Mila Jaroniec Doesn’t Want You to Be Precious About Your Writing

10 questions about teaching writing with novelist Mila Jaroniec

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 month we’re featuring author and creative writing instructor Mila Jaroniec, who is teaching Catapult’s upcoming 12-month novel generator. We talked to Jaroniec about the importance of reading for writing, not doing things you don’t want to do, and the best beverage rotation for a workshop.


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

Permission to create freely. When I took Frederic Tuten’s Radical Fiction seminar, I had already been in several writing workshops, where I heard a lot of do this/don’t do that that was making me doubt whether I even had any business trying to write fiction. But his approach was so refreshing. It was about taking risks and trust-falling your visions rather than writing a perfect book. He said things like, “Do what you want and don’t be frightened” and “Put everything in your first novel, even the kitchen sink. No one’s looking at you, no one expects anything.” 

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

An anxiety disorder! No, I’m joking, I already had that. 

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

It reminds me to start at the roots and never be precious.

Faulkner: “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” 

It reminds me to start at the roots and never be precious. And that a good book always succeeds on its own terms.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

No.

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

I never have, but I can see myself encouraging them to take a step back if writing is somehow painful to them? If it causes great distress with no joy, zero return on investment, and yet they still feel pressure to produce, I would probably invite them to examine that. It wouldn’t be like “you suck and should quit writing” but more like, “you don’t have to write if you don’t want to.” We do so many things we don’t actually want to do, that we feel some weird inherited pressure to do. I remind myself of that first, when I feel like my head is on fire. 

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

It depends. If the project is young, praise. You can’t trim a plant before it’s done growing (I think—I’m not a plant person, so maybe you can, but you know what I mean). Early drafts, if they’re being put in front of eyes at all, benefit the most from encouragement for what glows. If it’s several drafts in, I think criticism with the writer’s goals in mind is more useful. At that point it’s complete enough to really pinpoint what’s out of alignment.

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

It’s good to have a goal. Sometimes that’s publication, sometimes it isn’t.

It’s good to have a goal. Sometimes that’s publication, sometimes it isn’t. But I would encourage students—especially in a workshop/class situation, where their writing is being scrutinized—to get clear on their goals, whatever they are, so the feedback has a chance to be helpful.

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

  • Kill your darlings: Agree, but you have options! You can also “lovingly displace your darlings” or “cryogenically freeze your darlings.”
  • Show don’t tell: You have to tell a little, or else it’s experimental poetry. 
  • Write what you know: Boring and limiting. I think it should be, write towards your obsessions.
  • Character is plot: I feel gaslit by this one, because we see evidence of it being true and yet, a lack of plot is usually the first thing that gets your manuscript booted. 

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Anything that gets you off your ass and out of your head.

What’s the best workshop snack?

I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to eat during workshop, but I always have at least three beverages in rotation. Tea, seltzer, and (nonalcoholic) wine.

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