10 Questions About Teaching Writing with Lynn Steger Strong

In our first “Can Writing Be Taught?” feature, we ask the instructor of Catapult’s novel generator course all our burning questions

I n our new monthly series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we’re partnering with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. (We have ten of these questions. One of them is about snacks.) This month we’re talking to Lynn Steger Strong, author of Hold Still, who’s teaching Catapult’s first-ever year-long novel generator course. Students will be guided through the process of creating and selling a novel, both the creative aspects—finding the story, drafting, refining—and the industry aspects like query letters and building an author platform. In addition to Catapult, Strong also teaches writing at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, the Pratt Institute, and Columbia University, so we were dying to hear her opinions on whether—and how—writing can be taught.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

I had an instructor in grad school who really pushed the idea of constraints. So much of what is paralyzing about writing fiction especially is that there are so many choices, so many different directions to take a piece of writing or a character, but this instructor introduced me to the idea that one can place simple limits on one’s work: write a novel over a period of a week, force yourself to stay inside a scene, see what happens when you place two characters in a small space. Some of the most expansive fiction arises when the writer does not look further but harder and more pointedly.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

The paralysis that comes from wanting to please everyone, forgetting somewhere along the way to write the thing that I set out to write.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

How are the parts informing the whole? So many writers can write truly vivid and impressive moments or scenes or descriptions, but novels need those pieces to accrue and work together to create the experience of a book. I am constantly asking students to break their books down to their most essential parts and then to analyze how each of those parts are moving and evolving and how they might better serve the whole.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

There are so many factors involved in this question, not least of which is the question of does everyone have a good novel in them? (The answer to which is, of course, no.) The greatest hindrance to novel-writing, in my experience, is time: whether one has the privilege of having access to it, whether one has the endurance to show up for it every day. I think novels are harder than most people think they are when they start them. The people who finish are the ones who stick around after realizing what they signed up for is so much more daunting than they could have known when they began.

Some of the most expansive fiction arises when the writer does not look further but harder and more pointedly.

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

Only if they weren’t interested in working harder than they ever have before.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

I think we should be always be talking about the two in tandem, as they inevitably overlap. One’s strengths as a writer often directly inform their weaknesses. They can also be applied to them. A person who is good at voice tends to use it as a crutch, sometimes to the detriment of plot or structure; a person who is good at plot sometimes ignores the development of character. No one is good at everything, but also no one has to be, so it’s worth considering how to employ one’s strengths to overcome one’s weaknesses. If you’re not interested in visual description, build a world in which the narrator’s voice gives the book its texture and its life; if plot doesn’t interest you, focus on the inevitable tensions and conflicts inherent in smaller moments over a shorter period of time.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

Students should write with some idea of a reader, if only because language is a tool of communication, and I’m not sure you’re writing well if you’re not considering how to shape your language and your story with a reader in mind. With regard to publishing, the market seems to me to be such a constructed and elusive beast that it seems sort of pointless and maybe impossible to write with it in mind.

No one is good at everything, but also no one has to be, so it’s worth considering how to employ one’s strengths to overcome one’s weaknesses.

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: The parts are only as effective as they are serving the whole.
  • Show don’t tell: Absolutely. Until whatever it is you have to say is so urgent that you need to tell as well.
  • Write what you know: And then learn more so you have more to say.
  • Character is plot: The wants and fears of characters knocking up against one another, as well as those of others, are the plot.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

This is a wholly biased and perhaps not useful opinion, but I run every morning, and I can’t work if I haven’t sweat and cleared my head this way.

What’s the best workshop snack?

Gin.

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