Abeer Hoque Is Going to Be Nice to You and You’re Going to Like It
The author of "Olive Witch" recommends positive feedback when teaching writing
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In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This time we’re talking to Abeer Hoque, author of the memoir Olive Witch, who’s teaching a two-week seminar on one of the most challenging forms of writing in existence: the artist’s statement. (Please note that there will be one full scholarship for this course awarded to a Black writer—the deadline to apply is Jan. 25.) We talked about how editing relies on empathy.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I am continually amazed and inspired by how some readers can deliver feedback in a way that energizes and excites rather than enervate and depress. I know some of it has to do with that workshop mantra which I recite to my own students: focus on getting the writer to the best version of their piece. But it’s a gift of empathy and compassion and kindness, as well as a skill of reading and analysis and craft. And it comes in handy not just in writing, but in life. I aspire to be better at it as I go, and luckily, teaching is a great way to learn.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I started my MFA program around the same time my sister was doing her M.Arch and her accounts of their “crits” not only sounded horribly cruel but her fellow students all internalized their “value”—as if it weren’t a good critique unless it made you cry. There’s a lot of that in MFA school, and while my particular program wasn’t that bad, there was still a huge focus on looking for things to fix or expand. I fall into the same track myself sometimes but I want to learn how to teach (and learn) through positivity rather negativity.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
Another Catapult instructor, the brilliant and funny Sofija Stefanovic, asks her students to agree to be extremely kind to each other. I love this so much I adopted it for my own classes. I think it covers so much ground if you start from kindness. The screenwriter Jacob Kreuger is one of my favorite teachers and he warns against prescriptive or negative feedback. He starts workshops by asking people to shout out only what they love and sometimes he stops there too. Because if you know enough about what your readers love, then you might know what to keep and what to change. Either way, only you know how to write your story.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
A la Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, I think everyone has a creative drive. How that plays out could be a novel or a poem or a painting or a song or a dance or a garden or some combination or interstice of art forms. I think it’s more important to make time for that creative impulse, to honor its meaning, and capacity for connection and joy, than wonder if you should write a novel.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
No. Choosing writing as an art form is a big deal, especially for BIPOC, immigrant, poor, undocumented, queer, disabled, and other marginalized communities. We need to read these stories as much as we need to write them. I recognize how much of a privilege it is to be an artist when you’re likely to make little money from making art. I’ve always had another job to pay the bills, but I’ve always worked part time so I’d have time to write. Some hardy full-time-job-having friends of mine have written whole novels in 15-minute chunks, or on weekend/summer breaks. In that vein, I love Audre Lorde’s assertion of poetry as the most essential and economical art form because it requires little in the way of materials (unlike visual art) or labor or time (unlike novels).
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
You can probably guess by now that I’m gonna go with praise!
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
I suppose it depends on what you’re writing. I have a successful YA author friend who once shifted the plot of her novel because the editor thought another ending would sell better. Journalists and essayists might have to conform to a certain style or angle or pitch. That said, my first book project was a memoir, and there was no way I could have started or finished it if I had thought about its publication. It would have been way too stressful imagining what my family might think. I actually had to pretend it would never see the light of day to keep going. I also think it lets me play more with form and meaning, if I don’t have to worry about who will publish it. However, once I have a solid draft done, I’m more than happy to take cues from interested editors or beloved readers or themed lit mag calls in order to revise.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: I just save them in another file.
- Show don’t tell: I lean towards more show, but love a good tell.
- Write what you know: Sure, but if you know why you want to write about what you don’t know, I think it’s a great way to learn about yourself and the world.
- Character is plot: It can be! But plot can also just be plot and glorious for it.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
There is no right answer to this question! I have a zillion hobbies (scrapbooking, dancing, hiking, organizing, cooking, gratitude journaling, gossiping with friends) and I can’t separate them from self-care let alone self-actualization.
What’s the best workshop snack?
I’ve sometimes brought in samosas and empanadas (I live in Queens after all) and people have loved it. But frankly, it’s kinda greasy for your papers and keyboard. At home while writing, I love to eat popcorn with chopsticks!