I balance an awareness of the emotional and imaginative process behind creative writing with the practical study of craft. My goal is to help each writer gain greater freedom in his or her work—because the ideal result of technical mastery is expressive freedom. Technical mastery is gained through the close, careful reading of other writers—and sometimes through simple trial and error, instinct and intuition. I help students find their model writers, and guide them in developing the ability to analyze just how those sentences are doing the seemingly magical things they do.
I believe half the hard work of writing is being fully yourself, and honing your own sense of reality and truth. I encourage my students to develop their own internal awareness of what their writing needs, and to follow that above all. I believe that it is always possible to be both candid and constructive. I believe it is never my job to discourage any writer, or to impose any aesthetic. I have seen that you never know when a writer will suddenly strike something true and beautiful.
I believe that the practice of writing is an unfolding dialogue, and part of my job is to welcome new writers to the conversation. I believe that the writing life is one of the richest lives I can imagine. I tell writers to read voraciously and to experiment fearlessly—because in writing, as in life, there really is nothing to fear.
The “Craft Annotation”
My teaching is highly influenced by the approach I experienced through the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. This program requires students to write “annotations”–a special form of critical analysis in which we investigate techniques used by model writers. To get a sense of what an “annotation” involves, read former Warren Wilson MFA director Peter Turchi’s guide to annotations here.
I ensure that workshops are both candid and constructive by guiding writers to first set aside their preconceived aesthetics or notions of what “good literature” should be, and to concentrate foremost on clearly seeing, and precisely reflecting back to the writer, the work. I ask each participant to prepare a response letter, which must start by summarizing what the piece is “about,” on three levels: 1. Literal 2. Broader themes. 3. A universal abstract question, short enough to fit on a Post-It Note, that seems to encapsulate the work’s “aboutness.” The Post-It Note exercise comes from Eileen Pollack’s craft essay “What We Talk about When We Talk about Theme,” and whenever possible I have students read and discuss Pollack’s essay before our workshop. This kind of close observation and deep thinking on the emerging meaning of the piece naturally reveals where confusions and opportunities for revision lie, particularly when writers are primed by their work doing annotations to speak a common craft language. Starting with a discussion of “aboutness” also creates good will and receptivity to criticism, because the writer being discussed appreciates the depth of engagement.
I ask the writer up for discussion to read a short passage. We then begin by sharing our “aboutness” statements, and pointing to the places where the language “popped,” and to passages that engaged us, precisely describing why those passages did. We then move on to “questions and opportunities,” pointing out where we had confusions about the intention of the work, and places where we felt it could be pushed further towards the work it wants to be. At the end the writer up for discussion has 10 minutes to ask us questions—either clarifications of comments, or concerns about the work we did not address.