Category Archives: teaching

What you wrote in high school . . .

. . . was powerful and potent at the time, but today it prevents you from developing as a writer. Regardless of the quality of the writing, that unfinished, handwritten epic is like a clingy boyfriend without a job. Your high school fiction wants you to stay home with it and play games or watch TV. It may want to sprawl out, but it doesn’t want to grow up–it has you to make it whole, and that’s all that matters.

In particular, the fiction you wrote in high school doesn’t want to go to college. If you take it to college anyway, you’ll end up writing and rewriting its first chapter. You won’t get much further than that. I guarantee it.

The high school novel marks one of the most intense, formative projects of a writer’s life, so it is hugely important, not as a narrative but as a lifesaving passage to artistic identity. But the passion that the writer places in pages written during the nightmare/dreamworld of her own coming of age invariably arrests her creativity down the road.

I wish I could remember what the bridging experience was for me, how I learned to abandon the art for the practice of it. These days I still find myself reluctantly enabling the high school novel in the college classroom, which is one of the reasons I find great relief during nanowrimo season,  a time of speed, sloppiness, and desperate experiment–all of which help tear at the bonds to the past.

I do tell my students there is a ban on work begun in high school. The ones who argue with me 1) never consider that such a ban is unenforceable, and 2) tend to be geniuses.  I just wanna shake ’em.


Unintended Results: Bad Teacher Edition

So yesterday was the last day of the semester for my junior level fiction workshop, and we were scheduled to discuss a story (a really good one) by a student whose name I have been mispronouncing all semester. It’s not a difficult name, either, just a matter of a short vs long vowel in one of three syllables, but I could never remember which, and each time I’ve chosen wrong, prompting a chorus of corrections from everyone sitting in her row. After a while I just stopped trying, using avoidance tactics (made easier because the student is fairly shy in class).

But when her work is up for discussion, there are no avoidance tactics. So I devised an elaborate plan. I would give out prizes (lit journals)  based on class ballots for best writer, best  feedback, etc, and to refresh everyone’s memory, I made every one say their name and remind everyone what stories they had shared in workshop.

That worked for me–it was a long A–but the larger revelation was that the students really struggled with describing their work, so much so that many of them stammered or were dismissive. It struck me as strange because they were otherwise a talented, confident group (so confident they had me scared of a name).

I know I work for weeks trying to craft a coherent 150 word summary for a novel query, and most of that comes from anxiety that makes me blank out about my work–it’s like a white fog. I wonder if they weren’t experiencing a little of that, and I wonder further if there isn’t some value in teaching “about” skills. That is, as much as some writers bristle at the question “What is your book about,” readers want to know. I’m going to try to include some practice in the “about” zone for next semester.


Flash Novella Project for Undergraduates

First, let me admit I have no idea what I’m doing, but just three days before my first class meeting of English 398: Fiction Writing (junior level) I seized upon the idea of incorporating a flash novella writing project: 15 installments/15 weeks. Mind you, my syllabus for the 398 I taught in the Fall was a lovely thing, low stress and high creativity, and several students wrote me afterward to say how much they enjoyed the class. So I had no good reason to change the syllabus. That said, I couldn’t shake the notion of a flash novella assignment.

I did assume that the assignment, layered in with the usuals–two other submissions, exercises, readings, peer preview, etc–would drive some of the bodies out of my overloaded section, but I was wrong. To my delight and terror, more than half of the students in my class are fresh from Poetry Workshop. The Flash Novella doesn’t faze them. In fact, they seem a lot more confident about it than I am.

Several of my writer friends are intrigued by the idea as well, and I thought I would post the basics here–for there are only basics at the moment. I’m making this thing up as I go along.

Week One: prompt writing, Reading The Collectors, by Matt Bell, discuss and practice options for sustaining an interesting narrative beyond/beside conventional “plot”

Weeks 2-14 Post flash drafts * (small group peer reviews as we progress)

Week 15 select, arrange, edit, prepare as formal manuscript (The formal ms part is just a way to focus their energies–the thing itself is not so important, and I’m fully aware that years from now my students will say, “I remember Prof Scott. She taught us how to format stuff.” That’s fine with me, sometimes teaching is about distraction. What’s meaningful to me is that by May they will have done a thing–a 15 part thing.)

*For the students who need more guided help, I’ll ask them to at least settle on a powerful element as subject matter (situation, character, place), and to write from its various pasts, presents, futures from multiple points of view. For further inspiration, I have developed two sets of word lists. These are not the sort of bomb sets that Meg Pokrass develops (and for which we’re all thankful)–I purposely chose words and phrases that I thought would be versatile for the long run.  Set one comes from flipping through The Lover and Jane Eyre. Set two comes from flipping through Alice in Wonderland and American Gymnopedies. The words are mostly in the order that they appear in the texts, and I only thought to combine them later–also in rough order.

set one

1 the same silence, wander, resist, not a hint

2 we ate garbage, streak of light, broken hum

3 crossing the river, a noxious thing, mad cat

4 space existed in me, remove his doubt

5 during this journey, a wicked heart

6 he says he’s lonely

7 suddenly it’s deliberate, mercy, liberty

8 beneath the man’s hat, dropped asleep, music

9 sober as a widow, burns

10 don’t love them anymore, creeping under tables

11 who took the photo, only the spark

12 Leave me alone, iron gates

13 throughout our affair, a message

14 his courage in the forest, wild beast

15 in the black car, purity, doom

set two

1 down and down, slick, turquoise

2 cool fountains, throwing papers

3 large letters, row houses, Borealis

4 poison, jazz from the 1920s

5 question, shiver, lily

6 that kind of thing never happened, blue wings, yellow guitar

7 an angry voice, father’s suede fedora, rusted drum

8 when she heard her voice so close, candle, little worm

9 taken into custody, black leather

10 creatures got so close, verandas, tulips everywhere

11 the judge, sugary sand, wrinkled feet

12 the crowd below, harmless swallow

13 a history of the accident, moon, pink light

14 like an honest man, dreaming fake, caved

15 a mile high, worship, jump

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