Monday, June 24, 2013

What We Teach When We Teach Science Fiction Writing

I'm posting here an article of mine that's in the current issue of the SFWA Bulletin. The Bulletin has been embroiled in a controversy that's thrown off attention to most of its contents, including my piece, so I thought I'd give you a second chance to scoff at my inanities and oversights. I wrote it with the intention of opening a discussion, since so many writers find themselves teaching these days, so I welcome any comments you may have on the topic. TOMORROW: The sidebar that accompanied the article, with comments from Tina Jens, Michaela Roessner and Amy Sterling Casil on teaching.

I look upon my task, teaching the Science Fiction Writing Workshop for Columbia College Chicago, with this in mind: the science fiction of tomorrow will not be the science fiction of today. It is certainly not the science fiction of yesterday.

Over a year ago I started writing an article about teaching science fiction writing. After committing about ten thousand words to electrons, and another five thousand to pen and paper, I concluded that I knew nothing about teaching writing. Worse – I knew nothing about science fiction.

Add to that – I knew nothing about writing.

And twenty-plus years of teaching have disabused me of any illusions that I am a “good teacher.” I cannot teach my way out of a paper bag. I know because I tried and the bag won.

I may be the worst teacher of science fiction writing ever.

When I took over this course from the phenomenal Phyllis Eisenstein in the fall of 2009, I pulled out a brand new legal pad (doesn’t everyone use brand new legal pads when they teach?) and wrote on the first page – along with the name of the class, the course number, meeting time and room number – “A course in search of itself.”

I, and the course (of course), are still searching. But here is some of what I’ve learned about teaching a course on science fiction writing, in a face-to-face classroom, at the college level. Some of it might prove helpful if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, or at another level, such as secondary school or “continuing ed,” or in an online class.

This is not a “how to.”

This is not a “when to.”

It may be a “what to” – or a “what not to.” It will depend. It works for me. Your mileage may vary.

 

BE OPEN


Because you don’t know everything, much as you think you do. In fact, you know very little – maybe nothing, depending on what we mean by “know.” This is not navel-gazing or pure philosophical speculation. This is neuroscience. Knowing and knowledge are two different things. You have mucho knowledge, but what do you know?

Really?

Don’t be too sure. When it comes to teaching, especially teaching anything “creative,” the less you “know” the better.



BE HONEST


What you don’t know, admit. I’ve noticed dozens of other teachers, especially in the creative writing field, dealing with their own “issues” of knowledge, authority, competence, insecurity – you name it. They take these issues into the classroom because they think a writing teacher is supposed to act “a certain way,” as a J. D. Salinger character might put it. Let me assure you: there is no certain way.

Students can tell when you’re dealing with “issues” and playing games. That’s your business. They want you to concentrate on their business. That’s what they’re there for and that’s what you are there for.

By the way, it’s okay to ask for help. Fellow faculty members, the department chair, mini-teaching workshops, pure ol’ Tech Support and the multitude of teachers you can reach via various social media. The available resources are astonishingly plentiful.

Admit it when you have to say, “I don’t know if this is a complete crock, but here’s what I think . . . “

Your students and colleagues will appreciate it.

 

ASK THE FIRST QUESTION


Very first session, my usual practice, once the syllabus and sundry announcements have been read, is to ask my class, “What is science fiction?”

From a dozen students I’ll get a dozen distinct answers.

It gives us some notion of the territory we’re about to explore, but it’s also helpful to consider that definitions of literary categories focus on the product rather than the process. They are post-facto: about the books, stories, shows, films, plays, etc. Completed works. They are not about works-in-progress, works-yet-to-be-imagined or yet-to-be-categorized.

A body of literature is one of thing. A process by which fiction is created is quite another.

Damon Knight said that science fiction “... is not just a category but a way of looking at the universe.” I prefer that characterization to all the extant definitions of science fiction.

 

BE INVENTIVE


I get some of my best ideas heading for class in the morning. I have a syllabus, all carefully worked out and as perfect as I can make it, but driving down Lake Shore Drive, I decide what I have planned is a bore and stupid and will do no good for my students.

Like the time I decided everyone should go look out the window. Looking out the window is supposed to be a bad thing in every other kind of class. In a science fiction class, though, why not be contrary?

Our classroom, usually, is on the twelfth floor of an old former office building in the South Loop. I told everyone to go and look out at anything: the nearby skyline, the “L” tracks, rooftop gardens, exhaust fans, streetlights, fire escapes, passing jets in the sky, neon signs.

Then, I asked them to go back to their seats and write for about ten minutes on A) What you saw and B) What you didn’t see.

In a science fiction class, A is not necessarily more important than B. In fact, what we look for more often is B. We don’t see hovercar-shuttles to the spaceport. We don’t see anti-gravity platforms. We don’t see bioluminescent advertising on the sides of solar-powered airships. There are lots of things we don’t see that fit in category B.

But without looking out at A – at what’s really there, what we put in B may not have the same resonance or urgency. We need A to make B meaningful.

Every window is the frame of a story.

That wasn’t on the syllabus, but it helped produce some interesting work from my students. Maybe they didn’t learn anything from it, but I made my point that, for a writer – especially a science fiction writer – nothing should be taken for granted. And I wouldn’t have come up with that idea if I didn’t leave myself open to try something crazy.

 

BE TRUSTFUL


Yes, your students may not know who James Tiptree, Jr. is. They may not know the difference between a compound and a complex sentence. Maybe you think they should have learned all this stuff before they entered your hallowed classroom. You’re probably right.

They may not know what you want them to know already. They’re students. Deal with it. You can work on it.

They’re not in this state to personally frustrate you. And since they have come to your class, willingly (most science fiction writing courses are elective), you can help them.

That’s what they came here for. That’s what they want you to do.

Okay, some of them came to your class because they thought they could pick up an easy grade. But they won’t stay if you convince them otherwise. Or maybe they will stay, because you convinced them it’s worth the time.

Exceptions? Certainly. But for the most part, students come to a science fiction writing class because they want to learn about writing science fiction. Welcome them. Help them. Share what you know with them. That’s your job.

Trust me on this one.

 

Irreproducible Results


n  Every class in some way must define itself.

n  Every group of students is as unique as every individual student is unique.

n  You cannot repeat the experience of a previous class … each class invents itself.

n  The last person to be aware of this, very often, is the teacher.

Remember, I am looking at what I’m doing from the perspective of a bad teacher. I am a terrible disciplinarian. I empathize too much with my students to remake myself as a taskmaster.

The way I handle (or mishandle) my class is this: we are all writers. Writing is a job – an insane job, but a job. You don’t screw around when you’re on the job.

In other words, do you want to learn this shit or not?

Science fiction is an elective. My students take this course because they want to. Here, they read what they can’t read in other classes. Here, they write what some of their instructors won’t allow them to write in other classes. We talk about writing and writing science fiction. They know this. Though we proceed at a relaxed pace, they stay on course as best as one can expect of a herd of cats (i.e. writers).

And somehow, we make it through 95 to 99 percent of the syllabus. I know better-organized, better “disciplined” teachers whose percentages fall much short of that.

 

STICK TO THE BASICS


Science fiction is a field not bounded by any stylistic or thematic concepts or narrative conventions. We pick out and borrow from other modes and forms. Or we make up our own.

But still, it all boils down to storytelling.

As one of my predecessors at Columbia, Algis Budrys, once wrote, “ . . . what most readers want most of the time is story.”

A fairly basic proposition. And the basic elements of a story are common to all forms of storytelling.

So, why should we teach it in a science fiction writing class?

Because we’re there. And, some might argue, because we do it better. And if you look at the curricula of some of the more serious creative writing programs in the country, it’s because we do it at all.

Some of that is changing, because at some sophisticated schools that offer degrees in “Professional” writing, and from all the publications and websites devoted to writerly interests, talk of story arcs and character motivations and three-act structures abound. Everybody knows the lingo; everybody can use the terminology.

But can they tell a story? And what does that mean, really?

In the very first class session, I use a set of cards made up of six categories: 1.) Characters, 2.) Settings, 3.) Motivations, 4.) Nemeses/Oppositions/Conflicts, 5.) Resolutions and 6.) Science Fictional Elements and Themes. The students get to pick one of each category by random choice (“Pick a card. Any card . . . ).

We look over the cards. One person gets a “Character” card with the name “Anastasia Ballantine.” (I like using names. Many students hate to give their characters names for some odd reason. But names are cool. Names are evocative. Give anyone the name “Anastasia Ballantine” and it will generate a picture in the mind’s eye of what Anastasia looks like – though no two Anastasia Ballantines will look the same) The setting card is “An archaeological site on an earth-like planet.” The motivation card is “Revenge.” The Nemesis/Opposition/Conflict card is a “Rival Colleague.” The resolution card is “Character succeeds with the aid of neglected talent.” The science-fictional element or theme card is “Reality Manipulation.”

I then ask them to sketch out, or outline, or try a brief scene from the story suggested by the cards. Depending on the remaining time in class, we’ll discuss the possibilities of each group of cards, maybe start the writing process in class, or if we’re really pressed, let them take the idea home and see what they can come up with.

What is this supposed to teach? What does this prove?

One thing it might prove is that – given the necessary elements – anyone can make a story, at least in a very rudimentary way. We are storytelling creatures. We think in terms of stories. We look for stories even when we’re not aware of it. Finding a story is more a reflex than a task.

It also proves that having the basics of a story doesn’t make a story – or make it any good.

Some students have a hard time with this exercise. Other students take to it quite naturally. Either way, the exercise gives them something to work with, and the working with it provides some important lessons about making stories.

Stories have shapes. I’ve long forgotten where the phrase “story-shaped idea” came from, but it has stayed with me. A story is a like a vessel – a vessel ostensibly designed to perform a function, like holding water. An open-ended cylinder shape doesn’t work for the task. A vase shape does. If that sounds “limiting,” remember that vases can be narrow, or flat, sharp-edged or contoured, transparent or opaque, metallic or porcelain. No two vases have to look the same, unless they’re run off an assembly line.

Another reason for trying this exercise becomes very clear for those students who are able to see it: even when the elements of a story are imposed upon you, as the chance selection of these cards does with my students, you always place a little of yourself in every story you write.

Very often, students will feel that the card story is not “their” story. They would never have come up with such an idea on their own. It’s an imposition. Some of them will suffer through it for that reason, do what I require of them, and go on to the next exercise. Others request that they keep working on the card story – something in the elements – and what they’ve initially done with them – compels them to go on. Something in their unconscious has been sparked.

Very often, in the world of fiction writing and in its teaching, there’s a perceivable tension between writing that’s “personal” and that which is “popular” – something like the tension that exists between “fine arts” painters and “illustrators,” the latter undervalued for having been generated through another work of art (the one they’re illustrating). If the conception of a work of art is not born entirely from the imagination of the artist, does that make the completed work, by definition, a lesser work of art?

Not necessarily. You need go no further than the work of Chaucer and Shakespeare (or Rembrandt and Doré for illustrator) to dispel that notion.

Or, you can see how much of yourself appears in an exercise generated by five or six randomly chosen cards.

Stick to the basics. Every skyscraper needs a solid foundation, even imaginary ones.

 

BE REALISTIC


Most college students these days overbook their class loads. They’re on a budget. They’re on deadline. They have loans to pay, eventually. They have writing assignments and reading assignments from three other instructors who treat their courses as the most important classes their students will ever take and nothing else their students do is more important.

And if you’re teaching a continuing education class, or an enrichment course or anything along those lines, your students have lives, and families. And maybe jobs. And obligations.

You don’t need to be a wuss. Construct your course realistically. My students usually read no more than two short stories per week. Some of the stories are longer, but two stories is not an imposition. They also have to complete seven writing exercises, two stories (or “story-like” compositions) and a revision of one of those stories.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s not unreasonable. Remember, it’s a writing class, so you have to read all that work, too.

You may not have to worry about outstanding loans in your future, but very likely you have a life, and a family, and maybe even a career (even if it’s teaching).

Being realistic also means being so to/for yourself.

 

NOT a Science Project


My Columbia students are not science majors. Columbia students major in film, video, fiction writing, playwriting, music, arts management and marketing, fashion design, theater, poetry, computer game design – all sorts of things.

But not science.

Is this a bad thing for a science fiction writer?

Well, it is not an insurmountable barrier. There may be a contingent of science fiction fans who believe it is – who believe a science fiction writer worth his sodium chloride should have an engineering degree, or its equivalent, and an abiding interest in clear prose; that, a little talent and a few “gosh-wow” ideas and – BOOM! – you’re the next Larry Niven.

It worked in 1953. It worked in 1973. Why shouldn’t it work in 2013?

No reason at all, except – forty years have passed.

Science literacy may be in a crisis stage, but science information is readily available – and in abundance. We can drown in an ocean of science news – if we choose. It’s a contradiction – but so is human nature.

A science fiction writer has to address this contradiction just as much as she or he has to address the new findings in many different fields of inquiry – hard and soft sciences, physical and social sciences and the technological disciplines that overlap these categories.

The important thing, sometimes, is not to “think like a scientist,” but to think scientifically – at least part of the time – about the world in general – which is more than some scientists do.

Therefore, in the interests of making sure my students understand that science fiction is more than the recycling of old concepts from SF books and media, I ask them to take a look at the most recent postings on some of the science-oriented websites: stories about gravity waves, orphan planets, neurally-directed prosthetics, discoveries of new planetary systems or new evidence that theropod dinosaurs had tail feathers.

I don’t necessarily limit to them to discoveries or scientific concepts. Stories about the scientific community or about the impact of scientific/technological developments on the greater culture can be just as intriguing. I ask them to find a piece of news that interests them and plot out a story from it.

I call the assignment “NOT a Science Project.”

Often, some interesting stuff comes out of the exercise. Even if it doesn’t, the students have done some research and wrestled with extrapolating from recent information.

 

BE SURPRISING


If you start with discussions one week, next week start with an exercise, or vice versa. If every class meeting has several components, mix them around. If you have students read back exercises by going left to right in seating arrangement, go right to left. Pick out students differently from the way you do it “usually.”

If the chairs are arranged facing the chalk board (or white board, or whatever board you have), turn them the other way. Of if they’re north-facing, turn them east-facing, or northwest facing.

Write enigmatic quotes about science fiction on the board. One week you discuss them. Another week, don’t even refer to the quote – the let the words hover like a cartoon thought balloon over the class. If you’re giving a timed writing assignment, use a hotel call bell to signal the start. When the assignment is finished, signal with a slide whistle like the one in Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

This is not done to be “theatrical.” It’s not done to be “merely” creative.

You don’t want your students to feel they’re in a rut, or that if they miss the first part, they know they’ll be missing the discussion of the readings – or whatever begins your class. They may even be timing their tardiness to miss the “boring” part.

You’re teaching a fiction writing class – a science fiction writing class! Hell, you’re supposed to be teaching students to be inventive, interesting, compelling, surprising. What serves this purpose less than going about the classroom routine the same way, every week, every session, from beginning to end of semester?

My class begins eight-thirty in the morning, on a Friday, every week. I’m just trying to keep my students awake.

Not to mention keeping myself awake.

Subvert expectations when you can without derailing the whole train.

 

I Don’t Know What I Like, but I Know Where the Art is


We do about six or seven exercises every semester. The one that works out best is the one where I bring in copies of cover and interior illustration art. All sorts of artwork: from the highly abstract (like some of Richard Powers and Paul Lehr’s work) to the more strictly representational (Tim Hildebrandt) and a lot in between (John Berkey, Jack Gaughan, Ed Emshwiller, Burt Tanner, Ron Walotsky, Moebius, Janet Aulisio, Leo and Diane Dillon and more).

I explain how, back in the day, editors often bought art “on spec” for covers and interior illustrations, then ask writers if they could come up with stories the artwork might be illustrating, reversing the conventional process.

Like most of my exercises, I ask for the minimum of a couple of pages, outlining or sketching out what the story would be like; or writing a couple of pages of a scene that might appear in the story. A number of students end up turning in complete stories, or at least many pages more than I first requested. And several of them have been very good stories, among the best turned into me.

There doesn’t seem to be any rule on what’s chosen and how the work is interpreted. Every class has its own favorites, but the two most popular images seem to be a John Berkey painting of a colossal wheel-shaped spaceship hovering over a small, rural town at night; and the Moebius-drawn cyberpunk guy in shades and trench coat sitting on a junk pile of broken electronics.

Several students have written stories based on the same Janet Aulisio black and white illustration, featuring a human and alien standing together, staring gravely in different directions. Each student interprets the illustration – and the expressions on the two characters – differently. And often, once the artwork has provided the initial impetus for the story, they take it elsewhere from where they started.

Students often ask me if it’s okay to bend the rules on an exercise if a story is taking them somewhere out of the boundaries, as they see them. I usually say they should never let the rules stand in the way of a good story.

The importance of the illustration exercise – and the other exercises, each in their own way – is to spark something that the imagination will work to fill: an image that makes a student (or writer) ask all the who-what-when-where-why questions, then answer them (at least to some degree).

It’s part of the window exercise and part of the card exercise, the point of both being, “What happens next? Where to from here? If this, then – what?”

It’s hardly the exclusive domain of science fiction. I’ve done a similar exercise in my short story writing classes at another school, substituting “fine art” reproductions for the SF illustrations.

So what makes this teaching “science fiction”?

Maybe it’s just because science fiction attracts a number of outstanding illustrators. And science fiction writers are just suckers for cool pictures.

Every picture is a window.

And every window is a frame for a story.

 

BE PATIENT


We all know writers who can get work done, quickly, efficiently – on time. We may even be one of these writers.

We also know writers who are slow, thoughtful, who pace about, who flaunt deadlines and ride them to the last possible nanosecond.

Both kinds of writers are capable of excellent work. Both kinds of writers are probably sitting in your classroom.

You don’t have to put up with a lot of crap. Set the rules. You have a syllabus – use it. Make clear that the line is here – if they cross it, they must pay. Not because you want to be cruel, but because the rules are set that way.

Make them read “The Cold Equations,” or, if you already have, make them read it again. Then explain that you are the pilot of the emergency vehicle in the story. If you have to push the sweet kid through the airlock, you will.

But – be patient.

I know that I am one of those writers who paces about, who takes long walks, who is seized by sudden crazy impulses to tear up the first ten pages of my first chapter and change the name of my protagonist throughout. I’ll do my best to get my work in, but I have my own method, or lack thereof, and until I can work out a better way it will have to do.

You can talk to particular students if they have a real problem. Maybe you can offer suggestions.

Sometimes the suggestions might even work.

 

Critique Groups in the Classroom


Critique groups could be the subject of an entire article.

Critique groups abound. Not only do they form the backbone of most workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, Viable Paradise and Taos Toolbox, many college classes at the MFA level are built upon the model.

I once explained the “Clarion Approach” (i.e. the critique session, brilliantly and vividly explicated in Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller) to one of the Fiction Writing chairs at Columbia. She replied, “Oh, you mean the ‘Iowa Method.’”

Frankly, I’d never heard a description of the “Iowa Method,” though I’m familiar enough with the reputation of the Iowa Writers Workshop. One of my MFA students once described the Iowa Method as the “Slash and Burn” approach.

Apparently, in the highly competitive world of graduate creative writing programs, it is not enough to endeavor to write good fiction, but to “eliminate the competition.” You savage the work of your classmates, explicitly demeaning the work and implicitly demeaning the authors. Break their confidence. Break their spirit. Or at least that’s the impression I’ve received from some (not all) grad students.

Everything I don’t allow (nor do any other writing teachers I know of) is embodied in “Slash and Burn.”

“Slash and burn,” is about getting through grad school at the head of the class. It’s about landing a teaching position, preferably tenured, at some prestigious school. It’s about writing the stuff that will impress fellow academics – the ones on the selection committees – and no one else.

In my class, we’re into something else. There may be an academic track for writing about science fiction, but most science fiction, believe it or not, is written for readers. It’s written to be read.

We read work and exercises aloud in class, but work that’s meant to be read deserves to be read – as close to the reading experience as one would have trolling the pages of an anthology or magazine.

So my students exchange manuscripts. The idea is that they have some time (a week, I hope) to read it beforehand. That doesn’t always work out, but that’s the plan. I break the class into four groups, so no one has to read more than three manuscripts per session.

For the session itself, I lay out some ground rules:

n  We are all writers. Repeat that: we are all writers.

n  We’re all here to help each other, because we can learn to improve our own work by helping others improve theirs.

n  We discuss the work. We may not understand it, but we respect it, and we respect the author who produced it.

n  Every story critiqued is a work in progress. We’re here to point out what works, what doesn’t, suggest what could be better. Making judgments like a hotshot webzine critic is not part of the process.

Does the process work like clockwork? Of course not, especially with me at the helm. But I am serious about the ground rules and do my most to instill them in my students.

Truth is, though, I don’t have to work that hard at it.

Maybe it’s because I have the best students in the world, but they take up the ground rules and run with them – splendidly. They may blow their deadlines, but they apply themselves to the critiques with insight and respect.

Do they all learn from the process? I’d say, emphatically, yes, though not necessarily all at the same speed, and not in the same way. Some lessons you learn with a snap of the fingers; other lessons have to be experienced, forgotten, repeated, forgotten again and ultimately placed into a context the student didn’t have before and never anticipated. Even ten years after your student leaves the protective confines of college, if she says, as she heads through the subway station, surrounded by hundreds of fellow commuters, “Oh! Now I get it!” –

– we’ve won.

Sometimes you just have to be patient.

 

WELCOME CONTROVERSY


The best writers seem to be the writers who also read the most.

Coincidence?

Through the semester, I assign two stories per week for my students to read. It’s not excessive. I don’t want to weigh them down with readings. I have no intention of teaching them the history of science fiction literature. This is not a literature course – it’s a writing course.

And yet, I want my students to be aware of what can be done in the form. Science fiction does not subscribe to any particular narrative structure or requisite iconography. Well, yes – starship bridges and homicidal robots and evil galactic empires – you can indulge in them but they’re not necessary.

I may assign a classic (or at least famous) story. I will pair it up with a selection from the latest edition of David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer’s Year’s Best SF series. The former because . . . well, because there are plenty of great stories out there. The latter because students should see the work of their contemporaries (what they’re competing against).

In most college classes, even in writing classes, there’s often a resistance to reading assigned works. It comes with the territory. It’s like making children eat vegetables. At the school where I teach, the reading list for “core” (i.e. “required”) classes is pretty well-established, and most of the faculty has to tow the line for what’s assigned.

In my classes – and the similar classes in fantasy, horror, historical, young adult and “popular” fiction (called in my department the “specialty writing” classes) – students usually take to the reading list enthusiastically, which is especially gratifying. I know some teachers who complain that their students don’t want to participate in classroom discussions about readings. In my classes, sometimes it’s hard to conclude the discussions.

I remember a student, a film major, remarking after I asked him if he liked the readings, “Where have they been hiding this stuff?”

It helps, I think, that science fiction stories are usually about something, often very directly. It may not be the most important factor in weighing the quality of a work of fiction, but it does provide an entrance into discussion.

From there, we’ll address the way the authors chose to present their ideas: third person over first person; conversational over formal narrative voice; mythic, parodic or “realistic” structure; choice of protagonist; multiple or single points of view – if it works we want to know how and, if it doesn’t, we want to know why.

We don’t get particularly reverent, either with new stories or old. We’re not here to enshrine or deconstruct stories – that’s for lit classes. It’s okay in our discussions to say that some well-considered work just isn’t cutting it for you.

Also, I like to pair up stories. Some of the pairings are obvious: “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin and “Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly is a good way to start. Both stories feature protagonists forced to “kill” someone under fairly difficult circumstances; they’re doing something entirely unjust, though the rules they work under dictate their actions.

Other pairings aren’t quite as obvious. How about Cordwainer Smith’s “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six”? Any common threads there? Yes, there are, but it takes a little while to discover them.

In my advanced class, I paired Clarke’s “The Sentinel” with Gene Wolfe’s “Useful Phrases.” They’re both “First Contact” stories, but in very different ways with unique approaches. My class surprised me with their acute appreciation for Mr. Wolfe’s subtle, intimate voice, as well as Mr. Clarke’s carefully researched version of lunar exploration.

More recently, I paired a James H. Schmitz story, “Balanced Ecology,” with a post-Singularity story by Ken Liu, “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer.” Where’s the logic in that?

There may be no logic in it at all. But we looked at how carefully Schmitz set up the first half of his story, and how everything presented in the first part is effectively utilized in the second. Then we discuss how much of what Liu gives us as “background” in the early pages of his story becomes essential before the story ends? Both writers are playing a game of “hiding in plain sight,” each in their own unique way.

“Leading” a discussion becomes a curious task for me. Too much “directing” and you’re giving a lecture. Not enough and you’re lost in the chaos. My job involves a delicate balance between leading and following, because your students’ responses have to shape the discussion. Your job is to be a guide, not a judge. We’re not picking Miss America candidates, we’re trying to figure out how good stories work.

And you never know how a discussion will go, because every class is different. One class couldn’t make heads or tails out of Theodore Sturgeon’s “Tandy’s Story.” Another class couldn’t stop talking about it, though they were about evenly divided between those who thought it manipulative and unnecessarily verbose, and those who thought it brilliantly eerie.

And I love it when a student strongly objects to one story or another, especially if I can get him to articulate what’s there, in the “text,” that didn’t work for him. Very often they can’t, but I want them to struggle with the question. Many of the stories I value most now, as an adult, were stories I despised when I first read them many years ago (R. A. Lafferty, wherever you are, forgive me my trespasses).

If a story makes you angry, it has spoken to you. It’s worth taking note of that anger. It can guide you in a number of directions, not least of which can be to write a story in “response” to the story that made you so angry. I once heard Gene Wolfe say many of his stories were born by reading someone else’s story and saying, afterward, “That’s not the way I’d have done it.”

I tell the class: if literature is a conversation between stories, science fiction is a barroom brawl.

 

ASK THE NEXT QUESTION


Here is the quandary: I am teaching (ostensibly) science fiction writing.

n  I am not teaching “The History of Science Fiction.”

n  I am not teaching “Science Fiction as Literature,” or any variations thereof.

n  I am not teaching “Science Fiction as Techno-Propaganda.”

n  I am not teaching “How to Write Stuff Like They Did Sixty Years Ago.”

n  I am not teaching “How to Write Like Your Literary Idol.”

n  I am not teaching “How to Write the Stuff Fandom Will Embrace and Make You a Popular GoH at CheezyCon.”

n  I am not teaching “Creative Writing With Sci-Fi Sprinkles.”

And so on. And so on.

I am not teaching any of those things . . . and yet I am.

To a hit a home run, you have to touch the bases.

However, it never leaves my mind that there’s something more I should be doing.

Science fiction writers are not scientists (necessarily), nor politicians, nor corporate moguls (though if you are, I could use a large grant). Science fiction writers are not movers and shakers – except perhaps in one sense: though we cannot bring about the things to come, we can (potentially) move and shake the minds, hearts and spirits of those who will.

Skeptics will already have passed over this article (or screed, or whatever it is), perhaps after huffing in indignation, “Writing can’t be taught! Science fiction can’t be taught! Science fiction writing can’t be taught!” There are very good reasons to believe this.

Of the thirteen or fourteen students who sign up for my course every fall, I don’t expect to see thirteen or fourteen future Hugo nominees carrying off armloads of prizes and swag.

I don’t even expect to see a few dozen former students laboring away in the freelance mines, sending in manuscripts to Asimov’s and F&SF (a few would do nicely, though, thank you).

I would not be surprised if some of my students never again try to write a science fiction story. Some of them may never even write another short story, even among my Fiction Writing majors. Students will do what students will do.

So, why engage in this process? What earthly or unearthly good will it do my students to be subjected to the brain-eating labyrinth that is science fiction?

Why bother?

I cannot speak with any certainty, much less authority. I am not an “educator.” Nor am I a specialist in curriculum.

It occurs to me, though, that the teaching of science fiction writing fits neatly into the greater scheme of “educating” students, whatever that means, and any earnest effort in the direction of educating individuals, whatever the outcome, is worthwhile.

Perhaps “writing,” in the sense we usually mean it, can’t be taught, but it can be exercised. For some students, even Fiction Writing majors, “exercise” won’t lead to a professional writing career, or even an academic career. But they will learn that the putting together of words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs have consequences, good and bad.

They will also learn that writing is more than just putting the words together. It is a process of seeing, of sensing – comparing, evaluating and making choices: skills which can be applied to other pursuits – like surviving in the twenty-first century.

It is a process of looking through windows.

And a way of looking at the universe.

They will learn that there are definite things that make up a story, and that the difference between twenty pages of prose and a twenty-page short story is the author’s ability to utilize and shape those definite things. We write and read stories not simply because we enjoy them (though that’s good enough a reason) but because stories are also tools through which we examine and comprehend the universe we live in (and the universes we don’t live in). They may not be the best tools, but they’re the tools we keep making and continue to use. A story fits well in a human-shaped mind.

Science fiction, for those already attuned to imaginative writing, provides a wide and varied selection of colors to paint with. It amplifies the tools we already use in plain vanilla “mimetic” fiction. A science fiction writer not only has to utilize the elements all fiction writers use, she or he has to kick up the amperage and bring us to the next stage – or the “next question,” as Theodore Sturgeon would put it.

There’s always a “next question.”

Whether we see science fiction as anticipatory, or metaphoric, or speculative, teaching students about it, and about writing it, provides more than four graded credit hours and some diverting reading.

It provides an education – of sorts.

We’re doing more than teaching them to write a few thousand words of that crazy “armies of killer robots” stuff.

Algis Budrys again: “"The field [SF] has always, whatever its mode, looked at Mankind in terms of our future, and has told us much about ourselves because it has always assumed that today is fleeting, and only an aspect of tomorrow. Whether hopeful or gloomy, it has without question always made the staggering assumption that tomorrow will be different, and that therefore today may not be everything it seems.” (italics mine)

We are teaching them a way to learn, and to share what they’ve learned. Not the only way, but not a bad way.

That’s not too shabby.





 

2 comments:

  1. A few comments: "who believe a science fiction writer worth his sodium chloride should have an engineering degree," Oh God, No!! Not an engineer, someone with a hint of creativity at least.

    Rick Sternbach's cover art was a major influence for me wanting to write science fiction.

    Have you read "In the Deadlands" by David Gerrold? (Nebula nominated Novellette, 1973) If not, take a look at the story structure. It is out of print, but is in the collection "With a Finger in My Eye." It is worth the price of the book for just that one story and the rest of teh collection is a bonus.

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  2. Hiya, Ed. Thanks for the comments. I knew I'd get some blowback for mentioning engineers. Hey, John W. Campbell had an engineering degree. It's just that "the degree ain't no guarantee," of which I'm sure you'll agree. :-)

    LOVE Rick Sternbach's work. I might try to find one or two of his to incorporate into the exercise this fall. Your remark does remind me of how evocative and -- yes, by gummit! -- INSPIRATIONAL those covers from the heyday of digests and paperbacks were -- Emsh, Krenkel, Gaughan, Freas, etc. I hope that as we continue into the new frontier of epublishing we can find great images from artists of similar genius.

    Oh, man, I read "In the Deadlands" when it came out -- about FORTY YEARS AGO (can it be?). I'm going to head upstairs and see if I can shake down a copy at this or one of the other local libraries. I love Gerrold's work and your comment should serve as a reminder that I need to get in touch with that '70s-era work again.

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