What it means to be a writing teacher.


The people of Joyland read my book and then asked me some incredible questions about how to teach creative writing. I mean, they asked some really good questions. I feel lucky to be included in their online School for Creative Writing. If you aren’t already addicted to Joyland, you should be: they are keeping the heart of short fiction healthy in a sparkly, online way. Go see.  

Interview with Faye Guenther and Sarah Selecky    

1. One of the first things that struck me about these stories is how quickly and thoroughly I get pulled into them. What do you think are the essential elements for engaging a reader in a short story? Good question. I know that I have to be completely engaged as I’m writing if I’m going to expect anybody else to be engaged when they’re reading it. So there’s usually a feeling of some kind of mystery – and it has to be a mystery to me, or it won’t work. There is a question that’s implied simply by the fact of the story starting where and when it does – and the promise that if you keep reading, that question will be answered. If “mystery” feels too obvious or direct, then another way to say it is invitation. You have to invite someone to the story. You can’t assume they’ll come just because it’s happening.

I read a lot of Ann Beattie when I was writing some of the stories in this collection, and she has this lovely way of jumping right into scene, in present tense, so you’re right there in the middle of it. I tried to emulate this – I can see traces in "Throwing Cotton" and "Standing up for Janey" and "Humans." But you do that a few times and then you’ve figured out how to start a story that way, and you have to try something else. Writing a story in the form of a letter does it right away, because of the invitation that’s embedded in the salutation. Ah: I just realized that one of my stories uses a literal invitation to ask readers to come to the page. Whoa.    

2. Each one of these ten stories has distinct, compelling characters drawn up in situations that are both familiar and destabilizing in their sense of conflict and ambiguity about where fulfillment can be found. How do you discover your characters and their situations?

Being with the people in your stories is a lot like being with people in your life. Think about how you’d answer the question, “How do you discover the people in your life?” It depends, right? Sometimes you meet a person at a dinner party and you feel like you already know each other – you’re immediately close, you understand each other easily. Sometimes it takes a bit longer. Years, even. Sometimes the only way you can get to know a person is to be an intense question-asker. And so it is in writing: you find a character who tells you everything on your first draft. Or you spend years getting to know the character, collecting clues. Or you start to ask your characters questions, in your notebook. You interview them – they answer you, when you give them the opportunity to talk off record.

A few characters - Sanderson, Milt, Flip, Pima and Robin - only opened up to me after I found their names. For a long time I knew that I wanted to write a character who used malapropisms, and that this was going to indicate a problem in his/her relationship. I was collecting phrases and words for this character even before I knew if it was going to be a man or a woman. I didn’t know what the story was going to be about. But when a colleague at work gave me that great line, “throwing cotton to the wind,” the name Sanderson popped up. Why? What’s the connection? Who knows. When you’re trying to write first drafts, you don’t question the stuff that pops up – you just write it down. Months later, I realized that I’d been walking past the Sanderson library branch downtown, and that was where I’d gotten the name. But that was a surprise to me.

The situations themselves – their stories, their lives, their problems – they bring up the feelings that I care about. All of the emotions in the stories are true. I write about the things I’m concerned about: how to be a loving person when it’s not easy, how to explain what doesn’t make sense, what it means to be loyal, or healthy, or scared, or religious, or sad. I find situations that might bring those feelings up for my characters. What that is depends on the characters. I explore places that are mysterious or frightening to me – drug testing, religious miracles, paranoia, adultery – because when I go into the unknown, my senses become sharp. I can pay better attention to what’s happening in the scene when I’m poised on the edge of my own seat, wondering where I am as I eavesdrop on these people, wondering what’s going to happen.    

3. I recently heard you comment that you aren’t necessarily finished with the characters when you come to the end of writing a short story, but you’re finished with an intense particular situation or experience in the characters’ lives. Do you find your characters reappearing as you write new stories? Do they become like ghosts then, or do you consider re-embodying them again in new situations, new characterizations?

Yes - my characters keep coming back when I write. But I don’t necessarily write them into new stories. When I’m writing every day, I’m not always working on a story. Writing is a practice of listening, seeing, and paying attention: I sit down at my desk and open a portal into the world of fiction where memory and imagination blur together, and I write down what I see and hear. Echoes of conversations I forgot that I overheard come back and lodge themselves into snips of scenes with characters I forgot that I’d written before. But these observations might not amount to a story. Maybe later, I’ll take something from those notes and develop it into something else. But mostly it’s just writing practice.

Often, one of the characters from This Cake will reappear in my writing practice. But those guys have been with me for so many years (I wrote the first draft of a story called "This Cake is for the Party" in 2002) that I count those characters and their world as a kind of memory, too. It’s not that they’re like ghosts, it’s like they’re memories. I write about things I see in my day-to-day life, things I remember from my past, and things I “remember” from their past. Writing practice is a non-linear, non-logical, all right brain connectivity playtime.

Interesting that you mention re-embodying them in new situations, though. New characterizations. Yes, I do this. How did you know? I feel strange about admitting it, for some reason – like I’m being disloyal to them – but I do it! I have a triangle of names and characters right now that I’m moving around, changing names and characterizations to see what clicks – it’s a real web. I mentioned earlier that names are very important to me – in this case I don’t think I can write my next project until I get the name straight. It’s a bit frustrating, but it’s also a mystery to me. Why does Lillian keep coming back, and Nina? And Janine? Are Nina and Janine related in some other way? Why are their names so similar? Are they the same person? I can spin out like this for days.    

4. The tone in these stories is taut, precise, concentrated. Sometimes its impact is sharp and acute. Other times it is elegantly, intensely drawn out. Always it hovers there at the end, as the reader catches her breath. Can you talk about your use of tone?

Thank you for saying all of those very nice things. Tone is one of the more abstract parts of fiction writing, one of the more difficult elements to talk about. I certainly don’t plan the tone of a story before I sit down to write it – tone develops even more mysteriously than plot for me. Well, there was that one time. I wanted to develop a vague sense of doom in "Watching Atlas" (in one of the earlier drafts). I wanted the reader to feel uncomfortable and frightened when he/she read about the sirens, and I had this idea that the tone of doom would creep into the story and then bam, some tragic ending. Needless to say, that didn’t work out exactly the way I planned it – things rarely do.

One thing that happens to me regarding the tone in my stories: it’s easy to find myself caught in a groove. I have dismantled and revised many of these stories as a result of my comfortable groove problem. Once I find a tone that works, it’s hard for me to change it. Change is uncomfortable for me. My psyche fundamentally distrusts it. If I were a novelist, perhaps this would work in my favour – I could keep one tone going for 200 pages. But I’m a short fiction writer, so I have to mix it up. I have to change the focus, the concentration, the music and atmosphere of each story. But I only have language to work with: I can only make this happen with words and sentences. This is the paradox that is writing. I can’t write feel sense of doom right now and make you feel a sense of doom. How do you articulate what can’t be named?

To get myself out of a groove and into another atmosphere, I read. I read intentionally and prescriptively. One way I like to think about tone – metaphor being the best way we have to grasp abstract ideas, after all – is to compare it to food. George Saunders and Russell Smith are hot - like habenero and jalepeno peppers. Michael Chabon is rich, savoury, wordy – like truffle risotto. Annabel Lyon is mustard greens and mizuna. If my writing is getting to be too much pasta with marinara sauce, I will read something that will give me more protein – Amy Hempel.    

5. Dialogue is crucial in these stories, including the rhythm of speech, the cadences, and the gaps and silences around what the characters are saying to each other or thinking to themselves. How do you go about writing dialogue in your stories?

I have a quote by V.S. Pritchett that I found years ago: “Dialogue is my form of poetry,” he said. I relate to this. Even the way dialogue looks on the page is important to me - not just the content, but the length of the lines, and the look of the words. All of these elements affect how the dialogue sounds on the page. I started to write dialogue without any quotation marks because I noticed that putting quotes around a character’s words made it sound different – it became jauntier, or louder, or more brisk than I wanted it to sound. Look at these two lines:

“Stop it,” he said.

Stop it, he said.

Can you hear the difference? It’s subtle, but it’s there. Or maybe it’s not there at all, and I’m just obsessive. I’m definitely obsessive about my dialogue – I’ll admit that. I can tinker with a quarter-page of dialogue for a couple of weeks.

How people say what they say – the kinds of words they use, the way they answer or don’t answer questions, what they feel compelled to say out loud – this is a sign of who people are. And people can find the strangest ways to try to hide who they are, to avoid saying what they really mean to say. I am fascinated by all the different ways people do this.

But we betray our true feelings all the time, because we can’t help but be who we are. The most interesting part about listening to a conversation (or reading great dialogue) is noticing when people avoid saying what they mean but they don’t know that they’re doing it. Often, a person doesn’t even know what he really means. He’s not consciously lying, but he doesn’t know his motivations, either – he’s just reacting to a situation. Then add another person to that conversation, a person with her own unconscious motivations – and that’s where you find great dialogue chemistry. This is the stuff I write down in my notebook. This is my treasure. I hunt for subtext everywhere.

6. You did your MFA at the University of British Columbia, and you’ve also taught writing for ten years in your living room. So I wonder, what are your thoughts on the function of teaching in relation to becoming a better short fiction writer?

I am not exaggerating when I say that I learned how to be a writer by becoming a teacher of writing. It looks like I worked backwards, because before I could even write publishable stories, I was running classes on “How To Write a Story.” But putting together a cohesive lesson plan on the form of short fiction, researching and reading everything I could get my hands on to teach it, obsessing over finding the best ways to articulate the problems of POV, character, dialogue and form – and then finding the best ways to address these problems in student work and help find ways to fix them – this was how I taught myself how to write a story, too. And the work never ends. There is always more to learn. Thank goodness.

Of course, I learned how to be a good writing teacher from my own excellent writing teachers. Jack Hodgins ran the tightest, most complete and careful critiquing sessions I’ve ever experienced; Nikki Tate showed me how to facilitate a workshop full of challenging and inspiring in-class writing exercises; Natalie Goldberg taught writing practice as a contemplative art; Zsuzsi Gartner is like a doctor who can prescribe books to her students as curing medications. I’m almost as excited by good pedagogy as I am good writing.

I want to say something here: everyone can learn how to write by teaching writing. This is the real benefit of attending a workshop. It’s great to get 5 – 7 different opinions on your own story, of course, but the real learning comes from reading another person’s short story draft and finding ways to articulate what’s working about it, and what needs work. You have so much more perspective on the flaws and strengths in other people’s work than you can possibly have on your own. I think too often that students get excited about submitting their own work for critique and hearing what people think of it. Sure this is exciting (we all like to hear other people pay attention to our work), but they are overlooking the real learning opportunity in the workshop, which is learning elements of the craft by helping other people understand elements of the craft. That is how you can start to internalize the lessons right away – it’s doesn’t just happen because you’re listening to what a teacher says. You can appreciate the advice, but until you start putting it into practice, it’s just critique – it’s not changing anything in your brain. Learn how to critique thoroughly, and you will eventually learn how to write skillfully.

If you’re working on your writing, you should be reading everything critically, looking at the mechanics of stories. It’s useful to do this with other people’s unpolished work because you can see the machinery there more clearly - you can see when something’s clunky, and you can practice fixing it. But it’s also important to top up your reading diet with lots of polished work too, especially if you’re in a workshop and you’re critiquing raw or unfinished stories every week. Again with the food metaphor: You are what you eat. You write what you read.

Can you live with the struggle of writing?
Happy New Year!


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