Learning the Short Story

WritingA friend pointed me towards a very interesting (and well-written) article about the state of creative writing programs in college and university. I highly suggest you go read it, but the general idea is that time constraints and the general format of an academic schedule, departmental needs, and workshops make it so that fiction classes highly encourage (if not insist upon) the writing of short stories and highly discourage (if not completely disallow) the writing of novels, and that ultimately this results in those programs teaching budding writers to write what they are not inclined to write and stymieing their creative potential.

“I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.”

I was lucky in my creative writing program at UBC that, despite what the article says on the topic, I was allowed to write speculative fiction in most if not all of my classes. I was lucky as well that in my last year, my Children’s Lit writing professor allowed me to submit an entire YA novel over the course of the semester for workshopping (and that the majority of the class was willing to read and critique it).

Creative writing degrees are already labelled as being not very useful degrees — agents and editors don’t care about education credits, just about the quality of the writing; and a creative writing degree certainly isn’t going to help much when it comes to getting a job elsewhere (a friend of mine likes to joke that “BFA” stands for “Bachelor of Fuck-All”). All a creative writing degree is really useful for is actually practicing writing, getting critiques, and improving your craft. If what you’re learning isn’t helping you do what you ultimately want to do (ie, writing novels), and may in fact be harming that skill, then is the creative writing degree even less useful than previously thought?

I’ve certainly not given up on novel writing due to my education; it’s still my primary focus, despite not having as much opportunity to practice it. And writing short stories did still greatly improve my writing overall, as well as teach me to write short stories in addition to novels. And as a friend of mine pointed out in response to this article:

“I do think that short stories are the easiest way for a writer to gain validation and respect through the medium of getting published, winning money, getting grants etc, so in a way they are being encouraged by the institution of SOCIETY. And bank accounts. The only way to get grants to write a novel is to publish 4 shorter works. While this includes, in theory, novel excerpts, very, very few literary magazines will publish them.”

Though again, agents and editors don’t necessarily look at previous publishing history either when considering a manuscript, caring instead only about the quality of the submitted manuscript.

I like writing short stories. I think they have a good potential place in larger projects, too, like transmedia projects. But the novel is my primary medium, and I was certainly discouraged from pursuing that for a lot of my academic career.

Maybe it’s our responsibility to throw off the yolk of our schooling to do what it is we want to do or at good at. Certainly I don’t think we can entirely blame a program like this for our own failings. That’s entirely up to us.

But our academic training shouldn’t be actively working against that. That seems to me against the point of academic training in the first place — though I’m sure creative writing isn’t the only program in which this is the case.

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  1. Totally hooked

    Mr. Lucas, I’m a first year student at UBC and your response amplified my worries of the education that I’m putting myself through, but also heightened the inhibition of ‘what if you aren’t good enough,” and what if the novel is like a Mount Everest dream? All in all though, it’s quite inspiring.

    • “What if you aren’t good enough” is a question every artist asks themselves all the time. The only way to know is to try, and the only way to get good enough is to practice — so don’t let that gnawing doubt stop you.

      Writing short stories in a fiction class is still amazing amazing practice for writing, even if what you want to do is novels. If nothing else it will help you learn how to be succinct and tight in your writing. Your craft will improve. And then you can take what you learn to your personal novel writing.

      Also, if you get into the program, talk to your teachers! Ask if they’re ok with you submitting a novel (or parts of a novel), or see if they have suggestions for how best to pursue your goals.

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