Dispatches | December 12, 2011

This is finals week of the autumn semester at the University of Missouri, which means it is also the last week I’m teaching my Intro to Fiction Writing class. Today, my students will turn in a revision of one of the two stories they wrote this semester, or a third, brand spankin’ new story. Then we will be done.

I don’t know when I will teach fiction writing again. This is not by choice. I requested English 1510 this semester, was lucky enough to snag it, and was told even then to not expect to receive this course ever again. This is not about because of my ineptitude as a teacher (I hope) but because typically the managing editor teaches English 1000, a freshman composition class. I was told that I was given creative writing only because of how many people were on sabbatical and unavailable. Don’t expect to get again, they said. Well, then!

Since this might be it with teaching creative writing for a while, here are a few things I took away from my class this semester:

–I haven’t read Harry Potter and they haven’t read Moby Dick. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed in a writing class is that the instructor has read more than the students (digression: some of you are thinking “Actually, I know that’s not true” and I’m nodding along glumly). When I was an undergraduate, I often felt embarrassed because my teachers all referred to novels and stories and poems that I had never heard of, and because of this, I not only missed crucial points of their lectures but also felt that I was unqualified to be in their class. Insecurity, and all that. This semester, I’ve usually found that talking about films is the best way of proving a point: there’s a better chance of my students having seen a particular film, and since films are generally narrative like novels and stories, an easy-to-understand analogy could often be drawn between movies and stories when I was trying to demonstrate a point about characterization, point of view, framing, dialogue, setting, and so forth.

In class, I’ve lamented the fact that we need movies to teach us about writing fiction, but perhaps seeing these links isn’t a bad thing at all. We make do with what we got—what good, really, does it do to expound on A Separate Peace or Revolutionary Road or Underworld if my students haven’t read those books?—and it also might, I hope, make us all realize that writing doesn’t live in a vacuum. We’re shaped and formed by our greater culture, not just pop culture, but film, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and the like.

–Be honest about what they write and what they read. This might seem obvious, but too often I’ve had and heard about creative writing teachers cheerleading more than teaching. Hey, if the work isn’t good, how does it benefit the student to think otherwise?

–Style and ideas worry students more than substance. Style is, of course, significantly easier to mimic than substance. Mimicking a minimalist story is pretty easy. Having a surprise ending is pretty straightforward—withhold one crucial bit of information until the last page. This is how we all learn, though, isn’t it? I used to copy Fitzgerald stories in order to learn how he made his sentences dance; I wrote an entire book in response to a Charles Baxter novel. It’s a terrific way to discover that one doesn’t really sound like anyone else: I sound like me, my students sound like themselves.

More than once this semester, a student said “I have an idea for a story! *insert idea here* Do you think that would work?” To which I always answered, “It could. You should write it and find out.” In time, I think they’ll learn that all the bells and whistles on the page can’t cover a story that wholly lacks an emotional core. Perhaps they too already knew it. By now, I hope they definitely know it.

–Grading stories helps. I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years, but I think that I’m generally on the side of putting grades on student stories. I hear you: how can you tell this story is a B+ rather than a C-? My first response to that question is: really? In conversation with every colleague about writing workshops, we know which students are the best writers. This does indicate that there is some criteria, however difficult it might be to articulate, as to why something is “better.”

Students at a university receive these things called grades, and grades, more than anything, get their attention. I wrote a criteria for story grades on my syllabus, explaining why grades are given on their work, and, no, an A story is not perfect or necessarily complete. Grading gives the students an understanding that those elements of fiction I lectured about way back in September are not suggestions, but things that must be considered seriously when constructing a story.

–Stories may not change, but I do. I used a mixture of stories each semester, combining stories I’ve read before and stories I haven’t. Fresh eyes, and fresh stories, are often beneficial to everyone. One good example is Dan Chaon’s “Big Me.” To be honest, I’ve always assigned it because it’s in the textbook and students seem to like it. I’ve always thought the story was competent, just not for me. But this time, for whatever reason, the story really hit me: the duality of the characters, the non-linear construction, the haunting of memory, the way Andy forgets large chunks of his past. What once struck me as pretty straightforward now seemed remarkably complex, tenuously but perfectly held together, sad and funny and strange all at once. None of this would have struck me if I hadn’t assigned it again.

There are others I’ve always thought were good for teaching but I’m not crazy about, and there are others that I adore that never seem to win over my students. And there is always at least one surprise story each semester that resonates with my students when I had expected they would dislike it. Which is always sorta fun to discover.

–Be generous. Two weeks ago, one of my first writing teachers, Melanie Rae Thon, was visiting MU, and I was asked to give the introduction to her reading. I thought of her teaching first, even before her books, since that’s how I first knew her. And what she gave us, always, was her time, her spirit, her belief that our work was worth reading. She was generous. This quality is not easy: there are too many constraints on our time, too many people and tasks pulling at us from all sides. To really be patient with a student’s story, to remember that the writer is still learning, can be easy to forget. Having a visit from one of the teachers who gently nudged me in the direction of the writing life was a nice reminder that beginning writers need, perhaps more than anything, an attentive reader and a pat on the back.

I hope I provided a little bit of both this semester.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye