Alison Kinney Encourages You to Write at the Grocery Store
The author of "Hood" answers our questions about teaching writing—which, she says, it's okay to do however you can
In our monthly 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 Alison Kinney, who’s teaching a six-week nonfiction workshop at Catapult’s New York headquarters, starting May 23. Alison is an accomplished essayist whose writing credits include The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Guardian, The New York Times, Longreads, The Atlantic, L.A. Review of Books, and New Republic, and she’s devoted to helping new and established writers hone their nonfiction craft.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
Jill Ciment, who taught in my MFA program, reserved the right to intervene and shake up the traditional workshop whenever she believed a story needed it. It helped me see that writers approach audiences with different needs, and not all workshops are equal in their ability to recognize, welcome, or critique those needs. As workshop participants, we’re also learning how to read and respond better, and sometimes we need leadership for that, which is one kind of teaching.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I saw a teacher mock a student’s writing. Without having yet had the experience—which I’ve had since—of seeing a very raw beginner develop great craft, I knew that this was abusive, wrongful teaching. Beyond that, it reinforced the myth that writers are talented or untalented, rather than engaged in constantly shifting self-reinvention.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
We don’t have to be, and mostly aren’t, the writers we always thought we were. It’s easy to write when we’re teenagers journaling, or we get the optimal conditions of, say, silence, when we’re in the right mood, and it’s dawn on retreat in Tuscany. Optimal conditions exist, and lucky writers do get to enjoy them all the time. But the rest of us have to learn to scribble on the backs of bills on buses, or in text messages in line at the grocery. Many people fail to become the writers they could be, because they don’t know that this kind of haphazard, limited practice is not only acceptable, but also productive. Learning and accepting this is a kind of discipline, though: we need to believe that it’s okay, and keep working at it, so that if we do get six uninterrupted hours, we’re ready for that gift, too.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
We all have lives full of experiences and stories, and if we want to share them, we need communities to encourage the sharing. But a novel is a highly mediated, long piece of prose writing, not a life. Wanting to share a story, or to have shared it (!), is not the same thing as wanting to sit down for three or 30 years, giving up movies and vacations and developing bad posture, all for the sake of engagement with the form and the practice.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
A lot of writers give up because it’s hard. That’s not reason enough, because for many of us writing is always hard, it never lets up, and we prevail through it, not despite it.
But I would, and have, encouraged a student who really, really hated writing to concentrate, instead, on what she loved: editing other people’s work. Writing isn’t the only way to engage with words. But you might not hate it for all time: it’s okay to stop and to reassess this decision later. Art requires dedication and a practice—but these are not linear, not based on a capitalist notion of success on a timeline you’re supposed to achieve by the time you’re 24, or, god help us, 44. (I’m 44.) Or 74. You can stop—and later, only if you want to, because you want to, you can resume, differently.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
We all need both, but sometimes we need more one than the other so that we keep writing. So many wonderful writers are inhibited by fears that have nothing to do with their talent. The right kind of praise can show them opportunities and openings in their language that they didn’t have any faith in. But we should also be thinking of criticism as an opportunity to think better, to challenge ourselves to come up with better solutions.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
Sometimes? Let’s not kid ourselves that established writers don’t pee themselves when their agents successfully place their stories in The New Yorker, and that they didn’t write with this in the forefront of their minds, and that this isn’t a craft concern just as much as a market concern?
I think that a lot of students get told by gatekeepers to concentrate on their craft rather than the market, because teachers think of ourselves as guardians of true literary standards—standards that we, of course, meet, and should be paid money and given jobs and prestigious residencies for. But nobody who professionalizes is perfect; some of us start better prepared than others; and we are all, always, working on our craft all the time. Teachers should think really hard about how we determine readiness, and for whom.
I want us all to work on writing better, but thinking of classrooms and craft as the final arbiters of success and failure doesn’t totally square with reality. Good writers are competing against someone who doesn’t need to incorporate workshop feedback into her memoir because she’s the granddaughter of the CEO of the publishing house and got her first chapter published in Big Time Literary Magazine. So I don’t think we should pretend that the literary market isn’t willing to concede its high standards, all the time, for the sake of adjacency to power, and then redefine those standards to accommodate.
I try to teach about publication by preparing students to face inequitable literary markets. They need to know to fight for their voices as WELL as writing as well as they can. These realities exist, and we can simultaneously try to compete, try to change or burn down the standards, and try to build up our own communities and each other, to shift paradigms.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings—A lot of my students kill everything, too soon, by deleting everything, so that they have nothing to work with at all. So, until the rest of the draft has advanced to the point where your grooviest initial idea, the one that made you want to write the piece at all, has become comparatively trite or insufficient and needs to be reworked or cut, you shouldn’t delete anything.
- Show don’t tell—I think that what we should be asking ourselves is, “Does sitting with this anecdote/scene, exploring it at length, add to the arc of the overall narrative, or is it jut a small factoid we need in order to reach another point? Which of these two decisions serves the narrative better?”
- Write what you know—Rather, “write what you’ve learned.” The ways that we know, even about ourselves and more especially about others, should be active, reflective, searching, and both experience- and evidence-based.
- Character is plot—Not all maxims apply to all stories, but sometimes any maxim can goad you to find the direction or shape you need to keep moving, regardless of your goals. I have all kinds of silly writing advice pasted into my drafts, and it’s not there to force me to conform, but to remind me that I can get absolutely LOST parsing irrelevant details, and a simple “WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY” can get me back on track.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
Any hobby that makes the prospect of writing feel more rewarding by comparison. But any writer would rather vacuum an apartment, dust all the books, and launder everything that doesn’t move, than sit down to write. I will do my taxes rather than write. Basically, I can’t have hobbies, or chores, or friends.
What’s the best workshop snack?
Something that nobody in workshop is allergic to, and something that doesn’t have a strong smell: containable. Since a lot of us are rife with eating and body issues: a snack that makes you feel well-cared-for, whether it’s indulgent, or it tamps down your triggers.