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Teaching Writing. A Conversation with John Domini

John DominiJohn Domini’s fiction, essays, and poetry appeared in Paris Review, Ploughshares, AGNI, GQ, The New York Times, Zone 3, Meridian and other journals. Grants have included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram-Merrill Foundation. The New York Times has praised his work as "dreamlike... grabs hold of both reader and character," and Alan Cheuse, of NPR's "All Things Considered," described it as "witty and biting." He is the author of several books, among them three novels published by Red Hen Press: Talking Heads: 77 (2003);  Earthquake I.D. (2007) translated into Italian by Stefano Manferlotti for Pironti editore, Naples, and runner-up for the Domenico Rea prize; A Tomb on the Periphery (2008), short listed at the London Book Festival for "the best of international publishing". In 2014, Dzanc Books will bring out a selection of Mr. Domini's essays and reviews, The Sea-God's Herb, as well as electronic versions of his first four books, and in  2015 Dzanc will publish a new sequence of short stories, MOVIEOLA!
His most recent book is a selection of poetry, The Grand McLuckless Road Atlas, on Pedestrian Press/Bicycle review.

Mr. Domini teaches Creative Writing and English at Iowa State University, in Ames, Iowa.

What do you teach exactly? I mean, what do you focus on?
Well, “Creative Writing” – that’s pretty broad, these days. Its beginnings as an academic discipline came about half a century ago, and lately it’s been booming, hasn’t it? By now many schools teach four genres: not just fiction and poetry, but also creative non-fiction (the memoir or personal essay) and playwriting. Quite a range! What teacher can speak to it all? Myself, actually, I’ve taught fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry, plus courses that combine all three. My expertise, hmm, I guess that’s in fiction.

Whether I’m teaching fiction or creative non-fiction, though, my emphasis is on defining the story in whatever my workshop participants are developing. An apprentice, a student, is always writing to discover. They seek whatever’s in the material they’re coming up with, what might drive it and shape it. I help point out the possibilities, the various directions open to them, given what they’ve brought to the table in their early drafts. These potential ways to go include dead ends, of course, and I point those out as well. A lot of good teaching is helping these beginners avoid mistakes. In any case, I start with a creative exercise or two, then move to first drafts and second, working in related reading along the way. Of course we do new pieces and further drafts as time allows, too. Workshops that follow some version of this system have helped so many students that by now I can’t help but have faith in the process. Whether young writers are working from the imagination (fiction) or from actual experience (non-fiction), I know I can make them recognize how to marshal the mounting excitement and coherence by which truth and meaning emerge – the story, that is. 

What is it not "teachable"?
The obvious answer here is “mastery.” No class can create a Dante or a Shakespeare, that’s obvious. The primary reason is that a writer’s greatest, most significant growth takes place after class, in his or her first years trying their mettle against the world’s realities, the market and more. Also, part of that growth involves rejecting their teachers, doesn’t it? Maturity requires getting beyond whatever Prof. Domini said in class. Before a student toughens into a writer with a track record, he or she has usually left a knife in your back.

I’m joking, but that toughness itself can’t be taught. The work it takes to claim achieve artistic accomplishment always surprises people who haven’t tried. Apprentices write on weekends, evenings, lunch breaks, and meanwhile squeezes in the necessary reading and related learning wherever they can. All that time, too, they’re slipping up and down the larger learning curve, the one that teaches you who to trust. The solitary, unsupported artist is a myth – and Vladimir, pipe down! Vladimir Nabokov, you didn’t do it all by yourself, either! Every writer needs reliable readers and thinkers around them (VN had his amazing wife Vera, in particular), and that includes people who will tell them when they’re wrong. Really, the importance of a peer group looms so large, I often think the sharing part of every workshop is the most important. I actually require written student critiques of each submission, and I look over them all, and discuss them in the group. I even make them part of the overall grade. All this encourages frankness and thoroughness in reading other work in progress, and may in time result in a colleague for life.

Did you ever find a great talent? What did you do?
Again, “great talent,” that’s hard to identify, or to claim. I’m happy to say I’ve had excellent students, including a handful who have books out now. They’re dedicated writers, established, if not household names. No one’s sort of outstanding and inescapable, and so I don’t want to list names here, because the few I mention will seem to slight those I don’t have room for. I can say these include people working in a range of genres and approaches, including two poets.

As for what I did for the exceptional students, well, in class it was important not to do too much. As I said above, the collaborative spirit of a workshop is crucial to its success, and so I couldn’t set up anyone as Teacher’s Pet. Quality work always carries extra weight, anyway, and the best students tended to emerge as the voices that mattered, on their own.

Outside the workshop, in conference or in correspondence, I did attempt to do more for the outstanding people. About the work itself, I set steeper challenges, hoping the student would rise to them — and nine times out of ten, they did.  Beyond that, as they generated finished stuff or graduated, I’d put together suggestions for them concerning what they might try next. I’d reach out to editors, or to professors at other schools. Those suggestions too sometimes bore fruit, in the form of a fellowship or a publication, but in our difficult world, alas, this happened far less often than nine times out of ten.

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John DominiWhat did you learn about writing by teaching it?
In the earlier answers, I think I’ve indicated something of what I learned, about collaboration and collegiality in particular. Beyond that, in non-fiction, I’ve developed a better understand of the genre’s essential perspective, which I call “distant first-person.” A good personal essay, even a booklength memoir, depends on manipulating that point of view effectively.

But my greatest learning has come in fiction. In that genre, I’ve hit on a system for grouping our subject matter that illuminates my work as both professor and writer. I’ve found it helpful to identify stories (novels too, but the arrangement works best with short stories) as belonging to one of three modes or types: psychological realism, transformational violence, or metafictional fantasy.

The three names alone tell you a lot about those modes. The first would include most of John Fante or Colette, for whom the story serves to expose the psychological essence of their characters and milieu, without extreme action. The extreme, rather, is everything to the second, which defines a lot of Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor. In such stories, violence is central, and transforms everyone’s world; it takes experience towards the mythic. As for the third category, its adherents seem pretty obvious, writers like Italo Calvino and Carole Maso. Such writers need unconventional forms and elements of fantasy – not necessarily fairies and such; perhaps just impossible juxtapositions and means of perception.

My three modes, needless to say, suffer all the gaps and inconsistencies of any other system that intends to encompass, somehow, all of an art. One can always find fictions that won’t fit neatly in one category or another, and artists like Philip Roth, who work first one approach and then another. Okay, granted – but this division by type was the product of many years teaching, and since I’ve put it in place, it’s served me very well. Since our work is so much about helping a student perceive what direction they might take their material, it speeds the process to provide three basic templates for that direction. Students benefit, clearly, from understanding that they’re working in one mode and not another. Then after they’ve grasped that much, of course, they can pervert their type of writing to whatever end they like.

Please give three pieces of advice to an aspiring writer...
Three pieces of advice? Three more? I can say, first, writers must be patient with the process, its natural rhythm of trial and error. Day after day of failure is what defines, paradoxically, artistic growth, and you have to be resigned to making a fool of yourself repeatedly, at the desk, in order to get anywhere.

Second, a more practical matter, I’d recommend some experience on the other side of the desk. Putting in time as an editor and critic, at any level of the business, nearly always proves eye-opening. It teaches discipline, to be sure, but more than that, forces you to recognize how good you have to be in order to be any good at all – in order, simply, to command attention.

That said, I want to conclude with just the opposite sort of advice. My third injunction would be: have fun! Play with it, with outcomes and approaches, with every last sentence. The arts are an expression of the human spirit, aren’t they, and unrelenting seriousness of purpose will kill that spirit. We make exceptional, arresting toys, which, even if they show us the harsh workings of the world, remain a splendid serendipity.

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