Maria Kuznetsova Thinks You Should Go Ahead and Be Weird

The author of "Oksana, Behave!" answers our questions about teaching writing—and staying true to yourself

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 Maria Kuznetsova, author of Oksana, Behave!, who’s teaching an upcoming six-week workshop about writing young narrators. If you’re interested in creating a teen viewpoint protagonist who’s relatable, entertaining, and not too precious for adult audiences, this class will help you analyze works that get it right and break down how you can use those techniques in your own writing.

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

My teacher Ethan Canin often talks about how every story should have only one “emotional question.” It can have as many characters, settings, plots, and subplots as you want, but the story should only be actively investigating one thing, which can be as direct as “Why do people die?,” to hang together. My stories tend to be pretty packed with characters and subplots, and having this in the back of my head has helped me see how everything hangs together—and to be able to tell more easily when something is distracting or out of place. 

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

The worst thing I’ve gotten out of a writing class is seeing an instructor or a group of students trying to make a story into something that is more easy to digest .

The worst thing I’ve gotten out of a writing class is seeing an instructor or a group of students trying to make a story into something it didn’t want to be—something that is more easy to digest or discuss as opposed to thinking of the goals of the writer. In other words, I’ve seen writers be discouraged for being “weird,” and encouraged the get rid of the strange parts of their writing because they didn’t quite feel plausible in the real world. 

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

Treat writing like a job. Though waiting for the muse to visit or the conditions to be sufficiently inspiring may make writing seem more exciting, treating my writing like a job I have to show up to no matter how sad, overwhelmed, distracted, or uninspired I’ve felt has helped me stick to my work, no matter what was going on. Sure, I was lucky to have many moments of inspiration in there, but that didn’t mean I didn’t get plenty of work done when I wasn’t feeling particularly excited to write. 

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

Yes, and as the old saying goes, “…and that’s where it should stay!” Just kidding—I actually don’t think that every writer has a novel in them, and that’s okay. Some writers are wildly talented short story writers and feel pressure to work on a novel for sales reasons, which is really a shame. And I think many novelists can’t write a story for their lives, and that’s okay too!  

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

I can’t imagine I would ever do this—unless writing is so very painful for the student that it was ruining their life in some major way. 

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

I think that praise is more important, especially for writers who are starting out, and I’m not just saying that for touchy-feely reasons, but because I really believe writers need to know where the heat of their writing is before they can get better. In workshop, there can be a tendency to focus on character and plot and on cutting out the weird parts that don’t quite fit in the story yet, so I like to point out the moments where the writing really came alive for me, even if that particular bit didn’t quite make sense in the current iteration of the story, so the writer can either expand that part, or take note and use it for something else. I think most writers can improve the scenes, characters, and plots of their writing, but it’s much harder to create electric moments, and nearly impossible to hit pure gold, so it’s important to know when you do. 

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

I like to say, ‘Write about what you don’t know about what you know.’

No! Not at first, at least. I think you should write for several years, or for as long as it takes, to really find your voice and material—and only then should you worry about whether your material is “saleable” (one of my least favorite words on earth). Once you do find your footing as a writer, then of course it’s important to write, or at least to revise, with publication in mind, if you have the goal of finding an agent and selling your work to a publisher. But ideally, you should work on making your writing the best it can be on its own terms, instead of, say, throwing in a love affair or cutting back on the lyrical passages you love only because you think it’ll make your work more marketable. If you’re lucky—and this part does require a ton of luck—you’ll find someone who likes the best version of your work. 

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

  • Kill your darlings—Do it when you need to, but you can always use your darlings in another story! 
  • Show don’t tell—Telling can be important, especially when your readers are lost.
  • Write what you know—This can often get you started, but I like to say, “Write about what you don’t know about what you know” or “Write what you’re curious about.”
  • Character is plot—I thought character was…character? Though characters have to be interesting enough to make you follow them, which I suppose relates to plot. 

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Anything that lets them turn off their brains! I recommend running or watching The Bachelorette

What’s the best workshop snack?

Does white wine count as a snack? 

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