The Real Reason Anna Qu Wants You to Pay Attention to Praise
Ten questions about teaching writing with essayist Anna Qu
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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 Made in China author Anna Qu, who will be leading a year-long Online Memoir Generator for writers of color at Catapult—to apply, please submit a chapter from your memoir-in-progress (up to 25 pages), or your strongest writing sample, with a short proposed project description attached. Qu talked with us about finding community, taking risks, and establishing trust with yourself.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
A community of fellow writers that continue to show up, support, and celebrate each other’s trials and success.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
That my work was unbelievable and felt made up.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
JoAnn Beard once told me if a story isn’t working, start over or write something new. That felt brutal and profound at the time, but now, especially after I started teaching, that perspective feels necessary and true.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
Sure, if they want to have a novel in them.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
No. Maybe a hostage situation? Sounds like a writing prompt!
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Praise is an opportunity to assess the feedback you are receiving from fellow writers. From their praise, you can tell if your story resonated. Do they get it? Are they able to help you get your points across more fully? Praise is as much an opportunity to establish trust and mutual understanding as it is to encourage. If the writer agrees with the positive feedback, then they should look at the criticism. In my classes, we don’t criticize so much as raise questions, connect themes, strategize plot possibilities, etc.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
Yes and no. Get the content down any way you can. A few drafts later, after you shape the structure, characters, and the reader’s experience, you can begin to think about publication. It’s important to remember that while we write alone, publication is when our work joins a much larger community. Once you move into the editing process, it’s smart to do research on lit journals, magazines, blogs, and understand the conversation your work will be joining. Publication is the last step in the overall process and one that does a great deal to energize and validate emerging writers.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: Still useful in the context of focusing a large project, but there are no true do’s and don’ts in writing.
- Show don’t tell: Show and tell are not mutually exclusive. Show is especially effective in writing compelling scenes, especially if we’re working with emotional arcs.
- Write what you know: Yes, especially when it comes to identity, race, gender, disability, etc. And if you are writing about characters or situations that’s not familiar, make sure you find/pay a sensitivity reader.
- Character is plot: This is true for my writing, but I wouldn’t say it’s true for all writers.
All these maxims derive from craft tools developed for the workshop model, and as we grow and evolve as writers so should the model. These maxims are a guide, not a rule. Once you have foundational understanding, trust yourself and take some risks. Figure out what does and doesn’t work for you as a writer.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
Physically, the best hobbies are walking, hiking, or traveling. I also like to paint, and I always encourage my students to interact with other mediums of art and creation. Writing nonfiction can be intense emotionally and physically, and it’s good self-care practice to play with other art forms that can stimulate the same part of the brain.
What’s the best workshop snack?