Dawnie Walton Says Trash TV Might Actually Help You Write

The former Tin House Scholar answers our ten questions about teaching writing

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 Dawnie Walton, who’s teaching an eight-week fiction workshop at Catapult’s New York HQ. From rigorous, collaborative group feedback to readings by writers who have mastered the trickiest elements of fiction, this course will inspire you and renew your commitment to your work.

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

My favorite workshops have all had one thing in common, and in some ways it puts me in mind of the “yes, and…” rule at the heart of improvisational comedy: Everyone in the circle embraces the core terms of your story—its style/genre, for instance, or the makeup of its central characters—and from that standpoint they help you refine and build. Any critique, then, is a nudge toward clarity and the development of meaning, toward more ambition and audaciousness within the context you’ve provided. I’ve left a workshop like this feeling tingly with possibilities, and raring to get back to work. 

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

I really resent when a workshop harps on relatively small, easily fixable problems (an obvious mistake in math, for example). Bringing such an error to the writer’s attention is helpful, of course, but piling on to the degree of mocking is petty. It’s also a failure of the instructor to keep the workshop on track.

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

You don’t need to stick to a detailed map or even have a destination in mind before you sit down to start the damn story.

Here’s a goodie from my years yearning to write fiction but intimidated by the how of it: You don’t need to stick to a detailed map or even have a destination in mind before you sit down to start the damn story. It’s okay not to know what you’re driving toward—in fact, I’ve found the not-knowing can lead to more natural narrative movement and open the possibility of characters ending up in those “surprising, yet inevitable” places. (The twin lesson, of course, is that writing is re-writing—the first draft, though very educational for you, will probably be a glorious wreck.)

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

No, and that’s fine! There are so many beautiful ways to write that story percolating inside you. Maybe you bear down on pieces of it in short fiction, or refract it through poetry, or directly address it via memoir… The point is, you can find the form that feels right for you.

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

Give up writing, period? Never. But I might suggest taking a break from one challenging project in order to regain perspective and/or mental health. (Even then, I’d recommend the student write something else, something joyful and untied to expectations, to stay inspired and in practice.)  

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

It depends where the writer is in the process. Personally, I find praise to be most helpful during early drafting—as in “This knocks me out; give me more of that, please.” In later drafts, when a story has a more definite shape and direction, I’m most interested in criticism about what feels extraneous, what impedes propulsion, etc.  

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

My advice would be to write thinking not of publication, per se, but of your intended reader.

No… but it’s complicated. Most writers (myself included) dream about our work finding a home beyond our own laptops, but I’m hesitant to say writers should be worrying about anything except developing their singular voices. So my advice would be to write thinking not of publication, per se, but of your intended reader—not whoever you imagine to be on the other side of Submittable, but the audience for/about whom you are writing. If you come out of that process with a piece you feel proud to claim, a piece that makes sense to your readers while also engaging their brains and their hearts, you’ve gotten as close to publication-ready as is in your control. 

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

  • Kill your darlings: Yes, if they are gumming up the works (and c’mon—in the pit of your stomach, you know when they are!). But save those lil babies in a separate file; just because they don’t belong in a particular story doesn’t mean they’re not beautiful, and you never know how they might serve you later.
  • Show don’t tell: Both showing and telling are necessary. My general rule of thumb has been to show what I want the reader to remember, and to tell relevant supporting details. 
  • Write what you know: …and then dig deeper.
  • Character is plot: I doubt it’s true for everyone, but for me, extrapolating on a character — what X type of person might do in Y situation — has always helped generate plot for me.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

I find the visual arts so inspiring, especially photography. When I’m at a gallery or museum studying a portrait, I’ll often hold off on reading the adjacent description—it’s fun making up the story behind the still.

But I also love watching TV, prestige to pure trash. It helps me process modern culture and politics, which are generally central to my work.

What’s the best workshop snack?

I know I’m supposed to prefer something that doesn’t make much noise or mess, but I would be a liar if I did not pledge my fealty to the kettle chip. (There’s an art to eating them discreetly, I swear.)

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