Making space for novel-writing

Kathryn Davis runs an innovative workshop that allows graduate students the space and time to write novels.

Kathryn Davis

According to Kathryn Davis, creating a novel means adopting the nature of a mule plodding up a mountainside – it requires daily persistence. “That doesn't mean that every moment of writing it is drudgery,” Davis said, “but there has to be a kind of willingness and even a preference for entering into something new as if you've gone to another land.”

Davis is a well-known author of eight novels and the Hurst Writer in Residence at Washington University’s elite writing program. For 15 years, she has run the program’s novel-writing workshop, where many acclaimed novels have been developed. Some of the novels that have come out of the workshop include The Adults by Alison Espach, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina, A Word for Love by Emily Robbins, We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson, Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey, and The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi.

When Davis arrived at WashU in 2005, she began to notice that the traditional writer’s workshop formula was limiting when it came to helping students learn to write novels.

Creative writing programs are built around the idea of the writing workshop, where one or two students bring in a work in progress and the rest of the group discusses. Unlike short stories, which can be presented in a weekly workshop in something resembling a finished form, novels are almost always incomplete when submitted. They are more in-progress than short stories because of their length.

“The kind of conversation we would have about novels in those regular workshops tended to be pointless because a workshop is designed to talk about an overall shape or form,” Davis explained. “So what I did initially was say, why don't we have a regular informal meeting at my apartment for those of you who are working on novels.”

Unlike the regular workshop required for those pursuing an MFA in fiction, this informal gathering was open to any graduate student interested in writing a novel. Davis soon had poets and creative nonfiction writers who were also interested in the novel form, as well as students from programs like comparative literature and even engineering. Over time, the informal workshop developed into the course "Craft of Fiction: The Novel," an integral part of WashU’s writing program.

From the workshop’s outset, Davis has intentionally adopted a flexible format. Every semester has a different tone because the students are at different stages in their writing process. Some years, everyone comes in with nearly completed novels. Other years, it’s a group of writers with the germs of ideas. Often, it’s a mix of the two.The students still meet at Davis’s house, though with the pandemic they have shifted to meeting over Zoom.

The ideas and challenges the writers discuss vary from year to year, as well. Some students are accomplished writers in their native language and writing in English for the first time.

“There has to be a kind of willingness and even a preference for entering into something new as if you've gone to another land.”

That flexibility allows students to be more at ease with each other, Davis says, because students are relieved from the pressure of providing commentary on a finished object. By workshopping the process as much as the finished novel, students are able to feel less defensive about their writing and more able to address the unique challenges that come with writing a book-length work.

Part of what makes writing a novel challenging, Davis said, is that the writer has to exist in two times at once. Novels often depict long stretches of time while also taking a long time to write. Crafting a novel requires a writer to balance the time of the novel against the time of writing it.

“You are in your life, living your life, and while you're living your life, you are dealing with this thing you are constructing that also has a lot of time in it,” Davis said, “but it's not the same time that you are living your life in. Putting those two things together is challenging and also fascinating.”

Because of the variability in how the course will look semester-to-semester, Davis wanted to give students something concrete to discuss in weekly meetings. She came up with the idea of having students write what she calls a “faux novel.”

Students propose a title with chapter headings for 10 chapters. For the first workshop, everyone writes one of those chapters, submitting around three pages to the group.

Davis emphasizes to her students the importance of not overthinking this exercise. By the end of the semester, some of her students find that the faux novel has become the project that they really want to work on because it was not something that was overly agonized over like the “real” novel they had originally proposed.

“By the end of the semester, we take names out of the hat, and everybody does a cover design for somebody else's faux novel with text for the inside flaps and blurbs from imaginary reviewers,” Davis said. “It's a very creative way to deal with the idea of a form like the novel that takes quite a long time to write.”

Like many courses, the novel-writing workshop has had to adapt to physical distancing requirements in the past year. Yet even while away from the home atmosphere associated with the course for so many years, the workshop has retained its value for new novelists.

“Zoom is obviously not the ideal way to hold a workshop, but even so, I would so look forward to meeting with this group. I think we all felt that way,” Davis said.