The Magic Building Where English Majors Work: Making Sense of Creative Writing’s Job Problem

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[Note: The student I describe is a composite character of many students I’ve met in my 20 years of teaching.]

A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said.

She wanted me to talk her into becoming a creative writing major. But she needed assurances.

Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?”

My heart broke a little then, because once upon a time, I dreamed about that building, too. “Well, there isn’t just one building,” I said. “There are thousands of buildings.”

“You mean publishing houses,” she said, nodding her head.

I hear this a lot from students: I want to work in publishing. Usually it means that they love the world of books more than they actually want to be writers—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So I told her about a class we offered on Literary Editing and Publishing. I told her about the internship program in New York to which she could apply. “But Tracy, I want you to know that it’s hard to get a job in publishing. At least in the way that you imagine it.”

“It is?” She looked incredulous.

“Yeah, there’s this thing you might have heard of. It’s called ‘the internet.’ Traditional publishing—books, magazines, newspapers—it’s all shrinking.”


“But independent and small press publishing is growing.” I told her all about it.


“But you need to know this. Many people who do it have a day job and work on their publishing ventures on the side.”

“But what about…” She named a best-selling book by a self-published author.

“Yes,” I said. “There are some success stories, but that’s not what happens most of the time. The problem is that there are more people who desperately want to be writers than there’s a readership to completely absorb them.”

I shared stuff like the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing.

“Oh,” she said. “I figured with all things that are published, I could find a job as an editor.”

“Well, you probably wouldn’t search in terms of editor.” I hate saying this, but it’s the truth. “Search for words like communications and content.”

I did a quick Google search and found a full-time job in Connecticut for an English major to serve as a “communications specialist.”

Her face lit up. “What kind of company is it?”

I scanned the website. “They make welding electrodes and filler wires.”

“Oh.” Her face fell.

“It’s a full-time job where you would think critically, communicate clearly, solve problems, and apply your writing skills.”

No response.

“You’d get to travel to trade shows.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t see myself doing something like that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’d feel like I wasn’t really using my degree.”

“But it says right here they’re looking for an English major.”

“I love books!” she said, “not welding.”

“I know, I know,” I said, “but with a good job and good insurance, you’d have a stable life and money for books and maybe time to write, too.”

She looked around my office, at the books lining my shelves, the pile of stories waiting to be read, the three 20-page proposals that needed to be read by 3 o’clock for the College Curriculum Committee. “I’d really love to do what you do,” she said. “Teach English.”

“You want to major in English Education? Teach high school?”

“No, I want to teach college. How do I do that?”

I sighed. “Become a writer.”

Her eyes lit up again. “Yes, that’s what I want!”

“You’d go to graduate school.”



Tracy’s eyes practically rolled back in her head. “Yes!”

And even though she was still a [pre-professional major], not an English major, I pictured the day in the near future when she’d come to me asking for a letter of recommendation. Every time I write one, I ask myself: Am I contributing to the contingent faculty crisis in English?

In the last 20 years, I’ve written approximately 50 letters for students applying to graduate creative writing programs, and only two of them are currently in tenure-line jobs. The rest are pretty evenly split between those in non-tenure line jobs in academia and those working outside academia entirely.

When is the right time to tell people about their job prospects? In graduate school? Before they even apply to graduate school? Or sooner than that even—in their first creative writing class? Never? Let them Google it because it’s just too depressing otherwise?

I hadn’t even read a word of her writing yet, but I knew how Tracy’s story might go. I decided to be honest.

I took a deep breath. “Look, I need to explain something to you, Tracy. Last year, 4000 students earned a graduate degree in creative writing. And do you know how many tenure-track teaching jobs there were to which they could apply?”

“A thousand?” she guessed.

“A hundred.” I showed her the report from AWP to prove it.

“Oh.” She looked at the floor. “But what about Professor Jones? I had him for freshman composition. He’s a writer, and he teaches. He got one of those 100 jobs.”

That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones was one of our amazing full-time contingent faculty members. He’d published multiple books and had applied for hundreds of tenure-track jobs in the five years since he’d graduated with his MFA. “No, he hasn’t gotten one of those 100 jobs. Not yet.”

“But he’s teaching and writing, just like you,” she said.

That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones made half of what I made for doing pretty much the same job. I pointed to my computer screen, to the job at the welding company waiting in Connecticut. “You’d probably make as much there with your BA as he does right now with a graduate degree. Maybe more.”

Tracy pulled at her hair. “But it’s not fair! They told me to go to college and follow my dreams! Where am I supposed to work?”

“Please calm down. This isn’t the only job in the country,” I said. “It’s just the first one that came up on Google.”

But I knew why Tracy was angry. All my students are dealing with a post-employment economy and a trillion dollars of student loan debt. I recognize the looks on their faces. I grew up with a father full of the same righteous anger and disillusionment. He hired out on the railroad when he was 20 years old and fully expected that he’d have a job for life. But then the economy changed. The world changed. How many times did I find him quietly seething in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, shaking his head in rage and disbelief?

That look broke me.

I was Tracy’s age when I went to see my college professors to discuss what I should do with my life. Even though I was a first-generation college student, no one dissuaded me from majoring in creative writing or from applying to graduate programs. There was no reason to.

At that time, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country.

Today there are 592.

When I was in college (1987-1991), there were only about 50 graduate creative writing programs in the country.

Today there are 418.

And honestly, even if my professors had tried to dissuade me, I wouldn’t have listened. I wouldn’t have wanted to take that job at the welding company either. And because I was born at the right historical moment—before all this started to happen–and because I got my graduate degree just as the number of tenure-track creative writing jobs started to open up, I landed my first job (with no book) and have remained employed ever since.

If I was 26 right now rather than 46, maybe I’d say, Screw it, and do something else for a living.

Or maybe not.

Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work.

“Oh God,” Tracy says, “how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?”

I asked her how much she owed, and she told me. I swallowed. Hard. Also, I’d like to mention that Tracy had a child/a sick parent/a dying grandparent.

“Tracy, do you want to be a writer?”

She thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.”

I gave her the short version of this advice, which I’ve been giving for years. The job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer. And applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer. “If what you love is reading,” I said, “why don’t you major in literature?”

“Because creative writing is more practical.”

I almost choked on my coffee. “Oh my. What kind of classes do you think we offer in the creative writing major?”

Tracy paused. “Well, I figure it’s like the bookstore. There’s a mystery section, a young adult section, biographies, graphic novels. You know. And we learn how to write them.”

I patted her hand. “I’m so sorry. It’s not like that at all.” I explained that the taxonomy of creative writing was about choosing a genre.

“Right,” Tracy said. “That’s what I said. Choosing a genre.”

“Not that kind of genre.” I counted them off on the fingers. “Fiction. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Screenwriting. Playwriting.”

“So you’re saying I major in creative writing and get a job as a fiction writer or a screenwriter!” Her eyes got bright again.

“Or maybe something else.” I counted them off. Marketing. Teaching. Tech Writing. Non-profits. Publishing. I ran out of fingers, but I kept going. Library science. Law school. Student Affairs. Business. Publishing. Television. Peace Corps. Politics.

Tracy look frightened.

“We don’t give you the map,” I said. “We show you a sky full of stars to navigate by.” I broke out my horrible faux British accent. “’All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’”


It’s a poem. About finding your way without a map.”

“Screw that. I want the map.” She raised her voice to me a little, using a tone I’ve come to call “buyer’s remorse.” Tracy said, “I want you to teach me how to get one of those jobs you just mentioned.”

“We will! We’ll teach you how to write and think and speak and read and analyze and empathize and imagine.”

“But then why don’t you change the major from all those genres to something I can actually beeeee,” she pleaded.

“Like this, you mean.” I pulled up my university website and navigated to the Department of Technology and its degree programs.

I explained that my brother had graduated from this very university from this very department twenty years earlier. He went straight into a good paying engineering job with a company that made automobile parts.

“In this major, they identify the things you can beeeee…” I counted them off on my fingers:

1. A computer technologist
2. A construction-site manager
3. A graphic arts manager
4. A manufacturing engineer
5. A high-school teacher of technology

I held up my other hand. “And they create a curriculum that tracks you right into those careers.”

1. Computer Technology
2. Construction Management
3. Graphic Arts Management
4. Manufacturing Engineering
5. Technology Education

I brought my hands together with a clap.

Tracy shook her hands in the air. “Yessssssssssssss! It makes so much sense! But here’s what you guys in Creative Writing do!” She ticked off the five genres on one hand:

1. Fiction
2. Poetry
3. Creative Nonfiction
4. Screenplay
5. Playwriting

And on her other hand, she ticked off five “random” careers that our students have landed lately:

1. Residence Hall Director
2. Associate Professor of Communication Studies
3. Staff writer for BuzzFeed
4. Career Adviser at a small, liberal arts college
5. MFA student/poet/reading series coordinator

Tracy brought her hands together crosswise. “They don’t match up. Well, except for that one guy who got into grad school for poetry. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to do when we graduate?”

“You turn the wheel,” I said, reaching over and rotating her crossed hands until her fingers aligned.

“How do I do that?” She’d never looked more serious.

“With your mind.” I touched the side of my head. “And transferable skills.”

“You have to teach us how to turn the wheel!” Tracy said. “You can’t just expect that we’ll know how to navigate on a starry night.”

“I’ll give you that,” I said. “We could do better. But that’s also what the Career Center is for. Have you ever gone there?”

She looked like she might punch me.

“Tracy, do you know what happened to my brother?”

“He became CEO of the company.” She crossed her arms sullenly.

“No. He changed companies just as the economy crashed in 2008. He lost his job, and there weren’t any others like it in the region. He needed to think of something else to be, but for a long time, he couldn’t. And do you know why?”

Finally, she got it. “Because he didn’t major in creative writing.”

I smiled. “Sort of.”

“Because of this.” She brought her hands together. “Because they only gave him one star to steer by.”

I wanted to hug her then. “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs,” I said. “That’s the real world.”

I told her to sign up for our Intro to Creative Writing class. “If you love it, then consider changing your major. Or stick with [her pre-professional major] and get a creative writing minor.”

Tracy thanked me and walked out the door. I’ve never seen her again, but I hope she found what she was looking for.

I really, really mean that.

Image: Flickr/Kevin Dooley

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

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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.

I’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

I 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.

Perhaps 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

In 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)