Jack Wang's extraordinary debut book of stories, We Two Alone (House of Anansi Press) weaves a path across the world, following the Chinese diaspora over nearly a hundred years. It's the kind of collection that comes along only once in a while, to be savoured by readers for its sharp, smart portraits of longing, connection, and identity. Its characters inhabit different countries, times, classes, and professions, but the thread linking them to China, whether strong or tenuous, and the finely rendered depth of emotion Wang crafts in each, create a fictional journey to be remembered long after reading.
We are thrilled to welcome Jack to Open Book to share with us not only about the collection but also about his career, spanning more than two decades, as a creative writing professor, as part of our Teach Me to Write series. His responses offer valuable insight for aspiring and emerging writers as well as teachers.
He tells us about why the Jane Smiley "no praise" approach to writing workshops is so effective (and less scary than it sounds), discusses why the concepts of "genius" and "talent" aren't terribly useful, and shares a quote from Flaubert from which every writer can learn.
Tell us about your experience teaching creative writing.
I taught my first fiction writing class as an MFA student at the University of Arizona. (I was an undergrad at the University of Toronto.) I went on to teach fiction writing at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, then as a Ph.D. student in English/creative writing at Florida State University. For the past fourteen years, I’ve been a professor of fiction writing at Ithaca College in upstate New York. All told, I’ve been teaching fiction writing for nearly twenty-five years.
What is your approach or philosophy as a creative writing teacher?
For many years now, I’ve been an adherent of Jane Smiley’s approach to workshop, which she described in an interview with Alex Neubauer. There are two main tenets, and the first is the multiple-draft workshop. In most fiction writing classes, students submit the first draft of a story to workshop and the final draft to the teacher, and this qualifies as revision. But facing the scrutiny of your peers and receiving a grade are both high stakes situations. When she taught at Iowa State, Smiley used to ask her graduate students to write four drafts of every story. This lowers the stakes of each draft so that students feel more free to take the kinds of risks that are often necessary to truly advance a story. In an undergraduate class, where there are usually more students, it’s hard to squeeze in all those drafts, but even one additional intermediate draft can give students more freedom to play and "re-see."
The second tenet can be summed up in two words: "no praise." Smiley argues that no matter how much you prepare students, what they secretly want is praise, and this can make it hard for them to hear even the most constructive criticism. And she argues that workshop then becomes a competition for the teacher’s praise, which is also counterproductive. So she dispenses with praise altogether. She doesn’t use words like "good" or "bad" or say, "I like this" or "I don’t like this." Instead she takes an entirely analytical approach. This means articulating the relationship between technique and effect. When you make this or that artistic choice, what are the risks and what are the rewards? For me, an analytical approach is not so much about refusing to praise students as it is about moving beyond idiosyncratic and impressionistic responses toward more thorough and precise considerations of craft. Through analysis, you can articulate what’s working well and less well in a story — and, crucially, why. Most students come to realize that being delved into is more valuable than merely being praised.
Do you think good writing can be taught?
The answer is complicated, so let me try to unpack this. If by "good writing" we mean smart, capable, publishable fiction, the answer is yes. Good writing is partly a matter of technique, and technique can be learned. Good writing is also a matter of sensibility, and while sensibility may be more inseparable from the mysteries of personality, it too can be learned or at least refined. Sensibility begets sensibility, so if a young writer is reading good books and receiving good criticism, they can cultivate and hone their sensibility.
Sometimes what people mean by "good writing" is "talent." Can talent be taught? Well, it depends on what you mean by "talent." I don’t subscribe to romantic notions of "genius." As Steven Pinker says, "Geniuses are wonks." They’ve studied thousands of problems in their field so that when they encounter similar problems in the future they have a repertoire of possible solutions. For writers, this means studying thousands of aesthetic problems and their possible solutions through reading and writing. Any creative writing class is going to add to those thousands of reps and move a writer further along the continuum and thereby advance their "talent."
But sometimes what people mean by "good writing" is "an exceptional work of art." Can you teach someone to write a work of enduring value? That’s harder to say. All good writing requires technique, but technique alone is insufficient; good writing is technique alchemized by individual psychology and experience, and this may be especially true in exceptional or enduring works. But a teacher can’t teach individual psychology and experience; the best a teacher can do on those fronts is teach certain habits of mind and ways of seeing the world.
Finally, the answer to the question also depends on what we mean by "taught." As Pinker suggests, learning to do anything well takes time. It’s difficult if not impossible for any creative writing degree or even multiple degrees, much less a single workshop or a single teacher, to teach a writer all they will need to know to produce good writing. Part of what any good teacher teaches, then, are the habits of being that will allow a writer to continue to teach themselves through a lifetime of reading and writing.
What is the most important advice you would offer aspiring writers?
Most of the problems I’ve faced as a writer are rooted in not having read more, so read voraciously. Also, remember what Flaubert said: "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and intense observation."
What can you tell us about your most recent book?
We Two Alone (House of Anansi Press) is a debut collection about the Chinese diaspora over the past hundred years. The stories are set all over the world—Vancouver, Shanghai, Vienna, Port Elizabeth, London, New York—and explore the many ways that Chinese have come to and sought belonging in the West.
Before I wrote this collection, I wrote two novels that I put in the proverbial drawer. All the while, I was teaching undergraduates how to write short stories. By the time I went back to writing short stories of my own, all those years of teaching, all those hundreds if not thousands of additional examples, thoroughly analyzed, had deepened my understanding of the short story. Without a doubt, being a teacher made me a better writer.
Jack Wang received a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Florida State University. In 2014–15, he held the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Stories in his debut collection, We Two Alone, have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Journey Prize, and have appeared in PRISM International, the Malahat Review, the New Quarterly, the Humber Literary Review, and Joyland. Originally from Vancouver, Jack Wang is an associate professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his wife, novelist Angelina Mirabella, and their two daughters.