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When Students Workshop Their Teacher

Nothing can keep a writer as honest as a classroom full of teenagers. Students know when they are being lied to; they know when the person standing in the front of the room isn’t genuine. I’ve spent the past decade teaching at a public high school. Most graduates of MFA programs long for college classrooms, and while I won’t deny the occasional pull of that world, I have found that teaching high school has kept my feet on the ground. When the bell rings and class starts, I am not an author or a literary critic. I am an English teacher.

One course I teach, advanced creative writing, began as a novel-writing course; an ambitious, perhaps stubborn attempt to help high school students draft a novel within a single academic year. For two years, students submitted 150-page manuscripts that ranged from polished drafts to rough attempts. Their work effort was impressive; their talent was clear. But we all seemed to burn out. In reaching for quantity, we had not quite forsaken quality; we had forsaken time and patience. We rushed art.

I then changed the focus of the course from drafting a novel to writing and polishing several short stories. Students had more room to breathe, and, overall, produced better work. Without the fear of training for a marathon, they could jog and discover their craft. Yet the course is now actually more demanding than its previous incarnation. I respect the art of fiction too much to make any creative writing course a simple endeavor. I’ve taken the ethos of the great teacher and fiction writer, Charles Johnson, to heart: creative writing should be:
a labor-intensive ‘skill acquisition’ course, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. The curriculum should be capacious, allowing for instruction in all styles, genres, and subgenres of fiction. I believed that apprentices learned best (as in music or the martial arts) through oldfangled imitation of master craftsmen, through assignments aimed at learning a repertoire of literary strategies, and by writing and revising prodigiously. I saw the goal of a (literary) art class as the creation of artists who were technicians of form and language; it was the preparation of journeymen, not one-trick ponies, who one day would be able to take on any narrative assignment — fiction or nonfiction, screenplay or radio drama, novel or literary journalism — that came up in their careers. And such a class should make clear that writing well was always the same thing as thinking well.
Workshop became an essential feature of my course. I think the workshop model is an imperfect method for teaching fiction, but it remains the standard style of undergraduate and graduate fiction courses. One of my responsibilities as a high school teacher is to prepare my students those courses. Our class meets five days a week, 40 minutes per class from September through mid-June. Workshops begin in February. We have two workshops a week, so the first round, short fiction, runs until April (this year standardized testing has stolen a month of instructional time). Depending on the interests and strengths of the students, the second round is flash fiction or creative non-fiction.

A successful high school fiction workshop requires months of preparation. Before we sit for workshop, students read a healthy amount of short fiction. We read “Refresh, Refresh” by Benjamin Percy to see how a story can be a deep examination of a character’s longing to be reunited with his Marine father, as well as a complex portrayal of a small town. We consider a scene from Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show that evolves from awkwardness to sentiment in a few pages. We examine solid openings from Big Machine by Victor LaValle, “Royal Beatings” by Alice Munro, and The End by Salvatore Scibona. We contrast voice-driven, monologue-style pieces like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Boy” by Bret Anthony Johnston. And that’s only in the first two weeks. We read a ton, in hopes that students won’t learn by prescription, but that they’ll connect with the style of one or more of these writers.

Students draft their own work, and we begin with informal responses to handwritten paragraphs and pages. Before I give them the work of another student, I photocopy a sample story from an undergraduate literary magazine. It is a published work, but the students know that published doesn’t often mean finished. I ask them to read the story and put comments in the margin, as well as write an end note that summarizes their overall reaction. They read, write, and edit, and then only when they are finished do I give them my sample response to the story. I stress the need to be constructively critical, to always tie those criticisms to specific words, phrases, or character actions, and to articulate those criticisms as reactions and explanations, and not as judgments. (I save the writing of literary criticism for later in the course).

In February, after midterms come and go, students know it is time for workshop. Rather than one student reading his or her work, the entire class will have copies, and will speak about the story for an entire period. I winnow down our months of sporadic peer responses into four elements of workshop reading. First is copyediting. Copyedits can take the form of alternate word suggestions, punctuation changes, misusage, or misspellings, suggestions to cut a word, observations about clarity of language and content, and format cleaning. I ask them to avoid grammatical comments, unless a consistent and distracting pattern is observed. I remind students that they are not proofreading the entire work: that is the job of the writer.

The second element is the line comment. Line comments are copyedits with commentary. These are reactions to phrases and sentences, or responses to lines of dialogue. Line comments can also be quick reactions to the actions, decisions, or desires of a character, as well as questions, although they should not have all, or even most of their comments be questions.

Margin comments are next. These margin notes are expanded reactions: responses to paragraphs, pages, or the story as a whole. Students might call for expansion or excision of a paragraph, or they might note contradictions in characterization. These margin comments are usually two to three sentences, and help articulate their reading reaction to the text as a progressive, not static, action. The final element is the end note. This five- to seven-sentence note is addressed to the writer, and explains the reader’s overall reaction to the text. It is easy for students to get lost — and misled by — the minutia of copyediting, and not tell the writer what they think of the overall work. Students might discuss character, plot, or style, but they are always doing so in a way that leaves the writer sure of their total response. For all four levels of edits, I remind students that they are engaging the work on its own terms, within the fictional parameters created by the writer: they are not changing the story to fit their own interests or style.

Next, we read excerpts from “The Writer’s Workshop,” an essay by Frank Conroy, who led the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 18 years. Although my MFA is from Rutgers-Newark, many of my undergraduate and graduate teachers attended the Iowa program (one of my teachers, Jayne Anne Phillips, called it the Conroy “ripple effect”). Their blessings and biases inform my own method, so it is healthy for my students and me to question the workshop method, and its potential travails, even before we begin.

Conroy sees workshop as a way to talk about writing using concrete examples:
We ruminate on the seductiveness of the first person, how it seems easy initially but subsequently becomes very hard. We look at texts in which the author seems trapped in the first person, unable to find a way to look around the narrator, or rise above the narrator. We discuss strategies to avoid such pitfalls.
Such a word as “strategies” might appear more at home in an MBA program rather than an MFA workshop, but I respect Conroy’s willingness to unfold the garment of workshop, to show the stitches and imperfections. Some might wonder why students couldn’t learn from reading a work by James Baldwin or Marilynne Robinson; they could, but they also need the agency and immediacy of reading the work of their peers.

Conroy isn’t naïve enough to think that workshop creates art by committee. He knows “Workshops cannot teach the magic of making thrilling metaphors, but they can at least discuss their function, what it is they’re supposed to be doing. Precision.” He cautions that “the student who is ‘up’ should not be looking for solutions from the other students or from the teacher. The student should be looking for problems in the text that he or she had not been aware of.” We leave Conroy’s essay with a belief that workshops are best thought of as way to test the clarity of a story. Granted, this is only one slice of fiction, but is it not an essential one?

Students are now ready for the theoretical end of workshop, but they need practical format and experience. Our workshop cycle has three days, and is meant to be an experience out of the norm for their education. First is their submission date, when the student e-mails me a 1500 to 2000 word story. By having students e-mail the story, it gives them a window into how it feels to send a submission over the transom to a literary magazine. The second date is part reading day, part conference. Students read and edit the submission in the back of the classroom while I conference with the writer in the front. We talk about the story, although I hesitate to force a “master” reading of it during this conversation. I try to note elements the class might discuss, ask questions about the process behind the story, and query her confidence level. We talk about books and writers she enjoys, what she hopes to study in college, what she hopes to accomplish for the rest of the year. Some students can’t help but sneak a look back — it is somewhat disarming to know an entire class is reading your words in your presence — but the class does a nice job of playing it straight. They read and mark in silence, and submit their work at the end of the period. I check their comments — not that they wouldn’t be good editors for altruistic reasons, but guidelines and grades never hurt — and then return their copies on the third day, the workshop date. On that date, the 14 of us sit in a circle and talk about the student’s story for nearly 40 minutes. The student is not allowed to speak until the end of the period; when she may offer clarification or answer questions, but she is not to defend her story. She receives the copies back with comments, thanks the class, and then the bell rings.

Once students understand the process, I show them the workshop schedule, and they request a date. Many are still understandably nervous. It would be unkind, and pedagogically unsound, for me to send them blind. They need a model. Each year, I am the sacrificial lamb of workshop. I put up a story draft of my own so that students can see what it’s like to talk about someone’s work to his face. I follow the same three-day model (other than conferencing with myself at the front of the classroom), and certainly don’t speak during the actual workshop. This year I chose a story draft, “Weights and Measures,” about Derrick, a college student working for his town’s road department. In a backyard, the student discovers a dead body buried in mulch, and he is thrown into an investigation into local drug deals gone bad (Derrick himself was on probation for streaking across his college town).

From a writer’s standpoint, I chose the story because I haven’t been able to figure out the center of the narrative. I didn’t want it to become a cheap imitation of the “A&P” variety story, the seasonal job as parable. From a teacher’s standpoint, since the mock workshop is meant to introduce the workshop style and format, to observe student tone in reacting to a manuscript, and to create an environment that would reveal strengths and weaknesses, I selected a story that I knew was approachable, but that had a challenging narrative arc and incomplete characterization. “Weights and Measures” is also an example of “literary fiction” — fiction driven by character and language, more so than by plot — with a touch of noir or crime fiction. I don’t love these categorizations, but ignoring them is a disservice to students who will encounter them later.

At first, some students lift their eyebrows at the idea of critiquing their teacher. It is almost endearing to see this hesitancy, but they soon recognize that they are not critiquing me, they are critiquing the story. That’s a necessary lesson for them to learn, both as editors and as writers. I distributed my story, and they spent the period reading and editing. I hid behind my computer, working on future handouts — not because I was nervous, but because I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable. They submitted their manuscript copies at the end of the period, and I spent some time that night going through their comments. They were fantastic: specific, layered, thoughtful. Skepticism and praise when appropriate. Now a student wouldn’t have the luxury of seeing these comments before their workshop, but this mock workshop is for the class, not me.

This year’s class is full of talented writers and readers, kids passionate about books. That passion sometimes leads to volume; after reading a story, “The Princess and the River Queen” by Phedra Deonarine, the class erupted into competing interpretations of the lyric narrative, drowning out any hopes for understanding. But I will take impassioned responses for apathetic silence any day.

Unfortunately, successful workshop sessions, as a whole, require a linear discussion. We don’t need to proceed paragraph to paragraph through a story, but we do need to have a larger argument and narrative to our discussion, a sense that we are building a conversation about a story that will leave the writer with material for reconsideration and revision. After a few minutes of focused discussion at the start of my mock workshop, it devolved into a succession of concurrent conversations. I couldn’t hear what any single student was saying. They all had strong and smart opinions about the story, but I couldn’t follow them. I was actually a bit frustrated; I valued their advice, but I couldn’t hear it.

The next day, I gave students my reactions to their individual written and spoken participation, and spoke to the class as a whole. I explained that their written comments were brilliant, but their spoken workshop was rough to the point of being frustrating. They nodded their heads; they knew what went wrong. I reminded students that the goal of workshop is helping the writer improve his or her story, and that can only happen if the writer can follow the conversation. As their teacher, I would be doing much of this guiding during the workshop of other students, but for workshop to succeed, they must rise to the level of teaching each other. Workshop can turn good readers into confident, skilled readers. It also shows students that helping other writers is a noble act.

Student workshops began soon afterward. We’ve read stories about revenge, battling sisters, and fractured families. They don’t seem like the same class that conducted my mock workshop. They are patient, pointed, and able to grasp the heart of each story. I am proud of them.

I recognize that some teachers will hesitate to cede power to their students in this manner. But if I am willing to let a classroom of teenagers read, edit, and critique my work, then undergraduate and graduate instructors might consider it. The mock workshop brings students and their teachers closer in this literary art; it shows students that great fiction — other than the rare inspired work — is crafted, not the result of immaculate inspiration. It shows that their teacher is humble enough to allow the students to run the show for a day, and that he respects them enough to listen to their advice.

Some will say that high school is too early for fiction workshops. Others might scoff at the idea that students could have the credibility or ability to critique their instructor. But year after year, I go home with a stack of marked manuscripts from students who want to make my stories better. Some of those stories end up in drawers, never to be touched again. Others have been revised and reworked, and published in literary magazines. Workshop was the final nudge those stories needed. Granted, student fiction might need more of a push than a nudge, but students need to see someone listen to criticism without responding to that criticism. We save debate for published work. Our drafts need to weather the storm of careful readers. By putting my own work up for critique, I show my students that we are in this together.

Image Credit: Flickr/Nic McPhee

Transcending the Political: The Millions Interviews Rachel Kushner

It’s rare for a writer of only two novels to get the critical acclaim bestowed upon Rachel Kushner. In 2005, her debut novel Telex From Cuba, about the Cuban revolution, landed the cover of The New York Times Book Review and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her second novel The Flamethrowers, published earlier this year, tells a sweeping story about the New York art world during the Italian factory protests of the 1970s. Both her novels are stylish and rigorously intelligent, as she describes characters and nations alike on the brink of collapse. She spoke with me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where, she says, her neighbors think she’s “a housewife who doesn’t sweep her porch enough.”

The Millions: Both of your novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, deal explicitly with foreign politics. What is your relationship as an American novelist to political responsibility?

Rachel Kushner: I don’t see the artist as necessarily political. I think if a novel is polemical, it’s prevented from doing its transcendent work as art. If it’s successful, it transcends the political. That said, you’re correct in pointing out that both novels deal with political material, but I think there’s a deep tradition of this inside of storytelling. If you look at the novels of Balzac and Victor Hugo, and even the moderns — Proust, Céline, to name favorites — the characters are always people situated inside the processes and effects of history. I guess I’m a writer who is interested in the way that the world and historical events and processes pressure characters, and the way characters interrelate and situate themselves in their social milieu, political milieu, and so forth. And whether I’m writing something contemporary or in the past does not change this — it’s an outlook. A work of art can have a political emanation to it, but it cannot be the thrust or reducible point of the work.

TM: For the Italian factory workers in The Flamethrowers, political protest is always potential for imprisonment. Meanwhile in America, what’s most at stake for artists appears to be whether or not they’ll get represented by a gallery. What do you think is politically at stake (if anything) for American artists today? Is it the same for writers?

RK: The stakes in politics and art are obviously different. There is plenty at stake for writers and artists, politically, but as I said above, art, in my opinion, cannot be polemical. It can’t be reduced to political stakes. But by making art, the writer/poet/artist is choosing to do something special, which can possibly, I mean perhaps, speak outside the logical of the marketplace.

About the artist just, you know, wanting a good gallery, in a sense I think it’s unfair to compare the stakes of art and the stakes of protest. The implication is that art is sillier, that the stakes are about ego and money and hierarchies, or about these kind of esoteric and febrile conceptual debates. But we are not choosing between a world without exploitation and a world without culture. They are not in a direct competition with each other, where one must be prioritized, and the other overshadowed or shamed for its insignificance. Anyhow, there may be many lines of connection between culture and questions of governance, of capitalism, violence, and so forth, that are worth exploring by putting those two different worlds of art and politics in play, side by side.

TM: Your novel feels very rooted in today’s world, largely because of the way the Italian protests hover over the lives of your American characters in the way that the Arab Spring does so for Americans today. How do you think the Italian protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s compare to the Arab Spring?

RK: When I was writing The Flamethrowers it wasn’t just the Arab Spring that loomed but Occupy, and aunt-austerity protests all over Europe and in Greece. Looting in London. There was a lot happening in the world, and the world is what I respond to, even if I am writing about Italy and New York in the 1970s. But those are really difficult things to compare, the Arab Spring, or so-called Spring, and the Autonomist movement in Italy in the 1970s. In Italy, there were various circles of philosophers who were writing political/theoretical texts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and what they were writing, along a spectrum of militancy, streamed into and joined with a rejection of bourgeois values that occurred among very disparate groups of people, students, factory workers, and people from the south who were something like a sub-proletariat group. The movement had to do with, of course, history, and the economy, factory politics, a failed nationalism, and the culture of the time. I guess in merging various interest groups it does share something with what happened in Tahrir Square [in Egypt]. Some of the more striking arguments about why the revolution was successful — to the degree that it overthrew Mubarak — have been about the heterogeneity of the population that occupied the Square: all different kinds of people rejected the Egyptian state. In this sense something similar perhaps occurred in Italy, except it did not result in a revolution. The most significant gain from the Autonomist movement has probably been in the form of advances for women.  Which might make it quite different from what ends up happening in Egypt.

TM: Reno, of the novel The Flamethrowers, is hyper aware of her surroundings in the immediate present, yet she continually falls in love with the people, cities, and art around her in a way that has nothing to do with her naiveté. What is it about Reno that makes her so trusting?

RK: I think that some people have no other choice than to be open; it’s just an instinctual manner of proceeding. Perhaps this is a fundamental division among people, a tendency  to react to people and ideas and works of art without suspicion, a way of submitting oneself fully to other people’s codes, beliefs, modes of being, in order to understand them, and to have an experience. I think of it as a kind of enchantment with the world, rather than as naiveté, and to be honest, it’s an orientation that I relate to, personally.

TM: James Wood compared your novel to Flaubert, who’s sort of credited as the father of modern realism. Your prose is realistic in the sense that it’s grounded in physical detail, though what happens in the novel isn’t always “true.” Do you consider yourself as working in a realist tradition?

RK: I am still mulling the fact that Flaubert created a seminal mode of realism (emulated by most writers since), in order to skewer bourgeois values (a topic only taken up by some). I am also still grappling with the hallucinogenic effect of Salammbo. In any case, I probably do hew to certain key markers of realism. I don’t strive to create a sense of un-reality, and in that, I guess, I tend toward something that some people would call realism. But I don’t call it realism. I wonder, is Marguerite Duras a realist writer? In a way, yes? But what does that say about the category?

To satisfy my own instincts, I need to have a form that allows me to incorporate writing that runs the spectrum between detailed and accurate renderings of spaces, places, moments that seem “real,” and a kind of poetic density or oddity. I like to be able to shift tones, and densities. I see the narrative strands of my own novel — the opening sequence of with Valera, the sequences in which other characters speak, and the first person narrator as simply a recording witness — all as having different densities. I’m interested in having a narrative through-line, but also in finding mischievous ways of disrupting that through-line. But I don’t know if that’s realism, or not. The term doesn’t enter my mind as something I need to either adhere to or disobey.

TM: In addition to writing two acclaimed novels, you’ve also written for both BOMB Magazine and Artforum, which gave you an intimate understanding of both the contemporary worlds of art and literature. How do you think they compare with one another?

RK: The truth is I know the art world much better than I know the “literary world” — which, well, what is that? The publishing world? I don’t circulate in a social sphere of novelists, so much. But more importantly, I wish there were more intellectual crossover between the worlds of art and literature, which, historically, had been the case.

If I have to compare, well, the art world is obviously more self-referential, in that you can’t really participate in the conversation of contemporary art unless you’re inside the discourse. Literature is not self-referential in the same way at all. Which makes it more open, less exclusive, but is deriving from the fact that it’s a more conservative and rigid form. They’re almost completely different. The art world has a lively and dynamic social component to it, whereas the publishing world is, er, not that dynamic of a place, and it doesn’t have to be, it’s not motored the same way. There are no biennials, and there isn’t an obscene pile of money at stake. And finally, maybe writers are less open to the culture than artists for some reason. Artists truck in culture. I don’t feel that’s necessarily the case with writers. Some are following the culture, of course, and their work is in response. But there are also these quiet psychological insights that writers pursue, which are different.

TM: What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in American fiction right now?

RK: I hope for a lot of possibilities with American fiction. There are some writers I really love. I was just on a panel the other night with Rivka Galchen and Hari Kunzru (who is not American, but he lives in New York City), and those are two writers I admire. Also Salvatore Scibona, whose novel The End stands out for me as a rare work of beauty and complexity. I think Bret Easton Ellis is a great writer — a very different writer than myself — but one who will have been a really important stylist, a singular American writer. DeLillo continues to produce good work — I think Point Omega was a near-perfect novel. But in truth, I am not that knowledgeable about contemporary fiction. I read a lot of Europeans. Modernist ones. Among younger American writers, I read more poets. There are some smart and fearless and funny and insouciant poets out there. That’s maybe where the energy is for me right now.

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