A Novel Graduation Story
This week, I’ve invited my friend Sherrie Flick to describe the novel workshop she taught this past semester at Chatham University, and my former student Ben Gwin to talk about being a student in that course. A little backstory: in the fall of 2006, Ben was a student in my senior seminar in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh. I talk more about that class here. Ben started his novel, his Big Thing in my class, then kept writing, and was eventually accepted into the MFA program at Chatham University. Now he’s getting ready to graduate, and Sherrie is his thesis director, and she’s been keeping me updated on Ben’s progress and that of another former student of mine, Rich Gegick.
Points of View: A Dialogue Between Student and Teacher
By Sherrie Flick and Ben Gwin
SF: This semester I taught a novel writing workshop for the MFA students at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. My goals for this class were four-fold: Generate writing. Learn craft. Make progress as a group. Think and talk about novels, applying the discussions to the work at hand.
I wanted the class to operate less like a workshop and more like a studio (thinking toward a visual arts model, where craft and practice and modeling are pursued/explored actively each class).
The first 4 weeks of class, the students had intensive writing time. I asked them to write 400 words a day. I collected word counts at the end of each week via emailed Word docs. I didn’t read this work, so much as verify the counts.
During this time I also asked the students to write 1-page proposals for their semester-long projects (50 pages of a novel), due week two. I rejected most of the proposals and asked for revisions and then reread and approved or asked for more revisions. Students also selected an author of their choice to read in those first four weeks. They read a first book and then a later book by that person. I wanted them to see how a first book works and how a writer matures into later work.
All of this was month one. No workshopping, no meeting up as a classâ€”just reading (4 books) and writing (8,000 words) and proposing. Practicing, in a sense, being a writer.
BG: My initial proposal was rejected I kept muddling my goals for the course and overlapping them with my thesis class (which I took concurrently) and the novel workshop, I had to separate the two. My goals changed so I revised my proposal to match the outcome of the work I produced for the class. I had hoped to use the novel class to get feedback on the section of the manuscript I was having the most trouble with (pgs 150-200) and then get the whole manuscript revised by the end of the term, but that didn’t happen.
Instead I used the class to complete a whole rough draft, then for my final I revised 50 pages of the manuscript following the 135 pages I turned in for my thesis. I figured this would benefit the novel the most.
SF: Proposals were accepted/rejected based on the goals set forth by the student for the project. If a student didn’t articulate his/her project or had goals that were vague or unachievable in the scope of a semester, I asked the person to rewrite after giving some guidance. The proposals outlined what the creative work would be and defined the project for both the student and for me.
BG: Coming into the class, I had already written an almost finished, beginning-to-end (very rough) draft of Clean Time, a novel-length manuscript, which I started in 2006 at Pitt with Cathy. By almost finished, I mean I’d written the first half and the last quarter, and a list of scenes I needed to complete. So, I spent the first month of novel workshop bridging this gap. I generated new stuff in the morning and revised old stuff at night.
The 4 weeks at the beginning were beautiful. I wrote a lot read Angels and Already Dead by Denis Johnson and studied them. I wrote a craft paper on how Denis Johnson uses dialogue to characterize and move plot. I also studied how he weaves description into action and discussed the Macro structure of the two novels. I did my best to implement these craft elements into my story.
I set out to address my weaknesses and to generate the missing scenes and was successful on both counts. I feel like I’m dealing with better problems now. I have 65,000 words, and I’ll be able to cut a lot of it and rewrite with characters who are more real.
The best part of my last year of school was that my professors; Derek Green, Marc Nieson and Sherrie all took a great interest in my work and helping me get it to the point it can be published (eventually); they treated me like an apprentice not like a student, in that I was more concerned with improving my writing than getting grades, and they let me tailor my assignments to my larger project.
SF: What I wanted in weeks 5 through 15 was an active class (think art students painting each week in front of easels, trying out/learning, experimenting with different techniques). Each student had 5 pages of work due each class.
During the first and last class meetings each student read their five pages aloud, and the class gave feedback in the moment, after hearing the work. These public-reading workshops created a nice intro and then closure to the semester. The rest of the semester’s Wednesday evenings every student turned in five pages in advance and the class critiqued the pages (50 in all) for the next workshop.
In class the students broke into small groups (3-4; there were 11 students in the class) to discuss the pages, with each student given 7 minutes/25 minutes of total workshopping time. We then gathered back into a large group for more discussion.
The five pages themselves were not randomly selected, however. Each week, I chose a craft element: dialogue, plot, characterization, setting, significant object, point of view. The students selected work (often from their first-four-week generation pages) that highlighted the element selected.
In this way, the entire class focused on the same idea, could discuss the same craft elements in a range of work, each week. I wanted the students to learn to talk craft on a higher level, to learn from their peers in regards to elements they might be weak in, to teach others when they were strong. I wanted the class to move forward, learning from each other.
BG: Focusing on one craft element was key and produced discussion revealing how interlaced all the elements are in a good piece of fiction. This may be obvious. I’m not a great public reader so it’s good for me to have opportunities to practice reading out loud.
Craft discussion is fun, especially as I get a better grasp on how to implement it in my own work. Like I paid more attention to detail in revision, to the right details, not just getting a sentence to sound nice or smart, but improving the prose to further the story through showing character and advancing action. This is probably also obvious, but I struggled with some really obvious things and now I at least know what they are, like plot.
SF: Since the weekly five pages focused on craft elements, the workshop discussion was directed, in that the students discussed what was and was not working, let’s say, with dialogue. The students had a basic idea of what each other’s projects were about (proposals were posted on Moodle–which is like Blackboard) and they could also ask questions of the authors, which they did.
BG: I thought the balance was good between the immediate feedback and the small group feedback. It’s nice to get unfiltered and immediate “that was really confusing” response. It supplements the more in-depth, close readings of the small sections.
I helped teach students that sometimes you have to cut ten pages and turn it into a paragraph. I keep a folder with everything I cut, (I got this idea from an article Sherrie gave us to read) and it is 8,000 words. And that’s just what is worth saving.
I think Rich Gegick was the best writer in our class. He writes really sparse, Carver-like prose, which I don’t tend to do naturally. So reading his stuff helped me a lot on a sentence level. I gravitate towards writers who are better than me and doing interesting stuff and badger them into telling me how they make their words so good. I recommend this.
SF: Workshop classes at Chatham run three hours once a week (6:30-9:30pm). These long classes allow time for thorough discussions and for a variety of activities. At the beginning of class, sometimes I passed out a different novel to each person (from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica) and had everyone read their book’s first sentence and discuss its purpose, success.
Other times I copied the opening pages of a novel for everyone (Jonathn Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, for example) and we read those aloud, each student taking the next sentence in turn. In this way, we could hear good, varied sentence structure, hear strong voice, discuss how the opening of a novel works, what it presents and why, and then talk about theme, tension, action.
Other days, I worked with the class on micro elements: sentence revision, dialogue techniques. We revised the (bad) sentence “She was carving the turkey” more times than I’d care to remember.
How this exercise works: I’ll ask the class to revise the sentence to be about a dysfunctional family in Florida (without using the words “dysfunctional” or “Florida” or “family”). Students throw out suggested revision ideas and we rewrite the sentence as a group. This process helps students use active language and encourages them to practice the subtle and wonderful and exciting art of showing not telling. Then I’ll ask them to rewrite this same sentence so that it’s Thanksgiving in the South and the main character is a prostitute named Glenda.
BG: Glenda chased her penicillin with vodka, opened a window and stuffed cornbread into the hollow turkey.
SF: One day we were talking about unnecessary directions in sentences, like: “She sat down in the chair and turned to watch TV.” So, I pointed at Ben and said, “Ben is in the den. How do we get him to the kitchen without using the words ‘he walked down the hall’?” Then, we brainstormed for a long time how to do this, and we failed, and then I gave it as a take-home assignment and now I ask people in bars to solve this problem. It’s fun.
BG: I woke up on the living room couch shaking so bad that I spilled coffee on the kitchen floor and burned my hand when I poured it.
SF: All of this revision activity served to show students that micro elements in a novel, in any writing (words, sentences, paragraph breaks, openings, chapter endings) are something they should practice in order to get to the bigger, macro issues of theme, content, tension, action.
In these beginning-of-class discussions I tried to let the second year students inform the first-year students as much as possible, tried to set up micro and macro mentoring in that sense. I like to think of fiction on those two levels: micro and macro. I used the excellent craft book The Artful Edit by Susan Bell to reinforce those ideas.
BG: What helped me immensely was following Cathy’s advice that I bring a project with me to grad school. The three years I spent pre-MFA, and the first semester at Chatham, really just got me to the point where I understood my protagonist and the story.
If Professor (Aubrey) Hirsch (who saw the first grad school excerpts of Clean Time in her workshop in fall of ’09) were to read my thesis, I think she’d be surprised (and delighted) at how little it resembles the first drafts.
I suppose the downfall of the novel workshop is that students might not continue working on the ideas they generated for class. I mean the end result can’t be a 50 page assignemnt, but rather a 50 page jumping off point. Of the first 150 or so pages I wrote before grad school, probably 10 made it into the 300 page manuscript I have now.
Maybe having an assignment to outline the rest of the story as part of the next novel workshop would be good?
SF: Also, over the course of the semester I set up one-hour conferences with each student to review 25 pages. In this way, I was pretty engaged with each project and could watch as it unfolded and give advice and reading suggestions along the way.
All in all, I’m happy with this novel workshop model. I would like to try it again with this same syllabus. I think the initial four weeks of required writing and proposal creation and intensive four-book readings helped the class’s success in that no one came into workshop cold, everyone had at least 8,000 words in hand, a specific idea of what they wanted to accomplish for the semester, and an author (or two) to serve as models.
Like Ben, many students completely changed (and rewrote) their proposals as the class advanced. They dropped characters, changed verb tense, altered point of view, condensed scenes, expanded scenes, and changed character motivation in their novels. This, to me, shows good progress. Students learned that writing a novel isn’t easy or neat, that it’s a messy process that involves a lot of letting go and then thinking hard and then: writing. They dove into the messiness of it and came out with knowledge about where to go next.
One last thing: Ben is in an excellent place right now as he finishes up his MFA and heads out into the â€œrealâ€ world with a solid manuscript draft and the skills and motivation to polish it into a real book.
Ben Gwin graduated from University of Pittsburgh with a BA in English/Writing and just finished his MFA in fiction at Chatham University. He is hard at work on his novel, Clean Time. This summer he’ll attend the Juniper Institute at UMass Amherst.
Sherrie Flick is a Lecturer in Chatham University’s low-residency and residency MFA programs. Her debut novel, Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books) was a semi-finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. She is also the author of the award-winning flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume)