My life as a writing teacher has had three phases. The first one was when I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I paid no attention to my teachers at all. They reminded me too much of my parents and I just cut them out. But I found my fellow students to be totally inspiring and I watched them, eavesdropped upon them, and learned from them and gossiped about them all the time, and that was the thing that really kept me going . . . Because their stories were way more interesting to me than my own were.
I don’t remember much of what I wrote . . . But I remember a lot of what my fellow students wrote and that’s because I would take it off the shelf and it would be different; it would be a revelation; it would be something I couldn’t possibly have written. I think one of the great things about a writing program is that the teachers are just supervisory staff and the students are your fellows who are showing you the way, even as they learn the way.
The next phase was when I taught creative writing at Iowa State. When we called people and told them they were accepted to Iowa State, we had to say, “Ok, now, listen: This is NOT the University of Iowa. This is Iowa State.” And sometimes they didn’t pay attention and didn’t realize where they were coming. . .
But my technique at Iowa State was to divide my class of 14 or 15 students up into smaller groups of 4 or 5. We met once a week for two hours. The semester was 16 weeks long. Everybody turned in a draft every week. That meant they did 16 drafts. And I really did feel that this worked like a charm because the students who were reading the stories then saw the suggestions they had made realized the following week, or not.
Somebody said, “you should change this guy to do this,” and the person would try it and it wouldn’t work, or it would. The students became very cohesive. I asked them sometimes if they wanted to start shifting around into other small groups and they all said no. It became a cohesive little cell.
But essential to them—and I think this is really important—is that the teachers and the students must talk about the stories in an analytical and not judgmental way. One of the reasons that I eschewed and disdained my teachers at the University of Iowa was that . . . if they liked you, they would praise you or damn you in order to strengthen you. But they weren’t big on analysis . . .
Phase 3 was when I wrote my book called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which is a book about the anatomy and the history of the novel. And there are two chapters in there called “A Novel of Your Own Part I” and “A Novel of Your Own Part II.” Half of the book is about analyzing the form of the novel and half of the book is a sort of lengthy bibliography of about 105 or 6 novels that I read in order to write the book.
I learned a lot. That was like going back to school in mid-life and learning more about your field. I have come away from that thinking about novels much differently than I did to begin with. One of the things I learned is that novels are not comparable to one another. You cannot say The Good Soldier is greater than War and Peace which is greater than Remembrance of Things Past because they’re not comparable. It’s like saying a dog is greater than a banana which is greater than a house.
But they do have certain things in common and if you as a reader read enough novels, you will have an instinct about what those things are that they have in common. You as a reader when you start writing your novel, are much more knowledgeable than you are as a writer and so the writer you has to have patience for the reader you and the reader you has to have patience for the writer you. So you write your novel, you keep going, keep going, keep going, you keep going, part of you thinks this is shit; you keep going you keep going, more of you thinks this is shit, but you get to the end of the first draft, you put it aside and you try not to be judgmental of yourself. And then at some point later, you pick it up and the reader you kicks in. And the reader you is not thinking this is shit, the reader you is thinking “oh I know, this needs a little bit of this here, it needs a little bit of this there, I’ll cut it here, I’ll cut it there.”
The reader you, who has been reading books since The Bobsie Twins and Dick and Jane, has taken in the nature of books, just like the driver you has taken in how to drive an automobile. The writer you is much more of a beginner than the reader you, so let the reader you speak to you . . .
Can writing be learned? Absolutely. . . Absolutely. The one single only thing that you need to write a novel is the absolute desire to write a novel. Everything else is not essential. . .