Monday, May 27, 2013

Now for all the reading


Whenever I tell people I'm teaching a novel writing class, the first question that inevitably comes up is, "Does this mean you have to read all your students' novels?"  Well, truth is, different teachers have different approaches to such a class, and so they each will have their own stories to tell--which is why I'm hoping that an AWP panel on this subject, one that has been proposed for the 2014 Seattle conference by fearless novel writing instructor Cathy Day, gets accepted--but the long and short of it is: Yes, that's exactly what it means.  For me, at least, this is what it means.  I don't think it's fair to ask a student to commit to such an ambitious project like finishing the complete a draft of a novel without also offering to read it and give her feedback.  After all, the students are making one heck of an investment of time and personal energy for your class; it's the least you can do for them.  Even if that means extending the spring semester into your summer.

Our spring semester has been over for three weeks, so lately I've been delving into the tall stack of my students's novels.  (Btw, I offered to let them post their novels to our class web site instead of actually giving me a paper copy, but nearly every single one of them preferred to just give me the paper copy.  One student, after she printed out her novel, felt strongly that the next time I teach the class I must insist on them printing out paper copies.  She said doing so was a powerful experience for her.  She hadn't quite understood her accomplishment until she saw how thick was her printed novel.)  As I've noted in the past, it was a mixed group of graduate students and undergrads in the class.  So far, I've read three of the graduate students' novels and four of the undergrads.  (Although two of those undergrad novels I had read mostly while the semester was on, because they were in a peer review group with me.)  As much as I love to read and do read it's a sad fact that I'm not a very fast reader.  This is a great quality to have when one reads poetry--you want to fully and slowly ingest a poem's images and its rhythms--but a bad quality for someone who needs to get through, and comment on, over a dozen books.  And hopefully before the summer is done!  To complicate matters even more, I have to get ready to teach a summer semester course--it begins one week from today--and I need to prepare a study abroad proposal for the summer of 2014.  The good news is that I'm finding, as I found the last time I taught the course, that reading my students' novels seems to go faster than reading other novels.  Of course, they are relatively short novels; but more importantly, I think it matters that I know all the authors and even the conditions under which the novels were written.  That ups the intrinsic interest and allows me to move faster.

So far, just like the last time I taught the course, the results are a fascinating mix.  First, the ranges of styles and subjects is perfectly intriguing.  So far I've encountered a near-future sci-fi story; a fantasy story; a highly literary murder/suspense story set in Little Rock; a coming of age novel about a group of college-aged guys in small town Pennsylvania; a YA novel that details a culture clash between a transgendered protagonist and the bible belt town he lives in; a story about a senior in high school who tries to find her bearings as she negotiates the infamous warfare of friendships and boyfriends; and a historical novel, set in 1930s Arkansas,  about the tragically bad choice one woman makes in husbands.  This kind of variety makes the reading burden much lighter,  and I know that the remaining novels I have yet to read are just as various.  The other thing I'm noting about the novels so far is their overall quality.  You'd think that having to write a draft of a novel in one semester would lead to some mighty bad prose as well as some ridiculous, untenable premises.  While I can't say my students' writing has been error free--this is to be expected in a first draft, after all--I've also encountered some passages of evocative description and many stretches of effective dialogue.  More to the point, except for maybe one of them, none of the books has collapsed under the impossibility of its hurriedly thrown together story.  All three of the novels from my graduate students are quite good and quite well-structured.  Amazingly well-structured, actually, given the furnace of activity in which they were composed, and given how busy the lives of those students are.  But my undergraduates' novels have also evidenced some inventive descriptions as well as very deft plotting.  Even in the one undergraduate novel that evidenced crippling structural issues I saw the author aptly play with situations so that the dramatic tension was usefully ramped up in key scenes, so that the protagonist found herself in hotter and hotter water.  That was very smart fiction writing--and, again, that's in the novel that I thought was the least successful of all I've read so far.

I'm just past the halfway mark with my students' novels, and so I can't yet offer any conclusive take.  But I can tell you that I'm honestly enjoying the experience of reading through them.  It doesn't feel like a burden as much as a chance to get know even better all these interesting people who filled up my classroom this spring.  To get to know them, that is, from the inside.  To get to know their imaginations.  I can also tell you that reading these books gives me hope for the future of novel writing.  One student who eventually soured on the course told me that he thought it was a terrible idea to insist on a draft in one semester; he said that any monkey could type out 55,000 words if  you let it type long enough.  (Yes, that's actually the metaphor he used.)  He was certain that my students' drafts would amount to nothing much better than monkey typing: long enough but artistically wtihout merit.  So far, that has definitively not been the case.  So far I can fairly say that I had some talented novelists in class this semester, people who understood how to form an affecting story over 55-60,000 words.  They are showing that to me every day I read, every page I turn.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Philbrick tells the stories of history


What writing historical fiction comes down to is making history into stories.  Some of those stories feature actual historical personages and events; some feature composites; some are drawn entirely with imaginary characters; many feature core interactions between the imaginary and the real.  But this is only one kind of storytelling that is drawn from, and dependent upon, history. As engaging as literary historical fiction is for me to read, I am equally drawn to the work of historians who are able not to make history into story but to tell the story of history.  Stephen Ambrose is one name that comes to mind.  Even better is David McCullough.  But there's no one more accomplished at this right now than Nathaniel Philbrick.  From his very first historical volume to his latest--the just-released Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution--Philbrick has interpreted the significant moments of American history fundamentally as stories to be told and understood.

If that sounds like mythmaking, trust me that Philbrick does anything but.  Because when I say he tells the story of history, I mean he tries his best to tell the true story--which is almost always more engaging than the myth.  Sometimes, in his mission to tell the truest story possible, Philbrick comes up against an impasse of data: stories, even stories from eyewitnesses, that contradict each other.  This occurs more than a few times in The Last Stand (2010), his volume on Custer and the Battle of The Little Bighorn.  Usually, Philbrick is able to sort through the clutter of exaggeration and personal bias in order to render to his readers a reasonable approximation of what probably happened.  Occasionally, the best he can do, the most honest thing he can do, is to simply bring the contradictory accounts to the reader's attention and admit that knowing the ultimate truth won't ever be possible.  But none of this ever gets in the way of his telling a great story.  Although he's an honest historian--quite a painstaking one, actually--Philbrick employs the moves that all great storytellers do: He develops his characters; he provides their back stories; he juxtaposes their points of view; he keeps you in suspense.  His books, nonfiction history though they are, have a clear narrative tone: that is, the tone of Philbrick's consciousness as he processes all that he knows and needs to tell you.  (He is not afraid to employ the first person.)  Finally, he shows readers how the current of events lead, as if inevitably, to the one crucial action that made history.  It might be the Battle of Bunker Hill; it might be the Battle of The Little Bighorn; it might be sinking of the whale ship Essex (the event that inspired Melville's Moby Dick); it might be the voyage of the Mayflower.  And as when I finish reading a great novel, when I reach the end of one of Philbrick's books I feel sad that I must leave these characters and that time that he has brought alive so well.

Philbrick was not trained as an historian but as a sailor and a student of literature.  (He was an All-American sailor at Brown and later earned a master's degree in American literature from Duke.)  Following his years of education, he did not start working as an academically based historian but as a journalist and freelance writer.  The grounding in journalism surely fed Philbrick's instinct for getting the facts straight (he is a dogged and impeccable researcher), and for cutting through and from disputing accounts to arrive at reasonable conclusions.  Likely it also fed his instinct debunking common public misunderstandings about the people and events that have helped forge America's identity.  Meanwhile, his training as a freelancer surely taught him a thing or two about storytelling, about wrapping up facts into a package that readers understand and are moved by.  I teach writing as my job full-time, and I read dozens of books a year, and I don't know if I can think of a cleaner, more seamless prose writer than Nathaniel Philbrick.  I can't think of a writer whose sentences do so much work and with such seemingly little effort, so little obvious dazzle.  I would announce Nathaniel Philbrick as one of America's most expert writers of creative nonfiction--his style is that good, his books are that winning--but I'm afraid that would make readers suspect the truth of his histories.  Fear not; if nothing else Philbrick writes fair and balanced histories.  He received the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his breakout volume, The Heart of the Sea (2000), and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in History for Mayflower (2006).  While I was writing my Nantucket-themed collection of short stories, I found his first historical book--Away Off-Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People--the single most reliable source for information about and descriptions of the island and its social strata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  But Philbrick is not only devoted to facts.  He's even more devoted to telling stories.  I can't wait to get to his new book on Bunker Hill.  I know I'll learn a great deal about an event I thought I already well.  Most of all,  I know I'll get lost in it and regret leaving it when there are no more pages to turn.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

The students speak up


Over the last several days, I've been going over final folders turned in by my various creative writing classes at UCA.  The contents of the folders vary according to the class.  My novel writing students had to turn in reflective statements about the semester and about their peer review experiences.  It's been gratifying to see exactly how much the students got out of the semester, but also eye-opening to see what worked and what didn't (which varied from student to student of course); and thrilling to see some students offer really interesting ideas for future renditions of the class.  Not all the ideas are tenable, but many are intriguing.  One student suggested that instead of having two novels that the whole class reads, have one shared novel and then one novel that each peer review group picks--a book that models the kind of novels that group is working on.  That's a fantastic idea--and would have worked well with the peer group that student was in--but not every group included students who were writing the same kinds of novels.  A more workable version of this idea would be to have each student select a model novel for himself/herself and anayze that one.  Many students wanted more frequent contact with their peer groups, which I can certainly understand and may very well do next time, although I also think it's important too to have time away from those groups.  Many students also wished they could have had more contact with the novels of the students not in their peer groups.  But without instituting full class workshops I'm not sure how to put that into practice.  One student suggested switching up the peer groups in the middle of the semester, but I think it's crucial that your review group have followed your novel from the start.  Having to play catch up with a new group's novels might, I fear, overwhelm the students with work.

Almost every student complained about No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, our basic textbook.  Although it has some fine craft ideas embedded in it, it's essentially a motivational book.  While I think it's extremely entertaining, and it takes no time to read, some of the students didn't appreciate Baty's sense of humor; others they felt that what he was saying was too obvious.  One glaring issue with the book is that it's designed for people trying to complete NaNoWriMo, in which you draft a novel in a month; we were drafting a novel in a semester, so some of the urgency of his message didn't directly apply.  I guess I'll drop the book for next time, but I fear what will happen is that the students then will long for the kind of motivational speeches Baty can give, and in his rather unique style.   Most students really appeciated having so much writing time afforded in class each week; others felt that they didn't need it or want it.  (I have to say, though, that the differing opinions reflected how disciplined the students were or were not in making use of that time.)  One student thought we should read more novels; some thought two was plenty; some thought we should discuss the model novels differently (something I agree with and will have to change for next time); a couple thought we should not read any model novels at all.  Well, I can't accept that.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that if one gripes about having to read novels one should not be enrolled in a novel writing class.

Except for a single person, every student was seriously appreciative of the weekly word count deadlines and the fact that they were expected to finish a draft by the end of the semester.  Having taught this class another way--in which student started novels and workshopped chapters, but didn't even get halfway through--I can tell you I'm never doing it that way again.  Because 99% of them never worked a second more on their novels after the semester ended.  They never understood what it meant to follow a story all the way through.  That's a powerful experience; it's an educational experience.  One can learn some things from craft books; one can learn a great deal from reading other writers' novels.  But one learns the most about novel writing by actually writing a novel.  And then another one.  And then another one.  That's what my students have done, and I'm not denying them that experience the next time.  Here are some of their comments on what completing a full draft means:

What's important to accept is that I wrote over 55,000 words this semester. . .  Many of my friends are in shock and awe at what I've done.  Personally, I don't feel like I've actually done any work.  But I guess if you love what you're doing it doesn't really seem like labor.  Before this semester, I didn't truly define myself as a writer.  I was just a student doing writing assignments.  This class has made me realize that it's okay to be passionate about something, and it's okay to be confident in who you are.  I now say that I am a writer.  And I am damn good at what I do. --Colleen Hathaway, graduating senior

After printing out my novel, I'm honestly amazed.  I look at the huge stack of papers, and I can't believe that I wrote all of that--in a semester.  I keep showing all of my friends because I'm just so proud of myself.  Antoher thing that amazes me is how ready I am to write another novel.  During the process, I was quite honestly done with the whole novel writing idea.  I didn't want to do it again, and it seemed that my dreams of becoming an author were slowing being put on the backburner.  I can't explain it, but there's something so invigorating about actually finishing a draft.  Sure it needs work.  And sure, that work is going to take a while, but I'm just ready to feel that exhilaration again.-- Taylor Neal, graduating senior

I am grateful for many attributes of this class: that it was offered to the MFA students, that it was offered when it was, and this it was structured around a goal of completing a full draft of a novel.  I have started two other novels, but I have never gotten beyond 20 pages, so I thought of it as somehting I didn't know how to stick with.  This class changed how I think of myself and my abilities as a writer so much for the better, and for that I am so very grateful.--Stacey Margaret Jones, graduate student

Some changes are definitely in store for the next time I teach the course--assuming it's me that teaches it and not another professor--but the requirement to complete a draft is one thing I ain't changing!  Just like Taylor, I can't wait.