The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA

At the upcoming Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans, I’m going to be teaching a class on novel-writing, “The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA.”

As the title of the class is a bit odd, and the premise a bit unusual, I thought I would explain it here, and answer any questions readers have.

1. The Difficulty with Teaching People How to Write Novels Rutgers MFA

The more time that passes since my MFA, the more I realise how lucky I was. My colleagues were talented, my financial funding was generous, and my teachers were exceptional.

I studied fiction with Lisa Zeidner, Lauren Grodstein, and Adam Mansbach, and not only were they remarkably well-read and insightful, they continually maintained a high demand for quality work. That a story could be “better” or “worse” than the one you had previously written was just an assumed part of the feedback process. To me, that’s one of the most valuable things a teacher of fine art can do: insist on quality. Even if everything else about the writing of fiction remains a mystery, that insistence can illuminate the path ahead, steady the hand.

But our MFA was not alone, I believe, in finding classes about short-story writing more rewarding than classes about novel-writing. Cathy Day’s wonderful essay, “The Story Problem,” remains the definitive discussion of the topic, and Day’s account of her own classroom experiences indicates how broad and common this “novel problem” is. It isn’t about individuals: it’s a problem with the basic premise of the creative writing workshop itself.

The workshop begins with students handing in already-written fiction. Their classmates and teacher then comment on the piece and offer suggestions for improvement. For a novel workshop, that’s typically the first chapter or so of a novel-in-progress.

This approach assumes, however, that student writers are already able to write the first chapter of a novel, and simply need advice along the way to make it better. I no longer think that’s the case. Until the very end of my MFA, I wasn’t writing a novel at all; instead, I was writing what you might call “novel-shaped-fiction.”

As a category, “novel-shaped-fiction” is superficially similar to “a novel.” From a distance, they look the same. Novel-shaped-fiction has the same characters and dialogue and settings and chapters that a novel has. The only problem with novel-shaped-fiction is that, generally speaking, no one wants to read it.

This lack of readability wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t because we hoped to challenge our readers. Rather, there was something different in category from what our work felt like to read and what the famous novels we loved felt like to read. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that.Me reading at Rutgers

After all, it seems like the best writers can get away with anything: it seems like for any rule one can think of, the canon of famous novels contains 1,000 exceptions. Why couldn’t my novel be one of those exceptions, especially if I work really hard at it? And because we only had time to workshop the first few chapters in class, we could practice various forms of denial very effectively. Yes, most people didn’t like chapters one, two, and three, but they would have loved the novel if only I’d been allowed to show them the whole thing! So we struggled to make our not-quite-novels better not-quite-novels, trying out or ignoring suggestion after suggestion, some of us revising the opening pages many times, others feeling bewildered by the feedback we received.

The class I wish I had taken during my MFA, in other words, would have explored and worked through this crucial distinction — the difference between a novel and a not-quite-novel — before any of us had actually handed in any pages of our own. I think that’s the instruction that aspiring novelists most need.

Now, I’m still learning how to write novels myself. Although I’ve devoted much of the last two years of my PhD in Creative Writing to thinking through this problem, much still remains mysterious. I believe, however, that I have figured out some of the first steps, and now I’d like to share them. That’s what my class at the Hands On Festival will involve.

I’ll stop here for today, but in the next post, I’ll sketch out some of those first steps, using an Italian fairytale, “Silvernose,” and the classic novel Jane Eyre as examples.

5 thoughts on “The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA

  1. I love this post. I’ve been in writing workshops for over a decade, both in the context of college and outside of it and distinctions like this are what separates the good writers from the people who write things no one wants to read.

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  2. A postscript:

    The distinction I make in this post, about novels versus novel-shaped-fiction, is intended as a teaching tool. The definition of novel which I’m using here is much narrower than the standard idea that “novel” simply means “a long work of fiction.” There are lots of published and highly respected works that might, using my distinction, be considered more like “novel-shaped-fiction” than “novel.”

    By the logic of this post, Mrs. Dalloway and The Crying of Lot 49 and Beloved would all be in the category of “novel,” but Gravity’s Rainbow might not be, nor would a book like Don Delillo’s Point Omega. Those latter books are so remarkable in other areas that they perhaps become successful versions of something else.

    To put it more simply: this framework is meant to limit the scope of the novel in order to teach it. Clearly, with unlimited time, money, and emotional support, an aspiring writer can make anything work. Equally, if written with sufficient literary genius, critics and publishers will snap up a book that doesn’t exactly look like a “novel.” However, I base my teaching philosophy on the assumption that students choose to attend a writing class because their time and money are limited, and that while they might well be literary geniuses in the making, the best way to teach them is to focus on what feels like core skills. Just as a martial arts class does not begin by listing all the possible difficulties and complications one might face in a real fight, but instead starts training the most simple and standard techniques, a writing class makes most sense when you first teach people how to write “The Dead”–before teaching them to write Ulysses.

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  3. Reblogged this on Burlesque Press and commented:
    Daniel Wallace will be teaching a Master Class at this year’s Hands On Literary Festival & Masquerade Ball. Check out more about it in this first of two blog posts. And sign up to take the class this New Year’s!

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