Kali Fajardo-Anstine Encourages You to Flout the Writing Rules

Ten questions about teaching writing with the author of National Book Award finalist "Sabrina & Corina"

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 Kali Fajardo-Anstine, whose short story collection Sabrina & Corina was a finalist for the National Book Award. Fajardo-Anstine is teaching a five-week masterclass (online, of course!) on the use of point of view in short fiction. Participants will get the opportunity to write four stories in four weeks, each using a different POV—and to receive feedback and instruction from a celebrated writer. We asked Fajardo-Anstine about good writing advice, bad writing advice, and what to eat during workshop.

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

Deadlines. Each workshop I have taken has pushed me to meet a deadline, which in turn has allowed me to produce more work. The bulk of Sabrina & Corina was written during my time in the MFA program at the University of Wyoming and the deadlines allowed me to train myself to produce on a regular schedule. 

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

There's a lot of advice thrown around as gospel. For example, I was once told to never include phone calls in fiction. That's silly. Human beings talk on the phone sometimes. The first rule should be there are no rules, if something is well-written. 

The first rule should be there are no rules, if something is well-written.

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

Revise and cut. As a younger writer, I was often too emotionally attached to my prose. I found it difficult to cut passages or words from sentences. This held me back for a long time. 

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?


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

No, never. I might encourage a student to put a project aside for some time, but I would never tell someone to stop writing. Writing to me is an almost spiritual act. To tell a student to give up is akin to asking someone to stop prayer. 

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

This isn't an either/or question for me. I believe we need a mixture. Writers must understand what they are doing well and also where they may have shortcomings. As a teacher, I am nurturing but I am also honest. This is modeled after the kind of instruction I wished I had more often throughout my schooling. 

To tell a student to give up writing is akin to asking someone to stop prayer.

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

No, in the sense that publication isn't guaranteed. I think students should write toward creating art that meets their own personal standards and tastes. This means reading widely, developing a personal vision.

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

  • Kill your darlings: Revision can be a great pleasure and a pathway to great work. 
  • Show don’t tell: Isn't all storytelling telling
  • Write what you know: Sure, but if you don't know something, learn about it. 
  • Character is plot: Don't laugh at me, but I've truly never heard of this 

What’s the best hobby for writers?

For me, I enjoy long walks. I've walked as a form of meditation and exercise since I was a teenager. I talk to myself on walks, I daydream, I work out plot problems, I invent, and I observe. 

What’s the best workshop snack?

I love raw almonds and Celestial Seasoning's fruit sampler variety pack of tea. 

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