Last semester, a student came to me and told me that he had to write a paper about a class at UNH. He asked if he could interview me and sit in on a couple of my fiction writing classes. I said yes, but only if he made me sound like I knew what I was doing when he wrote the paper. His name is Kenny Cashman. He wrote an excellent paper. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the subject. He effectively described the tone and nature of my undergraduate intermediate fiction writing course (the only thing different about this semester’s course is that I no longer have the long braid that my students mention here). He told me I could post his essay below. Thanks Kenny!
A Class About Stories
Professor Clark Knowles, simply referred to as “Clark” by his students, walks into the classroom and writes two quotes, both about writing, on the white boards at the front of the room. Most of his students have already arrived and are sitting down in the array of desks in front of him. As Clark writes on the board, the students continue on with their side conversations. Clark engages in conversation with a few students, and then he addresses the rest of the class. When it is clear that class has begun, the students’ side conversations end. Clark begins by reading aloud a quote from Donna Tartt.
“Very nebulous. You don’t know what you’re doing for a long time. It seems like a huge mess because it is a huge mess. If you looked at the notes from early on in the writing of this book, you’d think, ‘This person is crazy. This could never be a novel.’ That’s how all my books have felt when I started writing them. Trying to explain them to people was like trying to explain a dream.”
Clark then uses a novel that he is in the process of writing as an example to explain the quote to the class.
“It’s finished, but it’s a huge mess, because it’s just a first draft. Trying to explain it literally is like trying to explain a dream. If I say, ‘Oh, it takes place partly in the afterlife, and Napoleon plays a big role in the book, and part of the book takes place in Egypt when Napoleon was waging his Egyptian campaign, and part of it takes place in Japan in the year 2080, and part of it takes place in small-town America, 1960,’ that’s, like, nuts. That sounds crazy. That could never be a novel. But when I wrote it down, it seemed to be working.”
Clark teaches Intermediate Fiction Writing Workshop at the University of New Hampshire. Students in his class are expected to know the fundamentals of writing, and he thus focuses more on creativity and good stories than the technical aspect of writing.
The class takes place in a plain-looking university classroom with bare walls and two whiteboards at the front of the room. The wooden desks are arranged in a semicircle close to the walls of the room.
“I try to do some writing exercises outside, with the weather permitting. I try to get over to the art gallery because I think it’s a great place to, you know, just break out,” Clark says when asked about the creative energy of his classroom. “You can’t really be creative in these rooms with the fluorescents and the hard-ass desks.”
Clark’s own office is a square room decorated with shelves of books and miscellaneous posters, including a rather large one of Homer Simpson. While we discuss his class, Clark sits in his desk chair, his laptop on the desk in front of him. When he stands, he is six feet and four inches tall. His brown hair is long and tied back into a ponytail, and he wears rectangular glasses with rounded edges. He has a deep voice that naturally projects and fills the room both when he is speaking to me in his office and when he is addressing his students in the classroom.
Before class begins, Clark’s students file into the semicircle of desks as they enter the classroom. Before Clark comes in to begin the class, they discuss the riots that occurred on Main Street the previous night after the Red Sox won the World Series. One of the students, a blonde boy named Aidan, eats a bagel as he tells his friends about how his jeans still smelled of pepper spray the morning after the riots.
I seize the opportunity to talk with the students before the start of class, and I ask the group what was the biggest factor in their decision to take the course.
“Clark’s ponytail,” Aidan says, and everybody around him laughs. Then, he gives me a real answer. “It’s a more beneficial class than 401 or Literary Journalism in that it forces you to write creatively.”
After arriving and presenting his daily quotes, Clark starts the class with any relevant announcements before sitting down in his chair at the front of the room and beginning the workshopping process, during which the class discusses what they liked and what they thought could have been done better in a story. While Clark towers over the students when he stands, he sits on the same level as the students before him as they all prepare to workshop a student’s writing.
When I ask Clark what his favorite part is about teaching Intermediate Fiction Writing Workshop, he answers instantly.
“Break,” he says, and then he laughs. “I always go for the laugh, if I can.” After thinking for a moment, he comes up with his real answer.
“Seeing somebody get it,” he says. “Even if it’s only for a paragraph…I’m not an editor, so I don’t break stuff down that way, but I love being able to point out, ‘See? This paragraph is the key paragraph of the whole piece because of what you do with this one detail.’ Seeing somebody knowing that they got that little, small thing is cool.”
Students are always given their peer’s story prior to the class when it is to be workshopped, and Clark removes the names from all of the stories to encourage unbiased comments from the writer’s peers.
At the beginning of the workshop, Clark asks if anybody thinks they know who wrote the first story, and a student correctly guesses that the story was written by another student named Alex. Alex then reads an excerpt selected by Clark. Alex’s piece is the story of a few teenagers who are having a hallucinogenic drug trip and one character’s struggle with a romantic interest named Emma. After Alex finishes reading his excerpt, Clark asks him where the idea for his story originated.
“It kind of came from just, you know, this summer, writing about festivals and seeing all kinds of people and all kinds of different things,” Alex says.
“Never indulging, though,” Aidan interjects. A few students laugh.
“In your writing process, you’re still early on?” Clark asks.
“Yeah, this is, like, a shitty first draft,” Alex says.
“One step above shitty.” Clark laughs. “You fixed your commas and stuff.”
Clark redirects his attention from Alex to the rest of the class. “What’s working best for you so far?”
Clark always has the person whose story was workshopped last begin the discussion. This time, it is a girl with light brown hair who starts things off. “I really liked the tone all the way throughout. I couldn’t have written this story with that tone.”
A boy with short brown hair raises his hand, and Clark calls on him to speak next. “I also liked the description you used, like on the first page, the third paragraph. After Emma just left, obviously he’s pretty bummed. And you conveyed that well just by describing the room and the setting, rather than just saying that he’s upset.”
Clark speaks next. “You couldn’t help but notice Emma. ‘Short, lovely, green-eyed Emma.’ Even though that’s only the slightest bit of physical description, because of the tone, you get a good picture of who she is. It works nicely.”
Clark then calls on a girl with long, blonde hair, who had raised her hand. “I like how the narrator felt like a friend. I feel like you were able to get away with talking about drinking, and smoking, and doing drugs so much and have it not be like, ‘Okay, I get it; you’re drunk.’” Clark laughs. “Just because it was so casual. It was just like a conversation.”
There is a pause, and for a few moments, nobody speaks or raises a hand. Then, a boy with a beard and a baseball cap raises his hand, and Clark calls on him.
“Some stories you read, you have to overanalyze or think hard, and this was just kind of relaxing to read. I kind of just went along for the ride. It’s refreshing to read something like that.”
“Does anybody else have something to add?” Clark said. He often asked this of the class, but he never called on anybody to speak if they didn’t have their hand raised.
A boy who is wearing a baseball cap backwards raises a hand. “My favorite part was when they actually started the trip. Your descriptions of the world and the way they were viewing it and that shift of mentality, I thought you described it really well. Like on page nine, there are a lot of good descriptions like ‘the trees swaying like colony of ants and puffs of Milky Way shooting across the sky in a fantastic geometric display.”
Aidan then chimes in. “That was my favorite part of the story, too. Whether you did it on purpose or not, the writing changed. The writing during the trip was way more fluid, I feel, whereas everything else was a little scattered because he’s anxious and overthinking this girl and stressing out about drugs and cigarettes and stuff.”
“Even if you compare the sentences,” Clark says, “you’ll see a big difference. And that might be because you were finding a groove–”
“It got a little later in the night,” Alex says. A few students laugh.
“I was wondering if the music lingo was tough for people who weren’t musicians,” Alex adds. Students around the room speak all at once, all saying that the language wasn’t too confusing.
“The only word that confused me was on page seven,” Aidan says. “Talking about swing dancing in the middle school gym, ‘he found it to be much more useful than juggling scarves or taninkling.’”
Students murmured their agreement with Aidan.
Alex laughs. “Taninkling was this dance thing that we had to do in the middle school gym. It’s, like, with these sticks, and…” Alex attempts to pantomime taninkling from his seat as he explains it, but he drops his hands in defeat as the class begins laughing. “I don’t know.”
“What kind of school did you go to?” Clark says. The class laughs some more.
“Public school,” Alex says, smiling. “But, yeah, it was like the most useless thing, and we spent, like, two weeks learning how to do it.”
“There’s a story right there,” Clark says. “Some kid in a taninkling class.” Again, the students laugh.
“There were a whole bunch of those things in this story that really worked,” Clark says as the laughter dies down and he brings the class back together. “But that’s obviously good stuff. Let’s talk about where Alex can take what he thinks is a shitty first draft back and sort of unpack it a little bit.”
Jason, a UNH faculty member who is taking Clark’s course for fun, speaks out. “The part I had the most trouble with was…the fact that nothing happens. There’s no consequences for any of this. There’s a great conflict setup with Emma at the beginning that never goes anywhere, and there’s potential for conflict with Julia that resolves itself without ever getting into actual conflict.”
“Trouble, right?” says Clark. “You need a little more trouble.”
“Yeah,” says Jason. “There’s nothing at stake here.”
The student with the beard and the baseball cap raises his hand again. “The one thing I wrote was that because it didn’t really have a conflict or resolution or anything, it didn’t feel like a short story. I love the style and everything you had, but missing that piece, I wasn’t really sure what you were doing.”
The blonde girl speaks out next. “I think that because this conflict with Emma kind of disappears, the end kind of feels rushed because it’s just all of a sudden, ‘everything’s great.’ It kind of ties it with a bow. And I just wasn’t ready for it to be resolved already. I just feel like everything fell into place, but we didn’t even see a shift in character. We weren’t there when he had a realization when he was tripping or something; he just woke up and everything was dandy. So maybe just another scene or something like that.”
Jason speaks out again and pitches an idea for such a scene. “Well, I mean, he’s on acid; he’s going to be hallucinating, so he hallucinates Emma and hashes it out with her, and he works through it and finally realizes, you know, maybe I was being a dick, and that’s why things didn’t work out. Or maybe he realizes something about her and that it was just never going to work out no matter what he did.”
The blonde girl speaks again. “I had an idea that she would come in when he was tripping and stuff, too, or just plague his thoughts a little bit.”
“Even if it wasn’t hallucinating, I think that that might be a scene to play around with to bring her back in,” says Clark. “Even if it’s an actual visit from her, it’s going to be weird because of his state of mind at the moment. You don’t necessarily have to have a hallucination.”
“Any other closing ideas?” Clark says a moment later. “Did we miss anything that somebody wanted to bring up that we didn’t? Unfortunately, these go by quick. I do have a title suggestion, though.”
“Yeah, I hate that title,” Alex says.
“On page six, you have your title, I think: ‘Somewhere far from real.’” Clark says.
Quiet “oohs” bubble up around the classroom, followed by laughter.
“Why don’t you just do title ideas for everyone?” Aidan says.
“If I see them, I throw them out there,” Clark says. “For this one, that totally jumped out.”
“Did we miss anything you wanted us to get?” Clark says to Alex.
“Nope. The one thing I was thinking was that maybe if it was in first person, would that kind of clear up a little more of the confusion?”
“What do people think?” Clark says to the class. “I mean, you could try. I’d always say give it a shot; give it a couple pages and see what happens.”
Aidan turns to Alex. “I mean, given the nature of an acid trip, I feel like first person would give you a lot more freedom with describing what he’s seeing and the thoughts in his head.”
“I’d give it a shot, and even if you end up not liking it, you’ll figure something out about the characters,” Clark says. “It feels like it’ll give you a lot of freedom, but it’s really a trap. Really, it’s a way of limiting yourself. But try it. It’s not a bad idea to try it.”
“I try to make it clear that I’m just an opinion,” Clark says when asked about his participation in workshops. “I think I have good things to say, but I want to encourage disagreement. That model where everybody talks, and then the teacher sort of chimes in and says what’s really going on with the story–I don’t want to do that. It’s more of a conversation…I try to just include myself in the conversation.”
This writing workshop is a place where students can go to tell stories about anything they want; Clark has made it clear that there’s no censorship, and story topics range from drug trips, to urban rhapsody, to post-apocalyptic societies.
“I think we all do kind of the same stuff,” Clark says when asked how his class differs from other fiction writing courses. “I’m probably not the most demanding, in terms of reading other things. I ask a certain amount of reading short stories…I think I’m demanding creatively…that might be the only difference, maybe? That I spend less time reading stuff and more time focusing on the writing.”
On the wall opposite where I sit in Clark’s office, a quote–his favorite quote about writing–is written on the wall. “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Out doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”
“It’s by Henry James,” Clark says when asked about the quote. “I’ve been down here fifteen years, and I didn’t have a window, so I decided to write it on the wall…It just speaks to what writing is to me…I love ‘the madness of art’; it’s my favorite part of the quote…I think that anything good I’ve ever written, I really didn’t have much to do with. I got out of the way. That’s the madness of art.”
Advice about “getting out of the way” of your own writing is exactly what you will receive in Clark’s class, along with how best to tell a story and what it means to be creative.
“I don’t really know if I teach writing anymore,” Clark says. “I feel like, in a creative class like this…that the conversation really is about being creative, about what it takes to be creative…I think for the most part, it’s really about finding a space where you can sort of tell the story that you feel like telling. That’s such a huge part of it.”
- Don’t be dismayed or surprised if some pieces of work turn out to be rehearsals
- Be careful how you repeat yourself, and why.
- Begin dramatically.
- Don’t keep back the good stuff.
- Consider beginning in the present.
- Negotiate your own standards of plausibility.
- Once you’ve invented your rules, keep them.
- Remember the power of appropriate omission. We don’t need to take every journey with the characters, make every cup of coffee.
- Don’t overexplain.
- Be sure that borrowing a plot, a character, or situation doesn’t seem like theft.
- Know which kind of suspense your narrative depends on, and use accordingly.
- Be aware that form and tone govern content.
- Ask if your plot needs a subplot, or two.
- Develop your characters both as individuals and in relation to each other. Let the reader know which characters are major and which minor.
- Be ambitious with your language.
- Whatever you do, keep making rhymes, lines, puns, clauses, phrases, metaphors, sentences, paragraphs, sonnets, scenes, stories, plays, poems, novels…
–From Margot Livesey’s Essay “Shakespeare for Writers” in The Writer’s Notebook: Craft on Essays from Tin House
This morning, just before I descended into my normal existential doubt-flood, I read this line from a Rumi poem. Normally, I read Whitman in the morning, but I’ve moved to Rumi for a while. He gets in that creative crevice in an entirely different way. This is the book I’m reading.
Please go to your local bookstore to buy it. If you simply must order it online, please try a local bookstore such as: RiverRun Books. They will treat you right. Anyway, back to the doubt: I can’t write. I have no time. The world gets in my way. I have nothing to say. The page is too blank. The words have all been used. Who needs more words? NO ONE! On the brink of those thoughts, I read this Rumi:
We must mix the varnish we have/and brush it on.
It’s the sort of thing I say to my students all the time–the sort of advice that seems impossible to internalize for myself. Get to work. You have yourself. You have your words. You have your path. You have all you need. It will be a lot of work. Don’t wait. Start immediately. Mix it up. Rearrange it. There exists in front of you a tiny crack in the world through which only you can see. No one else can get there.
Banish the doubt and get to work.
Each semester I teach a dozen or so stories to my fiction classes. I always keep a few of my favorites, teach them again and again. But I throw a handful of new stories in each semester. It’s a strange struggle to find stories that I love and that I think will resonate with students. Sometimes, what I think will resonate, falls flat. And often, those stories that I think will be a tough sell, really hit home. I’ve been combing through some books looking for the right stuff. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
- “Going” by Amy Hempel
- “Boys” by Rick Moody
- “We Make Mud” by Peter Markus
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
- “Good for Your Soul” by Tim Gautreaux
- “Kansas” by Stephen Dobyns
- “North Country” by Roxanne Gay
- “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver
- “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander
- “Safari” by Jennifer Egan
- “The City in the Light of Moths” by Tim Horvath
- “Murke’s Collected Silences” by Heinrich Boll
- “The Last Speaker of the Language” by Carol Anshaw
- “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” by Shani Boianjiu
- “Clear Over Target, the Whole Town in Flames” by Fiona Maazel
- “Hot Ice” by Stuart Dybek
In my composition classes, we have a semester long conversation about what an essay is and how best to write different forms of essays. Alan Lightman, in his introduction to the Best American Essays 2000, puts it pretty succinctly:
“When I’m reading a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important, but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his his anchor line, testing and pulling hard.
I suppose that in the end, the real subject of an essy is the essayist. Not the bald facts of autobiography, on the one hand, or the bald opinions about issues, on the other, but some kind of union between the inner person and the outer world, a melding of internal and external, the life and mind of the essayist in reaction to the universe. The essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself, and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.”
Someone left a bag in my classroom yesterday. Just a regular backpack resting on the floor next to the table where I stand or sit. My bright and observant student, Shay Goodine, recorded the moment:
Teacher evaluations. The long sway of his braid as he turned to face the class. A wide blue dappled mug on the table, his watch facing up, a pile of books. A small backpack beside the leg of the table. No one had noticed. Something left behind.
He stopped midsentence. Picked up the bag.
Is this anybody’s?
Classmates searched each other’s faces.
He put the bag aside. Began a thought, then put it down. This is stupid, but I’m looking in the bag, he said.
A few student’s chuckled nervously, quietly.
Just a backpack, he announced. Stupid, but, these days… he muttered as he turned back to face the class.
Fear. The hush of still breath.Waiting. Wonder. When did we wonder like that? How did that wonder steal in our windows in the last years, creeping into our sleeping ears and into our everyday brains? Check the back pack.
A moment of fear in this grown man. Braid swinging. Just a back pack. Just a back pack.
JM Tohline asked me questions. I answered. He posted them here. I don’t get interviewed all that much. Thanks JM! Here is a picture of a pony for JM. Run free my new writing camp friend!
The College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire awarded me one of three teaching excellence awards. They say some nice things about me here:
I think in my head I’ve always downplayed my teaching. Part of me has always thought, I’m teaching until I break on through (to the other side) and get that big advance and buy a private island and tell everyone to pound sand and laugh like a crazy person as I wave my fat wads of cash about willy-nilly and light cigars-most-foul with hundred dollar bills.
But in reality, this is what I do. I’m grateful for my job. I do the best I can at being a good teacher, at least. I work with nice people. My students are really smart. A lot of them are way smarter than me. Way smarter. I often have rocket scientists in my classes. Actual rocket scientists. And bio-chemists. And future business titans. And people who will grow tomorrow’s crops and nurse tomorrow’s sick and counsel tomorrow’s troubled and write tomorrow’s books.
It seems so odd that I get to teach writing. There’s so much I don’t know about writing. Sometimes, I wonder if I know anything at all. You sit down at the blank page. You find a creative space. You stay there till the page isn’t blank any longer. You revise. What else is there? The students who said (in the interviews) that they came away from class as changed people…I don’t know what that’s about. I hope it was good change. I hope their parents don’t hate me for encouraging their children to seek a life in words (dooming their potentially prosperous, fabulous, wealthy, rewarding careers).
I’m very appreciative of the folks in the English department who nominated me and said nice things about me and my teaching. I’d like to thank each and everyone of them for allowing me to steal all their best ideas for use in my own classroom. And now you’ll have to excuse me… I have some papers to read and some books to recommend. It is, after all, my job.