Rachel Kincaid Believes in Writing Into Your Questions, Challenges, and Confusion

10 questions about writing with author and Catapult instructor Rachel Kincaid

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 Rachel Kincaid, a fiction writer, reporter, and cultural critic. Check out her 3-week online nonfiction seminar on exploratory writing. We talked to Kincaid about writing into your questions, why the concrete details are critical to the emotional heft, and the importance of busy work for a writers’ hands.

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

I had an early writing teacher, Thisbe Nissen, who was informed by Frank Conroy’s pyramid of meaning-making in stories, the bottom base layer of which is “meaning, sense and clarity.” She was very focused in workshops on solving material problems in the text. I remember I had written a story about a mermaid who had been captured by a fisherman and kept captive in a tank in his basement. In workshop, I wanted to talk about the character and thematic stuff, and Thisbe made us focus on the tank: how big was it? What shape? Could the mermaid move around? How did the logistics work? As a 20-year-old, these felt like trivial details, but in the long term it was so helpful to be really incentivized to make sure the living world of the piece was fully airtight before you even came to the table to talk about the abstract stuff. I didn’t understand at the time, but the concrete details end up being inextricable from the “big” emotional moving parts of the work; they’re the atoms that make it up.

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

Without pointing fingers unnecessarily, I think the least helpful workshops for me were ones where you could see a pattern where the instructor’s suggestions clearly hewed to the instructor’s own set of interests or aesthetic preferences rather than responding to something the text or the writer are clearly trying to accomplish. Those end up being classes that are training in how to write for a certain audience, or in worst case scenarios, how to write like the instructor — which have their place if that’s what you sign up for, but is different than a workshop. To me, a workshop doesn’t answer the question “What do I, the instructor, think would make this piece better?” but “what is this writer trying to do with this piece, and how can we help them get there?”

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

I often respond to questions, confusion, or challenges people experience as writers by suggesting they “write into it” or “write toward it” — I’m starting to wonder if that’s my tic in teaching situations, like the way my therapist will tell me to “notice that feeling” several times a session. Not sure whether the memory you wanted to write about actually happened to you or to your sister? Maybe that’s what the essay is about, write into it! Can’t figure out where to go in the piece after you describe your toxic college friendship? Write about why it’s hard to figure out what to say! Even if it doesn’t stay in the final piece, it will help you understand something by working it through on the page. The writing isn’t what you do after you have everything figured out; the writing is the figuring it out.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

Sure! I don’t know that everyone has, say, a novel that would get sold to a Big Five publisher, but I don’t think that matters that much. Writing and publication are different things that don’t necessarily have to be related.

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

If it was making them miserable, of course, like anything else — if they felt like they were only still writing because they felt they had to, or they were ashamed to “give up,” or were only writing in order to be a certain kind of person. If you feel relieved at the thought of “giving up,” you should! It’s not curing cancer; there are so many worthy and valuable things to do with your life!

The writing isn’t what you do after you have everything figured out; the writing is the figuring it out.

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

I’m realizing from this question that I don’t necessarily think of workshops as a place for praise or criticisms, more making observations. I was raised to see workshops as a place where you could get useful information about what readers were taking away from your work, and measure it against what you had been aiming for. I think now I hope that workshops can also be a place of collective problem-solving, where the combined insight and experience of the workshop can open up things about your own work that you couldn’t see on your own; I don’t think either praise or criticism has a monopoly on that. 

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

I think you edit with publication in mind, but don’t write that way – especially as now thinking about publication often means thinking about the internet, which is not a helpful element to have in your head with you as you write. To me, the most valuable kind of writing is the kind you’re able to do in the spirit of exploration or without locking yourself into a specific outcome, and writing for publication often precludes that.

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

  • Kill your darlings: Sometimes a part of the work is more for you than it is for the reader; that’s fine and part of the process, just be honest with yourself when it happens.
  • Show don’t tell: It’s not this absolute. Scene and summary/exposition both have their function; the goal is to make sure they’re working in concert.
  • Write what you know: A fair edict to keep in mind when it comes to presenting a perspective from a place of lived experience or identity; in terms of process, you do have to draw from what you know but it’s crucial to also write from curiosity, toward unresolved questions.
  • Character is plot: I hesitate to declare broadly that plot is anything in particular, but I do think that plot has a hard time succeeding without the characters really working. Historically, people have tended not to care much about what’s happening unless they care about who it’s happening to.

To me, the most valuable kind of writing is the kind you’re able to do in the spirit of exploration or without locking yourself into a specific outcome

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Something that uses the spatial & tactile parts of your brain, and ideally that occupies your hands so you can’t be on your phone: gardening, knitting, hairstyling, woodworking. Good writing thinking often happens when you’re doing something totally unrelated; nice to create those moments intentionally.

What’s the best workshop snack?

Dietary restrictions notwithstanding, I love a little cheese and crackers or charcuterie setup; I think a little bit of hands-on snack assembly helps get everyone in a constructive mindset.

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