Monday, January 21, 2013

Novel writing class returns

After a break of two-and-a-half years, Novel Writing Workshop returns to my university this semester.  In the interim period, dozens of students have asked me about the class and scores of oral histories have been told; a few students lobbied my department's Chair hard for its return; and, not insignificantly, our first collection of graduate students matriculated.  In some ways, it's a very different pedagogical landscape now than when I taught the course a couple years ago.  Then, novel writing workshops were still relatively rare and excitingly new, certainly on the undergraduate level, and the idea that the students would not just start but finish a novel in one semester struck me as potentially hazardous: to GPAs; to other course work; to jobs; to relationships; most of all, to sleep schedules. Yet that's what I asked the students to do.  And nearly all of them succeeded.  Now, novel writing workshops are a considerably less unusual phenomenon.  Indeed, sometimes I think they are everywhere.   Still more typical on the graduate as opposed to the undergraduate level--although one of our graduate students, who was an undergrad a year ago, informs that he took a novel writing course in college--they are, in any case, far more characteristic of creative writing degree programs than in the past.  It can't be coincidental that at the AWP conference in Boston this year, a panel will be held on not just on promoting the idea of the novel writing workshop but on the fact of it; that is, the nuts and bolts of how different experienced instructors of the course have taught it.  I think it's even fair to say that novel writing workshops are becoming the cornerstone of progressive fiction writing programs.  And in part this is because in the last three years those who teach the course have been talking to each other about it--Cathy Day's blog The Big Thing has been especially instructive--pushing each other, motivating each other, spreading the gospel.

So I'm glad it's back at my school, and I know the students are too.  But I admit to being a bit nervous.  In the intervening years since last I taught the course, a mythology has developed around it, a retrospective awe.  Students have told me that for years, ever since they selected our major, they have been eagerly anticipating the chance to experience this one course.  Can this semester possibly meet their high expectations?  Yes, it can.  But, here's the scary part: It's all up to them.  More than any other course I teach, in my novel writing class, the students teach themselves and teach each other.  I offer them a platform through which they can learn about novel writing, but they have to take advantage of it, and they have to encourage each other to take advantage of it.  While I do separate the class into small peer review groups, there will be no full class workshopping.  As I emphasized at our first meeting the other night, the course is about production more than anything else.   The last time I taught the course, again to all undergraduates, the room was fully with unusually mature and unusually talented people.  What the course offered was exactly what most of them were looking for: space, opportunity, deadlines.  Almost entirely seniors, they'd workshopped plenty in their college career.  What they wanted from Novel Writing was something else,  and they were eager to take control of it.  There were certainly bumps along the way that semester, but for the most part--with a notable exception or two--a genuine esprit de corps ruled.

I can only hope my current group has the same experience.  It's a fresh batch, with different backgrounds.  For the first time, graduate students are participating along with undergraduates.  That's a new dynamic for me, and for both of those student populations.  And there's another professor sitting in!  Not even from my own department!  Like last time, we will read Chris Baty's No Plot No Problem (for practical motivation) and a couple of short novels (as models for storytelling over a reasonably short space), and we will periodically break off into peer groups.  But mostly we will be writing.  I'll be writing along with them, which actually is going to be more of a challenge for me this time than last.  Mainly because right now I am in the latter stages of a novel I started early last semester.  I had intended on exploring this novel idea through the Novel Workshop, but when the class was delayed from fall until spring I didn't feel like waiting.  Now I will need to hurry to finish my draft, then immediately start another novel--the subject of which I haven't even clarified for myself yet.   Hard to know what the next few months will bring, but I'm sure it will be an adventure.  There will be exhileration and despair.  There will be careful planning and last second inspiration and a great deal of fatigue.  Some will give up; most, I hope and expect, will soldier on.  Some will get pissed at me and at their peer reviewers.  Some will get pissed at the novels we read.  But if they each individually can hold it together, when the finish line comes they will have learned more than from perhaps any other writing course.  And they will have learned it the best possible way: by doing it themselves.

Publication announcement: I'm happy to report that another chapter from my Van Gogh novel will soon appear in print.  The journal Versal, an international literary magazine based in Amsterdam, is publishing a chapter from the section of the book that details Van Gogh's Paris years.  The point of view character is Suzanne Valadon, a post-Impressionist painter who circulated widely among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and even modeled for a few of them.  During my research for the novel, I read an account she'd written of seeing Van Gogh at a Paris party.  I used some details from that account to construct the chapter.  The issue of Versal will appear in May, accompanied by a launch party in Amsterdam.  Really sorry to have to miss that one.  While I will be in London in June for the Great Writing Conference, there's simply no way for me to make it to Amsterdam in May.  Ah, well.


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