The Real Writing Workshop Was the Friends We Made Along the Way

Ten questions about teaching writing with Dario Diofebi

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 time we’re talking to Dario Diofebi, author of Paradise, Nevada, who will be teaching an eight-week seminar on plotting your novel: how do you structure a story without getting bogged down in formulas and rules? Dario shared with us his thoughts on pursuing lepidoptery, taking care of your reader, and coming out of writing class with a valuable network of friends.

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

Writer friends. A network of talented people who are eager to talk about unpublished fiction with you for hours each week. It’s hard to overstate how rare this is, and how valuable. When you’re starting out especially, when it’s hard to tell yourself what you’re doing matters, being part of a group is a real blessing.

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

I feel like students at times make the mistake of focusing too much on the one class when their pages are workshopped, and coast the rest of the time. It’s selfish, obviously, but also shortsighted: the most vital learning you’ll do in a workshop, I find, happens while you’re reading and editing for your classmates. It makes you a better reader of your own work, which long-term is the one skill you want to take away from a workshop. In a couple years, you might not care at all about the story you were working on during that class, but the skills you’ve acquired as an editor will stay with you, and make you a better writer. 

The most vital learning you’ll do in a workshop, I find, happens while you’re reading and editing for your classmates.

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

Love your reader. This has been said in many ways by many great writers, and it feels to me like the foundation all other writing advice is built upon. Writing may well be self-expression, but the most important person remains the one who chooses to give you their precious time and attention. Take good care of them.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

It’s plausible that everyone owns at least one really interesting story, somewhere. Not everyone has the persistence, the discipline, and, frankly, the luxury of time at their disposal to do so in novel form. Nor should they want to: there’s lots of ways to tell stories, novels are just one (and not a particularly popular one at that).

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

No, I really don’t see what the point would be. But I do try to give students realistic expectations about what writing careers look like, these days. It’s easy to idealize the writing life, and the reality of it can hit hard. Ultimately though, if someone really wants to write, they’ll find a way to do it anyway. 

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

In a vacuum I’d say both are equally necessary. If I think back to my own experience, though, it’s definitely praise (or really, support and encouragement) that’s helped me more.

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

It’s easy to idealize the writing life, and the reality of it can hit hard.

If by publication we mean the publishing industry, then no, it’s pointless. Chasing trends or trying to predict what that singularly irrational system will end up valuing next gets you nothing but frustration. If by “publication” we mean should we think of the reader, then yes, constantly. 

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

  • Kill your darlings: Cut/paste your darlings onto a separate file you promise yourself you’re going to revisit soon (though probably not). Do keep some of your darlings though: over-edited fiction feels dry and lifeless.
  • Show don’t tell: If you’re good at telling in an exciting, engaging way, go ahead and tell me things too. 
  • Write what you know: Maybe, but know lots of things. Be aware of the limits of your knowledge, respectful, and diligent, but by all means be curious. Fiction is exploration.
  • Character is plot: Sometimes, sure. But other times plot will be the thing that drives you, and your characters will have to scramble to adapt, and that’s fine too.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

Lepidoptery, I hear. I myself am partial to Rubik’s cubes though. 

What’s the best workshop snack?

I could never really feel comfortable snacking during class, but I do recommend a cup of tea.

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