September 13th, 2011 / 1:00 pm
Craft Notes

The Best Version of Whoever That Is: A Teaching Philosophy

Ed: Over the coming weeks (and maybe months given the number of posts I’ve received), I’ll be featuring conversations about the teaching of creative writing from teachers, both new and experienced, as well as students, all of whom are trying to answer the question, “How the hell do we teach creative writing?” Our first post comes from Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. –RG

For a handful of years I have been teaching creative writing in a variety of settings, mostly academic. I entered into the whole enterprise feeling a touch uneasy about claiming to be able to teach that maybe can’t be taught. My biggest worry was oversimplifying. I knew my students would need to learn the craft fundamentals of fiction, but how could I convey them in a way that does justice to the form that I love, the form that thrills and confounds me on a daily basis? Fast forward a few years and I have some ideas. I always tell my students there are no rules in fiction, only principles. Here are some of my teaching principles:

1. One of the basic problems in introductory-level workshops is that students are grappling with how to talk about what they and their peers put on the page. At the same time students want to come to class with something to say, preferably something smart-sounding (and often they succeed; I am regularly knocked-out by how insightful my students are). This can result in an unhealthy attachment to surface level issues, such as the dreaded questions of plausibility—i.e. “Was it really plausible for Aunt Ida to walk 10 miles in a hurricane? Shouldn’t it have been more like 5?” Unfortunately these questions have little relevance to the larger enterprise of the story. Of course Aunt Ida could have walked 10 miles in a hurricane and if for some reason she could not, that issue can be addressed with a margin note and a click of the keyboard. What the student probably means to say is something like: I don’t believe in the world you’ve created. You’re not convincing me. And questions of world-building are way more fruitful conversation topics than how far someone can walk in a hurricane. I ask that students push themselves—both in their reading and in discussion—beyond the surface, toward those underlying questions. I have gone as far as to ban the word “plausibility” (“likability” is another one) from workshop, as it is so often a euphemism for: “I sense there’s something going on here but I don’t have the language for it, so I’m saying this other thing instead.” Let’s help our students find the language.

2. “Show don’t tell” and its ilk are, to me, indicative of all that is wrong with the teaching of creative writing. I am embarrassed to say that I have uttered the phrase at least once, in a fit of desperation, and I only hope that my students can forgive me. It grossly oversimplifies. It makes no allowances for sensibility or voice or narrative strategy. Anything that turns something complex into a one-note binary seems like the opposite of what we should be trying to do. Most fiction shows and tells, as we all know. So why would we tell our students, novice or not, otherwise?

3. Craft should liberate. It wasn’t until I took my first fiction workshop and learned about structuring possibilities that I could get the stories I longed to tell on the page. Before it had been like trying to sail without a ship; in that way learning craft was a deeply liberating experience. Sure, I could have gotten the same tools from reading on my own, but not all students are big readers from the get-go (I wasn’t; writing workshops changed that for me) and so to A. read contemporary fiction and B. have the craft (and human) lessons that existed in the stories illuminated for me was probably the closest I’ll ever come to a religious experience. In A.D. Jameson’s post, a commenter made mention of Dean Young’s line “We’re building birds, not birdhouses.” Truer words were never spoken! So when craft deadens and restrains, something is amiss; it’s there to help us create work with a live beating heart.

4. I think one of the most useful things a creative writing teacher can do is help students identify what is unique about their work. I don’t mean “unique” in the we-are-all-special-snowflakes kind of way. Rather I mean the experience of reading a painfully generic story only to come across a line so startlingly unlike the rest that it causes me to nearly die of joy. This can be tricky, though. Because the line in question might not fit, it might seem like a mistake at first, something to just cross out. And even if I’m convinced it’s not a mistake, but rather an important gesture toward a more interesting direction, the student might not be so easily persuaded. Some worry about being too weird. Or about taking their work into territory they don’t fully understand. About risk. I try to assure them that everyone is their own kind of weird. And if you understand everything about a story from the outset, why would you want to write it? You wouldn’t, I argue, and this awesome kernel of strange is evidence of that. Beginning to explore whatever it is in their work that’s unusual, a little unlike the rest, is, I believe, one of the most important things a student can do in a creative writing class. And usually to start that process they have to first be willing to get a little lost. But being lost can suck. As teachers, we can tell them that most writers get lost every so often and usually you have to wander into the dark center of the woods before you find your way out. In other words: you have to work for it.

5. I agree with Roxane that whether creative writing can be taught or not is a moot question, because we are teaching it. Personally I think some aspects can be taught, others not as much, but so what? Really: what is the worst case scenario here? If nothing else we are teaching students to be more literate, which is good for them and good for the world. I could take math classes until the end of time and I will never have mathematical genius, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to learn how to add a tip on a check.

6. We are never experts, or at least I am not an expert. This is probably one of the best things about teaching writing. Like writing itself, the teaching of it is fluid and changeable. To prep for class I might re-read that story I love for the fifteenth time and realize I had it all wrong. Each student, and their work, challenges me, and my beliefs about fiction, in different ways. I am leery of those who claim to have it all figured out in the classroom. As is true with my own work, sometimes I feel like I’ve rocked it and sometimes I run face-first into walls. Which hurts. I’m don’t know how I could have it all figured out unless I turned off my brain.

I realize these principles might sound kind of abstract. In class we do all the usual things—loads of reading, craft essays and lectures, exercises, workshops, etc—but at the end of the day, my teaching style is a bit abstract. Class by class I’m learning who I am as a teacher. My strength tends to be the big picture stuff (oh how I love to talk structure), and I have to remind myself to do nuts-and-bolts; I think students should read more than they write; I’m not above showing the first 10 minutes of Die Hard to help demonstrate the principles of scene. I have learned that even though it’s crucial to take student work on its own terms, it’s also hard to not view the world of the classroom through my own idiosyncratic aesthetic lens (see my inexplicable, perhaps ill-founded aversion to the word “journaling”). I’ve learned not to worry about that too much. It’s like wishing you were a different kind of writer. You are who you are, on the page and in life and we just have to keep trying to be the best version of whoever that is. That might be my official teaching philosophy.


Laura van den Berg is the author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc, 2009), which was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. She has taught in a number of university settings—currently George Washington and Johns Hopkins—and also at the Gilman School, as the 2009-2010 Tickner Fellow, and in PEN/New England’s Freedom-to-Write program. She lives in Baltimore, where she is working on new stories and a novel.


  1. deadgod

      How does one talk substantially about an implausible “world” without mentioning implausible details?  I mean that it’s detail that discloses “world” – or a reader’s sense of “world” – .  To get to what’s “underneath”, the surface must be addressed somehow . . . ?

  2. Richard Thomas

      Loved this, LVDB. The part about being lost, letting yourself get lost and then trying to find your way out, that really resonated with me. Also, glad to hear that you can read a story for the 15th time and realize (or consider) that you don’t know what you’re talking about, that you had it wrong the whole time, or that you can at least be open to a new way of looking at it. Makes me feel a lot better about teaching, hearing you talk about the fluidity of sharing and learning and calling ourselves writers and experts. Great stuff.

  3. Leapsloth14

      Great idea for a series. I will be reading (and my students, too)

  4. Laura van den Berg

      @font-face {
      font-family: “Cambria”;
      }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

      Hi, deadgod, for sure
      indentifying what seems implausible in a story could well be the necessary first step. I’m just speaking to the importance of pushing past those surface
      level reactions (though those reactions are often what gets the conversation rolling). And while I might ask students to stay away from the actual word “plausibility,” that doesn’t mean those details and the questions they raise aren’t being
      addressed in different—hopefully more productive—language

  5. deadgod

      That’s well said – I guess people could get bogged down in preferring ‘three’ to “ten”, say, without considering why an unrealistic detail does or should matter.

  6. Scottmcclanahan

      A big YES to Laura van den Berg.

  7. Dawn.

      Love what you say about letting yourself get lost in unfamiliar territory and not being afraid of your own weirdness. Inspiring words. Can’t wait to read your novel!

  8. Lilzed

      Maybe we could have more craft posts here on this site, doing what you’re saying? Cool point you made. You seem like a rlly good teacher.

      Also it would be cool to have  a post here on “How to Learn Creative Writing,” which is in a way the same thing as some recent discussions, but a different angle.

  9. Daniel Wallace

      Laura, great post. I agree about “Show don’t tell.” I guess it originally meant–if you want to “tell” something complicated or important, figure out an equally complicated (or tellingly profound) image with which to indicate and reveal it. 

      Instead, it has led to many aspiring writing students, at both undergraduate and graduate level, thinking that one simply has to show a thing happening, in the most simple language, with the most bare bones dramatisation, and a reader can figure out (as if scanning the text with x-ray vision) why it happened, and then care about it. I also like your point about needing humility. I don’t really understand why cw teachers complain about an unusual or new technique–we are like cave-people criticising the invention of the wheel. 

  10. Daniel Wallace

      deadgod, I see what you mean about details making a world, but I’m with Laura about (in general) disliking plausibility questions in a workshop setting. Not that plausibility issues aren’t important. But I suspect that they come up in classroom conversations so very often because the students lack much of a technical vocabulary. Rather than examining the piece as a work of art striving for artistic cohesion, either because they don’t know / haven’t been taught how to do that, or because they feel uncomfortable talking for fifteen minutes about this theory of James Wood’s they read a while back, they focus on what they know well, and can express briefly (workshops require that everyone speaks briefly): whether the piece matches their sense of the real world. 

  11. Tim Horvath

      Yes, Daniel, I think the important thing to remember re: show vs. tell is that they are not antonyms, even though people (meaning those in the field of creative writing) tend to talk about them as such, which might yield some short-term benefits (active, palpable language; various rocks turned over that mightn’t have been otherwise),  but the crash of oversimplification is sure to follow.

  12. Roxane

      I’m definitely interested in craft posts and if I get them I will certainly post them. I am actively looking for people interested in discussing specific applications of creative writing approaches. 

  13. MFBomb

      I guess I’m more cynical because the “show, don’t tell” mantra seems to be a subtle expression for preference for one aesthetic over another. For instance, the Amy Hempel/Ray Carver aesthetic over an aesthetic that’s more voice-driven. So, it doesn’t seem like randomly bad advice to me–there’s something more there that’s rather disturbing. 

  14. Tim Horvath

      MFBomb, I don’t think it necessarily leads to that aesthetic. Ideally, it should lead to richer, more fully-imagined writing. For instance, instead of telling me that your character haunts the aquarium after hours, bring me there, fin to strap-on fin, etc. I think of Cloud Atlas, for instance, which foregrounds showing, giving no background about its various social contexts, which shift from chapter to chapter, but plunging us in, with the future chapters being preeminent examples. Parts of that book are purely voice-driven and arguably all showing, in the technical sense. But I still come back to the fallacy that showing and telling is a versus. It’s like arguing for chords over arpeggios or something.

  15. MFBomb

      I hear you,  but I still wonder if the advice is often attached somehow to a predominant, internalized “workshop” aesthetic, because so many students leave workshop writing like Amy Hempel in “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” In my experience, students who write stories heavy on voice/narration are criticized more harshly than students who write stories heavy on minimalist “showing.”

  16. Darby Larson

      i memebr show dont tel as being a sort of revelation when that guy taught it to me. seeing SHOW DONT TELL on the board was like a click in my head, and not necessarily in that that’s how i needed to write, but rather that that’s what has always made the writing i like to read right. that my natural interest in entertainment was always anti-tely, or that i just understood that that’s what tends to make art less frilly for me, and no one had ever pointed at SDT as culprit until then, that guy who wrote it in blackboard chalk. that was pretty much all i took from the single cw course i ever took.

  17. MFBomb


  18. deadgod

      Might a teacher show ‘show don’t tell’ instead of telling it?

      If not, why not?

  19. deadgod

      Might a teacher show ‘show don’t tell’ instead of telling it?

      If not, why not?

  20. Richard Thomas

      tim, i agree with this – i remember my first novel (horrible book, now gathering dust) and how i would often call somebody “beautiful” or describe a setting as “morose” instead of doing what you suggest above, creating a moment, a sensation, and allowing the reader to bring their own experience to the scene – what i might think is beautiful, another person may find shallow, and what i may find morose another may find comforting – just create something and allow for there to be gaps where the reader can fill in the details with their own needs and history – that’s how i think of “show” vs “tell”

  21. Darby Larson

      ejaculating onto the blackboard i suppose

  22. Darby Larson

      sdt, revelation, made sense re: what i like reading, the gist of my cw course experience

  23. Darby Larson

      sdt, r, ms, g

  24. Darby Larson

      koides r tracorum satis gee

  25. Darby Larson
  26. MFBomb

      But almost all fiction depends on a relationship between narration and scene and too often the advice is applied to sections of narration that still need to be narration, yet students will often cut the narration and try to replace it with scene.  This is a major problem with “show vs. tell”–it doesn’t distinguish between scene and narration.  The two aren’t the same. 

  27. MFBomb

      But almost all fiction depends on a relationship between narration and scene and too often the advice is applied to sections of narration that still need to be narration, yet students will often cut the narration and try to replace it with scene.  This is a major problem with “show vs. tell”–it doesn’t distinguish between scene and narration.  The two aren’t the same. 

  28. MFBomb

      (cont.) So you’ll often see students who’ve had this advice shoved down their throats turning out stories that are rather shallow and lacking depth–everything’s above the surface. Sure, if you’re Amy Hempel or Ray Carver, you can pull this off because what you’ve omitted is still somehow felt by readers, but the average writing student should learn to write narration before he decides to push the Iceberg Theory to its limits (like Hempel in “Al Jolson”…)

  29. deadgod

      is that ‘if so’ or ‘if not’

      ipso or silly twat

      calypso or reggaeknot

      hip slow or wet spot

      do you know or who got squat

  30. Richard Thomas

      i’m all for depth, however you can do it – the balance between narrative and scene is indeed important, and a lot of it comes down to your style – not everyone can be hempel, nor does everyone WANT to be hempel – i just think showing us characters in scene without telling us who they are and what they represent is the better way to go for most people – it leaves room for the reader to make it personal, their own experience and interpretation

      it’s like fine art – a large black painting could represent death or eternity or just space, but if you title it “Death of Mother” you are telling the viewer something vs. calling it Black #12 – let the audience define and interpret

  31. MFBomb

      But you’re purposely giving weak examples of “telling” to privilege one (showing) over the other (telling), and your final paragraph proves my point about limiting the writer’s revision options via this rigid, common advice, as you don’t even allow for the possibility of “Death of Mother” becoming a more interesting title with the parts already on the page. I’m quite sure there are numerous “telling”-possibilities using “Death of Mother” that are a lot more interesting than, “Black #12.”

      Showing is not inherently more interesting than telling, and the writer’s only obligation is to be interesting. 

  32. MFBomb

      For instance: “Death of Mother Who Sold Used Tires” (telling) vs. “Black #12” (showing). 

      Telling can incorporate details like “used tires” without being confused with “showing.”

  33. Richard Thomas

      I’m not purposely doing anything except thinking of examples of how show vs. tell has worked for me—what I like to do, and how I feel that I’ve grown as a writer.

      Which is a better example:

      “Monica stood on the corner. She was beautiful.”


      “Monica stood on the corner, one hand on her cocked hip, lips glossy, eyes constantly scanning the street around her, tapping her heeled toe, a sigh slipping between her teeth.”

      I’m just looking at the opportunity to write, to show us something vs. telling us what we should think. You can show OR tell, depending on how you do it. And we all use a  mixture of both. Keep some narrative, hell, make it ALL narrative, do whatever works for YOU. I don’t think I ever said that showing was “inherently more interesting” than telling. I will agree that one of the obligations of a writer is to be interesting. SO again, whatever works for you, run with it. There are minimalists and there are maximalists and both have a place.

  34. MFBomb

      I’m not concerned with “what works for me” on this thread, because I’m more experienced and confident than an 18-year-old kid in his first writing workshop. 

      I’m concerned with well-meaning advice given to beginners that is often destructive and misleading. 

      There are situations where the writer could/should keep, “she was beautiful,” either by itself or by expanding it somehow. 

  35. Richard Thomas

      Well, there are no absolutes, right? And to an impressionable new author, the best thing they can do is play around with different voices to see, wait for it, what works for them. They have to experiment, read a lot, try different genres, so many things. Of course there are instances where keeping “she was beautiful” would work.

  36. Nathan Huffstutter

      Generally, being at a party is more fun than listening to two people talk about that same party. Of course that’s not always the case – the party may suck, or the two people talking about the party may bring such insight and perspective to the conversation that the dialogue’s an event in itself. I don’t think of show-don’t-tell as an overall aesthetic – it’s a back of the mind reminder not to relate exposition via dialogue, to demand that narrative transcend summary, to leave space for the reader. It’s easy (and forgettable) to write “Maude was naive and trusting.” Alternately, before receiving an estimate for a low-level auto repair, Maude might announce that she hopes it won’t be too expensive because she’s only carrying $500 cash.

      It’s interesting that you see workshops churning-out or encouraging Carver-lite/ Hempel-lite. I’m not engaged in the process at that level, but the Carver-Hempel model would seem a pretty dubious thing to teach students, since it not only demands a depth of life experience, but some of the minimalist authors famously benefited from exactly the strong, second-party editing students aren’t likely to receive . And, not coincidentally, it’s a style that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the long-form.

      On the other hand, I get a bunch of journals and read a pretty fare share of online fiction, and I rarely feel like I’m being swamped by Carver-lite, Hempel-lite. So if it’s a workshop aesthetic, then students just need to follow the advice they’ll hear a million times, read widely, and they should be able to recognize that show-show-show minimalism isn’t the only way to go about their craft.

  37. MFBomb

      Let me steal from Alice LaPlante’s “Method and Madness”:



      Both can use evocative details, “voice,” and sensory/figurative language. 

      You also write that “narrative should transcend summary.” I can’t tell if you’re using “narrative” more broadly (as in, to refer to an entire story), or actual narration. If it’s the latter, summary is certainly a part of effective narration and there’s nothing wrong with calling it what it is–summary.

      There are a billion literary examples that employ summary effectively.  Longer fiction in particular depends on summary that is both part of scene and separate from it at the same time.  One of the best creative writing assignments to assign students is a “scene and summary” exercise where one must write both in concert with each other to see the interdependence between the two in fiction. My former teacher had us highlight the “scene” sections in one color, and the “summary” sections in another color. The exercise reinforces a healthy relationship between “showing” and “telling” instead of implying one is better than the other. 

      I understand the intent of the advice, but I don’t agree with its effectiveness (which is the more important than anything else), or its ability to diagnosis particular nuances in fiction.