Elisa Wouk Almino Thinks Novels Are Overrated

The literary translator and Hyperallergic editor answers our 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 Elisa Wouk Almino, who’s teaching an online workshop about arts and culture writing in September. A literary translator, Wouk Almino often teaches for Catapult about getting started translating fiction, but for this class she’s drawing on her experience as the senior editor of Hyperallergic to help students write about books, art, music, theater, film, or dance in a way that’s compelling and motivating.

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

The freedom to write whatever I wanted to. I had been so used to assignments and being told what to write about that it was truly revelatory to participate in a workshop. I was given the space to think about what I wanted to explore in my own writing and discover what it is that matters to me. 

When something is unclear or confusing it is often a sign that you (the writer) are confused. 

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

When an instructor is visibly unenthused to be teaching and seems minimally involved in their students’ writing and progress. Students can tell! And it makes workshop less productive. 

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

Be as clear as possible. I should note that I work primarily with nonfiction writers and literary translators, though I personally think clarity is a gift across genres. Susie Linfield, who was the director of my graduate program, always pushed me to be very clear about what it is I wanted to say in my essays. She wrote questions and comments in the margins like, “What does this mean?” and “I can’t picture this.” She helped me to realize that each word in a text matters. Also, when something is unclear or confusing it is often a sign that you (the writer) are confused. 

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

We all have stories to tell. But there are so many different ways to express them and they don’t always have to involve writing a novel or writing at all. I don’t think everyone has to tell their story through a novel. Honestly, the form can be a bit overrated! 

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

I have sometimes encouraged writers to explore different formats of writing that are better suited to their strengths. For instance, some writers are better at reporting than criticism, and vice versa. But I don’t think anyone needs to give up on writing altogether—what a sad thought! If a student has the drive to write, they should listen to that. I also very much believe that writing is a skill that can be worked on and will improve with practice. 

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

I think both are essential. You won’t take the criticism well unless there is praise in there too. 

I don’t think everyone has to tell their story through a novel. Honestly, the form can be a bit overrated!

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

I am generally against this. I remember workshopping one of my pieces and one fellow student asking me where I could publish “this kind of essay” (by “this kind” she meant an essay that didn’t seem to have any contemporary peg). She had a point. But today it is the essay I refer to the most—I’m constantly pulling out ideas and excerpting it in pieces I publish. Workshop is a space to see where your writing will go. I think it’s a better bet to figure out which publication is a good fit for your writing after you’ve explored it, rather than try to fit your writing to a publication. 

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

  • Kill your darlings: Sure, though sometimes I find it’s hard to identify your “darlings.” The sentence that draws a little too much attention to itself, that is just one thought longer than it needs to be, that has one too many adjectives—yes, cut that. But sometimes you land that sentence that feels just beautiful and right—don’t cut that. 
  • Show don’t tell: This is a good one, but as an editor and teacher of art and culture writing sometimes I think writers should tell a bit more—i.e. get to the point and say what they want to say, rather than dance around it with description. 
  • Write what you know: I increasingly think about this one. I think you can write about something you don’t know as long as you do the homework to learn about it. But as with anything you write about, I think you need have some kind of connection with your subject. 
  • Character is plot: Agreed! 

What’s the best hobby for writers?
Anything that involves slowing down and observing the world around you. 

What’s the best workshop snack?
I am a fan of libations. As for food, avoid the crunchy and smelly (unless it’s extremely delicious).

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