The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis

January 18, 2011 | 6 books mentioned 78 13 min read

1. A Writer-Teacher Consults Her Magic 8-Ball

Why did I spend twenty years of my life writing short stories as opposed to novels?

Reply hazy, try again.

Because I know without a doubt that when I was growing up, I absolutely loved to read novels and rarely read short stories unless they were assigned in a class.

All signs point to yes.

Is it my nature to write short stories, or is it nurture?

Concentrate and ask again.

Have I really just spent two decades writing short stories for no other reason than because it’s the only prose form for which I’ve received explicit instruction?

Without a doubt.

And what about my students, the next generation? Have I passed this short story inclination to them?

It is decidedly so.

2. We are Not Experiencing a Short Story Renaissance

Today, most writers are raised in the creative writing classroom, where the fundamental texts are stand-alone poems and stories. As you progress from the introductory class to intermediate and advanced-level courses in your genre, you concentrate on aspects of fictional craft within these short forms, becoming more proficient in their creation and execution. At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story. It’s a positively Aristotelian experience. Beginning. Middle. End. Badda bing, badda boom.

coverI’m going to go way out on a limb here and say this: The short story is not experiencing a renaissance. Our current and much-discussed market glut of short fiction is not about any real dedication to the form. The situation exists because the many writers we train simply don’t know how to write anything but short stories. The academy—not the newsroom or the literary salon or the advertising firm—has assumed sole responsibility for incubating young writers. In his new 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. Paying attention.

Don’t get me wrong. I love stories, yes I do. I love teaching them and writing them. Some of my favorite writers work almost solely in the form. Stories have been very good to me. They are not easier to write than novels, they are not in any way inferior to the novel. So let’s get that straight. I am not dissing the short story nor its many practitioners.

But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.

3. A Story is Not a Paper

Inevitably, students falsely equate the short story with another form with which they are intimately familiar: the paper. I know this is true because my undergraduates say odd things to me like, “I need to meet with you about my paper.”

I say, “What paper? Do you mean your story, that art you’re creating?”

The required studio art and dance classes I took in college didn’t transform me into a painter or a ballerina, but they certainly taught me to appreciate other forms of artistic expression. I was evaluated by things I made (a clay pot, a watercolor) or performed (a dance routine), and I never confused those products with the papers I submitted to my sociology and philosophy professors for evaluation. Students confuse writing stories with writing papers because of the same-seeming word itself—writing—and because the final results are indistinguishable from each other: a Word file, paragraphs of text on the screen or on 8½ x 11 sheets of paper. Another reason students confuse the two forms is that they probably create stories the same way they write papers—clock ticking, one or two intense sessions of writing, a euphoric, semi-magical flowing of words. Save. Print. Done.

4. Origin Story

coverI was in my second year of graduate school and taking a workshop with John Keeble. I knew I wanted to write something akin to Winesburg, Ohio, but instead of emerging one by one, the stories came out hopelessly fused. Imagine if Sherwood Anderson had sat down and written the title, “New Willard House” and proceeded to describe the characters in his fictional boarding house. The end. That’s a pretty good approximation of the story I’d submitted to Keeble for discussion, a big, messy failure of a story. I knew it, and everyone sitting around that table knew it.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Keeble opened the discussion by saying, “Some of you are working on stories, on the small thing, but I think this piece wants to be a big thing. Rather than talk about whether or not this works as a story, let’s talk about it as material toward a larger project.” Just like that, Keeble shifted the default setting of the workshop from dissection to enlargement, from what’s wrong to what could be. My peers weren’t allowed to say, “This story is muddled and digressive. There’s no main character and no dramatic arc.” (Which would have been absolutely true.) Instead, they said this:

Cathy, here’s a story.

And here is a story.

Over there, that is a story, too.

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, workshops prescribe. Here’s what’s not working. Here’s what I had a problem with. Somebody—if not John Keeble, somebody—has to step up and change the default setting, to frame the conversation so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.

But how to you do that?

5. This is Not How You Do It

I know some people who took a novel workshop in college. This is how it went down.

First, they studied the first sentences of a bunch of novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped it.

Then they studied first paragraphs of novels and expanded their first sentences into first paragraphs and workshopped those.

Then they studied first chapters of a few novels and wrote one of their own, then workshopped their chapters.

And then the semester was over.

6. This is Not How You Do It Either

Syllabus: Fiction Workshop

Course Description:

This course is an intensive study of fiction. You will write, read, and critique fiction. Everything you write, read, and critique will be 8-15 pages long, or approximately 5,000 words. In other words, you will write, read, and critique short stories. In other words, this course is really a short story workshop. We hope that is why you are here—to learn to write a story that is 8-15 pages long. If not…well, could you just do it anyway? Thanks.

Course Objectives:

If you are a budding Lydia Davis, you will learn to artificially inflate your story so that no one will think you’re lazy. If you’re a budding Tolstoy, you will learn to artificially deflate your story because don’t you know that more than 15 pages makes people cranky?

Course Rationale:

A few years ago, we had a very contentious meeting of the Curriculum Committee to discuss enrollment caps in this course. Because it is a 300-level class, some of our esteemed colleagues from Literature felt the cap should be 30, which is how many students they have in their 300-level seminars. We argued that this was impossible, that the difference between a Fiction Workshop and a Seminar on the 19th Century Novel is that in the workshop, student work is the primary text. We said, “For us, the difference between 20 and 30 is not a matter of 10 more papers to grade. It’s a matter of 10 more manuscripts that must be discussed by the entire class. It would be like us telling you that rather than teaching six doorstopper novels, you must cover eleven.”

This argument proved to be quite persuasive.

The question then turned to page-output requirements. How many papers would students write in a fiction workshop? Because the accepted standard in 300-level literature seminars are two papers of 5-7 pages and one final research paper of 25 pages, for a total of 35-40 pages.

We said, “Our students don’t write papers, per se. They journal…”

This raised eyebrows, so we moved on.

“They write critiques of each other’s work.”

Some satisfied nods. Critique. Critical. Impersonal. Okay, this is working…

“They write responses to the assigned stories.”

Papers? they asked excitedly.

“Well, sort of. They don’t interpret. They don’t write about what something means but rather how it means. They analyze craft. They imitate. They steal.”

They plagiarize?

“No, not exactly.” Sigh. “And they write fiction.”

Our esteemed colleagues said, Yes, yes, yes, but how looooooong are these fictions?

And we said, “They are as long as they need to be,” which we admit sounded a bit flakey and was not persuasive. So we assured the Curriculum Committee that you would write fictions of substance and gravity of approximately 8-15 pages. Remember: we are artists striving for institutional respect within a sometimes inhospitable academic bureaucracy. Please help us prove that creative writing is a valid discipline. Please write stories that are as long as academic papers.

Methods of Evaluating Student Performance:

Please don’t write a story that is nonrealistic, because genre fiction makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Unless you’re doing a Saunders thing. We like George Saunders. If you want to do a Saunders thing, fine. Otherwise, no. Convey your story in a scene (or two) in the aesthetic mode of realism, preferably minimalism. We really, really like minimalism. “Show, Don’t Tell” is—amazingly—a quite teachable concept in an otherwise subjective discipline. The opposite of “Show, Don’t Tell”—the tell tell tell of artful narration—well, that’s complicated and hard to do well, so perhaps you shouldn’t really try that. As an added bonus, “Show, Don’t Tell” virtually guarantees that your story will be mercifully short. Think Hemingway, not Faulkner. Think Carver, and certainly not Coover.

Course Content:

This Short Story Anthology, That Short Story Anthology, Best American Short Stories, and one novel by the successful writer who is visiting campus.

7. A Metaphor: Running Sprints vs. Running a Marathon

In his essay from Further Fridays, “It’s a Short Story,” John Barth says that while some fiction writers move back and forth between long and short modes, congenital short-story writers and congenital novelists do exist.

There is a temperamental, even a metabolic, difference between devout practitioners of the two modes, as between sprinters and marathoners. To such dispositions as Poe’s, Maupassant’s, Chekhov’s, or Donald Barthelme’s, the prospect of addressing a single, discrete narrative project for three, four, five years…would be appalling…Conversely, to many of us the prospect of inventing every few weeks a whole new ground-conceit, situation, cast of characters, plot, perhaps even voice, is as dismaying as would be the prospect of improvising at that same interval a whole new identity.

coverPerhaps the reason why so few fiction workshops provide explicit instruction on writing novels is because there’s no clear rubric. How-to-write-a-novel books run the gamut from the extraordinarily regimented (such as Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome, Story) to the queasily motivational (such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) to the intellectually impractical (such as E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel). A few years ago, I announced in a class that fiction writer Walter Mosley was coming to town. “He’s the author of the Easy Rawlins books. Oh, and he just published a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.” One of my students guffawed. “Sounds like a self-help book.”

Inspiration, encouragement, support: these aren’t accepted pedagogical stances in academia. In order to be taken seriously within one’s institution, a writer-teacher must approach teaching with intellectual rigor, not inspirational vigor. This is college, not a rah-rah writing group. But to return to Barth’s analogy, writers of big things, like marathon runners in training, need to go on long runs regularly —alone or in small groups. They need water. They need good running shoes. And every once in awhile, they need someone driving by to beep their horn and give them a thumbs up. What they don’t need is for someone to stop them after the first mile and say, “You know what? Your first step out of the block wasn’t that great. Let’s work on your stride for awhile.”

8. Another Metaphor: Building a Writing Studio vs. Building a House

You decide to build yourself a writing studio in your backyard, a little room of one’s own. You lay a foundation, put up the frame, the walls, the windows, the door, the roof. Depending on where you live, you figure out how to heat it, how to cool it. You decide whether or not you want a toilet. You run electricity. You insulate. You put up the drywall, lay the floor, select fixtures. Then you paint the outside. Then you paint the inside, buy carpet maybe, and a desk and a chair and some framed art. And voila! You’ve built a small, one-room house!

This is how you write a story.

This is not how you write a big thing.

You don’t construct the kitchen—foundation to finish—and then move on to the living room—foundation to finish—and then move on to the bedroom—foundation to finish. You build a big thing in stages, which means that the house isn’t really habitable until very close to the end of the process. This is why it’s hard to workshop a big thing in progress. It’s like someone wants to show you the house they’re building. You show up for the grand tour, but the house is nothing but concrete and a frame. Still, your friend is so darned excited, gesturing at empty space. “This will be the kitchen!” What are you supposed to say? You smile and nod your head and try to seem interested, but really, you’re mad, because this seems like a big waste of your time. Why not wait until the house is all the way done to show it to you?

Your friend asks if you want to come back next week to watch them install the plumbing. You think, Please God, kill me now, but you say, “I’ll tell you what, friend. Why don’t you focus on finishing the bathroom? That I can help you with. I love to look at tile and showerheads. If you’ll do that, I’ll come back next week.”

And so you do that. Of course, you never finish building your house because you run out of money, but you love that bathroom dearly. That sunken-garden tub. That jungle-rain shower head. Italian tile. A Restoration Hardware polished chrome shower caddy. Ahhhhh.

9. Another Metaphor: Writing Right-handed vs. Left-handed

Ideally, a fiction workshop meets at a conference table. But most of the time you wind up in a classroom with desks scooted into a circle, and most of those desks accommodate the right-handed short story writers, not the left handed novelists.

Often, left-handed novelists don’t even realize they are left-handed, because as soon as they start fiction school, their teachers place the pencil in their right hand and say, “Write.” And when the 15 pages that emerge are woefully incomplete, a real mess, the teacher says, “What are you doing? That is not a story. Write a story.” And gradually, the left-handed novelist learns how to write a right-handed story, even though there’s always something about doing so that feels a little off.

Sometimes a left-handed novelist is wise or stubborn enough to realize that he is not a right-handed story writer with horrible penmanship, but more accurately a beautiful left-handed novelist with perfectly fine penmanship. When he is alone, away from school, he brandishes the pencil in his left hand and sighs. Ahhhhhh. Then in college, he takes a workshop, which is full of nothing but right-handed desks. He puts the pencil in his right hand. Out of necessity, he’s become ambidextrous. And so, he goes through the motions of writing right-handed short stories for class. Assignments that must be completed. Hoops to jump through so that he can be in this class, read books for credit, and get a degree in the writing of fiction. At night, he goes home and puts the pencil in his left hand and works some more on his novel, the pages of which he never submits to his teacher, whose syllabus clearly states that they are to submit short stories that are 8-15 pages long.

Then there is the left-handed novelist who gets an idea. Optimistically, she opens a file on her computer, types away, and names this document “novel.doc.” She asks her creative writing teacher if she may submit a chapter of her novel-in-progress to the workshop. She wonders why her teacher grimaces when she says the word “novel,” then reluctantly consents. A week later, she is “up.” There is a discussion. Everyone wants to know more, more, more. They want her to fix this and fix that. With her right hand, she revises the chapter (as required by her teacher, who uses the portfolio method of grading) and with her left hand, she writes Chapter 2. The next semester, she asks her new creative writing teacher if she may submit Chapter 2 to workshop, but this teacher says that no one will understand Chapter 2 without Chapter 1, and submitting both chapters is out of the question because that’s 30 pages and the limit is 15 pages. So she resubmits the revised Chapter 1, and everyone who read Chapter 1 last semester gets pouty. “Haven’t we seen this already?” And everyone else, well, they pose an entirely new set of questions. Dejectedly, the left-handed novelist sits down to revise Chapter 1 again (as required by her teacher, who also uses the portfolio method of grading). She opens the file “novel.doc,” which is still 30 pages long. Her left arm hangs useless from her shoulder, the muscles atrophying. After finals, she never opens that document again, but for years afterward, she thinks about those 30 pages. All the time.

So I ask you: whose fault is it that she didn’t write that novel?

For a long time, I would have said it was the student’s own fault.

But these days, I’m not so sure.

10. Shame Management

coverIn This Year You Write Your Novel, Mosley suggests writing for about an hour a day, producing 600-1,200 words a day, seven days a week. In this way, it’s possible to hammer out a first draft in about three months. “The only thing that matters is that you write, write, write. It doesn’t have to be good writing. As a matter of fact, most first drafts are pretty bad. What matters is that you get down the words on the page or the screen.” It’s the same advice Anne Lamott offers in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter of Bird by Bird.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something–anything down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft–you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft–you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed.

Bird by Bird is a popular text in college creative writing courses, so why not the Mosley book? I’ll tell you why. Because the principle of “Shitty First Drafts” is fine if your students are all working on short stories; theoretically, there’s time for shitty to become shiny. Not so with novel writing. If we offered a class called This Semester You Start Your Novel, we’d be confronted by work that’s hard to critique and hard to grade. So many pages! So many mistakes! This is why we just keep teaching a class called, This Semester You Write Two Papers Whoops! We Mean Two Short Stories.

The long-term propulsive momentum necessary to write a big thing is continuously interrupted by workshop deadlines, which demand that a work-in-progress be submitted for group critique. Anyone who has been through creative writing instruction knows that being “up” in workshop means opening oneself to the potential negative judgment of your teacher and your peers. And so, you prepare your manuscript for workshop to maximize your chances of walking out of that classroom feeling good, not bad. Feeling pride, not shame. In The Program Era, McGurl says that students must—out of sheer psychological necessity—participate in a form of self-retraction or “shame management” that is endemic to the workshop model.

I taught in an MFA program for five years, and this is what I saw happen every year—without fail. It’s their last year in the program. They’ve taken all the required workshops, and reality strikes: they need a 150 page manuscript to graduate. After considerable fretting, they sit down to revise some story they don’t completely hate—and something thrilling happens. The story swells to 25, then 75 pages, or it becomes not one story but four interrelated stories. Freed from worrying about workshop page requirements and whether their peers will like it or not, they finally move from the small thing to the big thing. For the first time, they feel like they are writing a book, which is why they sought out creative writing instruction in the first place.

Which begs the question: Do students write stories because they really want to or because the workshop model all but demands that they do? If workshops are bad for big things, why do we continue to use them?

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to think outside the workshop.

(Image: College Math Papers from loty’s photostream)

has been teaching undergraduate and graduate fiction workshops for 20 years, most recently at Ball State University. She’s the author of The Circus in Winter (2004) which was a finalist for the Story Prize and has been adapted into a musical, and Comeback Season (2008). Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in PANK, Inside Higher Education, and Necessary Fiction. She writes about novel writing (and teaching novel writing) at her blog, The Big Thing.


  1. Thank you. This helped me. I am about six months into the first “shitty draft” of a novel, and cannot imagine what it would like now if it went through the workshop-mill. Half of the great ideas come after a month or two of work and it shoots off in a different direction. That came from the time to let it work, not be worked upon. Often I have considered the possibility of going into an MFA program, but have no desire, no inclination to create short stories. Your essay helped me reconsider that. Thank you, Cathy.

  2. I loved this—thanks! Writing workshops, like all other classes, are subject to a sort of academic natural selection, and as a result, they’ve arrived at the most efficient possible form for what they’re intended to accomplish. And what they do, they do very well. It’s clear, though, that they aren’t suited for teaching the novel. Which isn’t their fault. But it does mean that aspiring novelists should probably look elsewhere.

  3. This was so refreshing to read. I am a novelist. When I was aspiring to be a novelist, and planning multi-generational epics, sage people would tell me I should learn by writing short stories. I could never settle to it. All I could write was many first chapters. Neither have I ever much enjoyed reading short stories – except perhaps those of James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield. Generally the self-consciously literary short story leaves me feeling hungry and unsatisfied.
    The creative writing teaching programmes you describe sound horrendous to me and I am glad I did not have any formal writing training until quite a few years into my career (when I did an MA in TV scriptwriting). I suspect I would have been very discouraged by such a limiting process, although I probably would have dutifully done as I was told and perfected the writing of glittering little fragments which had very little to recommend them to more than a handful of readers. It might have made me a more polished writer, but I doubt I would have learnt much about big storytelling, and it is that aspect which is the hardest thing to master, and can, I suspect only be learnt by tackling a few novels yourself.

  4. Great piece, Cathy. I agree that it’s important to give students (especially graduate students) the freedom to write what they want to write.

    But I do think it’s important to be careful about “this is a big thing” kinds of commentary. In my workshops, I hear the comments “I think this should be much longer” or “I think this should be a novel” A LOT. And it’s often code for “this is an unfocused short story”. In moments like this, I think it’s important to press (like your instructor did) to see if there really is depth there, or if it’s just a story in need of focus.

    In other words, teaching novel writing is important, but so is teaching short and even short-short story writing.

  5. Aubrey–I agree. Not every piece needs or wants to be longer. Sometimes compression *is* what’s called for. And sometimes I think we preach compression only because it is easier than dealing with the fruits of expansion. And now I must go prepare for the class I’m teaching tonight which focuses exclusively on the short story form. Tonight: classic stories by Poe, de Maupassant, Bierce, Jackson, Faulkner, and Anderson. :-)

  6. I love this. Love, love, love it. As a student of writing, and an applicant to many MFA programs (fingers crossed!) I’d started to think of myself as a short story writer, even though I love big projects, big ideas, big novels. (I’m a marathon runner as well as a writer, so your first example was perfect for me!)

    I still want to get an MFA for all the reasons people get MFAs (two years to focus on writing, opportunity to teach, etc) but I feel much more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, having read this essay. Thank you so much for writing it!

  7. You are fighting a valiant battle against the prevailing headwinds. I’m concerned that all the insta-posting on phones, twitters, and so forth just encourages people to need an immediate “sugar high” from what they read. Does this weaken the patience needed for something that’s more nutritious but that requires–God forbid–extended time and effort?

  8. Thank you for this article. I have always been a novel writer so when I started applying to MFA programs and realized I needed to learn how to write short stories, imagine how irritated I was. I appreciate short stories but for myself, as a writer, my ideas and depth of characters just do not fit into a short story and it’s frustrating having short stories workshopped when I’d rather have my novel workshopped. but of course portions of a novel do not have a “beginning, middle, and end”.

    Again, thanks for this article. It’s good to know not everyone loves writing short stories.

  9. Wonderful and very necessary article. This summed up my experience in many academic writing workshops until I entered the MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency model program. The very nature of low-residency (1-on-1 apprenticeship-style study for an entire semester, with 4 different advisors) truly fosters writing growth in short and long forms, and many students in the program chose to work on novels. Although I studied primarily short fiction while there, soon after graduation I started my novel and felt well-prepared to tackle it from the education I had received. Is it a coincidence that more than a few recent acclaimed novels (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle comes to mind, as well as My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira) are by authors who attended such programs? I think not.

    Also, there are excellent craft books out there on the novel, although they might not be the go-to books assigned for most workshop curriculum. “Rhythm in the Novel” by E.K. Brown you can find out-of-print, and it is excellent. Also Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature” or Douglas Glover’s “The Enamoured Knight” (anything by Glover is well worth the read, and he runs his own literary website, with loads of resources ) Additionally, there are fantastic teachers of the novel out there, like Glover and Robert Eversz who teaches the Novel Workshop at the Prague Summer Program–a course which I found works for novels-in-progress, again, because of the month-long intensive format.

    The downside of low-res MFAs is the cost–there are usually no teaching fellowships, etc. available. But if you add up the potential “lost years” of struggling to write on a novel on one’s own, or based on a “short story” workshop education, that cost is high indeed. I’m thankful every day that I found a wonderful low-res program – it has truly set me on the career path that I had always envisioned for myself as a writer. I wish all writers might find a likewise path.

  10. Cathy,
    Nice take. While I agree with much of what you’ve said, I do question the means you use to come to the conclusion that we are not experiencing a short-story renaissance. They seem very sound and you have a lot of nice details to back them up, but for someone who has reached the opposite conclusion (like me) these details are a sketch of a section of the literary population.

    There is another section that, I believe, is creating a short-story renaissance. I believe one of the catalyst for this movement is the proliferation of online publishing. Online publishing is not the right venue for novels (in my opinion) but is perfect for short-stories. So what we have are a ton of talented people writing for these publications, pushing the envelope, and changing the landscape of the short-story. While some dabble in novels, many others do not.

    In sum, I don’t think the novel is the end all for all writers. While it is certainly that for a good number of writers, there are a good number more who are focused on short stories.

    Nice read.


  11. Cathy,

    Your article was wonderful. Like Vanessa, I too attended a low-residency MFA in Writing Program, at Spalding University (where, full disclosure, I now work as program associate). While a student at Spalding, I participated what was then called the Novel Workshop and is now called the Book-Length Manuscript Workshop, offered annually at Spalding’s spring residency (which takes place in May). I drafted and revised my novel in my first three semesters in the program; then I polished it and submitted it for the Novel Workshop.

    Participating in that workshop involved reading and thoroughly critiquing the full-length novels of four other students. That in itself was a revelation. For the first time, I was asked to think about narrative arc, character arc, and structure, as those things applied to novels. Of course I’d been critiquing those things in short stories, but to critique them in a novel–actually, in four different novels–taught me a stupendous amount. In a way, I felt like I was just learning to read, after all these years. By which I mean I was learning to analyze novels, not short stories, from a craft perspective–something I had never been asked or encouraged to do.

    Of course, having my own novel workshopped was a tremendous, illuminating, liberating experience as well — I don’t want to imply that getting my own work critiqued wasn’t the highlight of the workshop for me. Looking back on it from the perspective of a few years, I find myself a little awed by the whole experience. Talking to others who’ve been through the workshop since then reiterates my sense that the process of having your novel critiqued is an educational experience without parallel.

    Thank you for your terrific post.


  12. Thanks for this. If I could find a program that was a) designed around the novel; b) accepting of students who brought projects they were already working on (which it seems to me is kind of related to point a); and c) not so big on teaching, teaching, teaching in terms of how it dispenses funding (WHO CARES about teaching on the other side of an MFA… might as well get a degree in battered spousedom, since all you’re ever likely to be is an adjunct), I’d be all over it. Oh, also not located in Mississippi or somewhere like that. :D

  13. I have to admit I only skimmed this article. That’s probably why I don’t read very many new novels (maybe one or two a year,and I I rarely finish them) and do read short stories. That’s probably why, since publishing my first short story, in 1975, I’ve published about 300 short stories and no novels.

    Most novels for me are failures. The best have parts that drag, go wrong, are boring. A story can feel perfect but a novel can’t.

    If academic writing programs are stifling novels and there’s a crisis, my first thought is Flannery O’Connor’s: they’re not stifling enough of them! All the boring young novelists will no doubt disagree…

  14. That last big paragraph of #9 is so true. I’ve seen it so many times, and experienced it first hand. I’m in an MA program right now. It is a little more accepting of novels, but doesn’t go out of its way either. My undergrad program was almost completely against novels. They pushed for us to submit short stories. When it came time to do my undergrad thesis, I couldn’t find a professor to advise me the minute I mentioned the word “novel.” I did find one very wise professor who took me under his wing, believed in me, and I got honors on that novel. But if I had been less certain of myself, they would have crushed my dreams for writing one. Kudos for putting the spotlight on this issue.

  15. This was one of the major reasons I had for chosing a low residency mfa program, and it has paid off. Focused work on one novel for over a year.

  16. Can’t we agree that some people write short stories because they find the medium thrilling? Great post, I totally get it. But I think we have to be careful not to assume that our personal experiences are universal. I write stories, not because of an MFA program (not in one, not planning on being in one), because I’ve been cut much deeper by stories than I have novels, and the format is exciting to me.

    To me, this article is a bit like arguing that people only write folk songs because it’s simpler than orchestrating a rock opera–that the rock opera is somehow the ultimate, true goal of the contemporary musician. Yet thousands of people pluck away, trying to capture something real and exciting with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and their voice (which can often be much more affective than any prog rock epic). Or something…

  17. If you don’t want to write short stories, why would you write short stories? (Same for poems or novels or ad copy.)

    Why would anyone need/want an MFA? What is the point — really?

    Writing jobs? Few and far between. Networking? Why should a writer need a credential?

    Read and read and read. Then write and write and write. If you’re good enough, you will be published. If not, then all the MFA programs in the world won’t help. (A friend of a friend of a friend might get you into his/her precious little journal. Now there’s a glory that means nothing.) Why would you write for the approval of peers?

  18. Christian: “Can’t we agree that some people write short stories because they find the medium thrilling?”

    Is anyone disagreeing with that? Cathy’s point is that many students are pressed to write short stories for other reasons. How’s that imply that no one who writes short stories does so because it’s their natural inclination? (In fact, her left-handed/right-handed analogy suggests she’s quite aware that many do.)

  19. As much as I enjoyed this article, I don’t think it’s fair to classify _The Artist’s Way_ as a guide to writing a novel. It has scarcely anything in the way of proscriptive advice in any art form, and is instead about overcoming the mental blocks that many feel limit their artistic expression and capabilities. Susan M. Tiberghien’s _One Year to a Writing Life_ would have been a much better selection for that example.

  20. Great piece, Cathy! And very helpful as the semester begins and I have a mixed workshop of story writers and novelists. NB: John Keeble said the same thing to me about a short story, and although it took me 20 years, I did turn that undergraduate effort in to my first novel.

  21. @Cathy: Great essay, Cathy. One of the things that struck me about your essay is the language we use, both as teachers and emerging writers, when thinking about narrative. It’s a language focused on shorter forms. A comparison might be food: can you talk about what it is that you’re eating if you don’t have a language beyond “bitter” or “tasty” or something like that?

    @E’eryone: I’ve heard that schools like Warren Wilson, Goddard, and Hollins are trying different things with teaching the novel. But as Cathy pointed out, there doesn’t seem to be an institutional understanding or support of novel writing. Maybe, then, novels, as art (uh-oh, I’m leaping here …) in the here and now, are better off outside the academy? That is, the MFA student gets the tools and knowledge in a program, but has to write the novel post-graduation? Or am I letting universities (and teachers and writers) off the hook too easily?

  22. well, i’m in the third year of an mfa program and have been pointedly working towards a novel rather than a collection of short stories, interlinked or not. despite the program, and most others it seems, not being conducive to the workshopping of a novel, i decided to ignore that stumbling block, and instead i turned in (with the exception of my first submission, in my first workshop) work related only to my novel.

    yes, i dismissed the syllabus’s call for short stories and i’ve done what i wanted to do. maybe it’s my irish disdain for authority (or not), but i was able to work it out on my own terms. i am supported by the faculty, the writers and editors who show belief even in the darkest hour when the doubt assails me. these good folk stay supportive and encourage me to do my thing.

    the truth is the program, whether it is Syracuse, Irvine or Iowa, it is essentially “your” program, to do with as you see fit. the student is the customer, and if i say “i want to write a novel, with fries and a coke,” i don’t expect to be told, “no, have a short story collection, wrapped in lettuce with a salad.” i guess what i’m saying, longwindedly, is find your story, find your people, and follow your own instincts.

    and as to why want an MFA? it’s not for the three letters on the resume. it’s about the gift of time: time to write, time to read, time to think, uninterrupted time to devote to this story i want to tell. the gift of three years fully funded to write is what it’s all about for me…

  23. Good job, Cathy. We’re not all doing the same thing in our creative writing workshops, and there’s room for variety in MFA programs. Novelist Walter Mosley took a poetry workshop every semester to improve his sentence-level writing, even though he’s clearly a novelist. It’s great to try new things, learn new things–as writers and as teachers.

    Where I teach (Chapman University), we welcome students who want to work on novels, some of whom are already working on novels, even (heaven forbid) students who want to work in genres like fantasy (we have Jim Blaylock!). Even those students writing what might eventually become a marketable novel are here to learn about about crafting characters and sentences in what might be called literary ways. And some of those fiction writers wander into my poetry course and find they enjoy that too.

    In the last year, there’s been a lot of bashing of the MFA. That approach depends on generalizing, often assuming that programs and courses are interchangeable, static, a monolithic system. I’m glad you do something different and positive here. I wish there were more venues for talking seriously and widely about teaching creative writing, without what we say being taken as an indictment of the very thing we do. I’m glad to see The Millions and you have fostered conversation about pedagogy.

  24. Cathy, this was a fantastic essay. I am not an mfa student, but hope to be some day, and I find what you say inspiring and enlightening. In fact, you’ve pushed me to continue lengthening a piece of short fiction I am working on. I was trying to convince myself that it had achieved its final length at 8k words, and now I can admit to myself and others — it was made to be a longer piece from the start!

    All the best,

  25. Cathy–I think this is the best contribution to the discussion that I have ever read; thank you! I am a recent grad of the Syracuse MFA program, and I spent three years taking a succession of shitty novel drafts through workshop (that same book will be published by Doubleday in less than two months!). I at once feel like offering pushback on #9 (part of me thinks that it IS indeed the novelist-student’s fault for letting the story overtake them–after all, life is full of things that will keep you from writing that novel), but at the same time I recognize that my experience was not typical. The instructors at Syracuse were incredibly patient with my often incoherent chapters, and I never felt explicit pressure to bring a story to the group. Moreover, my instructors and peers often underestimated just how helpful they were being to me. Even if they were commenting on a chapter that eventually got deleted entirely, their insights rippled throughout the rest of the draft, and have shaped my novel for the better. I think the idea that a workshop my be an inherent enemy of the novel is related to the idea that a workshop can be prescriptive, and can “fix” stories (a false idea, I think).

    Thank you for the great read!

  26. Cathy,

    Wether this has been thought of or not is immaterial, for I am going to say it anyways…:perhaps, um, there should be a one year (or two) workshop offered specifically for “the Novel”; and, naturally, you would devise -perhaps something new or something old, or both- a grading method to accompany this arduous feat… I mean, you can not tell me you have not considered this! And, you must have some idea, inclination and propensity as to getting there, after all, you are a writer-teacher. It just needs to get flushed out.

    More pertinently, I am really curious about your notions, speculations or ideas on this no matter how inchoate (or not) they may be.

    All I am saying is that I am really intrigued,… particularly by the last few lines. It strikes me as something new and fresh, that you are on to something, regardless if you are not the first one to say so or not.

    P.S.: I apologize for the vagaries of my thoughts… I, um, simply got inspired, you know, excited by the possibilities of your statement “think[ing] outside the workshop” and you constituting, perhaps, something new, grand, for “the Novel”

  27. Cathy,

    I happened to be discussing novel writing with a friend of mine in an MFA program (I myself am an English major turned MBA) when we started discussing the difference between writing novels and short stories. He linked me this article on the subject, and who should I see as the author but one of my old Pitt professors! You may not remember me since when you were teaching my senior writing seminar I think you were in the middle of publishing Comeback Season, but I took a few of your classes between ’06 and ’08 and always really enjoyed them.

    If I’m speaking freely, it always drove me crazy having to submit short stories for your classes since all I wanted to do was write a novel. Of course, I took a lot of what professors said about short story writing to heart – you have to learn to walk before you can learn to run, no one gets a novel published without journal credentials, etc. I ended up feeling guilty every time I thought about writing a novel since I believed I hadn’t had enough short stories written and published (read: any), but I could never drive myself to write a short story for my own enjoyment and I ended up giving up on writing when I left college. I guess there’s only so many times you try and imitate the first chapter of The Things They Carried before you’ve run out of ways to have your story’s Jimmy Cross look at your story’s pictures of Martha.

    Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, as the economy crashed right after I graduated. Before I was worried about writing making me unemployable, but in the years that followed I realized breathing oxygen was making me unemployable. This left me with a lot of time to think about my writing, and last year I finally decided to start my novel. It’s slow going and there’s more days than not where I look at and think how badly it sucks and how much I hate it, but I’m happier writing my novel now than I ever was before when I was trying too hard to put four hundred pages into fifteen.

    Thank you for writing this essay and giving hope to all of the aspiring novelists who have had the life squeezed out of them by the short story. It’s given me the inspiration to keep writing, even with no experience and no short story journals under my belt. I wish you good luck in helping more of your students become the writers they want to be, no matter the size of their stories.

    – Liz B.

    PS: I fell asleep in one of your classes during a lecture on publishing and I think you stopped and yelled at me. I’d like to apologize but add the caveat that I’ve slept in every single class I’ve ever taken, so it says less about the material and more about how I could probably use more sleep. (Also I really hope this is the right Cathy Day!)

  28. I’d like to add my enthusiasm for your article, Cathy. I visited Pittsburgh and spoke to you briefly while deliberating over Pittsburgh or Louisiana State University to attend for MFA work.

    We talked about why people felt the need to attend MFA programs, and you told me a story of a writer friend who doesn’t live the writer’s life anymore–an entrepreneur with three kids, –talent re-directed into business and family–no judgment. She’s still the same awesome person, you said. It was a deceptively innocuous anecdote that posed the question, “why do you need to write, and who or what will determine how you do it?”

    Pretty great for a drop in prospective chat. I remember it, and you, and _The Circus in Winter_.

    (A state whose state flag has a pelican plucking blood from its chest to feed to its young is sort of hard to pass up, so I was compelled to attend LSU.)

    Even though you have no idea who I am,

    Alison Barker

  29. This is an excellent and engaging post. I have an MFA in playwriting, which I chose because of its focus on structure. My first novel is being published this fall(!), and I have wondered more than once whether the process might have gone more smoothly had I pursued an MFA in fiction. Reading your post makes me thankful I took the route I did.

  30. As a graduate of Johns Hopkins University’s Writing Seminars program – I couldn’t possibly agree with you more. I chose to take non-fiction and poetry courses rather than short story courses but that was because I knew that I wasn’t short story writer. Now, having just finished a novel – I don’t regret my decision at all! Short fiction never was and never will be my genre, but novel writing is!

    I wonder if a one year Novel writing course would be the answer? I did my first draft in 500-1500 word spurts – every day. Wow. An amazing article that rings soo true!

    Thank you!

  31. Though I’ve looked into a few writing workshops, I’ve never committed to one because what was offered didn’t seem to be what I was looking for. This article assisted me in the gleaning process, which I’ve been using as a heady substitute for forking out cash, that I don’t have, for something that doesn’t stick to me on an intuitive level.

    With gratitude…

  32. Great article. I teach fiction in the MFA program at Hamline University. As a novelist, this very issue was a continued concern for me. About five years ago, I created and launched two courses designed specifically for the long project. The Novel and a long project Advanced Fiction. Both of these are non-workshop based courses that allow students the time to develop the deep, long relationship necessary to dream a novel to life. The work generated in these courses has been impressive–some of the best I’ve seen through my years of teaching. It is totally possible for MFA programs to offer learning experiences beyond the short-story model. It doesn’t have to be a question of one or the other–a program could make room for both.

  33. This article was forwarded to me by a student in a grad workshop. It came at the perfect time, when I was debating whether or not to continue the pursuit of writing. Thanks for the validation and hope.

  34. Is it truly so weird to write both short stories and novels? I write both, and I love both. Whichever I form I use depends on the size of the idea I have and where it goes on its own power. (I’m not in charge of these things. The ideas have their own ideas.)
    I’ve never taken a creative writing class in college, though, because I wasn’t a creative writing or English major and so by the time I could register for those classes they were always full. Now I’m glad I haven’t had to deal with page count restrictions on my fiction.

  35. Cathy, this piece is so fantastic! Well done you! I must admit, I join the choruses of those who say they think and write in novel form over short stories and this makes me think perhaps it WAS best that I never get an MFA. I’ve tried to write short stories and really struggle with them. And I rarely read them. So this is just…very interesting food for the brain!

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