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6 Posts authored by: Michael Kardos Expert

This post originally appeared on the blog on 9/14/11  

 

We are finally—I believe—past the time of the unexamined assumption that literary fiction is automatically high art (and therefore worthy of our imaginations and ink), while genre fiction is intrinsically lowbrow or mind-wasting (and therefore not worthy of those things. Or not for academic credit, anyway).

 

My sense is that the past decade has seen a growing acceptance of genre writing in the workshop, or at least a growing acceptance of work that flirts with genre. And I wonder if this is because more writers who teach these workshops are themselves flirting more with genre. (Kim Wright recently published this essay about the phenomenon of literary authors jumping into the genre pool.)

 

Still, potential arguments remain for emphasizing literary fiction, particularly literary realism, in the workshop:

 

  • Literary fiction is generally more “character-based” than genre fiction.
  • Instructors are more comfortable teaching their own area of expertise, which is usually literary fiction.
  • Each genre has its own conventions that don’t necessarily cross genres or apply to literary fiction, whereas (the thinking goes) the lessons of literary fiction more readily apply across all genres.

 

Maybe the most compelling argument is that conventions themselves—especially character types and clichéd plots—are precisely what we teach students to resist. In a “hard-boiled” detective story, the detective is, well, hard-boiled. He also solves the crime. Always. In the romance, the couple falls in love and gets together. The genre story, particularly its outcome, is largely determined by the conventions of the genre, rather than by the particular characters and their situations. When these conventions get substantially subverted, they are not generally considered genre stories any longer. Rather, they are something else: not a crime novel, but Lolita; not a science fiction novel, but Slaughterhouse-Five. Not a ghost story, but Beloved.

 

Yet there are also some persuasive reasons to allow, maybe even encourage, genre writing in a workshop:

 

  • Genre fiction is what many of our students are reading and is what inspires some of them to pursue creative writing in the first place.
  • If the workshop dwells only in the domain of literary realism, how can we in good faith assign stories by Márquez or Barthelme or Borges (or contemporary authors like George Saunders and Kevin Brockmeier)—or anyone at all who strays from the “real”?

 

Although I do promote literary realism, especially in the beginning workshop, ultimately I want—and ask—students to write what they’re most driven to write—provided they are careful not to make artistic decisions based on what “always happens” in a particular genre. If a story involves time travel, there needs to be a reason why it can’t simply involve flashbacks. If a troll is guarding a bridge, he’d better not be guarding it “because that’s what trolls do.” That troll needs a history and personality every bit as fleshed out as a character in a “literary” story. In this way, I try to help students develop the habits that stay with them for their next story, and their next, regardless of genre.

 

A final thought: This issue seems particularly salient now, I think, because we have a whole generation of creative writing instructors who grew up on Stephen King teaching a whole generation of students who grew up on J. K. Rowling. And this is a good thing, indeed—because Stephen King and J. K. Rowling happen to know a thing or two about writing compelling stories.

 

Your thoughts? 

Michael Kardos

You Write, Too?

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Sep 28, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 12/22/11

 

I’m always surprised when, weeks into a semester, I’ll say something in class that prompts a student to tilt his head at me and say, “Wait—you write, too?”

 

Meaning—you don’t only teach this stuff, but you actually do it?

 

I’m not talking about my upper-level or graduate students, who enter class with a sense of their professors’ professional interests and activities. But my introductory students are often surprised to learn that when I’m not in the classroom or at office hours, I’m at home doing exactly what I’m asking them to do: writing.

 

We sometimes take it for granted that our undergraduates know what it is to teach at the college level—that creative writing instructors are also creative writers. That we, too, struggle for the right form for a poem or the best way to end a story or the most honest and vivid way to present an essay. We, too, drink coffee; we, too, stop ourselves from wasting time on the internet. We doubt ourselves, and then we think we’re brilliant, and then we realize that, no, we aren’t. We fret over deadlines. We fret over fretting. We worry that no one will “get” what we’re writing; we worry that everyone will. The biggest difference between us and our students is that we’ve read more books and written more words. We’re further along in an apprenticeship that only ends when we’re in the ground.

 

But why should our students know any of this? It might seem obvious to us, but why should they suspect that the person who reads their work and directs the discussion and ultimately grades them is a writer as well as a teacher—especially if I haven’t talked to them about that part of my life?

 

In the past, I’ve tended to shy away from such talk, believing that the focus of the class, after all, is on them, not me. In my own experience as a student, I never much liked when a teacher went on and on about his or her own work. It felt like showing off. However, I’ve come to believe that in a workshop, students appreciate a modest amount of disclosure and candor, and I’ve become more comfortable talking—in moderation—about what I’m working on or struggling with, without feeling as if what I say needs to have a foreordained pedagogical objective.

 

My question to you: How, and to what degree, do you bring your own writing life into the classroom?

 

I often find myself weighing the degree to which the workshops I lead should concern themselves with things other than the manuscript up for discussion. On the one hand, I believe in a workshop—especially at the undergraduate level—that focuses on writing, and not on what one does with the writing once it’s finished. Put another way, there’s no better element of professionalization than learning to write well.

 

On the other hand, part of being a writer means giving readings and submitting work for publication, and I’m not doing my students any favors by pretending otherwise, or by withholding information or advice that could benefit them. Beyond that, I would argue that the very process of preparing a manuscript for a public reading or for submission to a journal makes one a better writer. When I know that I’ll be reading my work in front of actual, live human beings, I’m suddenly able to see the work with fresh eyes and less patience. I become a better self-editor. Imprecise words, flabby phrases, and lags in pacing—not to mention typos—announce themselves loudly.

 

Similarly, when I prepare to submit a piece for publication, I find myself reading it through the eyes of someone who doesn’t already know me and who has no reason—or time—to give me the benefit of the doubt. The piece, in other words, must stand on its own, and it must stand out.

 

So certainly there’s a pedagogical element to professionalization. Yet I value the workshop as a space that encourages ambition, experimentation, and even failure. That’s how we grow as writers, and much of the work we do in workshop is not meant for public consumption. The writer’s apprenticeship is a long one, and to rush the process—to make one’s work public before it’s ready—does the writer no favors.

I’d love for others to weigh in:

 

  • Does your workshop give a class reading? If so, is it made public?
  • Does your workshop involve educating students in the submission process?
  • Should students in workshop be encouraged—or even required—to submit their work?

 

 

 

[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/3/11]

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching creative writing is finding new ways to break students out of their routines, getting them to look at their world and describe it a little differently, a little slant. This semester, I gave my introductory students an assignment, based on an exercise of John Gardner’s, in which they wrote 250-word sentences that might appear in a story. The assignment, I hoped, would make unavoidable a deep consideration of details, clarity, pacing, and of course mechanics. It gave them fits, in the best sense—but in the end they cooked up some doozy prose, also in the best sense. In fact, some of the best writing all semester was contained in these long, long sentences. I suspect that’s because when building and wrestling a sentence of that length, students can’t help focusing on the parts and the whole simultaneously. They see that form is content, that punctuation carries meaning, and that this sentence (and, by extension, all sentences) demands nothing less than our most considered attention.

 

I’m going to use that assignment again.

 

Next semester, I also plan to spring a “radio drama” assignment on my upper-level fiction workshop. I’m thinking that students would work in pairs, create a drama that is five minutes long, with nothing but dialogue and sound effects. No voiceover. My hope is that the assignment will cause them to pay close attention to dialogue and narrative structure. It should also be fun. We’ll play the finished five-minute recordings in class, maybe burn CDs with everyone’s work—an audio anthology of radio dramas. Perfect for long car rides.

 

So my question, as this semester draws to a close, is this: What have you got up your sleeve for the spring?

 

[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on December 28, 2011.]]

Michael Kardos

Thanksgiving Exercise

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Nov 10, 2016

No, I’m not talking about the calorie-burning exercises we feel we must do in the days leading up to and following Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Day of Carbs. Rather, I’m talking about a favorite, and seasonally appropriate, writing exercise.

 

The first story in Bill Roorbach’s Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Big Bend is titled “Thanksgiving.” The story begins with a phone call. Ted’s sister-in-law, Mary, is calling to convince him to come to Thanksgiving dinner this year. And because he has vowed to “become part of the family again,” he agrees to come—but he isn’t happy about it. By the end of the story, events have caused him, in a fury, to upend the Thanksgiving Day dinner table.

 

Roorbach’s story gives rise to a very straightforward writing assignment:

 

A character, in a fury, has upended the Thanksgiving Day table. Write the scene that causes him/her to do it.

 

What better tinderbox is there, emotionally speaking, than an entire family all gathered together for one night? I like this exercise because it isn’t quiet or subtle. There is no way to avoid conflict in a scene that ends with a flipped-over dinner table, especially on a holiday, especially the holiday during which we are supposed to give thanks.

 

Moreover, this exercise requires students to complete certain mini-exercises along the way, such as:

  • Writing a scene with multiple characters in it;
  • Creating a conflict that causes the climax provided in the prompt;
  • Providing sufficient detail so that we know exactly what is on that table prior to it being overturned.

 

I am thankful for this exercise, which students seem to have great fun doing. I am thankful for Thanksgiving for generating the sort of familial tensions that generate good fiction, and I am thankful that this is not the case in my family. And I am thankful for the leftovers in my refrigerator, which, I understand, really ought to bring about that other kind of exercise—the kind that doesn’t involve typing.

 

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 12/2/11.]] 

Several years ago, a student of mine (we’ll call him James) stuck around after my introductory fiction-writing class because something was on his mind. This was around week three of the semester. He’d seemed highly engaged in the course so far, but today he was being quiet.

We waited while everyone else cleared out. I smiled reassuringly. He cleared his throat and looked at his shoes. When the room was empty except for us, I asked, “So what’s up?”

 

He told me that he would never be able to complete the exercise I’d assigned that day.

 

I had asked students to brainstorm some interesting details from their pasts, and to incorporate these details into a scene of fiction. The idea was to get students to use pre-existing knowledge as a way to give their work more authority.

 

I asked James what the trouble was.

 

He shrugged. “There’s nothing remotely interesting about any part of my life,” he said. Then, so I’d understand his dilemma, he elaborated. “I grew up on a farm, in a town of fifteen people, where everybody is related. The next largest town was ten miles away and there were only fifty or sixty people there.”

 

I told him that to me, a guy who grew up in densely populated New Jersey, his life sounded completely fascinating.

 

“No, it isn’t,” he said. And to prove his point, he started telling me about the various cows that his family owned.

 

“I’ve always wanted to milk a cow,” I told him.

 

He shook his head and tried not to laugh at me. “They weren’t milk cows.” Clearly, I should have known better, but my knowledge of cows is limited to Far Side cartoons and Chick-fil-A commercials.

 

It won’t surprise you to learn that James was able to use his knowledge of a) farming, and b) living in a very remote area, to create a scene that was fascinating and sophisticated.

 

Each of our students is an expert at something. Their knowledge and experience runs deep; often the trouble is that they believe their knowledge to be universal and their experience to be common or uninteresting—until told otherwise.

 

I’m not advocating that students only “write what they know.” I regularly steer students away from writing slightly fictionalized accounts of events in their own lives. Still, I’ve found that it can be very useful for them to put some of what they know—particularly, unusual things that they know really well—into the stories and poems they write. Doing so gives them confidence and their work a startling amount of authority.

 

[[This post originally appeared on Litbits on October 3, 2011.]]