2014, Archives, October 2014, The MFA Years

(Re)defining Genre

At the beginning of the month I scheduled individual student conferences. Students had a chance to discuss their poetry portfolios before submitting them; this was all done before we began the fiction unit of the course. At the University of Minnesota creative writing courses delve into the three popular genres—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—and that gives students a chance to explore how narratives are derived, what makes for compelling storytelling, and how poetry is architected. The student conferences under the poetry unit showed me how students are approaching our course and their work; they offered me the opportunity to direct my students to areas that needed more work or areas where the poem already had the fiber of a precious poem. True: most of them expressed their concerns with poetry, the intensity of the revision process, and what they wish they could’ve written instead or what they hope changes by the time the fiction unit starts. But it was also true that as a whole they’d written superb material.

During her conference, one student made a statement that kept me thinking about the concept of genre. She said, “I feel like the most challenging thing about poetry is that it can be about anything. I have too much flexibility within it. I prefer something that has more structure.” This is more or less what I heard and it drove me to think once again about why I work with poetry. Why not fiction if novels were the first true gifts I ever opened? UM’s MFA program emphasizes genre cross-pollination; in fact, one course—Reading Across Genres, endearingly abbreviated, RAG—pushes us to work with all three of these genres. Camaraderie and respect for the work of my peers is what I leave with time and again. At the MFA level we can understand and appreciate the challenges of each genre, but how do I convey that same understanding to a group of undergraduate students who, in most cases, are taking a creative writing course for the first time? One thing is to say that poetry is harder than fiction, or that nonfiction is harder than poetry; another thing is to unravel those dilemmas through writing exercises, which is what I’m there to do as an instructor.

When spaces get grayer and wider during the semester, I have to go back to my pantheon of favorite writers for help. Who, I thought, blurs the lines between poetry and fiction (since this was the transition we found ourselves in), and how can my students see that no one genre is easier than the next? Lydia Davis was right around the corner on my list of authors who do exactly this. Her poems and short stories are consistently considered, “proems.” I admire how brief, precise, and mysterious Davis’s work tends to be. For example, one of her stories, “Love,” begins with the premise that an unnamed woman “fell in love with a man who had been dead a number of years” but then she set up “her house over his grave and s[a]t with him night after night in the damp cellar.” The story has just two sentences. My students know that many poems are this short. So why is “Love” a short story and not a poem? Why aren’t there any line breaks in this piece? Why would Davis decide to omit so much from this story and how do these omissions lend this story power? I knew I had to reread some of Davis’s stories to see how I could incorporate them into a class exercise.

Weekends give the false impression of having more hours than they actually do. Coming up with creative writing exercises is very similar: you think concocting a solid exercise is going to take less than an hour. But then you start working and throwing ideas around to see what sticks. By the time you think you’ve come up with something concrete and fun, three or four hours have gone by. Then you start second-guessing yourself—at least that’s part of my work pattern. At the end, I ended up picking four of Davis’s stories and each one listed specific instructions of how to incorporate prose terms into their work, including tone, dialogue, and setting. In the past, I’ve taught composition courses where students have to analyze the foundations of a short story. Standing on the other end, on the side where you are given the responsibility to come up with everything about the story, brings different dynamics to how my students and I relate to literature. It’s no longer about, “Oh, look how Poe uses symbolism in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’” You are now Poe and this is your horror story. Now, scare me.

The day came to add to, infer from, and complicate Lydia Davis’s stories. I had students sit in groups of three or four, and each group received one of the four stories. I wanted to see how two groups would respond to the same exercise. I gave them an hour to work on this exercise, and I assigned them two other exercises after that that continued to explore the physics of fiction. The following week a student from each group had to read out loud what the group came up with, since I had them edit the story together outside of class. There was awkwardness. I say awkwardness because it’s a word that seems to work as a shield or tool of empowerment for many students nowadays. That is, in acknowledging how awkward I am I might notice the landscape that lies beyond the awkwardness. Fiction came more naturally for some of them. Some of them missed the days when poetry would tuck them into bed. But there was always a story to write.

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