2014, Archives, November 2014, The MFA Years

The Imagination Lives On: The Challenges of Teaching (Genre) Fiction

By the middle of the fiction unit it was clear some of my students understood that fiction is not just about randomly inventing but also about deliberately constructing worlds and sharing those worlds in an appealing way. For one, students were not ready to produce so much material. Poetry had been a challenging unit for them, but some were getting by with just writing a poem that fit within a page—nothing more. Obviously, poetry asked that they put more attention to how they write about an incident and what the poetic form can do for the incident they chose (this was one poetry exercise, for instance). Therefore, the transition between poetry and fiction was not only abrupt for them, I could also sense the same sentiment as we went over the elements of fiction and they had to apply them to their stories.


Me being me—and always wanting to challenge them while challenging myself—I assigned them a nontraditional assignment: I had them write a modern fairy tale and gave them the option of debunking or defamiliarizing an old one. Their stories had to take place in several modern environments, including a gas station, a beauty parlor, or a supermarket. We talked about what they most enjoy about fairy tales, but as soon as we left the classroom I was already feeling worried for all of us. I had a plan that would either backfire on me or would clarify for them the challenges and pleasures of writing fiction.

We use Moodle to turn in assignments (minus the final manuscript for each unit). I rearrange the makeup of each group for every unit so they can read and hear other voices in the class, and what is great about Moodle is that members of unit subgroups can communicate with one another without others seeing what they’re discussing. This, I think, gives groups a firmer sense of agency and the freedom to share what they want to share in a quasi-intimate space. Once each student submitted his or her modern fairy tale online, for example, all the members in that group had one week to post a sensible critique. I get to see what they’re writing, what their writing and posting schedules are like, and how they engage one another. So what was my true intention behind assigning them something that to the Academy seems quite trivial? I wanted to give them a canvas, and I wanted that canvas to display the following: a) Their approach to the world of the imagination; b) How much control they have over creating this world; c) What clichés would find their way into this landscape; d) How they would approach the elements of fiction; e) What would make their stories authentic, have a heart, and avoid relying on dead tropes. I was fine with their modern fairy tales turning out terrible. The more terrible, I thought, the more I can help them reel in their work and they can see what is effective when they write fiction. More than anything, I wanted them to make mistakes and learn from them. After all, the process of writing is exactly about that symbiosis: writing and editing.

Dina Goldstein


My students wrote some exquisite work. They used social media in their fairy tales. Money had a different purpose in their stories. Worlds burst with color and vibrancy. Naturally, there were also many clichés, stories that relied heavily on what they’ve watched in movies, endings that couldn’t conform to the rest of the story. That is exactly what I wanted, but this was a critical moment for me as an instructor: How would I proceed from what I’d been given? If I gave my students a high grade for effort, would they think the story was thoroughly satisfying on the page, without extra room to grow? Some of them still think revision exclusively happens when a work is undeniably terrible, almost unsalvageable. I’ve had to get them used to the idea that all the best works of literature—and even those E-mails the university administration sends out—have gone through cycles of revision, some minor, others necessitating days to complete. But not everyone has the privilege to write something, sit back, and wait until inspiration comes back for the story to be edited. In a class setting, this modern fairy tale exercise is just one of the many students will write, rewrite, throw away, or bring back to life. I had a list of other writing prompts and exercises that couldn’t be placed on the back burner.

Before seeing what students would write to one another, I had my MFA practicum with some of my colleagues. I walked into the room as if I was going to see the Council of Trent. I knew that by talking to our practicum leader and sharing my ideas with my colleagues, I would get constructive feedback on how I could proceed from the fairy tale world in which I’d put my students. My teaching project was received with excitement but also with caution. I was told that—because of how the world of highbrow literature marginalizes genres like magical realism, science fiction, and speculative fiction—I had to be very careful with the exercises I chose moving forward. Students had to understand that the best speculative stories still say something vital about the world; that the characters inhabiting these fictive worlds also reflect the human condition; that setting needs attention—lots of attention—if we are to believe these characters exist in that space; and that choosing what my students read could help them walk this fine line. All these concerns made sense, and I had a backup plan to accommodate them.

council of trent
Council of Trent


At the beginning of the term, I posted readings on Moodle from Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel García Márquez, and Kafka to help my students navigate through the weirdness of constructed worlds that seem like ours but aren’t. I chose stories that emphasized the elements of fiction but which were broad enough that I could derive exercises from them and have my students resort to while thinking about their own writing. It worked. Students appreciated the possibility of creating new environments, but they also began to perceive the challenges involved in this process. I did bring them back to “reality” by having them write more about their everyday life. Several writing exercises later, they felt more confident about their fiction work, and I read some fantastic pieces.

Image: Jeff Arsenault

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