At the upcoming Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans, I’m going to be teaching a class on novel-writing, “The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA.”
As the title of the class is a bit odd, and the premise a bit unusual, I thought I would explain it here, and answer any questions readers have.
The more time that passes since my MFA, the more I realise how lucky I was. My colleagues were talented, my financial funding was generous, and my teachers were exceptional.
I studied fiction with Lisa Zeidner, Lauren Grodstein, and Adam Mansbach, and not only were they remarkably well-read and insightful, they continually maintained a high demand for quality work. That a story could be “better” or “worse” than the one you had previously written was just an assumed part of the feedback process. To me, that’s one of the most valuable things a teacher of fine art can do: insist on quality. Even if everything else about the writing of fiction remains a mystery, that insistence can illuminate the path ahead, steady the hand.
But our MFA was not alone, I believe, in finding classes about short-story writing more rewarding than classes about novel-writing. Cathy Day’s wonderful essay, “The Story Problem,” remains the definitive discussion of the topic, and Day’s account of her own classroom experiences indicates how broad and common this “novel problem” is. It isn’t about individuals: it’s a problem with the basic premise of the creative writing workshop itself.
The workshop begins with students handing in already-written fiction. Their classmates and teacher then comment on the piece and offer suggestions for improvement. For a novel workshop, that’s typically the first chapter or so of a novel-in-progress.
This approach assumes, however, that student writers are already able to write the first chapter of a novel, and simply need advice along the way to make it better. I no longer think that’s the case. Until the very end of my MFA, I wasn’t writing a novel at all; instead, I was writing what you might call “novel-shaped-fiction.”
As a category, “novel-shaped-fiction” is superficially similar to “a novel.” From a distance, they look the same. Novel-shaped-fiction has the same characters and dialogue and settings and chapters that a novel has. The only problem with novel-shaped-fiction is that, generally speaking, no one wants to read it.
This lack of readability wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t because we hoped to challenge our readers. Rather, there was something different in category from what our work felt like to read and what the famous novels we loved felt like to read. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that.
After all, it seems like the best writers can get away with anything: it seems like for any rule one can think of, the canon of famous novels contains 1,000 exceptions. Why couldn’t my novel be one of those exceptions, especially if I work really hard at it? And because we only had time to workshop the first few chapters in class, we could practice various forms of denial very effectively. Yes, most people didn’t like chapters one, two, and three, but they would have loved the novel if only I’d been allowed to show them the whole thing! So we struggled to make our not-quite-novels better not-quite-novels, trying out or ignoring suggestion after suggestion, some of us revising the opening pages many times, others feeling bewildered by the feedback we received.
The class I wish I had taken during my MFA, in other words, would have explored and worked through this crucial distinction — the difference between a novel and a not-quite-novel — before any of us had actually handed in any pages of our own. I think that’s the instruction that aspiring novelists most need.
Now, I’m still learning how to write novels myself. Although I’ve devoted much of the last two years of my PhD in Creative Writing to thinking through this problem, much still remains mysterious. I believe, however, that I have figured out some of the first steps, and now I’d like to share them. That’s what my class at the Hands On Festival will involve.
I’ll stop here for today, but in the next post, I’ll sketch out some of those first steps, using an Italian fairytale, “Silvernose,” and the classic novel Jane Eyre as examples.
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