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In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we’re talking to Megan Stielstra, author of The Wrong Way to Save Your Life and two other collections of personal essays. You can still get on the waitlist for her 12-month memoir generator at Catapult, an intensive yearlong boot camp in writing and publishing creative nonfiction. But if you don’t get into the class, her answers to our standard ten questions are a mini seminar in themselves.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I took a class on story structure with the writer Patricia Ann McNair. One of the stories we dug into was Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony,” now one of my favorites but back then—
“I hate this thing,” I said in class.
Patty is infinitely patient but takes zero shit. “Tell me why,” she said.
I went off on Kafka, finishing with “—I just don’t get it!”
Patty set the book on the floor. Then she leaned forward and said the single most important thing I learned in college, if not ever: “You don’t get to hate something just because you don’t understand it.”
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
A student wrote a story about my death. He was not subtle; the character was named Megan Stielstra. He included a scene of my funeral—the only person who showed up was a character based on himself. He wrote that it was very sad that nobody else loved me.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
Kiese Laymon: “We’re not good enough to not practice.”
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
Sure. I don’t know if everyone has the discipline to actually write it, but who knows what we’re capable of? Six months ago I thought running was hell on wheels and now I’m months into lockdown, training for a marathon, and it’s like, Who even am I? We get to try and change and fall on our asses. If writing a book is something that you feel in your bones and you want to explore the possibility, I’m here to support you.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
Years ago, a young woman came to a scheduled conference sobbing. She’d met with another writing professor just beforehand and he told her she didn’t have a voice. Typing that makes my blood boil. How dare he. I am committed to direct and transparent conversations about the realities of art-making—money, academia, publishing—but those of us who work in education need to look long at power, how our words can crush or lift. People are putting their hearts on paper and handing those papers to us. It’s a profound act of trust and I will work like hell to be worthy of it.
Some of the writers I work with make their living as artists. Some as teachers. Some as marketing professionals, lawyers, journalists, bartenders, sex workers, counselors, doctors, administrators, acrobats. They work in childcare, healthcare, politics, finance, theatre. None of them ever gave up writing. The practice looks different, but they find how it works for them.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Both. Your stories matter and I will damn well challenge you to make them better.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
Students should be turned on to all sorts of different ways to engage with the creative process so they can figure out what works best for their deeply unique lives.
That said: for me it’s helpful to consider potential homes for my work during the rewriting process and I try to arm my students with knowledge about that process. Whether or not they make the personal decision to submit, such consideration can offer ideas for shaping the final draft. If you want to submit to Brevity, you need to cut. If you want to submit to Longreads, you can linger. Read the last five essays published in a place you love: are they more narrative-based? More argumentative, more experimental? What do you notice about how they are written and how does that influence your rewriting process?
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Show don’t tell: Show and tell. One isn’t better than the other—they’re tools. We have to learn when and how to use them. Start with Dorothy Allison on place in The Writer’s Notebook from Tin House and Sonya Huber on telling in LitHub.
- Kill your darlings: Depends on where you’re at in the process. Early drafts, where you’re figuring things out? Cling to the darlings for dear fucking life. Later, when you know what the piece is doing, ask yourself if the darlings serve that intention and if not, cut-and-paste them into another document to use in another piece. Later still, before you hit send to an editor (or teacher ☺), read the draft aloud. Listen to what you’re doing with language. A deep, thoughtful line edit focuses what you’re saying and how you’re saying it (shout-out to the copyeditors I’ve been lucky enough to work with. You’re the real heroes).
- Character is plot: Characters have bodies and our bodies move through this beautiful stupid mess of a world with all sorts of histories and stories and assumptions. I never found it helpful to think in terms of plot— I thought bodies. I thought action, reaction. More recently I’ve been reading the work of Matthew Salesses, who defines plot as “an acceptance or rejection of consequences.” I love that so much. He has a book coming out soon from Catapult called Craft in the Real World and I can’t recommend it enough.
- Write what you know: Write whatever the hell you want. That said, please read Alexander Chee on writing “the other” and Rebecca Makkai on writing across difference.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
We can argue all damn day about whether it’s a hobby or the work itself, but jesusgod get a library card.
What’s the best workshop snack?
For me—coffee. Which—again, for me—is a food group.