Author Rebecca Schiff on Teaching Writing and Trusting Your Instincts

I taught Freshman Composition for many years. I went over thesis statements, and topic sentences, and supporting examples, and MLA (Modern Language Association) format. I can tell you that an essay in MLA format does not require a cover page. I can tell you that you’re hiding your strongest idea on page 3, that you’re quoting large chunks of text and then only engaging with small sections of that text, that you need to break up some run-on sentences, and that your essay is missing a conclusion.

“Where is conclusion?” I would write. “Essay needs conclusion.”

Some students followed all of the rules perfectly, but still needed to deepen their ideas, or work harder to make nuanced arguments. There is a way to write a beautiful academic paper, and sometimes I taught people how to do that, too. But now I teach creative writing, where the goal is not to convince the reader that something is true, but to make the reader feel a truth that you already know. And every week I ask myself how I’m going to teach my students to access those truths and to trust them enough to write them down.

I would like to say that I learned everything I know about writing fiction from reading fiction. But that’s not exactly true. I read a lot, yes, and sometimes I inadvertently copied writers I was reading. But I had to learn how to read as a writer, and this is where my own creative writing teachers changed my life and my writing.

Before I took creative writing classes, the words on the pages of a novel or story just seemed to exist, fully formed, perfect, final. But my teachers showed me that every sentence, every line of dialogue, every detail the writer included or didn’t include, was a choice. The choices mainly came from instinct—this is the story the writer had to tell and the way they had to tell it—but many great writers were also making choices to leave out things they didn’t find interesting or to cut sentences that weighed down their work.

I remember seeing George Saunders speak. He said that he found describing scenery kind of a drag, unless it was “a FedEx next to a pile of dog shit.”

I started thinking about the parts of writing I found tedious. Scenery bored me, too, maybe describing faces. I didn’t care about noses or mouths. I didn’t give a crap about skin pallor, though I occasionally found acne interesting (I’d had acne). I stopped using adjectives. I hated adjectives! What did I like? Verbs. I liked verbs. I cared about characters’ names. I would work on making my characters’ names reverberate through my stories. And the more I realized that I could embrace the parts I liked about writing and skip over the parts that bored me, the closer I got to the truth that I needed to tell.

Now my job is to draw attention to the parts of my students’ work where it seems like they are just going through the motions, and get them to focus on the parts of their writing that are more alive. Sometimes the scenery is alive, or the pallor of a face. Every writer is different. My students can do things that I can’t do. Their truth may come from an adjective. They may hate verbs. And if their stories are missing endings, I tell them to pay attention to the elements they’ve put into play, to keep listening to the rhythms of their sentences and their paragraphs, and to write and revise until the truest ending reveals itself.

Creative writing teachers can’t teach you instincts, but we can teach you to listen to the instincts you already have. It’s a practice. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and most of all, a willingness to let go of certain ideas you may have about what fiction should be. There are no clear rules, but you still don’t need a cover page.

Rebecca Schiff’s debut story collection, THE BED MOVED, will be published in April by Alfred A. Knopf. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in n+1, The American Reader, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Fence, Guernica, The Catapult, and Washington Square. Rebecca graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received a Henfield Prize. She teaches fiction writing for the Ditmas Writing Workshops. To sign up for her next workshop, Polishing Your Fiction For Publication (Thursdays, beginning March 31, 7:30-9:30 pm in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn), go to www.ditmaswritingworkshops.com.