What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects

What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects

Teaching Writing


Here are the (purposely vague) premises of all the novels my students wrote this semester. I have indicated the writer’s gender thusly: (Italics = Male writer, Regular = Female student), and I’ve grouped the descriptions to reflect the particular critique circles I formed and placed them in. Meaning students in Class 1, Group 1 read each other’s manuscripts ONLY.

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How to talk about a WIP

How to talk about a WIP


To my novel-writing classes,

Next week, you’ll meet with your small group and talk about 25-50 pages of  your WIP (work-in-progress), the novels you’ve been working on this term. This is the moment when a lot of novels fizzle out, but it’s also the moment when a lot of novels get a much-needed vote of confidence.

My book, The Circus in Winter, got that kind of boost back in 1993. I describe that workshop in full here.

Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.

I was lucky.

Typically, students want to prescribe. They want to talk about what’s not working. It’s up to the instructor to create the default setting, to frame the workshop so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.

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Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.   Continue reading

Reflective Essays: What They Learned This Semester


It’s that time of year when our students turn in their portfolios–along with the “reflective essay” in which they articulate what they learned this semester. I love reading them. This term, I asked my students to turn those essays into blog posts. NOT something written to me, but to you.

As you know by now, my goal for the last year or so has been to help my students move from “story” to “book” by tweaking how I approach my courses. specifically, how I run (or don’t run) the workshop. I taught three classes this term, two of which had a public course blog attached to them. One was an undergraduate advanced fiction writing class on “novels” and a graduate course on “linked stories.” But really, they were BOTH classes on novel writing–one explicitly (the undergrad) and one implicitly (the grad).

Each class has a blog, which you can peruse. Continue reading

You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel: by Rebecca Rasmussen

You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel: by Rebecca Rasmussen


If you would like to write a guest post for “The Big Thing,” by all means, let me know. Maybe we could trade? That’s what debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen and I did. My essay on “Literary Citizenship” appeared on her blog, The Bird Sisters. I’m really looking forward to her book, which will burst into flight on April 12.

You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel

By Rebecca Rasmussen

You’re not ready to write a novel. If you can’t write a proper short story, what makes you think you can handle the scope of a novel? Why would you want to write a novel, when short stories are the far superior art form? Stick with what you know. Haven’t you heard of Poe’s unity of effect?

It seems unbelievable to me now that anyone was ever not in support of me writing a novel, but after attending two MFA programs, I have to say that the above statements are generally what a student of fiction can expect to hear over the course of their time in a writing program. The question now that I have written a novel that’s being published in April is why? Continue reading

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

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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. Continue reading

This is How You Do It: Stop Using the Word “Story”

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.” Continue reading

This is How You Do It: No Typed Critiques

CW Programs Teaching

Update since my last post: I wrote a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and they published it, along with a response from Elise Blackwell. Since then, she and I have emailed privately. We shared some ideas and experiences. We even know people in common. The air is clear, and all is well. It’s funny how you meet people these days.

Okay, so now that THAT is out of the way, back to my series, “This is How You Do It,” which focuses on ways to re-think your classroom practices in order to accommodate long projects.

Fiction writer Matt Bell (How They Were Found, 2010) was kind enough to post an excerpt from my Millions article on his blog, but it was the reposting of that entry as a note on Facebook that generated the most discussion. It was in this forum that fiction writer Josh Weil (The New Valley, 2009) chimed in to share how Brooklyn College accommodates novels in their curriculum. Continue reading

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

CW Programs

In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.

Here’s Michael Nye at The Missouri Review blog, where even Peter Turchi weighed in with a comment.

Here’s another response.

HTMLGiant noticed.

And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”

Novelist and n+1 editor Chad Harbach says:

The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form.

I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without “MFA program culture” to offset “NYC publishing culture,” the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it’s a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.

As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been?

Harbach wonders this, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

And now, back to my novel…