Experimental Class Helps Budding Novelists Achieve Dreams

Posted: January 3, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

Novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff took 12 years to write her first book, “The Frequency of Souls.” Her second book, “The Bowl Is Already Broken,” took nine years to complete.

But in a scant 12 weeks this fall, Zuravleff, an English instructor, completed a 40,000-word draft of a new novel-in-progress.

More important, 12 students in her graduate workshop can boast the same accomplishment.

In the first installment of an online newsletter about her Writing Short Novels course, Zuravleff quoted Theodore Roethke – “I learn by going where I have to go” – and discussed the project’s goals and limitations.

“We recognize that our output will be flawed, maybe even abhorrent, and yet we recognize the potential of this grand experiment. Namely, in writing a tremendous amount of words, we will get into shape as writers. And more writing produces more and better writing, more and better ideas,” she wrote.

“Quantity was the key,” stressed Zuravleff in an interview at semester’s end. “I’ve never been in a position while teaching to say, ‘Don’t worry about craft,’ but the goal here was not to criticize. Critiquing sends you backward. The key here was to move forward. If students hit a stumbling block – changed a character’s name, knew they needed to fill in scenery or history – I told them to put it in brackets and move ahead.”

So serious was Zuravleff about this strategy that most class sessions focused on simply verifying that progress was made. Each student brought a flash drive to class and had his or her weekly output loaded onto a laptop. Once the 4,000-word minimum was confirmed, the class applauded the writer’s accomplishment.

“I gave every student a silk cord for their flash drive,” said Zuravleff. “And one week, I gave out temporary tattoos as a reward. Never underestimate the power of a gold star.”

Students said they appreciated the opportunity to write without worrying about internal or external editors.

“I didn’t want to talk about my work because I didn’t want people to make me veer off from where I was going,” says Sara Hov, a student in Mason’s MFA program. But Hov values tackling this project in a group setting.

“This is the first class that made me write every day,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d stick with it, but I didn’t want to be the only one who didn’t make it. After all, I’d made a commitment to these people.”

At the semester’s 12-week mark, Zuravleff and her students – mainly MFA students but also two alumni – had each reached the requisite 40,000 words.

At that point, the students did get the opportunity to read each other’s works in small groups and comment in a focused, positive way. The new novelists could ask their peers to discuss only specific aspects of their draft, welcome more comprehensive critiques or choose not to share pages at all if the writing didn’t feel ready.

“This was not just an experiment for me,” says Hov, who suggested that future versions of the course include a spring revision component with the same students. “I know I want to do more with this novel.”

“A draft is not a novel,” Zuravleff wrote in the last installment of her newsletter. “However, you can’t have a novel without a draft.”

And her final words in that same column issue a call to others who weren’t able to participate but have a novel in them somewhere: “To anyone we inspired, don’t stop now.”

This article appeared in a slightly different form in the English Department newsletter “Not Just Letters.”

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