Death of a Mentor
By Angie Netro
A little over a year ago, my writing mentor – Lester Goran – passed away. I learned about his death by accident. While sifting through mail sent to my childhood home, I found an Arts and Sciences magazine from my alma mater, the University of Miami. Flipping through the magazine’s pages, I saw Professor Goran’s picture, then the year of this birth (1928), then the hyphen, then the year of his death (2014).
The last time I’d corresponded with Professor Goran was a year before, when I’d e-mailed him news of my Creative Writing PhD acceptance. The last time I’d heard his voice was via phone a few months before that: when I’d asked him for a recommendation letter. And the last time I’d seen him was ten years ago. Before my MFA graduation, I sat in his office, crying, thanking him for everything he’d done for me and promising him that, one day, I would make him proud.
When Professor Goran taught me, he was already in his seventies: a tall, sturdy man, but his soft shuffle through the English Department announced his age. I knew a sad truth; I might not have a lot of time to make him proud. And, back then, making Professor Goran proud meant one thing: publication. Making Professor Goran proud meant getting my stories out there in the world.
But then I graduated, moved home to Baltimore, began teaching composition full-time, disengaged from my first love, became engaged with someone else, nursed my grandmother through an aneurysm, stood alongside my mother while cancer took her life…and in all that time, about ten years, the only thing I published was a short piece of non-fiction, one featured in a now-defunct Baltimore magazine, a piece I didn’t even publish under my own name. The pen name I chose: a pairing of my first name with Professor Goran’s.
But Lester, too, was a pen name. I believe Professor Goran’s real first name was Sylvester. I’d told him once how much I wanted to shed my last name and start anew, but Professor Goran insisted I keep my name as is: Angie Netro. He never articulated his reasoning, but he often referred to me as a fusion of my first and last names: Angienetro. He’d begun this habit when, as a University of Miami undergraduate, I’d taken his autobiography course. Professor Goran had a reputation for being tough, for telling it like it is, for giving very little instruction. Our first assignment in that class consisted of a few words: Write about your secret self. And, after he’d read our pieces, he sat in front of the class, our essays in his hand. From what I remember, he went through the essays, commenting on each one out loud.
“This is not so good,” he might say.
“Eh,” he might say about another.
I remember feeling petrified, dreading the moment he’d announce his thoughts about my work. But then he fused my name for the first time: Angienetro. Then he read my essay out loud. Then he said something complimentary, something I wish I could remember, but everything he said in the years that followed I memorized as best I could:
Angienetro, you should keep writing.
Angienetro, you should take the next class I’m teaching.
Angienetro, you should apply to UM for your MFA.
There’s something magical that happens when someone believes in you. A buoyancy that sustains you even after hard truths are told: Angienetro, this story’s not working. Start over. A kind of persistent, unconditional love, a love you never doubt: Angienetro, even when you screw up, I’ll forgive you.
In the ten years between my graduation and his death, I may have spoken to Professor Goran only three or four times. One of those times was back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published. Back then, I remember thinking: I’m so happy; I can talk to Professor Goran now. Where this mindset came from…that communication with my mentor could only happen if I’d achieved something…I’m still working that out. It certainly didn’t come from Professor Goran himself. I can’t remember a single conversation with him about publishing, about publication. This sentiment (success! then communication!) came from a place deep within myself, a place I still can barely explore. But I will try.
A few months before Professor Goran’s death, my mother died. On her last coherent day, she cupped my face with a bloated hand and said, “Angie, I will be so proud of you.” Then she corrected herself: “I am. I am so proud of you.” My beautiful mother, my tough mother: what she said was an unfortunate slip of the tongue. At that moment, her body was full of Zofran and Fentanyl and all other kinds of drugs, drugs that were helping her leave this life as peacefully as possible. I know my mother was proud of me. Of that I have no doubt. But her last words reminded me of a pressure I had put on myself long, long ago. A pressure that had come about because of my mother, but a pressure that had never come from her: as her only child, I wanted my life to somehow fix everything that had gone wrong with hers. She never got the chance to go to college; I did. She never really fell in love; I did. She worked for years in a corporate job that never truly made her happy…I worked at writing, but was I a writer? I’m still unsure about that. And I guess because Professor Goran was my writing teacher, he became associated with that particular aspect of my life, and because I felt unsuccessful in that area, I only talked to him a few times after I graduated. Back in 2007, when my short non-fiction piece was published, I thought Professor Goran would be proud of me and so I called. After an hour’s conversation, I told him I’d talk to him soon, and he said in a soft voice, “Yeah, yeah.” In other words: Angienetro, don’t say things you don’t mean.
On the phone in 2007, I imagined Professor Goran in his office. I called on a Monday because, for the four years I knew him at Miami, I spent almost every Monday afternoon in his office, listening. Only now do I realize: Professor Goran rarely talked about writing, about the craft of writing. Instead, he’d tell me anecdotes about his life, about growing up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He’d talk about things he’d seen on TV. He adored HBO’s Six Feet Under. He’d recount a scene from that show in precise detail, and then he’d end with a complimentary value judgment, one he’d never explain. Only now do I see the ways he made me participate – analytically – both about the world and about myself. When he bestowed compliments about me or about my writing, he never explained himself, letting me craft my own interpretation. When he criticized, he never explained himself then, either.
Once, Professor Goran said, Angienetro, for such a smart girl, you really are stupid. I honestly can’t remember the context in which he’d said this to me, but I do remember the comment was not intended to be mean; it was intended to instruct. It was an honest statement, one from a generous, kind man who cared about me, who wished me the best, who always was my champion, even when I didn’t deserve it. His comment did not reference intelligence, but character. He was trying to help me; he was trying to warn me. He saw in me something I’d yet to see in myself. He wanted me to figure it out: “stupid” yet another judgment bestowed but never explained.
And on the day I learned of his death, I finally knew how right he’d been, how stupid I’d been. How silly: to think that his friendship, his mentorship, depended on my publishing credits. All those years I could’ve had with him; all those empty hours in which I could’ve called, and I didn’t. All those things I could’ve said to him; all those things he could’ve said to me. One of the great friendships of my life: how easily I discarded it. Because of shame. Because of fear. Because I wasn’t writing. Because I wasn’t being published. How incredibly stupid.
Professor Goran, I get it now. Our friendship wasn’t really about writing at all, was it? The writing was the means through which we recognized each other.
Angienetro, you grew up in a blue collar, run-down neighborhood? Me too.
Angienetro, you love recklessly, completely, with everything you’ve got and then some? Me too.
I imagine my mentor in his office, with its huge Henry James portrait, its stuffed bookshelves. I imagine his voice, its soft tenor. I imagine him saying something he most likely never would’ve said if he were still here:
Angienetro, when I talked about stupidity I was talking about this: this pressure you’ve put on yourself. Stop it. Stop it right now. Do you see what it’s done? Do you? Do you finally see?
Yes, Professor Goran. I do.
The Kind of Light That Shines in Minnesota
By Michael Nye
Last week, I went to the 2015 AWP Conference (along with 12,000 others, right?) to represent the Missouri Review in a range of different programs. Along with doing my best to meet with writers, editors, and publishers, I also was a part of several programs. On Friday night, TMR was one of six Missouri literary journals that hosted a reading at Segue Cafe, showcasing the diversity of our region and our magazines. On Saturday, I was a panelist not once but twice: the first was on literary podcasts, and the second was on teaching literary magazines in the classroom. Both went really, really well.
But what has really stuck with me was my Wednesday night event.
“Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration” was a reading, free and open to the public, in downtown Minneapolis at the Central Library. There were ten readers, all of whom (except for me) instructors and teachers and mentors in prison writing programs from throughout the country. Each of us read a brief piece, five to seven minutes at the most, on behalf of incarcerated writers. After, ten of us were on a panel to answer questions about how to support these programs, how to get involved, what challenges we face, and so forth.
I was invited by Jennifer Bowen Hicks from the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. TMR was the only strict “publisher” at the event, though several of these organizations have created and sold chapbooks and/or books of their students’ work. The other participating programs were Hennepin County Outreach Services (based in Minnesota), the Women’s Writing Program (also in Minnesota), Words Without Walls (Pittsburgh), and Revised Sentences (North Carolina). Several other organizations helped to support the event: Hennepin County Library, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, Carleton College, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Red Bird Chapbooks, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Basically, lots of people got involved.
Our role has always been, I thought, pretty simple: TMR showcases nonfiction from inmates and instructors. That’s it. I didn’t realize how important our Literature on Lockdown series has been to both groups. But that’s what I heard over and over again last week: that what we publish matters, that the writers published in our series are proud to get their voices heard, that we are needed outlet for a group of writers very rarely represented in the small press and literary magazine community.
The AWP conference is a wonderful thing. Readers of this space know how much I enjoy the conference, and over the years, I’ve written blog posts leading up to the event and post-event roundups. There are plenty of those from a wide-range of writers, and they go up every year at the same time, regular as Christmas decorations. And they are all well and good, just like the conference itself, which, for whatever complaints people might have about it, really is a good and amazing conference.
And, yet, despite all the best efforts, it can feel a bit homogenized. You know?
When our previous social media editor, Alison Balaskovits, came up with Literature on Lockdown and the Working Writers series, what she was responding to was the palpable sense that there is a world of writers that is often left out of our culture. We needed to do something, no matter how big or small, to be an outlet for those writers. And this past week has shown me that Alison’s vision has taken shape into something critical and unique, thanks to the many writers and teachers who have answered our call for their work.
So here is our reminder: we want to read more.
If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com.
If you feel you fit our Working Writers Series — no major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing — get in touch. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. Please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
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
The Not So Fine Art of Giving Thanks
Two weeks ago, I received an email from a student who was in my Intro to Fiction Writing class last semester. This student is currently enrolled in an Intermediate Fiction Writing class (Mizzou has three levels for undergraduates: Intro, Intermediate, and Advanced) and he gave me a brief update on how the semester was going. He wrote that I taught him all the basics that he needed to focus on more complex elements in his work, and that he felt more prepared to write better stories this semester. He wanted to let me know that he appreciated what I did, that my teaching mattered. He wanted to say thanks.
This is one of the best things a teacher will ever hear.
The goal for my Intro to Fiction Writing class was simple and one that I stated the first class: keep writing. That’s it. Oh, sure, there are other things—understand the basics of point of view, how to create vivid characters, plot arc, an appreciation for language, etc.—but in the end, really, my hope was that all my students would keep writing. I won’t know, of course, for a long time, if ever, I succeeded in that goal. But the first time I ever considered writing fiction as a Thing To Do was in a college classroom, and I have long hoped to get my students to experience the same thing.
So, thinking about all this, I’m not sure I adequately expressed my gratitude to my former student when I wrote him back. I’m terrible at taking compliments, a deficiency I’ve been working really hard on improving since my book came out. Recently, I discovered a guy I had been playing basketball with for years is a journalist and sports broadcaster here in Columbia on ABC 17. When I told him this, he smiled genuinely and said “Thanks for watching.” I’m aware there is nothing especially inventive there yet I’ve heard those words in my head for days—Thanks for watching!—because it was so gracious and so simple and so true and, man, why can’t I think of something like that to say?
As the managing editor, I only get the chance to formally teach two classes per year, one in the fall (fiction writing) and one in the spring (Internship in Publishing). I have no complaints about my job, but I do miss teaching fiction writing this semester: the workshop environment, the one-on-one discussions with students about their fiction, and reading their manuscripts, particularly the moments when they write a sentence or paragraph or scene of vivid, memorable drama.
Along with stumbling and bumbling toward a better way of expressing thanks and gratitude, I’ve also wanted to let my writing professors know they mattered. I saw Lee Abbott in St. Louis a few years ago, and probably wrote a full paragraph on the title page of my book before I mailed it to him. I introduced Melanie Rae Thon when she visited Mizzou last year, mostly just speaking off the top of my dome about what her class and her books and her encouragement meant. Proximity certainly helps, so I’ve been able to see Mary Troy and John Dalton in person over the last few years. And I really am deeply appreciative of every reader and every student I’ve taught (okay, most: I have taught a few knuckleheads).
It might sound a little corny, but hey, it’s not my fault our world distrusts sincerity. With a batch of new students getting comfortable in the internship, with AWP coming up (next week!), and everything else, the reasons I thank people and the reasons I struggle to accept thanks have been on my mind. I hope to keep getting better at it, and I know that I’ll have many more people to thank in the future.
Next week’s conference tends to be overwhelming and chaotic, and you’ll hear many people refer to it as a schmoozefest (and other terms that are best left unwritten in this post). If you’re going, chances are you’re going to run into someone you should thank: a professor, an editor, a publisher, an old classmate. They all matter. And in the four days madness of AWP, find the time to be gracious and thankful to those people in your writing life that have shaped you, especially those who did so in ways that, perhaps, you didn’t fully appreciate five, ten, or however many years ago it’s been since you last saw ’em. I know I will. Even if I stumble and bumble the words, I hope the person I’m thanking will know that I mean it.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
How I Became The Managing Editor at TMR
With the end of the spring semester, there is a new batch of freshly minted graduates of the University of Missouri. Which means there is a new batch of anxiety about what to do after graduation. Around our offices, the bulk of our graduating students have majored in English, and have aspirations of working in publishing, or being writers, or teaching (often abroad, or anywhere that isn’t Missouri), or some other nebulous concept that revolves around the printed word. All the excitement of finally graduating college and, for the first time since kindergarten, not having to go to school of gives way to the existential question of “Okay, now what?”
Weirdly, the anxiety isn’t all that different from graduates of MFA programs. These graduate students are inherently older, some by a few years, some by many years. And being a bit older, there are often other more complicated factors: careers put on hold or new careers started; family to consider, whether its your own parents or being a parent; envy of your friends that might have gone to the “real world” and are already having children and paying off home mortgages; life as an adjunct—even if a temporary one—staring you in the face.
A few months ago, I wrote about the “off-year” from undergraduate to graduate school, which for me became three years not one. All that still holds. But that just got me from one degree to the next. What about after that? One of my friends who works as an editor at one of the Big Six publishing firms told me that no one every grows up wanting to be an editor (I wonder if that’s true, actually, but another time on that topic …). I’ve had a few conversations with students who have wondered how I got this position with The Missouri Review, maybe out of politeness, maybe out of genuine curiosity. How, exactly, did I end up here?
My first experience with literary magazines was in graduate school. Natural Bridge, out of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is primarily student run. There is a rotating “guest editor” made up of the faculty on the MFA program, a managing editor who is a graduate student, and then a class (“Literary Journal Editing” is what I think it’s called) made up of graduate students who read all the manuscripts. I took the class because my friends were also taking the class and I got to read a bunch of stories. That was it!
Anyway, post-literary editing class, I thought reading manuscripts was fun, and wanted to keep doing it. Sophisticated thought process, right? I applied for a job at River Styx, a magazine out of St. Louis that was looking for a managing editor. It was a part time job, three days per week, twelve hours only … and I didn’t get the job. So, instead, I volunteered to read fiction manuscripts. Six months later, the managing editor quit, and Richard Newman, the magazine’s long-time editor, offered me the job, which I did for five years.
River Styx isn’t a big shop: it’s the editor, the managing editor, and a bunch of volunteers. And it was awesome. We were on the twelfth floor of a building that was a hodgepodge of city services. Arts organizations like River Styx shared a large open area on the twelfth floor: we were up there with the Bach Society, Springboard for Learning, Dance St. Louis, and a few organizations that had signs on the door but never seemed to have anyone there. The windows rattled on windy days. Once, the toilet overflowed (“geysered” seems like a better word), flooding our floor and the elevator shafts. We had used furniture. There was a smell.
Magazine editors do more than read manuscripts, a fact that now seems really obvious to me, but at the time I started with River Styx, I didn’t really know. There is the editing of the manuscript: most don’t come to any magazine perfect, and they all need copy edits, line edits, sometimes even developmental edits. Interns and volunteers need work to do: they need to be assigned tasks, and the person assigning those tasks (read: me) better know how to evaluate if the work is done right. Lots of mail: manuscripts, bills, taxes, query letters, withdrawals, requests for donations. I wrote grants, and discovered how that world works. Board meetings. Printer issues. The postal service. Distribution. Manuscripts got read when they could, but there was so much more that goes into running a magazine and keeping it relevant, keeping the world interested in you, then I realized. And I’m leaving a ton of stuff out.
All this while trying to write stories and my novel and teaching three classes per semester between Missouri-St. Louis and Washington University. Which is, to state the obvious, not nearly as hard as many other people have it.
Five years later, River Styx was in new digs at the Centene Center, and both dealing with the exact same issues and stronger than ever. My girlfriend and I made the move to the University of Missouri, one hundred miles west, for her to enter graduate school. My plan? To continue my adjunct teaching in St. Louis during the week, then drive back to Columbia on the weekend, and keep this up until I found something full time in my new town.
From my years in St. Louis, I knew quite a few poets and asked them who they knew in Columbia, who I could look up and say hi to. Oh, yeah, they said: look up my friend Katy Didden. Oh, yeah, look up my friend Darcy Holtgrave. Which I did, getting over my anxiety about emailing a total stranger out of the blue and asking if we could get a cup of coffee. Five minutes into that conversation, explaining who I was and what I was about, I was told that the managing editor at the Missouri Review had just left.
This might have been the easiest job letter to write ever. Dear TMR: I live in your town! I just moved here! Your people told me about the job! I love your magazine! I have experience! Lots! You should hire me, like, today!
And come January of 2010, I was TMR‘s new managing editor.
This is a blog post, and a brief one (for me, at least), and there are about a hundred other things that happened over the course of those six years that got me here. But one of the things that I want to stress, that I’ve stressed to my students that have asked “How did you get here?” is that I had no plan. Really. It really came down to liking to read stories. Stories were found in manuscripts; manuscripts were mailed to journals; journals need staff. I didn’t want to write grants, manage a staff, think about circulation, fund raising, stuff like that. I just wanted to read. Discovering that all that other stuff is actually pretty interesting to (despite any groaning and moaning I might make on any given Tuesday morning) was accidental.
There’s not a road map. As a neat, organized person, I’m not always comfortable with this idea but it’s what I’ve found to be true over the last few years. Follow your passion, and things work out. Probably some Zen Buddhist stuff in there, but, well, you know.
I’m not sure where many of our current editors and interns who are leaving us will end up. They probably don’t know either. What I stress to them is to keep in touch—I can’t emphasis this enough—and to get involved in the literary community wherever they are. Maybe there’s a job. Maybe there’s an open mic, a reading series, a good bookstore. Whatever it is, come to it with enthusiasm, generosity, and true interest. You never know where it will lead.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Gendered Reading and Discomfort in the "Man Cave"
Last weekend I learned that my relatively progressive, moderately diverse and reasonably funded, suburban, hometown school district was going to allow a self-described “man cave” reading area in a school library. Before I was able to comprehend the dangerous consequences of what gender-assigned reading would mean for literature and education and what kind of political norm my suburb was representing for the rest of the nation, I had to get past “man cave.”
I hate the term when it is used on HGTV, TLC, E!, any sitcom, by a friend’s mom or in an elementary school library. The purpose of the cave, besides reiterating the tired stereotype that men are comparable to cavemen, is to provide the man of the house a separate leisure space. Man caves have pool tables and the kind of leather couches that always look menacing or sad or obese. Sports memorabilia, animals innocently lumped in with that previous categorization and stuff from a garage floor (i.e. license plates and street signs) are nailed to the walls. These are the decorating generalizations that appear over and over even in a Google Image search of “man cave” and reflect an outdated image of masculinity. The decor does not (always) offend me; if a stop sign would look best above the fireplace, level it out and nail it up. I take issue with two components of “man cave,” the “man” part and the “cave” part, especially when implemented by a school library.
For the reading space itself to be likened to a cave is symbolic of the confining, backwards nature of the concept. The reading spaces I remember in elementary school were designed to be areas of comfort and it was a privilege to read in a corner of pillows our teachers probably brought from home. In Kindergarten our classroom designated this space to a loft, lifting us higher as we read. A girl named Annie and a boy I forget supposedly French kissed up there, but that kind of gender interaction wasn’t the fault of the loft.
I remember getting some flack when I read The Pleasure of My Company in seventh grade. My oversexed peers wanted to know what a girl like me was doing with that “racy” cover and maybe what a girl like me was doing later. I carried the book around cover-up and read it wherever I felt because no librarian had ever told me that I wasn’t adult enough, funny enough or man enough to read this book or any other. By the time a child has entered the education system, they have been bombarded with society’s gender expectations. Boys are supposed to like blood and bugs and baseball while girls remain equally confined to categories where what little sexuality is present in Steve Martin’s book cover image is taboo. To condone such arbitrary divisiveness in a library misses the point of literature and education. Students will be turned off of reading before they learn that the best books are about human experience. It has been hard enough to begin to undo the notion that writing is a boys club or that teaching is a woman’s job. That we wonder what it means when a girl relates to a science fiction book and question the validity of feminized book covers speaks to the hazy categorizations of genre versus gender that remain engrained even in book lovers. I hope that the term “chick lit” disappears with “man cave,” but it certainly won’t happen if we’re keeping our next generation confined to the same deer-decorated walls we’ve built for ourselves.
On The Recent Semester Teaching Creative Writing
This is finals week of the autumn semester at the University of Missouri, which means it is also the last week I’m teaching my Intro to Fiction Writing class. Today, my students will turn in a revision of one of the two stories they wrote this semester, or a third, brand spankin’ new story. Then we will be done.
I don’t know when I will teach fiction writing again. This is not by choice. I requested English 1510 this semester, was lucky enough to snag it, and was told even then to not expect to receive this course ever again. This is not about because of my ineptitude as a teacher (I hope) but because typically the managing editor teaches English 1000, a freshman composition class. I was told that I was given creative writing only because of how many people were on sabbatical and unavailable. Don’t expect to get again, they said. Well, then!
Since this might be it with teaching creative writing for a while, here are a few things I took away from my class this semester:
–I haven’t read Harry Potter and they haven’t read Moby Dick. Perhaps the one thing that can be guaranteed in a writing class is that the instructor has read more than the students (digression: some of you are thinking “Actually, I know that’s not true” and I’m nodding along glumly). When I was an undergraduate, I often felt embarrassed because my teachers all referred to novels and stories and poems that I had never heard of, and because of this, I not only missed crucial points of their lectures but also felt that I was unqualified to be in their class. Insecurity, and all that. This semester, I’ve usually found that talking about films is the best way of proving a point: there’s a better chance of my students having seen a particular film, and since films are generally narrative like novels and stories, an easy-to-understand analogy could often be drawn between movies and stories when I was trying to demonstrate a point about characterization, point of view, framing, dialogue, setting, and so forth.
In class, I’ve lamented the fact that we need movies to teach us about writing fiction, but perhaps seeing these links isn’t a bad thing at all. We make do with what we got—what good, really, does it do to expound on A Separate Peace or Revolutionary Road or Underworld if my students haven’t read those books?—and it also might, I hope, make us all realize that writing doesn’t live in a vacuum. We’re shaped and formed by our greater culture, not just pop culture, but film, music, painting, sculpture, dance, and the like.
–Be honest about what they write and what they read. This might seem obvious, but too often I’ve had and heard about creative writing teachers cheerleading more than teaching. Hey, if the work isn’t good, how does it benefit the student to think otherwise?
–Style and ideas worry students more than substance. Style is, of course, significantly easier to mimic than substance. Mimicking a minimalist story is pretty easy. Having a surprise ending is pretty straightforward—withhold one crucial bit of information until the last page. This is how we all learn, though, isn’t it? I used to copy Fitzgerald stories in order to learn how he made his sentences dance; I wrote an entire book in response to a Charles Baxter novel. It’s a terrific way to discover that one doesn’t really sound like anyone else: I sound like me, my students sound like themselves.
More than once this semester, a student said “I have an idea for a story! *insert idea here* Do you think that would work?” To which I always answered, “It could. You should write it and find out.” In time, I think they’ll learn that all the bells and whistles on the page can’t cover a story that wholly lacks an emotional core. Perhaps they too already knew it. By now, I hope they definitely know it.
–Grading stories helps. I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years, but I think that I’m generally on the side of putting grades on student stories. I hear you: how can you tell this story is a B+ rather than a C-? My first response to that question is: really? In conversation with every colleague about writing workshops, we know which students are the best writers. This does indicate that there is some criteria, however difficult it might be to articulate, as to why something is “better.”
Students at a university receive these things called grades, and grades, more than anything, get their attention. I wrote a criteria for story grades on my syllabus, explaining why grades are given on their work, and, no, an A story is not perfect or necessarily complete. Grading gives the students an understanding that those elements of fiction I lectured about way back in September are not suggestions, but things that must be considered seriously when constructing a story.
–Stories may not change, but I do. I used a mixture of stories each semester, combining stories I’ve read before and stories I haven’t. Fresh eyes, and fresh stories, are often beneficial to everyone. One good example is Dan Chaon’s “Big Me.” To be honest, I’ve always assigned it because it’s in the textbook and students seem to like it. I’ve always thought the story was competent, just not for me. But this time, for whatever reason, the story really hit me: the duality of the characters, the non-linear construction, the haunting of memory, the way Andy forgets large chunks of his past. What once struck me as pretty straightforward now seemed remarkably complex, tenuously but perfectly held together, sad and funny and strange all at once. None of this would have struck me if I hadn’t assigned it again.
There are others I’ve always thought were good for teaching but I’m not crazy about, and there are others that I adore that never seem to win over my students. And there is always at least one surprise story each semester that resonates with my students when I had expected they would dislike it. Which is always sorta fun to discover.
–Be generous. Two weeks ago, one of my first writing teachers, Melanie Rae Thon, was visiting MU, and I was asked to give the introduction to her reading. I thought of her teaching first, even before her books, since that’s how I first knew her. And what she gave us, always, was her time, her spirit, her belief that our work was worth reading. She was generous. This quality is not easy: there are too many constraints on our time, too many people and tasks pulling at us from all sides. To really be patient with a student’s story, to remember that the writer is still learning, can be easy to forget. Having a visit from one of the teachers who gently nudged me in the direction of the writing life was a nice reminder that beginning writers need, perhaps more than anything, an attentive reader and a pat on the back.
I hope I provided a little bit of both this semester.
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye
On Wanting to Teach
My little brother told us over Thanksgiving that his ninth-grade French teacher is “New-Agey” in a voice that made him sound like somebody else’s conservative father. The term wasn’t exactly correct, especially after my older brother replied by recounting his bad experience with a creative writing professor who made the class sit on the floor. Now that’s New Age. My little brother said his teacher didn’t teach them any new vocabulary or require them to use a textbook. He felt unprepared for tests and next year’s course. But worse, he knew that he wasn’t learning French.
I’m writing this blog post from a literature class that I described as “completely pointless” over my plate of mashed potatoes. There’s no gimmick to this class and the professor is Old Age in more ways than one. Our class has a book, tests, and we sit in chairs, but I have the same complaint as my brothers; I don’t feel like I’m learning anything. We discussed our best and our worst teachers for most of dinner and we all recognized that crossed-legs, textbooks, or not, there was a distinguishable divide of good and bad. What seemed blurrier was how to measure the distinction and what exactly could make a student feel like they weren’t learning anything.
Before I misrepresent myself as an overly critical student in an end of semester slump, I’ll go ahead and reveal that I’m actually a terrified senior reaching post-graduate paranoia. I don’t want to attend graduate school and I don’t want to spend a couple of years backpacking. I want to be productive and engaged somewhere between these poles. I think I want to be a teacher. This has made hearing my little brother groan at his young teacher’s tactics make me want to just go get my MFA (no offense), something easier than being at the front of a classroom while a student rolls her eyes and continues typing a blog post.
I have had national teaching programs bookmarked on my computer for months and I have only mustered the courage to apply to a job writing copy for a clothing company in Los Angeles. I have no desire to go to Los Angeles. I only thought to apply after I read over the application to teach and felt too unqualified to do anything but online shop. I can participate easily in a conversation about the United States’ failing model for education, where systems lack in providing adequate degrees for teachers, how a student like my little brother is considered successful as long as he keeps his test scores up, but still leave his classroom wondering what the point was. When it comes to articulating a 200-400 word response on an application about what I would do in a hypothetical situation where inner-city middle schoolers won’t turn off their Ipods or sit up in their chairs, I remember that I don’t know what I would do.
Obviously there are legitimate reasons for asking a potential teacher about classroom distractions, but these hypothetical situations have Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, white savior connotations, which I want no part in. Both women played problematic roles in movies where they inspired classrooms of inner-city youth until they were obedient. I understand the important job of a teacher, but it’s not the most intimidating or enticing part of my desire to become one. I’m both a twenty-one-year-old and a Creative Nonfiction writer. I’m expected to be self-centered and it’s an expectation I don’t reject. I know how to get excited about reading and writing and learning. I want to be a teacher because I think it will be selfishly satisfying. As far as I could discern after three glasses of wine at Thanksgiving dinner, this want for self-fulfillment seems to be an indicator of a good teacher.
A selfish teacher isn’t distracted with being noble. I am more qualified and happier than most to talk about the fun, nuance, art, language, history etc. of storytelling. I want to impose my excitement on a classroom of students because this is what I want to talk about and what I believe is important. I will be obnoxious or weird, but as long as I don’t leave a day of school feeling empty, I don’t think that my students could either. I still haven’t completed an application, but if a student is listening to an Ipod, I guess I’ll tell them to turn it off.
The Dangerous Idea of Your Story
This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to fiction writing class, the first time I’ve taught an intro class in four years. Thanks to the popularity of creative writing classes, several sections of intro to writing fiction (or poetry or nonfiction) are made available, and this keeps the classes small: my enrollment is limited to fifteen, which I’m very lucky to have – I’ve heard of creative writing classes with an enrollment as high as thirty-two students. Yikes.
After several weeks of discussion about craft and close readings of short stories and a series of increasingly bizarre short writing assignments, we’ve started workshopping stories. Before workshops began, I gave my students a handout, guidelines for both the writers and the readers. These guidelines explain how to approach giving and receiving criticism, manuscript handling and formatting, how long their written critiques should be (one page, single-spaced), and so forth.
As we closed in on the first day of workshop, several students would linger after class and ask to speak to me. They wanted to talk about their story. The story they haven’t written yet and the story I have not seen.
Usually, the question is about the plot, and whether or not this particular plot – which I’m only hearing about right then and there – will work. Now, at this point, there isn’t really much I can say. In the past, I have given restrictions. Once, I said simply “No guns.” Another time I suggested they avoid dramatic albeit often cliched situations, such as abortion. But over a couple of years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve found that this is unnecessary. Ultimately, the problems with stories that end in guns a-blazin’ are discussed in workshop by the students, not me, which does a better job of reinforcing the idea that violence needs careful and deliberate consideration than any finger-wagging that I can do. And, now, I can just give them the article that Ben Percy and Aaron Gwyn wrote in Poets and Writers this summer (sadly, this link doesn’t give you the article but if you haven’t read it, you should know it exists and find it).
How, though, to discuss an idea? Could it be a good idea? Sure. Could it be a bad idea? Sure. Asking me “Does that sound like a good idea?” is always going to get “Well, it could be a good story …” followed by several caveats, and that doesn’t seem like a very useful answer. Telling a student “Write the story and see what happens” is probably the best of bad advice I could give, but doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve done a very good job.
Where does this anxiety about an idea come from? Thinking back to when I was an undergraduate, I don’t remember worrying so much about an idea. Mostly, I worried that my stories were boring. I worried that the emotions didn’t come out, that people wouldn’t get how much my characters (read: the author) are suffering. But I don’t remember fretting about whether the story ideas were good or bad.
My best guess is that new writers don’t trust their own experiences, and feel that if there is An Idea that holds it altogether, everything falls into place. From somewhere deep in my memories of Things Writers Told Me, there is this: to write fiction, we have all the experiences we need by the end of our childhood. It’s one of those phrases that if you think about it to hard, it seems false or incomplete (sex, marriage, divorce?), and if you don’t think about it too much, it seems true (all the emotions that come out in sex, marriage, and divorce). Of course, like any pithy one-liner, it’s a bit cute and simplistic. Easy to remember, though.
Perhaps, then, the worry my students have isn’t about the actual writing. It’s about themselves. It’s the fear that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t have anything to say through the story, that there isn’t anything unique or interesting about their own lives. And, this too, gets answered with a simple answer: When first starting out, every writer – under all that enthusiasm and late-night writing and wordplay and happiness at writing the climactic scene just perfectly – feels that he or she is not good enough to write. It doesn’t stop us from writing our stories.
Here’s the rub. The fear never goes away.
Really. Even the author with ten books has that gnawing anxiety that the next project can’t be tackled, that the scene doesn’t work, that the characters aren’t right. And, just like the beginning writer, that’s a fear of self, a fear that we aren’t smart enough or sensitive enough. Being a little bit afraid, always, is good. Being a little bit afraid creates risk. Literature that doesn’t take risks, whether they are emotional ones within the characters or experimentation in the form of the writing (or the thousands of other risks writing can take), isn’t literature. Writing that doesn’t take any risks is the kind of writing we very quickly forget about.
My class has several goals that are factored into their grade because, hey, it’s a class and grading needs a criteria. There are stories to read and stories to write, writing exercises, participation, criticism, and so forth. But I also remember that despite everything stated on the syllabus, my goal for my students is simple. Keep writing. That’s it. I say more than that on my syllabus, but in the end, that’s all I really want them to do. And that will always be a scary thing, no matter how far down the literary road my students travel. Don’t worry about ideas. Be scared. Be afraid. Because that fear is what gets every writer to take the risk of writing the story that will be read, admired, and remembered.
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye
Last month, TMR Managing Editor Michael Nye visited my introductory creative writing workshop at the University of Michigan-Flint. He did this not in person, but via Skype. It was my first time using Skype–cobbling together a system in a classroom not quite “smart” enough to include a webcam. I borrowed an external cam that plugged into my laptop that plugged into the room’s Smart Cart; I delegated a student to steady that cam every time it lolled ceiling-ward; I cautioned everyone to stay in their seats, with cords running everywhere across the front of the room. As I do every time I use a new technology, I flashed back to high school and harried teachers struggling with classroom VCRs. Would this experiment end in defeat? Then Michael appeared on our projection screen, and a handful of my students appeared to him.
My class’s Skype conversation with Michael is one of the features of the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses Lit Mag Adoption Program, through which creative writing instructors can sign their classes up for discounted subscriptions to participating magazines. I adopted TMR for my course in part because of my familiarity with the magazine: I was on staff for four of the five years I studied at the University of Missouri, and felt confident that any issue would include “teachable” material. TMR was also a good fit for my class because it includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction–as does the intro workshop at my present institution. Even so, I faced a challenge in drafting a syllabus that would accommodate whatever the magazine happened to contain. Knowing that we wouldn’t receive our first issue until the middle of the semester, I structured the first few units of the course around definite objectives–focusing on form, point of view, image, voice–and sketched out two broadly-defined units at the end of the semester, devoted to “journeys” and “change.” As I’d hoped, virtually every piece in the Winter 2010 issue could be fitted into these categories.
One benefit of working with newly-published writing was that the students knew I had no prior connection to the pieces we were reading. We were all in the same relationship to the texts; we were all undertaking the task of getting to know this material. In groups, students would work together to arrive at readings of individual poems in a feature, then we’d come back together to share our findings and discuss themes running through that poet’s work. The intertextuality of Tarfia Faizullah’s poems, the timeliness of Brian Brodeur’s challenged the students and provided them with good models. On the day we discussed Daniel Mueller’s essay “I’m OK, You’re OK,” a student who’d misread the syllabus was devastated to be left out of our conversation about predatory clowns. Working with such fresh material gave students plenty of room to develop their own insights. In TMR‘s Winter issue, they were encountering works that hadn’t been studied extensively: not by SparkNotes, not by Wikipedia, not by someone offering to sell them a term paper–not even by me.
Having Michael in our classroom that April day demystified the work of a literary journal, a kind of publication that some students in this, a general education class, may have been unfamiliar with at the beginning of the semester. For me, it was nice to see a familiar face again; for the students, helpful to put a face to the editorial process. The Winter 2010 issue offered us another small world moment as we discussed (inevitably) the cover art. Kent Miller‘s “Maho Beach”–in which a jumbo jet buzzes beach-goers–is not only an undoctored photograph, but also the work of a former staff photographer for our hometown newspaper, The Flint Journal. I am apt to dwell on such coincidences: what does it mean that I’m here, linked to these two places, and the cover artist shares the same links? To my students, the coincidence seemed less striking: a Flint photographer was on the cover of TMR, one of the journal’s editors was Skyping with us–that very day, a classmate had announced that she’d just been published online. Why shouldn’t Flint be a hub of the publishing world? That’s exactly the kind of question I want them to ask.
Stephanie Carpenter is a former TMR staff member and Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint.