Monday, January 27, 2020

Should Writing Teachers Suggest Students Abandon a Book?

By happenstance, I was in a folder of old blog files, and I found this piece that I wrote nearly 7 years ago…and thought, but I’m still pondering this question! So I did a couple of updates, and here we go…and, as noted, I’ve been pondering this question for a long time, so if you’re a current student of mine, please don’t freak out and imagine that I’m talking specifically about you and your work.

 My question: Can—should—I as a teacher tell a student not to write about a certain topic?

 I don’t mean out of a fear that a topic is taboo in society (ha, if anything is anymore) or because I personally don’t care for stories about family vacations. I also don’t mean the blanket statements that you find on the syllabi of many beleaguered undergrad creative writing teachers: “No vampires, no ghosts, no gnomes, no protagonist suicides to end the story.”

 There are several different times that trigger this question in my mind. First would be a story that (I’m guessing, but I know it’s a good guess) is very close personally to the student’s life in some way, but that’s a topic that is terribly overdone and hard to make fresh: an adult thinking back on his parents’ divorce, say, or two sisters cleaning out the house of their dead mother and discovering a so-called life-changing secret. Obviously there are always ways to make these stories interesting, but the student isn’t finding those ways (despite my excellent teaching skills, haha). Or maybe the student is a good writer—the skill is there—but the story itself is just plain dull. And is there a difference if by “story” what I mean is “novel-in-progress”? It’s one thing to work for several weeks on a 15-page story that’s trite, but a far different picture if the student is setting forth on a years-long journey to complete a novel that’s trite. 

On the other hand…do I really know with absolute certainty that this book will “never” get published? Is that the only goal for a writer? It shouldn’t be, though it seems that most students state that this IS their goal, of course. I wrote some novels that didn’t get published and learned quite a bit about writing from the experience. Wasn’t that enough? What would I have done if someone told me the stories were trite? Honestly, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the exact flaw of these particular works, but someone surely could have pointed out many other gigantic flaws during the process. Would I have listened? Would I have wanted to hear that? Would that have been helpful? 

In these situations, I often focus my teacher comments on ways to deepen the story and find more complexity, look at the hard parts of the story the writer is leaving unmined. When the story is too personal, that approach can be a problem, as the student writer may not want to discover (via a writing workshop) that, OMG, my relationship with my father is more challenged than I realized! They like their simplistic story as is, because that’s the story in their head. In real life that’s fine(ish), but not on the page. Is it my job to assist a student toward writing a dull, simple novel that (I know) will never be published? Is that a good day at the office for me?

 Another tricky time that makes me wonder about whether I should tell a student to choose another topic is when the student is turning in competent stories about, oh, married couples in Washington, D.C., but I happen to know that in real life this person has an amazing past of some sort that would provide material that I, as a writer, would KILL to have access to. When I mention this interesting other stuff they might write about, there’s usually a response along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and sometimes, “I would never write about that,” or the the full stop: “Not while my mother is still alive.” I always murmur some sort of encouraging something and say, “Maybe someday you’ll be ready for that” and reiterate that I, personally, think that stuff would make an AMAZING book or story, and we go back to the competent stories. While I harbor hope that someday they’ll be ready and that I’ve planted a seed, I’m still sort of sad watching them struggle away, mired in competency, when they could soar. 

And what about the student who isn’t a very skilled writer (yet) who is determined to tackle a giant subject—sometimes personal—that he/she just isn’t able to handle right now? I long to say, “Can’t you practice writing on a smaller canvas for a little while? You’re not Tolstoy (yet).” On the other hand, none of us are, and what’s the harm? I think a lot about this one while I’m writing up critiques that focus on first level things—commas, details, characterization—when on a smaller canvas, this same poor writer could also start learning about bigger issues like structure and conflict that would better serve the writer-in-training. 

Now, I also keep an eye out for a writer who is tackling a story that’s perhaps not theirs to tell (ahem, American Dirt <>). But even this situation makes me uncomfortable, as no one technically “owns” a story, so instead I bring up the complications in choosing to write about an experience well beyond one’s real-life parameters and outline the literary culture’s current response to such projects and suggest the publishing pitfalls that may be ahead and offer excellent resources like Alexander Chee’s response to the question “Do you have any advice for writing about people who do not look like you?” <>. But should I tell this student NOT to write American Dirt? 

Our culture is so bound and determined not to harbor any quitters…is this why students feel that need to plow through these novels that aren’t working?  Is there no way to bow gracefully and admit defeat? To step back and gather new resources before returning into the fray? To pause, instead of constantly plow forward? And yet, I’ve said it to classes a thousand times: Writing a novel is a marathon…sometimes you don’t feel like writing, but you just have to…persistence will triumph over raw talent. Blah, blah, blah. I know I even use the word “plow.” Often.

 I remember meeting a very accomplished writer who told me about a time in her MFA days when she had been struggling for months on a novel, bringing in chapters to workshop, and finally her instructor spoke with her privately and said, “You know, you just shouldn’t be writing that. It’s not a novel.”

 “Wow,” I said. “That must have been hard to hear.” 

The accomplished writer said, “Actually, it was very useful to hear. I stopped writing that novel and wrote something else instead.”

 Could it be that simple?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Etiquette for Post-MFA Life

This is a rerun, but my craft talk at the last Converse MFA residency was about life 

after the MFA, so I got to thinking about this old post, which I think is still relevant. Here are my thoughts, especially directed to those navigating post-MFA life. 

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.


I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.


I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar or Treman after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.


Here are a couple of suggestions from some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.


You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily and proudly buy it!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

TBR: Farah Rocks Fifth Grade (Book #1 in the Farah Rocks series) by Susan Muaddi Darraj

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe! 

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences? 

Farah Hajjar is a smart, funny fifth grader who is protective of her little brother, who has learning challenges. She’s applying to an exclusive magnet school for sixth grade, but when a bully starts harassing her brother, she wonders if it’s better to stay where she is. She hatches a plot to solve the problem on her own, which causes havoc for everyone who loves her, including her parents and her best friend.

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

Farah’s character itself was fascinating to create – she was originally based on my daughter (who is, in fact, the one who asked me to write a book about a Palestinian American girl like her). But then, as all characters do, she began to take over the story in her own way. She was funnier than I thought she would be. And more stubborn.

The character who was the biggest challenge to write was Samir, because I wanted to make sure I represented him accurately. He has learning challenges because he was born pre-maturely; at the same time, he’s smart and very witty. In other words, I wanted him to have a distinct personality, and to make sure that his learning challenges didn’t consume his entire story. There were also details I didn’t know, about how schools incorporate special help for kids who have certain needs, so that took some careful research. In addition to reading books, articles, and websites, I talked to friends who had children with learning challenges. I hope I got Samir’s character right. He is a big figure in the book – an important member of the Hajjar family.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

Writing about Palestinian American or Arab American characters is difficult in its own way. There are so many questions: Are you representing the community accurately? Is your depiction authentic? Are you sentimentalizing things that should be discussed with more rigor?

But then you run up against the way that the publishing industry views our community. In general, I have noticed a trend in the publishing industry (it stems from that the fact that, though there are many wonderful, well-intentioned editors, the the industry itself is not diverse). So publishers do want stories by writers of color, but often they prefer what we call “crisis” or “trauma” stories. They want stories of Arab American women who are facing racism, sexism, etc. There are tons of books on this topic, and it’s very important.

But guess what? Kids of color deserve to see themselves in books in which the characters who look like them are living happy, healthy, normal lives. They need to see themselves facing the same problems every American kid confronts. For example, in this first book in the series, Farah is dealing with a bully in her school, and the adults are not paying attention; which kid hasn’t experienced this? They all know how scary it can be to get on that school bus when there’s a bully on board.

Another difficulty I had was the fact that this is my debut children’s novel. I feel very lucky to be working with Capstone Books – their book list is already so diverse, and they are very open and inclusive. But I had a lot to learn about writing for children. My editor, Eliza Leahy, is phenomenal. She really helped me make the transition from writing for adults to writing for the 8-12 year-old age group. It’s a different world in many ways – and I had a lot to learn about it. She was a patient and helpful teacher. I think I revised my first draft seven times! And it’s only 20,000 words! I definitely felt myself “stretching” as a writer in the same way you do if you’re a poet who tries fiction, or if you’re a novelist who tries to write a play.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Well, my least favorite piece of writing advice is “write every day.” That is virtually impossible for many people to do. I mean, a lot of us have jobs, kids, family obligations. Who can actually write every day unless they’re wealthy and outsource help for housework, childcare, etc? So what I will say instead is something that worked for me: Make time for your writing life every day. If you can write, write. Some days you won’t be able to. But maybe you can read that new book by a writer you admire. Revise the first few pages of a story? Maybe you can sit with a blank page and work on a character sketch for a character. Maybe you can read an article on writing better dialogue. Maybe you can make a list of journals or contests where you want to submit your work.  In other words, spend time every day filling the well that is your writing career. I do this by making an appointment with myself every day; I wake up very early and sit with my coffee and my books and notebooks for a couple of hours, before the rest of the house wakes up. Some mornings are productive; others are just me, daydreaming, reading, thinking. It’s all good. It all counts. It’s all part of the process.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book? 

I was surprised by how important it was to me that I depict Farah and her family as working class people, dealing with the realities of life for the working class. They’re not technically poor, but they’re on the edge. Their security is precarious.

Furthermore, it was vital to me, as I kept writing, that Farah be aware of her family’s money problems. Many books show kids feeling secure in their family’s financial situation – the evidence of that is in what you don’t see in the book: the character never worries or talks about whether or not mom and dad have money. It never comes up in their minds.  For Farah, it does – and to me, that is quite authentic. Kids who grow up in poor and working class families are hyper-aware of their parents’ money woes. I wanted Farah to be that character that many young readers will recognize.

How did you find the title of your book?

In Arabic, “hajjar” means rocks or stones, and in the book, you learn that Farah’s friends have called her Farah Rocks since they were all in first grade together. So it seemed natural to continue from there, to play on the word “rocks” – it’s a word with a double meaning, and it seemed a fitting way to reflect the Arab American experience: there are layers of meanings.  The first book is Farah Rocks Fifth Grade; it’s a 4-book series, and each book’s title follows this formula.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)

Well, of course, in any book about Palestinian or Arab Americans, there will be a lot of food! As you might know, because I’ve been vocal about this on social media, I really dislike the way hummus has been repackaged into some kind of gourmet food. It’s sold in stores and doesn’t even taste very good, and there are all sorts of horrifying variations, like red velvet hummus and guacamole hummus. And it’s expensive! Hummus costs just pennies to make at home, and it takes less than five minutes. So yes, Farah is sharing the Hajjar family’s recipe in a special bonus section of the book! [Editor's note: This hummus is fantastic!!]




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.