Tara Campbell Doesn’t Think You Need to Fix Every Critique

Ten questions about teaching writing with the author of "TreeVolution"

Photo of Tara Campbell by Anna Dewitt Carson

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 Tara Campbell, author of a novel, TreeVolution, and four collections: Circe’s Bicycle, Midnight at the Organporium, Political AF: A Rage Collection, and Cabinet of Wrath: A Doll Collection. Campbell teaches introductory Catapult workshops on speculative fiction: check out her profile to see her upcoming classes. She talked to us about restraint, ambiguity, and writing vs. publishing. 

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

The concept of restraint, and the idea that I can trust my reader to put more things together. I’ve pared back my use of adjectives over the years, and I’m also experimenting with a dash of ambiguity as a spice.

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

At first, I felt like I wanted to “fix” every issue that came up in a workshop. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t supposed to be answering all of the questions in my manuscript–they were supposed to help me define what I wanted the work to be doing. That’s something I wish I’d heard explicitly from instructors earlier on.

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

I wouldn’t want a student to feel like a failure just because they’re not getting anything published.

I find myself returning to these questions from David Mamet again and again: “Every scene should be able to answer three questions: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?” I find them helpful not at the beginning of the writing process, but when you get to the muddle in the middle and start to question why you’re even writing this thing.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

Great question. I know there’s tremendous pressure toward novels, but I don’t think everyone has to write one. I’ve gotten swept away by short stories and flashes that have stuck with me longer than many novels I’ve read. I want to read your truths, whatever the word count. The connection is what I’ll remember.

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

No, never. I might, however, encourage a student to focus on writing and not worry about publishing right away. Those two aren’t the same thing, and I wouldn’t want a student to feel like a failure just because they’re not getting anything published.

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

I don’t think anyone should write with publication in mind.

Stepping back a bit, I’m a fan of starting with a brief synopsis to clarify what I’m seeing on the page, which helps me determine what the author’s intention might be. Without that clarity, any other praise or questions/suggestions (my preference over the word “criticism”) may not be of use to the author. It’s hard to help someone get to where they want to be when you’ve misread where they want to go, and it’s important for the author to know if multiple folks are having the same problem.

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

I don’t think anyone should write with publication in mind. The story is going to come out of you, but whether it ever sees a submission queue is another matter. You might be inspired by a call for entry, which is great, but I’d caution against letting the call and the submission deadline squeeze the story into a shape it doesn’t want to take. There will always be more calls, and I find it freeing to focus on the story itself rather than who might accept it.

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

  • Kill your darlings: Don’t kill them, just cut and paste them into another document to live another day.
  • Show don’t tell: All absolutes are flawed. (See what I did there?) I like to say show more than tell, to give your reader a chance to participate in creating meaning, but also keep them on the right path when absolutely essential.
  • Write what you know: Or research the hell out of what you don’t know. And even then, depending on what it is, know that you may have to find a different way to tell the story.
  • Character is plot: Okay, I’m down with this one—mostly. Actions do reveal character, but it can also be helpful to peep into a character’s thoughts to know whether they’re conflicted about what they’re doing, and if so, why.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Anything that doesn’t involve thinking about reading or writing. When I was stressed out by the pandemic, I turned to knitting, because I could let my mind wander and still feel productive—if this can be called productive. Exercise is great too, especially after sitting at our desks for so many hours. And gardening has been a gift, digging my hands in dirt and eating tomatoes from my own little balcony garden months later.

What’s the best workshop snack?

Almonds. They’re my go-to. They don’t stink up the workshop room and you can shovel them into your face endlessly while still pretending to be healthy.

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