Alcestis Austin Graduate school Writing

writing program retrospective

Summer in Austin has begun — the sun is biting. Yesterday, I walked my usual route to and around campus and came home in early evening to find my shoulders pinkened. Somehow it catches me by surprise, every year. (Last year I got positively broiled. It was gross.) Tomorrow, sunscreen.

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Via Gwenda Bond, a wonderful interview between Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken. Among other things, they discuss the concept of novel-writing workshops. McCracken explains:

… I invented the class because I was teaching at the University of Oregon and there was a young woman who was working on a novel. It was a very small program, extraordinarily nice people, smart, nice people, and the program, they had all been together two years, some people in the class. They had read everything that she had done and she was putting up the same novel and she got terrible workshops under the absolute best circumstances. Actually, she’s teaching in upstate New York and I told her about this and she said, seeing that made me think there should be a novel writing workshop and she said that yes that had actually caused damage to [the] novel, workshopping it, because even these people who had been reading all along would ask questions of twenty pages of a novel that twenty pages of a novel could not and should not answer about plot questions. Again, perfectly smart people saying I want to know about her relationship with her father and that comes later in the book.

I workshopped the first three chapters of novel #2 during my first semester at UT. I didn’t have terrible workshops — the reactions that I got to the beginning of the novel shaped it for the better — but I agree with McCracken that people who are very good readers of short stories often have trouble critiquing a piece of a novel. A long-term workshop structured to allow group critique of a novel-length fiction might alleviate the seemingly irresistible desire to demand completeness, or, alternatively, to disclaim one’s critique because “I haven’t read the whole thing.” A totally valid point; also sometimes an irrelevant one.

McCracken talks about requiring participants in the workshop to have written fifty pages of the novel beforehand. I can’t remember how many pages of the novel I had written when I began workshopping it: a hundred? A hundred and fifty? Something like that. McCracken and Patchett point out the danger that workshopping an unfinished novel will warp it. Ideally, participants would begin a workshop like this with drafted novels — my thesis advisor works this way, requiring completed drafts before Christmas for students who want to do novel theses in the spring, because she does think that the danger of warping an unfinished novel is real. The other question, I think, would be whether working on a novel non-stop for a long time is really the most effective way to write it. Frustrating as it was to leave novel #2 alone for long stretches of time while I taught and took literature classes, I know those germination periods left me clearer-eyed about its merits and weaknesses. I wonder if there’d be any way to do a novel workshop in segments, with a break in between for work on other projects?

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Tomorrow afternoon the novel makes its public debut, at the official graduation reading for my MA class. I’m planning to read the prologue (and possibly one other short little piece). I’m off now to read through them and write up some quick little description of the novel as an introduction, and then to sleep. Back soon with a report on the reading — and maybe some pictures.

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