October 4th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

I Felt Like I Was Part of Something

Last spring I graduated from my MFA program with a degree in fiction and was expelled into the wilds of a Pittsburgh recession with very few—if any!—marketable skills. I drank a lot and watched TV and cooked up elaborate theories about LOST involving a super intelligent ape named Joop mentioned only briefly during a second season viral campaign. Halfway through the summer I lucked into a few teaching gigs and ended up with a section of Intermediate Fiction Workshop. I always had vague notions of one day teaching college, but those were always hazy fantasies set deep in a future where I’d be a distinguished silver fox smoking cigars in some type of hover mansion. I wasn’t a TA during my MFA campaign and had no earthly idea if I was cut out to actually walk into a classroom and explain anything to students, let alone fiction, the thing in the world I care most about. As the summer wound down and I made stab after stab at a syllabus, I’d lie awake at night listening to the trains howl through Pittsburgh while trying not to vomit from crippling anxiety.

Classes began. Fall came and went. I was again unbelievably lucky and landed a section of Advanced Fiction in the spring which many of my Intermediate students signed up for. The process was endlessly humbling, mostly because of the students. I was shocked at how genuinely good so many of them were. I was ready for anything on that first day of class: from manic scribbles on a napkin to thousand page genre opuses. But these students were wonderful. They loved fiction as much as I did, and their enthusiasm hyped me up and I hope vice versa. By the time the academic year drew to a close, many of them were beginning to publish their work in journals I respected, and all of them had shown some pretty big improvements from the first day. And all of this from a workshop. The workshop!

But can workshop ever be enough? This summer, I really tried hard to reassess what had happened in the classroom. These days there are so many other interesting alternative models for creative writing classes, and I kept wondering whether or not the students had gotten so much better because of the workshop setting or did they just need a year’s time to develop. I wanted to know what I could do to become a better teacher, but also what we could all do, all of us who teach creative writing. And when Roxane started this series, I thought the best people to go to for answers were the students, to see how they felt. I’ve read so many ruminations on creative writing pedagogy from professors, but I almost never see any commentary from people on the other side of the desk. I wanted to give them a voice.

The students responded the same way they always do: so much better than I ever dared hope for. I don’t even want to call them students. Their fiction is all over the place. Mike has a story forthcoming in PANK. Jordan, Lauren and Joellyn have appeared in Metazen among other journals. And Faith has had work in The Emprise Review. They’re not just students anymore. They’re writers.

Salvatore Pane:  This might be a loaded question because most of you have chosen to major in creative writing, but do you believe writing can actually be taught?

Mike Rosenthal: I’d say only functional writing can be taught. That is, writing that serves a purpose for an audience. A teacher can’t teach what feels good for a student to write. That’s all intrinsic. But creative writing for an audience has rules, like conflict and character, and it helps to learn them and to learn why an audience needs certain elements. That’s not to say you have to follow those rules, but if you break them, you should know

Lauren Rygg: I think that some aspects of writing can be taught, how to hone skills, develop characters and setting more thoroughly. But I think that people are born with certain gifts or talents and creative writing ability falls in that category. Either you have it or you don’t.

Joellyn Powers: I don’t think writing can be taught, per se – I think it can be honed and improved. I agree with what Lauren was saying, that you can teach a young writer how to develop characters, how to pace a story, how to create conflict…but can you actually teach him or her how to WRITE a story? I don’t think so. I think that’s something you either have, or you don’t. But writing is also the only thing I’ve ever been good at…so there’s that.

Jordan Walsh: Maybe it’s my naiveté peeking through, but I absolutely believe that writing can be taught. Whether it’s through workshops and how-to books or simply through reading other writers’ work, you have to learn what works, what you like, what a denouement is, how to use a space break, and so on.  Of course there is talent involved, and it seems unrealistic to even entertain the idea that you can be taught write as well as Thomas Pynchon.  In my Advanced Fiction class last week, my new teacher kindly informed the whole class that no Nobel Laureate in Literature had ever attended a Creative Writing Program.  I thought that it was hilarious for her tell us that.  But Michael Chabon and Ian McEwan did, so there’s hope.

Faith Beck:  Well, consider the format of our fiction classes: we read items, we attempt on our own, we get critiqued, we try again, the professor tries to show us the light in office hours, and we fail again… There are those for whom (“for whom” sounds weird, right?) writing comes easily, and for others, it doesn’t. But can it be taught? I’m a strong believer in the old saying about a horse, some water, and how you can’t make him drink. Think about it, writing is a solo sport…a teacher can try everything in their power to “point out” good technique, “recommend” a savvy, thorough reading lifestyle, but in the end, I don’t think you can place all the expectations on a professor’s ability to teach writing. Some people are more susceptible to being taught. I think being able to write comes with being open to the teacher’s suggestions while trusting your gut. In the end, it’s all about not giving a crap about what people are gonna say in church…it’s about you defining a little piece of your truth in this strange world.

Salvatore Pane: In our class I tried to strike a balance between showing you the old masters but also exposing you to contemporary fiction published in the last few years. We even had Tina May Hall and Matt Bell visit our class. Did you find one school or the other—the old vs. the new—more useful in your development as writers? Do you wish we focused on one or the other, or was that balance helpful in some way, and if so, how?

Mike Rosenthal: I think a balance that favored new writers over old writers would be best. It’s great to see where literature has been, but I think it’s more important for us to see where it’s going. Plus, college already has plenty of courses dedicated to classic literature. Outside of creative writing workshops, there might be one or two courses that will even touch a book written past 1980.

Lauren Rygg: It was incredibly helpful to have a mix of contemporary and older fiction.  Obviously what was being published 50-100 years ago isn’t necessarily what’s being published today, but it’s important to study the “classics.” A classic will always be appreciated and respected for being a classic, especially if you subscribe to the notion that there are only 6 stories out there and everyone is just finding new ways to rewrite them. But I truly believe that incorporating contemporary fiction into a syllabus is crucial to fledgling writers. We need to see what everyone else is doing right now. We need to learn how to get to that polished point. What better way to find out what publishers and editors are looking for now than reading what they’re publishing right now?

Joellyn Powers: I can honestly say the newer writers whose work we read in the advanced workshop changed the way I write and think about writing. Every other writing class I had previously focused on the old masters: Carver, O’Connor, Oates, etc. I love all of them, but there’s something about reading a contemporary writer’s work that really helps you to put your own in a new perspective. I know this will not go over with everyone because a lot of people in our workshop despised this book, but Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (as absolutely corny as this is going to sound) changed my writing life. I’ve always written and had ideas for stories, but not until I read that book did I think: huh. I can actually write a story about a twenty-something female character and have people read it. So I guess what I’m trying to say is: newer fiction. Absolutely.

Jordan Walsh:  Honestly, I have a really hard time with the “old masters.”  I mean I get it.  I know that I’m supposed to appreciate them for their powerful impact on the history of literature.  They’re classics for a reason, and you have to study them (over and over).  But if I have to read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” again and pretend that I’ve gained some historical perspective from Chekhov’s prose, I may cry.  I just constantly feel disconnected to stories like that.  They don’t speak to me.  I haven’t really learned anything about how to capture our 21st century world and speak to my contemporaries from Chekhov or Poe or godforsaken Hawthorne.

Faith Beck: I definitely think there is something to be said for the vegetables and the dessert. The old masters sure knew how to describe an old bench in over 600 words, while the more modern writers are F%*&^@ the system …and sometimes without pants on. We have to read the structure and the disorder…the vegetables AND the dessert….to choose which style we want more of on our plate.

Salvatore Pane: We focused on publishing a lot. I showed you guys Duotrope and a bunch of print and online journals I really value and some of the many interesting lit blogs out there. Did you find this useful? Did it make writing unnecessarily stressful or did you appreciate the practicality?

Mike Rosenthal: I found this incredibly useful. We could always learn more about practicality and how professional writing works. If I wanted my stories to never make it past my mom’s refrigerator, I would have used my college tuition money to buy magnets.

Lauren Rygg: Personally, I believe we should have focused on publishing more. The ultimate goal in a writing program, at least for myself, was to be published. I didn’t care if it was online or in print I just wanted to be out there, but I wasn’t 100% sure how to do that. I may or may not have zoned out a little during our Duotrope presentation. In my defense it was 9 am in the morning when we talked about it and I’m a night person. Once I figured out what I was doing I was more or less fine, but it took me a little while to get there. I would have preferred to have gotten there faster.

Joellyn Powers: The publishing world used to scare the shit out of me. In like, 11th grade, my mom bought me that huge Writers’ Market book. I remember staring at it for weeks on end thinking, How the hell do I use this thing? Learning about online journals and blogs and newer ways to connect to the literary world was beyond helpful. I think teaching writing students about the publishing world should go hand in hand with teaching the actual writing fiction part. Because like I said earlier, you can only teach
someone how to write so much; you can teach him or her invaluable lessons on how to enter into the world of publishing. Also, I’m pretty sure Submishmash is the best invention of the Internet age.

Jordan Walsh: I thought it was great all around.  The world of journals is really hectic and intricate, not to mention scary, and it was immensely helpful to find some direction in the confusion and some encouragement to dive in.  And beyond that, I found a lot of really great journals to read, which made me very happy.

Faith Beck: YES YES YES. Publishing writing was so inaccessible before. I felt like I didn’t deserve to know about these websites (even though I could have searched for them on Google)…and let’s face it, everyone has their own tools of the trade, and it was more than generous when Sal shared his with us.

Salvatore Pane: There are many teachers who think the actual act of workshopping is detrimental to writers. I can understand this viewpoint even if I very much disagree with it, but I’m curious what you all think. I spent seven years in a row having my fiction workshopped, so sometimes it’s difficult for me to see beyond that. Do you think there are alternative methods to teaching creative writing—methods that might have worked better for you than the workshopping we did—and if so, what might those be?

Mike Rosenthal: Learning how to take criticism is huge, and that’s not something I could really do before college workshops. Of course, I generally dismissed most critiques of my stories, but the few that made it past my shield of arrogance helped me write a better story. With the amount of students they stuff in these classes, I don’t see a better option than group workshops.

Lauren Rygg: Oh workshop. I hate it and I love it. I say hate because I think for as much as we try to keep it professional and academic there is a tendency for things to get personal. That’s just not the point. Usually that’s not as big of a problem, but being friends, or the opposite, with the person being workshopped can cloud judgment. Overall I think it has been incredibly effective in helping me take criticism and turn it into revision. It has also been incredibly effective in raising my blood pressure. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine a better technique than workshopping. You need to learn how to accept maybe what you’ve written isn’t the best thing, but it can be if you do this or that. That’s really the most important part of workshop. I can objectively read my own, and other writers, writing and see what’s working and what isn’t. That was something I could never do before. I was too attached to my first draft, to certain phrases, to details. Workshop helped me get out of that mindset and get on to better writing.

Joellyn Powers: I honestly can’t imagine another method for creative writing classes other than workshopping. As tedious as it can get sometimes, there’s no denying how invaluable reading your classmates’ work can be. I do think that there should be more parameters for moving into the upper level workshops. I mean, my friends who are business majors and math majors have to pass certain tests to move upwards in their major. Why shouldn’t a creative writing major have to prove their skill to move forward too? I’ve said it before and gotten skeptical looks, but I do believe the writing major is one of the most difficult; we work on this every day – not just in class. All in all, I think workshopping does work, it just needs to be more closely monitored. And smaller! Good God, make it smaller!

Faith Beck: Yes, I believe it to be essential. In the class, you have a mixture of all different people…potential readers. People who can see right through you…judgmental (in a good way) kinds of people. Yes, for me, it’s priceless.

Jordan Walsh: I understand that sentiment.  In all of the workshops I have been a part of at Pitt, there has always been to varying degrees some vitriol and some apathy present, which shouldn’t have a place in a good workshop, but I don’t think that there is a better way to grow as a writer in an academic context.  I just had to learn how to separate the good criticism from the bad, and, in the end, I feel like that is a good lesson to learn.

Salvatore Pane: Were other students’ workshops helpful to you, and if so how?

Mike Rosenthal: Yes. I learned what not to do. Not trying to be an asshole, but we’re student writers. We’re figuring things out as a group. Every time I read a student’s story with a glaringly terrible story element, it saves me heaps of time. Now I don’t have to waste my time making the same mistake. I already know it doesn’t work. I’m sure people learn the same thing from my stories, too.

Lauren Rygg: Workshopping other students helped me to see what I was doing poorly in my own writing. I also like to imagine that it helped me hone my critiquing skills and that other people took what I had to say seriously and did it and are better for it now. It allowed me the chance to grow as a writer, to push aside my aesthetic preferences and to give honest feedback that could make a piece stronger. It’s hard enough being a writer as it is, the least we can do is try to help one another along the way.

Joellyn Powers: Other students’ workshops were incredibly helpful for me. You see others’ weaknesses and strengths and that transfers into your own writing. I would see other students’ work on dialogue, for example, something I sometimes struggle with, and see how I could tweak my own to make it better.

Faith Beck: Yes, reading other student’s work helped me bridge the gap between published author and tireless student. Reading other student made the goal more human, more tangible to see that we’re not all born a Sylvia Plath…just Sylvie maybe, if that’s what her parents called her. From reading other’s work, I could see what clicked and what
didn’t very quickly, while my own work wasn’t as transparent, unfortunately.

Jordan Walsh: A few certainly were because I could put my critiques in the context of a broader spectrum, but most importantly I began to realize that the mistakes my classmates and I were catching in others’ work were hiding in my own.

Salvatore Pane: One difficulty we encountered—and it’s one I saw as a student on the graduate and undergraduate level—was workshopping novels. I’m just not sure how we can effectively workshop a novel without reading the entire thing or at least a serious chunk. Do you guys have any suggestions? One thing I’ve toyed with is doing it over two semesters—preferably starting in the spring. The first half would be all reading and students could write as well but we wouldn’t workshop a word. Then, over the summer, you’d continue working on your novels, and in the fall, we’d workshop one a week. But I’m not sure students would actually do the work. What do you all think?

Mike Rosenthal: As interesting as a novel workshop class sounds, it seems a bit idealistic. Student literature is a fine wine; you take small sips and analyze the elements. You don’t chug an entire bottle and try to remember what it tasted like during tomorrow’s hangover. I don’t know about you guys, but student literature can test my patience in large doses. It can be exhausting.

Lauren Rygg: I don’t think workshopping a novel can be done in the undergraduate level. The tendency is to look for as many flaws as possible in the writing to make it better. The major flaw here is that crutch of “Oh, it’s just the first chapter. More will happen later. That’s why you don’t get it now.” Well to me that’s not acceptable. In a stand-alone semester if you are going to write a first chapter for a novel instead of a short story it should at least be comparable in length and development as a short story. Writing a page, or writing some back-story, or describing a character’s movement through out the day without actually having the character moved and saying “it’s the first chapter” is a waste of my time. I think if there were to be subsequent workshops you might encounter the “summer” mindset. You’ll get people who scrambled a week before school starts back up again to finish their novel. I don’t think there’s the same level of commitment and seriousness that you get in a graduate program. I’ve been guilty of that myself. When I’m home during the summer I’m tired. I work full time. There are days when I can’t even write a sentence.  It might just be too hard with other classes that demand high workloads to ask a young writer to write a novel.

Joellyn Powers: I don’t think novel-writing is something that should even be taught on the undergraduate level. The majority of us are still working on how to create an effective short story. A novel is so much more complex that I can only see that as something to be worked up to on the graduate level, or once you are comfortable with your ability to create the world of the short story. But writing a novel honestly kind of freaks me out right now, so I don’t even like to think about it.

Faith Beck: As far as novels go, you could divide the book into sections perhaps. One semester could include both short stories and a novel opener (learning how to write one that grips). While another semester could be spent on the meat of the story, with a final one for wrap up and conclusion. We could read multiple novel openers to hit both the classics and the modern. Yes the method’s fragmented, but it requires no summer work, which I think would be trying for young students.

Jordan Walsh: I think that is a great idea, but I have doubts that you’ll be able to find a class full of students who will do all of the work.  Most of us are lazy, but maybe I’m just being cynical.  I’m not sure I have a better suggestion though.  It is always rough reading a chapter from a novel out of context, and I’m not sure it’s even worth the time in a 15 week intermediate workshop to do so.

Salvatore Pane: MFA programs! Sorry, folks, but I have to do it. Who here’s planning on going to an MFA program? Why or why not? Did your opinion change over the course of the year?

Lauren Rygg: As of right now I’m scheduled to take the LSAT on February 11, 2012. I will take the GRE at some point. I don’t have a plan as to when. Would I go to grad school for an MFA? Sure. Is being a professor really what I want to do with my life? Not so much. I actually started college dead set on being a screenwriter. That was all I wanted to do. Right now I’m looking at law school. If the economy stays the way it is I’ll probably just hide in graduate programs for the rest of my life.

Joellyn Powers: I am currently in the process of applying to MFA programs and it is scary and hard and I kind of want to cry on a daily basis. No, but really: I honestly had no idea what I was going to do after graduation. I’m also majoring in English Literature, so for a while I thought I would go into editing or publishing and write on the side. But this past semester I really started to see how much I learn about myself through writing – and
I’m not quite ready to stop that educational process yet. Plus, when will I ever have the time to spend 2 or 3 years just writing? I want the experience along with the time to write. It’s that simple.

Mike Rosenthal: I’m applying for MFA programs in screenwriting. As much as I love writing literary fiction, I’m hardly an avid reader, and I feel guilty adding to a culture I don’t participate in. TV has a much stronger influence on what I write and consume, and screenwriting programs are the closest thing I can get to that. Before this class, I didn’t really consider TV writing as an option, but Sal really encouraged me to write what I wanted to write as opposed to what was expected of me.

Faith Beck: I would really love to do an MFA program. I have absolutely nothing against it. And I would love to do it; I probably will after I finish going to school for science. I can’t choose.

Jordan Walsh: I don’t think that I want to go to an MFA program anymore.  I did, but, quite honestly, I think I want to be done with school, at least for a time.  It’s overly stressful, which is the worst thing for me and my writing.  I need to learn to write outside of the academic deadline and the grading scale first, and if down the line I realize I need more help I will start applying to MFA programs.

Salvatore Pane: You’re all close to graduation. What’s the one thing you wish a teacher had done for you in terms of your writing? What can we improve at?

Lauren Rygg: I wish my Intro to Fiction teacher told me not to write genre fiction from the start because I didn’t learn anything about my own writing doing that. I wish there were separate courses for literary and genre fiction. Does that count as a suggestion? Once I finally learned what literary fiction was I kept wondering why there wasn’t a literary fiction-writing track and a genre fiction writing track. There are people that want to write genre fiction so why limit everyone to just literary or intense criticism because it’s not literary? Not everyone knows the parameters for a Gothic or Fantasy novel. I happened to take courses in both of those genres so I would get very frustrated when a writer wrote in either of those veins but neglected key elements that make those stories that genre. This may be incredibly nerdy or nitpicky, but if that’s what a writer wants to do why not train them to do that properly? I don’t know if this is something that is taught in grad school or if that is even an option in grad school. But there are tropes that exist in each genre and a course could teach that to writers. Then maybe those writers will decide they don’t want to write genre fiction anymore after that. Who knows?

Joellyn Powers: I wish a teacher had told me sooner that there’s more to a story than a beginning and an ending. I feel like in a lot of writing classes there is so much focus on how to get to the desired ending. But I NEVER know how my stories are going to end until I get to them. I want to know how to write the middle. I think writing teachers can improve themselves as well as their students by teaching those nuances that really make a story great: character subtleties, plots with depth and interest, and a genuine feeling that the writer wanted to tell this story, rather than to get a certain effect from a particular ending.

Mike Rosenthal: I wish a teacher told me that normal people don’t read stories like students do in literature classes. A normal person isn’t going to spend an hour analyzing a paragraph for hidden meanings. Starting out, I basically wrote literary riddles that nobody understood. Stories shouldn’t intentionally confuse people just to appear complex. It took me a while to realize the point of writing, or at least, the point of MY writing.

Jordan Walsh: The hardest lesson for me to learn was how to build a successful routine for myself, a routine where I write everyday, good or bad.  I know that if I want to write in the future I must get in the habit of writing everyday.  I know that you can’t teach that, but I wish that the importance of a good routine had been made more obvious to me earlier on.  I’ve written way to many stories the night before, and it took me a while to get out of that bad habit.

Salvatore Pane: When the workshop was over and the final grades were handed out, were you more or less encouraged about becoming a writer compared to on the first day of class?

Lauren Rygg: I was ecstatic about being a writer. Do I need to say more? Okay, I had a year off of writing after my intro course because (1) I couldn’t enroll in any courses because they filled so quickly and (2) I started learning the Russian language. The second isn’t as important. I was terrified that I was going to be terrible starting up again. I wasn’t that great to start. But once I learned my strengths and got positive feedback, as well as constructive criticism, I was able to shake the anxiety that had been building in me. I really saw myself grow as a writer. I was able to write more complex, emotionally resonant themes and I left behind the cushion of genre fiction that I relied on in my first writing class.

Joellyn Powers: I was definitely more encouraged about becoming a writer by the end of
class, but not because of the grades. I met some really great people and writers and read so many good books that really changed my life, honestly. That transferred to my summer, where I finished 30 books by authors from every medium and genre. This consumes my life. And I love it.

Mike Rosenthal: Definitely more encouraged. The positive responses I received from my stories were a nice ego boost. Also, the negative responses helped show me where I needed to take things for subsequent ego boosts. Earlier this semester, I was pretty close to going into marketing and advertising. It’s still an option I keep on the table, but creative writing is my main pursuit.

Faith Beck: Absolutely. I was frustrated at first because I wanted everything to be perfect…every line to be witty (blah blah blah). But after spending hours with Sal, I realized that having something organic and throwing it out into the ether is what writing and self expression is all about.

Jordan Walsh: Absolutely.  After your workshop, I felt like I had grown significantly.  Always, my problem had been that I was trying to write someone else’s fiction, trying to write Cormac McCarthy or Michael Chabon, which is helpful to some degree, but I hadn’t any idea about what my own style might be.  At the end of your workshop, I felt very much closer to finding that personal style for myself, a style that took my strengths and my interests into consideration.

Salvatore Pane: Worst moment of the class?

Lauren Rygg: When I couldn’t name a book I had read during our “introductions.” Yeah, that was really embarrassing. And of course I was the first person to start off the “introductions.”

Joellyn Powers: The worst moment of class was when people talked about video games. I DON’T SPEAK YOUR LANGUAGE.

Mike Rosenthal: Dead silence during a critique. Some stories are still in their concept phase when we read them, and it’s difficult and awkward to keep up a conversation when there’s little to work with. When people run out of things to say, it just feels awful for everyone in the room.

Faith Beck: The last day of class.

Jordan Walsh: I think, for me, the worst moment was receiving all the written critique from my first story.  I knew that the story was crap; I had written all 12 pages of it in one day.  The critique held nothing back. The story was convoluted and illogical.  The prose was melodramatic and painfully amateurish. It was embarrassing.

Salvatore Pane: Best moment of the class?

Lauren Rygg: We had this Spider-Man cake once. No, seriously the best moment was my workshop with Matt Bell in Sal Pane’s Fiction Writing V: The Fiction Writing Strikes Back. That was just an exciting and absolutely terrifying class. But I didn’t have a nervous breakdown and Matt Bell provided some very useful feedback that I incorporated into my revisions and sent out to some online literary journals.

Joellyn Powers: The best moment of class was that time I learned how to actually say things out loud. Yeah, I never used to talk that much.

Mike Rosenthal: The best moment of class was when people talked about video games.
Finally, I speak your language.

Faith Beck: In class, we would have these full out class uproars and we’d all be laughing about something someone said or how strange a sentence formed. I felt like I was part of something…a group of people trying to cut through the bullshit to the rawness of life. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Salvatore Pane: What was the most useful thing you learned in our workshop?

Joellyn Powers: The most useful thing I learned in workshop was how to deliver a good critique on someone else’s work. I think that’s really important – to learn how to talk about someone else’s story and not just in terms of if it was good or bad. What can this writer do differently to make the story a whole piece?

Lauren Rygg: Aside from learning how to make excessive Star Wars references, the most useful thing I learned in workshop was to edit and critique my own work. Prior to Sal’s courses my idea of revision was rewriting a sentence or two, making sure there were no spelling errors, and not really changing my story because I was so attached to the original. Thankfully, I’m past that now and am able to delete/rewrite entire stories if need be for revision. I believe this skill is essential to becoming a better writer and I’m glad I learned it sooner rather than later.

Jordan Walsh: I think that through our workshop I began to understand how better to edit my work.  I have a tendency to write tedious, long first drafts, and, through our workshop, I learned how to use my editing eye to maximize the potential of my stories.  That first story that I got published was more or less cut in half between the first draft and its final incarnation and much more clear and fluid for it.

Mike Rosenthal: I can’t fake passion. After 3 years of workshops, I finally figured out that I should write what I want to write. So many of my stories used to be imitations of what I thought literary fiction should look like. This semester, I gave up writing serious stories about broken relationships and ruminations on mortality. Someone else can write those stories, and much better than I ever could. I’ll stick to writing the nonsense that gets me excited to type away on my laptop for hours.


Salvatore Pane has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Quick Fiction, Hobart, Annalemma, and others, and he blogs for The Rumpus, BOMB, and Dark Sky. His graphic novel, The Black List, is forthcoming from Arcana Comics. He teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University and can be found online at www.salvatore-pane.com.


  1. Jonterri Gadson

      wow! i loved this. I love that you actually took the time to ask students and that the students had so much to say. it’s good to know that workshop matters. lots of good stuff here to think over in regards to facilitating CW workshops. thanks!

  2. Pedagogy Interview – SAY WHAT!? « Salvatore Pane

      […] Today, HTMLGIANT published an exit interview I did with students who had me for Intermediate Fiction… LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "fff"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "eeeeee"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "444444"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "9c8a6a"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "9c8a6a"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "books"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "education"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "the-digital"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "the-university"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "writers"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "advanced-fiction-workshop"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "htmlgiant"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "intermediate-fiction-workshop"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "pedagogy"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "university-of-pittsburgh"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Share this:DiggTwitterStumbleUponFacebookEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Published: October 4, 2011 Filed Under: The Digital, The University, Writers Tags: Advanced Fiction Workshop : HTMLGIANT : Intermediate Fiction Workshop : Pedagogy : University of Pittsburgh […]

  3. Man

      I fear for Man when undergrads with writerly pretensions feel “disconnected to” Chekhov.

  4. Tadd Adcox

      Hey Salvatore! This is a great interview. Planning to pass out excerpts of this to my current fiction writing class.

  5. Alexander J. Allison

      you sound like a wonderful teacher.

  6. Ry

      We focus on publishing too much already. The craft is what’s important,
      not knowing what contemporary writers are doing so we know which trend
      we can follow.

      Also, a test for creative writers to move up in the program? What kind
      of sense does that make? Writing? One of the most subjective fields
      where judgment of talent is concerned? I can’t see it working in a way
      that would give each writer equal opportunity to prove him/herself.
      That’s ridiculous. Kafka probably wouldn’t have made it to the next
      level with the type of stories he wrote. Or Gary Lutz or Denis Johnson.

  7. Benny G

      They’ll all make wonderful adjuncts some day. Way to keep higher education’s pyramid scheme going!

  8. nliu

      I’m sure they’re great people, talented writers, etc., but god the CW cliches.

      “That’s not to say you have to follow those rules, but if you break them, you should know why.”

      “[P]eople are born with certain gifts or talents and creative writing ability falls in that category. Either you have it or you don’t.”
      “[B]eing able to write comes with being open to the teacher’s suggestions while trusting your gut. In the end, it’s all about not giving a crap about what people are gonna say in church…it’s about you defining a little piece of your truth in this strange world.”These are sensible opinions, so sensible that it’s only worth opening your mouth if you have some divergent, less sensible opinion to share. It is a cruelty to reader and interviewee alike to ask questions that provoke answers like these, and a still greater cruelty to publish the predictable answers when they come.

  9. Roxane

      They are undergraduates. Cut them a little slack. Unlike us, they don’t know everything yet.

  10. Storybored

      I think if you read closer, you’ll find that the undergraduates were the ones he was cutting the most slack.

  11. nliu

      I wouldn’t have anything more incisive to say on the topic, either. I would probably just glare at the interviewer for asking the question. “Hello, do I look like an iconoclastic genius to you?”

      They’re not silly for believing what they do, or for expressing those beliefs when asked. I hope I did not suggest that they are. The point is it’s a needless question, interesting only when one knows the questioner, which produces answers only interesting to one who knows the answerer.

  12. Roxane

      I don’t think the question is as needless as you’re making it out to be. These questions (I am guessing)  were designed with the understanding that they were directed at undergraduates who are still making sense of how to approach writing. This isn’t a hard hitting 60 Minutes interview. You’re maybe ignoring context here? The answers seem obvious and cliché to you and maybe others, fair enough, but such is not the case for everyone.

  13. nliu

      I was an undergraduate not so long ago (not in CW). I think you are selling undergraduates short. I would be very surprised if they weren’t themselves aware of the triteness of what they’ve said, probably even as they were saying it. I think the interview could have avoided that triteness by asking less tired questions. These are writers with (I trust) interesting things to say, not children. I would ask them the same questions about writing and workshops that I’d ask you or Kitchell or Kyle.

      But maybe that’s just me. I don’t like asking questions that I’d feel silly answering myself.

  14. nliu

      I would also challenge them on that Chekhov stuff, I mean seriously come on.

  15. Hanker B.

      I see your point, Nliu. However I doubt you’ll get the last word on it. This site has some serious Lastword-itis from its staff and their sockpuppets, and it’s seriously off-putting.

  16. nliu

      Most writers have lastworditis. It’s okay.

  17. Against Publishing: A Reactionary Post Against “These Kids Today” « rydowney

      […] of the people of my generation (and by extension the writers of that generation). The article, found here, discusses the idea of how much writing can be taught. It is basically an interview held by a […]