On Teaching (and Learning) How to Write the Novel

by Adam Reger

If you’re inside a particular literary circle already, this is old news to you. If not, writer and teacher (formerly in Pitt’s MFA program) Cathy Day has an insightful article over at The Millions entitled “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.” (Her original title was the less-provocative “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from ‘Story’ to ‘Book.'”) Basically, it makes the point that most creative-writing programs are centered around the short story, rather than the novel, and goes from there.

It’s fascinating reading for anyone who’s concerned with this stuff. I suspect it’s even more crucial if you’re teaching a creative writing class, or enrolled in one; it looks like there’s been tons of commentary below the article itself.

For myself, I found the “problem” Cathy Day points to weirdly inspiring. (Quotes around “problem” because, as per her original title, it’s not so much a problem as it is the state of things, for better or for worse; she suggests “think[ing] outside the workshop” but isn’t more specific than that, which is fine since the piece is more a conversation-starter than a prescription for change.)

And by that I mean that I’m pleased to know that the novel remains outside the reach of academia. I don’t believe in the “MFA effect” or that there really exists an “MFA story.” In fact, I kind of hate that kind of argument. And yet, I do think that MFA programs have had a leveling effect on the craft side of things, allowing lots of decent writers to craft good-enough stories that eventually find homes in journals but which are not often worth reading. I guess that’s harsh, but my experience with most lit mags is more akin to a buffet than a feast: I try a little of this story, then move on to the next. Most are well-written, but fail to convince me to care about what happens in them.

I like, by contrast, that writing a novel remains a major feat, a challenge that workshops can prepare one for, but only so much. Cathy Day cites John Barth’s distinction of “sprinters” and “marathon runners” among writers, and I like that. Plenty of people run a marathon each year: I’ve seen estimates of about 500,000 Americans. But that’s something like five percent of all the people who ran at least one road race in a year, and less than two percent of Americans. It’s a strikingly uncommon phenomenon, for the simple reason that it’s difficult to do.

Both novel writing and running a marathon are difficult because of the sheer volume of work that goes into both. A personal trainer can give you tips on marathon training, and might even accompany you on a few runs. But unless he or she is really well-paid and/or really dedicated, you’ll be doing some of those runs alone, and you’ll have to get yourself up at 6 a.m. at least some of the time. The same idea seems to hold when it comes to novel writing, and it’s this problem that Cathy Day illuminates: a workshop can do a really good job evaluating the first chapter of your novel, but after that the volume of work it would take to properly critique the thing becomes prohibitive.

I guess that that’s what I like, that for some things the only answer is to work through it. Sure, there are running groups organized around a specific race, and you can form a group of friends who’re all writing their novel. But you’ve got to press every key yourself, just like you’ve got to take every stride. The act of keeping it up, of getting down to work and keeping your seat, isn’t something anyone else can teach. And I like that.