In our monthly 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 time, we’re talking to Christine Ma-Kellams, who’s teaching an online eight-week fiction workshop. From improving narrative structure and pacing to navigating the world of literary agents and publishers, this course will inspire you to finally make an outline for that novel idea you’ve been chewing on, and give you the tools to send it out into the world once it’s ready.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I’ve actually never taken an official creative writing class or workshop, but I do remember once hearing Toni Morrison at a talk saying something to the effect of, “don’t write ‘what you know,’ because you don’t know shit.” Then and now, I thought this was the best advice I’ve ever heard. It simultaneously frees us from our (limited) experiences and perspectives, and gives us a cold, hard dose of humility, because so often we think we know, but really we have no idea.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
This might be controversial, and I can’t pinpoint the origin of this idea, but I’ve heard the oft-cited advice to “write every day.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t follow that because I think it’d be bad for my writing. Sometimes the best thing I can do for my own writing is to take a break from it and read something else. Oftentimes I need a break from my story and characters to give them breathing room and to give myself perspective, so that when I come back to it, I can assess them with fresh eyes and ask myself with a tinge more objectivity, is this any good?
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
Causality. George Saunders talks about this in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, but I’m always asking my students if their stories demonstrate clear cause and effect: why is this character like that? What made them do this? And ultimately, is this believable or plausible? Regardless of genre, all stories should still follow certain immutable laws of the universe, and the most urgent one of all is that things almost never come out of nowhere. There is always some cause, and if we can’t see or understand it, it sucks all the meaning out of storytelling.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
It depends on what you mean. If the question is, can everyone write a novel if they wanted to?, then my guess would be: no. Replace “write a novel” with any other formidable calling—”become a pro athlete,” “paint a museum-worthy piece of art,” “formulate an elegant mathematical summary of the universe,”—and I think it’s obvious that there are innate abilities we are all born with and for whatever reason—divine, natural or otherwise—we are not all born with the same ones. But if the question is: does everyone have a story worthy of making its way into a novel in one way or another?, then my answer would be: yes, sure. On this [matter], my day job (as a social psychologist) and my night gig (as a writer) share the conviction that people, by far and away, remain the most interesting things in the world.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
No, because I don’t think that’d ever be my place. People do and sometimes should give up things all the time, but I can’t imagine a world where I’d be the one telling them to do it. I think that’s something they’d have to decide for themselves.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Here, I admit I’m a bit of a hypocrite: for me personally, I find criticism more valuable. But as the giver of feedback, I lean more toward praise. [I think this comes down to] where the recipient/writer stands in their own identity as a writer. I’m at the point where I know I’m a good writer and I’m aware of my strengths, so praise is wonderful for my self-esteem but doesn’t necessarily improve my craft or change how I see myself. When I’m the one giving feedback though, I’m less sure of where the other person stands, so I lead with encouragement first and any criticism is usually paired with very concrete ideas on how to address it.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
Yes, but only in the sense that they should consider what reward they’re giving to the reader. You’re demanding someone’s time at the very least and frequently—depending on the mode of publication—their money, so you should always consider what you’re giving back. A thrilling ride of a story meant to entertain? A deep sense of feeling understood? Escape? Mystery and intrigue? All of the above?
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: Kill seems like a strong word. I prefer what Kurt Vonnegut said (I’m paraphrasing here): let horrible things happen to your characters so that we can see what they’re made of.
- Show don’t tell: I find this is only an issue that comes up when the pacing is off—as in, this advice only comes to mind when the pacing is slow. When the pacing is just right (i.e., fast enough), I never think, ‘show, don’t tell.’
- Write what you know: See what Toni Morrison said in the first question above.
- Character is plot: I think this works better in literary fiction than in other genres. But even in the most literary of novels, this only goes so far—I always appreciate it when something actually happens, when I feel like we’ve gone somewhere and survived to tell the tale.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
Reading, of course. Somewhere between graduating college and getting my Ph.D. (not in writing, but in a social science), I wrote a novel that has never seen the light of day because it was terrible. Only after writing it did I realize [it was terrible] because I had spent all my time reading randomized controlled trials and other assigned readings for class, but had not read a novel for fun for years. Then one day, during story-time at the library with my toddler, I picked up a short story collection based on the title alone. I read it, and it felt like falling in love. Just about everything I now know about writing I learned from reading.
What’s the best workshop snack?
Full disclosure: I did not know people brought snacks to workshops. Having never been to one, this was (pleasantly surprising) news to me! But given the frightful amount of mental energy writing and giving/receiving feedback demands, I’d say anything carb-centric and comforting, like bread (and not the healthy kind either—I’m thinking conchas, cornbread muffins, or Asian milk bread).