next time.
Oh, and as for grading: I don’t grade individual pieces, but I hear you: in the “horizontal” class, I’d still have to give final grades, and would horizontality lead to a new set of criteria?
Good teaching move. I’m glad creative writing courses are getting away from prescriptive teaching, to a place where Big Things are actively encouraged.
I’m glad to hear you still remember me! It helps that I actually took three of your classes, but I’ll be darned if I can remember what the last one was called. You talked about icebergs and the difference between Faulkner and Hemingway, which I’m sure describes 90% of fiction classes taught today, so that’s probably not the best description.
I appreciate you replying to my comment on your essay. I actually don’t remember what was on your syllabus in Senior Seminar, but I’ll believe you if you say we could write novel chapters along with short stories. Still, I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about ‘unspoken conventions’. Regardless of what it says on the syllabus, no student wants to be ‘that guy’ (or girl) who comes into the class discussion ready to talk about the beginning of their novel when everyone else has their completed short stories all tied up in neat ribbons on their desk. It’s daunting as a student to approach a novel in workshop not just because of professorial encouragement (or a lack thereof if the case may be), but also because of the way fellow students will receive it. It’s easy to give your classmates your 15 pages and let them speak for themselves, it’s not so easy to give your classmates 15 pages of a 300 page piece and expect them to give you the same quality of feedback. Hence, no matter what it says on the syllabus, it’s far less terrifying to show up with a short story like everyone else does. (And, as an addendum to this, no student ever knows whats on the syllabus after they read it other than the grading breakdown and how many absences they can take, so any other helpful pieces of information often go ignored).
Since you asked, I’m still working on the piece with the two brothers and sisters. I’d actually always wanted it to be a fantasy novel, but again, no one wants to be ‘that guy’ who shows up with a fantasy novel, so I cut it down to contemporary short fiction for the class. Now that I’m out on my own, I’m having much better luck writing it the way I wanted it to be. Of course, now I’m running into the fantasy epic problems, like what to do with a word-count that’s about 100,000 words too high for a first time author to get published. But, hey, if I wasn’t writing for the fun of it, I wouldn’t be writing at all, so I’ll figure something out.
Thanks again for responding to my post, it’s really cool that you remember your students (and also what they were writing!). I haven’t gotten to write anything for a while since I’ve been sick but reading your blog has definitely encouraged me to get working. Keep up the awesome work!