On Teaching Creative Writing Without Going Insane

In the spring of 2000, I was in my final quarter of college at Ohio State and enrolled in an advanced fiction workshop with Lee K. Abbott. During my junior year, I had switched my major to English and began taking as many creative writing workshops as I possibly could. Ohio State allowed students to take the advanced class three times, giving me the chance to work with different faculty members, including Melanie Rae Thon and Stephanie Grant.

Lee had a reputation for being a great, but very tough, teacher. Unlike other CW professors who lead workshop by letting the students talk for the bulk of class and then provided an insightful close, Lee did much of the talking in class. He used the chalkboard. Etc. And, OSU grad students had warned me that not only did Lee put letter grades on the stories, he also gave an A. He had once dismissed a graduate class in less than five minutes by holding up a story, asking “Is there anything at stake in this?,” and upon hearing silence, said they were done with class.

I have no idea if these stories (and several others I heard but won’t repeat in a public forum) were true or not. All I knew the first day is that I was a little intimidated to be in his class, and when he strolled into class with his ex-athlete’s gait, a look of wry amusement on his face, he had a presence that intimidated all of us.

So maybe it wasn’t a great idea that I would be the first student to skip his class. In 2000, the Cincinnati Reds had acquired Ken Griffey, Jr. in an off-season trade, and I wanted to be there for Opening Day, a day in my hometown that more like a holiday akin to Christmas. Even worse, I had to turn in a story on the day of the game. No problem! I asked a buddy’s girlfriend to drop off my manuscripts for me. I didn’t tell her what to say. I didn’t ask her to cover for me. So when Lee asked her where I was, rather than saying I had the flu or the Ebola virus or something inarguable like that, she said I was at a baseball game. She said he was friendly and very kind to her.

Things changed when I was next in class. I had missed my friend Valerie’s workshop for Opening Day. Lee started class in a perfectly good mood, and then turned his attention toward me. For five minutes (and it felt like fifty), Lee talked about the workshop, the covenant we have with fellow writers, the critical importance of attendance, and how insulting my skipping class was to Valerie (she shot me a “what’s happening right now?” look during this). I turned red, redder than normal, and slumped in my chair. Lee made me apologize to Valerie and the entire class for missing her workshop. Which I did.

I didn’t miss workshop again.

I was thinking about Lee’s class, and all my writing classes, quite a bit this past week. It’s that period in a semester when both students and professors are sick and tired of each other. As of today, there are less than three weeks of class left in the autumn semester here at Mizzou (yes, really). On my syllabus is an attendance policy, and of course, there are a few students who have missed class, some who have missed a lot of class. This probably has nothing to do with me, but I’ve never had a problem with students coming to my classes before, and being a bit neurotic about my teaching, I can’t help but think it is my fault.

With so little time left in the semester, I’ve started to wonder where I’m leaving my students when it comes to their writing. What have they learned? Have I taught them any thing useful? Will they continuing writing after our class is over?

I’m surprised by how many of my students plan on teaching, whether their goal is long-term (college professor) or short-term (Teach for America). At age twenty-one, freshly minted with my bachelor of arts degree, the only thing I knew with absolute certainty is that I wanted to be out of college and out of Ohio. When I taught my first class in 2006, I knew with absolute certainty that I could teach, and I was also absolutely certain I had no idea how to teach.

In my dark moments at the end of the semester, I still feel that way. You know: what have I actually done here? My goal for each intro to writing fiction class I teach is pretty simple. I want them to keep writing after the class is over, whether that means on their own or in an intermediate fiction class, and yet, I sorta realize that I have no control, or even much influence, over their next step.

When I’m stuck with teaching, I think of Lee. He controlled the classroom. He was amused often by what was said, whether we said something smart or dumb (and everything else in the middle). He enjoyed what he did and he spoke of great stories with genuine affection and awe. He took personal offense at bad writing, and, yes, I’m sure this was not an act. He also said things that I still consider with my own writing: language he couldn’t dance to, the “stout stake,” lots (lots) on how a first person narrative should work, and the very best advice I’ve ever received on how you know when your story is finished.

What I walked away with from Lee’s class was the belief that what we do matters. To write well, the work, by which I mean the manuscript and the effort to write that manuscript, has to be taken seriously. When it comes to demonstrating this belief, how I approach the material and how I treat my students are really the only two things of which I have control. Whether or not my students have the drive to write well is up to them, not me. Treating them and their work seriously, no matter how many classes they skip, is the best I can do. Lee showed me that, and it’s a lesson for which I’ll always be grateful.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Short Story Month, Day 15: "Freedom, A Theory Of"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from managing editor Michael Nye.

One of the phrases I love to use is “serious play.” If you’ve ever watched children become completely absorbed in their world of Legos, or GI Joe, or Rainbow Brite, or whatever it might be, you’ve seen the way their imaginary world becomes real and vivid, and that the rules of this world, if you ask them, are quite serious. Kids don’t screw around with their imaginary games. I’ve used this phrase, “serious play”, when talking to my students at the Missouri Review or in the fiction writing I teach as a way of approaching our work. Have a blast with it, laugh as much as you can, but always remember that we do here matters, matters a tremendous amount.

I’m pretty sure this is one of the few things I did not get from Lee Abbott when I was in his undergraduate writing workshop at Ohio State. He seemed to know, and tell, and demand of us, a great range of things about the fine art of storytelling. What struck me then, and now, is that no workshop teacher ever talked as much as Lee did. If he’s reading this, I do say this to needle him a bit; nonetheless, it’s also true. Lee didn’t suffer fools in his classroom; waste time with a subject that has been talked to death, he’s going to move it along. He actually used the chalkboard! And he also did this with a bit of a smirk on his face, the kind of professor that would put an arm around your shoulder and go through, line by line, a Miller Williams poem with you until you damn well got it.

Being an undergraduate, of course, I had to go out and read his work immediately and figure out who the hell this guy was. This was before Amazon and Google and the Interwebs. I walked over to the campus bookstore and got the latest story collection by Lee, something called Living After Midnight and, thought, okay, let’s see if you can walk the walk.

All the stores in the collection were absolutely stunning. I’d heard of minimalism. But this was “maximalist” writing. This was Pistol Pete Maravich leading a fastbreak, Baryshnikov in his prime, William Jennings Bryan giving a speech before hundreds of thousands. And the story I kept returning to, over and over again, was “Freedom, A Theory Of.” Here’s the opening line:

The story my father told—before he abandoned my mother and me, before he reappeared years and years later to beat the stuffings out of me—concerned his sister Shirley who, at seven years old in 1927, burst out of the ladies’ room on the third level of the old steamship Seeandbee, a five-hundred-foot, all-steel sidewheeler from the Cleveland & Buffalo Transit Company, went through the railing (“Stumbled,” my father insisted), and pitched overboard.

I’m already dizzy and delighted by the end of that paragraph. And the prose style never lets up. Not for one second.

Our protagonist Carter acknowledges that, yes, he becomes as obsessed with his father’s disappearance as his old man was obsessed about his sister’s death. He continues to expect his father to show up over the years, and is always disappointed. Until the day he is golfing with his childhood best friend, Jeep Freeman. At this point, Carter is married, the father of twin girls, vacations several times a year, knows the stock market and good food, capable of identifying classical composers, and in most ways, is as satisfied and fulfilled as a middle-aged man of means can be. “Plus,” Carter adds, “that day I was blasting the ball like Jack Nicklaus.”

And, then, finally, his father reappears, and proposes a settling of old scores.

You can read the entire story here, for free, on The Gettysburg Review‘s website.

Lee K. Abbott is the author of seven collections of short stories and is a professor emeritus of English at the Ohio State University. The winner of two O. Henry awards and three Pushcart Prizes, his fiction appeared in The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, among many others. His most recent collection All Things, All at Once: New and Selected Stories was released on W.W. Norton in 2006.