This is How You Do It: John Vanderslice (Part 3)
This is the end of a three-part interview with John Vanderslice. During Fall 2010, we each taught a Big Thing creative writing course. We had never met, and at the time, we had no idea we were doing almost exactly the same thing in our classes. We figured this out by accident, really, when in the course of discussing something over email with his wife Stephanie Vanderslice, I mentioned that what I was doing, and the rest is history.
John, was there anything that inspired you to try these new approaches?
Yes, two different AWP sessions. The first, at the 2007 Atlanta conference, featured a group of teachers from Bath Spa University in Bath, England. They described their graduate Novel writing course. They run the course as a traditional workshop course, with the material being novel chapters instead of short stories. Their course runs over the length of a full year and even so they don’t expect their students to finish their novels. But they do expect them to get far along in them. Bath Spa at least recognizes institutionally that novels are what their fiction students want to write and need to write. (They also claim that workshopping the novel as it progresses is useful to their students. I’ll take them at their word, but from my own experience as a teacher I wonder how that is so.)
The person who really opened my eyes was Mary Kay Zuravleff who at the 2009 AWP conference in Chicago described a novel writing course she ran for her students at George Mason University. Mary Kay insisted that they finish their novels in one semester; she issued week-to-week word count goals and held the students responsible to those goals; and she gave up workshopping in favor of the more limited peer review system I described earlier. Also, Mary Kay participated herself in the course, writing a short novel of her own along with her students.
Mary Kay’s talk was a revelation. I was looking for an answer, for a new direction, and she provided me with one. I saw immediately how more beneficial her class would be for the budding novelist than my class was. But I was worried about making undergraduates complete a book in one semester. In fact, all of the participants in Mary Kay’s session discussed her model as something that of course would be applicable to graduate students only. In response to a question I asked from the audience, one of the other participants said to me, “Can you imagine asking your undergraduates to do this?” Well, no; at that moment I couldn’t. But I couldn’t see any better model than Mary Kay’s, and I still don’t. She gave me the courage, the “permission,” to throw workshopping out the window. For that I’m eternally grateful.
“Throwing workshop out the window.” To some, I’m sure those sound like fighting words! Yes, for this particular kind of class, one that’s about production, process, drafting, then I think you have to replace workshop with what I call “writeshop.” You have to imagine that you’re teaching a studio arts class or a dance class. I still workshop in other classes, of course. I think it’s important for people reading this to understand that we’re not saying “workshop is bad,” only that it isn’t the only organizing principle for a creative writing course. It’s simply what we’re the most used to.
The biggest change for me has been seeing my students actually complete novels, seeing them stick out the process, figure out whatever needed figuring in order to keep going. By no means were they always happy with their novels as the semester went on, but that–as I tried to explain–is a completely ordinary feeling for a novelist. The trick is to keep going. And they did. They learned how. Their novels are the result of this education.
How many of them finished?
Fifteen students enrolled in the course, four did drop out. One student withdrew from school altogether, three more decided they would not be able to keep up with the work. The other 11 finished the course and first drafts of their novels. While not perfect, that’s a much higher percentage that I expected.
How good are these novels?
It’s way too early to tell if one of these novels will ever be published, but I can say that at least one, with some tinkering, does seems publishable. The student who authored that novel is one of the most elegant and astute writers in our program, but he would never have taken on a novel–I mean as an undergraduate–if not for enrolling in the course. Now I’m convinced that his novel is the best thing he’s ever written. And I can also say the same thing about a novel written by another of the students. It’s a fantasy tale written for children, rather elegantly composed in the manner of C.S. Lewis but very well done. I’ve had that student in class before , and his novel is superior to anything he turned in last year. He is immensely proud of it. It’s wonderful, almost darling, to see his enthusiasm for it. He is actually trying to market the book now to agents and children’s literature publishers. I hope he succeeds!
What did your colleagues say?
Those who heard about what I was doing had generally two reactions: 1) Wow, how exciting for the students, and 2) Are you actually going to read all those novels at the end of the semester?
Well, did you read them? This is not an unimportant question. What did they have to turn in at the end of the semester?
At the end of the semester my students had to turn in a finished first draft of their novels, with a word count of at least 55,000. A couple students actually went over that total. One student wrote as much as 78,000 words. And yes, despite what I said about not providing them week to week feedback, I did feel it was incumbent on me to read these novels and give them some response, even if in brief. Was I able to do so? Mostly, yes, believe it or not. I read one student’s novel over the course of the semester in the peer review group. (The other peer group member dropped out of school.) So at semester’s end I had 10 novels to read. Over Christmas break I read 8 of these and emailed comments to my students. It was not as difficult as it sounds, as these were short novels, and I was really intrigued by them, knowing they were composed by my students. (And believe me, I am NOT a fast reader.) I’m still reading the 9th novel now. The 10th I may never get to, I hate to say, and that student has graduated and to be honest she didn’t show a terrible lot of interest in getting feedback about it. In short, I think it’s very important for those who teach the course to at least make an honest attempt to read the finished products. The students deserve that. On the plus side, while the semester was going on, the time demand of the course really was not excessive at all, no more than any of my other courses. Maybe even less, because we were not workshopping but “writeshopping” to use your phrase. My main worry all semester long was keeping pace with my own novel!
How were your students’ grades determined?
The novel itself certainly took the lion’s share of semester “points,” about 60%. But there were other assignments: a brief (one page) explanation of their initial idea for the novel, responses to the chapters in Baty’s book, responses to the two novels we read, end of semester reflective papers on the experience as a whole and on their peer review group. These all counted for about 30%. And then I gave a peer review grade, the toughest one since I had no written critiques to go by. I had to determine that grade from my impression of how active their peer review groups had been and by what they told me in their reflective papers. (I know that sounds iffy, but it was the best I could do. Better that than to have them not accountable at all.) So this was the last 10%. As far as the novel itself goes, I did keep track week to week as to whether or not they met their word count goal. At the end, if the student turned in the novel and had met all his word count goals through the semester he got full credit. Any undergraduate who can finish a draft of a 55,000 word novel in one semester certainly deserves as much–even if the thing stinks. (Which, for the most part, really didn’t.)
One last question: Did your students participate in National Novel Writing Month? I gave my students the option to follow NaNo to the letter (all 50,000 words during November only) or to start early and spread out the writing over two months. It’s worth mentioning, I think, that the ones who followed NaNo to the letter were LESS successful than those who started early, and this created some unnecessary friction in an otherwise terrific class. My students couldn’t figure out if the goal of the class to do what NaNoWriMo said, or to do what I said? Were students who started early “cheating?” These misunderstandings caused the class to end on a low note, and I’m not sure if I want to “do NaNo” next time at all.
Even though Baty’s book is designed for participants in NaNoWriMo, we didn’t actually take part in that. We completely ignored it, actually. I felt it was important for the class to be on the same page, to follow the same schedule, if only for my own sanity. Plus, I felt guilty enough about making them write 55,000 words. I wanted to give them the whole semester to do it.
Thank you so much for talking to me, John. I hope that this conversation encourages other creative writing teachers to try some of these approaches.
[Hey you, reading this. As you think toward your classes during Fall 2011, consider adopting some of these practices and start your own blog to share your experiences.]