Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Teaching Writing: An Interview with Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki is a fiction writer and writing instructor. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, The LA Times West Magazine, Cutbank, and Meridian. She recently returned from a semester teaching creative writing at her alma mater, Oberlin College. Starting June 3, she will teach a class called Introduction to Fiction Writing for Vroman's Ed, as well as a private writing workshop for teenagers. Edan was good enough to sit down and answer some questions about teaching writing, writing workshops, and how she balances writing and teaching.

How long have you been teaching creative writing?

I’ve been teaching since the fall of 2004, when I began graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, I taught a required general education course called The Interpretation of Literature, and then a class called Creative Writing Studio, which covered fiction, nonfiction and poetry in one breathless semester. Since Iowa, I’ve been teaching fiction writing privately and at Vroman’s Ed, and online with Gotham Writers’ Workshop. This spring I returned to academia to teach fiction writing at my alma mater, Oberlin College. That makes almost 4 years of teaching. Wow!

I know lots of people don’t believe talent can be taught. What’s your response to that? Is there really a way to teach someone to be a good fiction writer?

I don’t think talent can be taught, but I do believe it can be nurtured, and that a good teacher should shed light on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Many students come to me with terrific and daring voices, but without any idea how to write a scene, or how to get a character across the room, or how to use a semi-colon, or how to make two characters talk to each other in dynamic ways, and so on and so forth. It’s my mission, I think, to give them these tools. I can teach someone to write good fiction, for sure—whether it’s great? Well, that’s up to the student. A lot of what people call talent is really just hard work, perseverance, and passion—both for writing, and reading.

What sort of techniques do you like to focus on in an introductory course? How does an introductory course differ from a more advanced one?

In any introductory course, I cover the basics of fiction writing technique. I always begin with character, and from there move on to voice, point of view, scene/summary, and dialogue. Along the way, we also discuss prose style, plot/dramatic conflict, and endings. In my beginning classes, I assign writing exercises designed to tackle whatever craft technique we’re exploring that week, and the stories we read are also discussed from that angle. In my more advanced classes, there isn’t such a design—there are no weekly topics, for instance—and I run formal workshops, where students critique each other’s work. In the intro class, students are welcome to share their writing, but it’s not required.

All of my classes are challenging, a little raucous, and definitely fun. I try to create a relaxed environment, where people are comfortable enough to share their thoughts.

Who are some writing teachers who have had an influence on you, both on how you write and how you teach?

Dan Chaon, my professor at Oberlin (and recently my colleague!), was my mentor for a long time. He was always supportive of my work, but he gave in-depth criticism too, and I’ve strived to adopt that same balance in my teaching. More than any other teacher, Dan pushed me to explore material that some might call too dark, too sad, too messed up. I think whatever emotional resonance I attempt in my work has its origins in the lessons I got from him.

At Iowa, Chris Offutt was a tough teacher whose high standards made me work harder. I’ve certainly inherited his intolerance for certain verbs and weak language! I also loved working one-on-one with Samantha Chang, the new director of the program. She was masterful at discussing a story’s structure, and asking pretty tough questions that I usually didn’t know the answer to (but thought about for days afterward). She didn’t provide easy, technical solutions to stories, and I appreciated that. It made me think deeply about my work, as I hope my students begin to do after working with me.

How important is it for a writer to workshop her work, to have her peers critique it?

I think a writer should show their work to at least two readers; it’s wonderful to have that kind of support, and to be challenged by people who get your aesthetic. A workshop can be really helpful (and terrifying—but in a good way), but I don’t believe it needs to be a part of a writer’s life forever. The thing is, in a workshop you learn the most not from the feedback you get, but the feedback you give. Learning to critique other people’s writing is so illuminating, and it will make you treat your own writing more objectively.

Do you ever worry that teaching takes away from your own writing? Keith Gessen has recently written about the trap of academia, how it can be the only way for a writer to sustain himself, but also a convenient way to avoid actually writing?

Teaching is definitely time consuming, and it can be a terrific way to avoid writing (I think I’ve mastered the art of avoiding writing…). That said, I don’t think I could only write—I’m far too social (and, okay, I’m a total showboat). I find that I actually write more when I’m teaching, partly because the discourse invigorates me, and partly because, if I’m going to tell a bunch of people how to write, I better be doing it myself! Teaching forces me to have opinions—about stories, about craft—and these opinions give my creative life direction.

Thanks, Edan! If you would like to sign up for Edan's Introduction to Fiction Writing class at Vroman's, please call (626) 449-5320.

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At 11:01 AM, Anonymous Emma Straub said...

What lucky students.


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