It’s your senior year of college. What kind of writer are you? Do you start writing a story eight hours before it’s due? Do you fictionalize your latest fight with your jerk-face manager or diva housemate? Does every one of your stories read like a screenplay? Like a poem? Do you write to make your mother proud , or prove your high school teacher wrong?
Whatever your habits, young writer, I know you. I have been you. Even after two story collections, two graduate programs, and 11 years as a professor, I am you, still. My habits are unseemly, like borrowing clothes from my kindergartner. But you, my undergraduate self—with your first taste of validation, your first buzz of obsession, your first writerly highs and lows, your need for deadlines—you formed the writer I am now, for better and for worse.
Now I’m hoping to teach you better—and teach my students, too. It’s time to build habits of consistency and, at the same time, to release the handle of the trapeze. Behold, the WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!
Creative Writing Graduate Seeks Deadlines, Snarky Comments
The WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!! is the title of the undergraduate fiction workshop I’m teaching. After years of attention to craft and critique, I vowed to build a better workshop and, in turn, build a better workshop graduate. Beyond the skills of aspiration—Here is good writing, Here is how it’s made—I’m trying to teach skills of inspiration: to self-motivate, to forgive ugliness, to murder darlings, to allow long breaks from writing and find the courage to return.
Versatility, daring, discipline: three skills I wish I’d learned. But as a student, I wrote only for syllabus deadlines. Seeking peer/family/instructor approval, I wrote safe stories that played to my strengths. In classrooms and for classrooms, I’d learned how to make good fiction. But I’d never figured out how to continue making good fiction on my own.
Have you learned this? Have you taught others? I had not. So, it’s no surprise that my own dear former students—immersed in their lives as parents and project managers—post their frustrations in the Facebook group I created:
It’s been far too long since I wrote something.
Middle management is sucking out my soul. Give me 3 prompts, I’ll write 3 poems.
Can somebody please read this chapter? (Google doc attached)
Drop and Give Me 500 (Words)!
My WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!! syllabus features unusual assignments, dazzling readings, a lion jumping through a flaming hoop—but the main requirement is routine. Literally, routine: students must write fiction for a minimum of 15 minutes every day, and log their activity in a notebook for my random inspection.
What for? Ideally, two things. First, I hope they’ll gain the love of practice. Ann Patchett credits an undergraduate workshop for teaching her the discipline to produce story after story—a story each week for two semesters!—until, eventually, she wrote something artful. “Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment,” Patchett writes. “The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.”
Second, I’m hoping to instill what Julianna Baggott calls “efficient creativity.” A professor and mother of four, Baggott has published 21 books by “writing while not writing.” She explains, “When I found myself churning on aspects of mothering—ones that were not essential, but had become a little compulsive tic…— I stopped myself and pointed my thoughts back to my characters, to a scene, to language. I set my mind to a task.” When Baggott gets to her desk, she’s ready to write—and when she stops, she leaves herself notes for the next day.
I want my graduates to write on flights to corporate headquarters and while they wait out kids’ piano lessons. I want them to crave their “practice time,” and miss it should a day pass without writing.
“At any moment, you should expect to drop and give me 500 (words)!” I say, cracking an imaginary whip. My students nod sweetly—Um, okay, Dr. Lunatic— but their pens are never capped.
The Hoop of Inspiration
What can you accomplish in 15 minutes a day? As Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, building a draft, like building confidence, begins with manageable goals. Just fill one square inch of space, Lamott says, then fill another.
Put another way: give yourself a hoop, then jump through it.
Hey, look! You jumped through a hoop!
Small accomplishments are motivating. We use them to ramp up to truly daring feats. For example, daunted by the immensity (so many words!) of the novel I’m writing, I rebelled by writing flash fiction. Tell a story in 500 words? Done. Soon, I’d finished a collection—not the book I set out to write, but a book filled with narrative risks (including parts of my novel) I’d otherwise never have attempted.
My WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!! students are workshopping flash fiction now. We’ve studied image-based flashes, relationship-driven flashes, flashes that play with language, form, setting, and premise.
“Go ahead, use the word ‘rained’ 41 times in a single sentence,” I encourage. “Begin a story with an image of Meryl Streep, naked. Declare ‘an orange ruled the world.’” And it’s thrilling to watch, say, one of their “loop stories” build, sentence by sentence, a bridge to resolution. After mid-term, they’ll be crafting longer stories in small sections, with limited goals, hoop by hoop. Hopefully, this is how they’ll create a writing practice small enough to fit into a pocket —and carry out the door.
The Torch of Reinvention
I’ve promised you fire. Unfortunately, building codes prohibit me from actually burning things in my classrooms.
Instead, my students bring to class a Writerly Tool Kit— scissors, glue stick, and black markers— for surgeries and redactions.
For example, their first assignment was to write “a perfect paragraph,” and make two copies. In class, I instructed them to give their perfect paragraphs a kiss.
Then, my students used a black marker to redact one copy, and used scissors to shred the other.
Am I teaching kindergarten? No, although I did enjoy their quiet focus as they glued words into new, weird shapes.
Perfectionism can stop a writer for years, and make it impossible to return. I had three points that day:
- There is no draft so perfect it can’t be cut down, or reorganized, or re-seen—or used to launch a wholly different story.
- Conversely, in any cruddy draft there may be terrific phrases worth saving.
- Either way, at home on the desktop: an original draft— untouched, pristine. Here’s a copy. You can’t ruin a copy, right?
My students redacted, recopied, cut, glued. Their revised paragraphs were freakish things. Everyone waited for me to offer instruction. What happens next?
It’s the question my students ask about everything this last semester of college. And it’s the reader’s question, as she turns the pages of any story, big or small. It’s also the classic writer’s question, leading us into manuscripts we finish and drafts we don’t.
What happens next? There’s only one way a writer can answer.
My WORKSHOP OF FIRE!!!! students look at their hot messes, the words discomfiting, unfamiliar, out of place.
“This is your new first paragraph,” I say. “Now write the one that follows.”