What I do
About half my courses are creative writing workshops for undergraduates and graduate students. I don’t like the usual workshop method, but I use it, in a limited form, imposing a wide variety of exercises on the process. What do I mean, I don’t like the usual workshop method? The standard American workshop is a lazy construction. The teacher asks students to bring in stories or poems to class, sometimes copied and handed out ahead of time, sometimes not. The class and its final arbiter (usually the teacher) judge the merits of the story or poem. Few ask the question, “Where does a story come from?” The standard American workshop presumes that you cannot teach creativity or instincts or beginnings. It takes what it can once the process has already been started. Most writing teachers say, “Okay, bring in a story and we’ll take it apart and put it back together again.” I say, “Let’s see what we can do to find some stories.” The average workshop is often a profoundly conservative force in fiction writers’ lives, encouraging the simplifying and routinizing of stories. Madison Smartt Bell says, “Fiction workshops are almost inherently incapable of finding success.” I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities, to foster strangeness and irregularity, as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself, and I don’t worry much about success or failure (I think Bell’s lament is to the point, but I also think writers should leave workshops to do the final work themselves, deciding on their own whether they’ve failed or succeeded).
My classes are spare parts warehouses young writers enter to ransack (and create) fragments that can be fitted together to build a story (or many stories). Exercises can be more than convenient tools for triggering conversation about fiction before the group gets down to the real work of discussing longer stories. Exercises are the heart of the process of teaching fiction in my workshops. Students select exercises from my own collections of fiction exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany or The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, or from other books. They also design their own exercises and algorithms (procedures for solving a creative problem). Students do two sets of five exercises in the first few weeks of the term, with a consistent set of characters, place, and time, but I urge them not to write a story. We read these exercises, and the class looks for a story or several stories. We often suggest two or three or parts of several exercises as the building blocks for the longer story they will write and give to us for the third workshop of their work. In other words, the class and I are on the lookout for an unusual combination of fragments to make another story than the writer may have had in mind. The effect of this collage is to show the whole class the many possibilities of narrative. I want the class to see fiction as a machine with interchangeable working parts. A side benefit of talking about small pieces of prose (the exercises are usually less than two pages) is that we can talk about language, paragraphs, and sentences, which is harder to do when you’re struggling to describe how a fifteen-page story works. Most fiction workshops seem resigned to the idea that young writers ought not to be interfered with while they’re dreaming up their stories. But creativity can be taught.
In essence, I start the workshop much earlier in the process than most teachers do. Workshops can actually help students find stories. This isn't a revolutionary approach, but it feels that way sometimes. Many writing teachers seem not to want to disturb the delicate process of creation, as if it could be spoiled by exposure to the light of day. The activity of composing is at least as interesting as the activity of revising, but the vast majority of American creative writing workshops are mainly concerned with revision. Workshops can train writers to improvise and apply new methods to the discovery of story ideas. Instead of simply evaluating writing once it's been written, workshops should explore the way we discover and uncover stories. A writer becomes a writer when she finds the proper subject of her work. The right kind of exercises and combinations of exercises can unlock and expose to air the obsessions we need to examine to make great fiction.
Fiction writing, travel writing, spy fiction
- BA, English, Carleton College
- MA, English literature and creative writing, City College of New York, 1985