Students Take Over Our Queue! A Hands-On Approach to Teaching Fiction

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Creative writing professors Wade Geary and Huan Hsu teach at Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands. This week, their students will be reading the SmokeLong queue, discussing the stories, and ultimately picking a favorite for us to publish in our next issue. We talked with Wade and Huan about their class and what they hope their students get out of such an exercise.

What can you tell us about your college?

Wade: Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a fairly new liberal arts and science program; this year will mark its seventh in existence. It’s part of an expansion of university colleges within the Netherlands. Like the city of Amsterdam, the institution is quite international—close to 50 percent of the students are from outside of the Netherlands.

I feel pretty lucky to be teaching at AUC, especially to be teaching Creative Writing at the school. There aren’t many places on the European continent where students can take creative writing courses at the university level, especially in English. Many countries rely on art academies for these sorts of studies.

What is the creative writing course structure?

Wade: I’ve taught the course at AUC for four years now. Some of the students are studying literature, but there are several that are in other areas of the humanities or even in the sciences. This means the students view writing creatively in pretty diverse ways. And the course structure itself—split into three sections (Romance, Exposure, and Refining)—tries to celebrate a variety of writing practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the structure is borrowed from a math education researcher who studied how to get students interested in mathematics.

Huan: I think you’re being a bit modest here about the course structure, which I think is really effective in addressing the tyranny that genre can have on a creative writing syllabus. So rather than a rigid trudge through fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, we start reading (and writing) all three genres from the start, and put the focus on allowing students to explore, engage, and fall in love, hence the Romance. The upshot of this is that when we do get into the genres in the Exposure section there’s already a foundation.

Tell us about your students.

Huan: This is my second year teaching the course and I think my class composition is pretty typical of the creative writing sections: 20 students, mostly women (only 4 guys), comprised of second and third years (AUC is a three-year program). I have 6 exchange students (3 American, 1 South Korean, 1 British, and 1 Australian). The rest of the class is half from the Netherlands and half from the rest of Europe. They are well-educated, well-read, well-traveled, and far more sophisticated than I was as their age. They are sharp, motivated, and empathetic. All have excellent spoken and written English. They are so fluent that I have to constantly remind myself how marvelous it is that so many students are writing creatively in their non-native languages.

The writing backgrounds of the students vary widely, as do their ambitions. Some are just beginning to engage with creative writing in a structured environment; some know the New Yorker inside and out and have taken writing workshops before. Some are likely curious to explore the limits of their abilities—how far can they go with writing? Some seem to simply wish to scratch an itch. All of them do share the common trait among writers of feeling the urge to write—to say something—even if they aren’t yet sure what to say or how to say it. Many of them keep writing journals. I’m pleased that very few, if any, appear to be taking this course just because they think it will be easy. They all seem quite invested in getting the most from the class, and stretch themselves accordingly on the assignments. They are strong critical readers when it comes to other people’s work.

How familiar are they with SmokeLong?

We assigned them an exercise early in the semester in which they had to go explore SmokeLong and find at least one story that they really loved and explain why. Most found more than one, and there was actually quite a bit of overlap both in terms of stories they loved and also stories they disliked, and the subsequent discussion in class about why they loved their favorite story and why they didn’t love other stories was so lively and critical and helped to convince me that they were up for the responsibility of selecting a winning submission.

What do you hope they’ll learn from reading submissions from the slush pile?

Wade: An activity like this makes the act of writing more tangible. They’ll see that writing doesn’t exist within a bubble and isn’t only discussed in a classroom. And that the world of writing is multi-faceted, where editing is equally important.

Huan: Exactly. I think teachers naturally teach in reaction to their own experiences as students, and one of the things I disliked about my creative writing education was the sense that professors were gatekeepers for the larger writing world and thus enforced a hierarchy that turned established writers into celebrities beyond reproach and kept writing students (and their opinions) at the bottom. Questions about, say, how literary journals worked or which you should read were dealt with in a way that discouraged curiosity, punished inexperience, and suggested that students had to first be deemed “ready” to engage this larger world. Often this anointment could only be attained by gaining the favor of the instructor, which often meant hammering away at a story until it became “good” (whatever the instructor meant by that). This might be how that oft-maligned “workshop story” comes into being. I completely agree with the reasoning at the heart of this philosophy, that too many young writers get caught up on publication and that all writers should focus on process and not outcome. But the orthodoxy in practice was annoying (and counterproductive to developing writers, in my opinion) then and completely outdated now—it’s about as tone deaf as journals that still forbid simultaneous submissions.

So all this was in my mind while I was guest editing for SmokeLong in December, which, first and foremost, was just a lot of fun. There was a sense of falling in love with reading and writing again (Romance!), and a reminder of how a great piece of writing can inspire by making it all seem so easy and natural and possible. And that’s what we want our students to feel. Likewise, many submissions also affirm by not being great. In fact, it might be more helpful for young writers—who can struggle with confidence and courage and often get paralyzed by some imagined gulf between them and “real” writers—to see bad or mediocre writing to remind them that there’s nothing to fear. And it occurred to me as I was reading and deliberating over my selections that I was doing what we ask of our creative writing students when it comes to fiction: considering narrative and storytelling and voice and character and completeness, to name a few.

Given that the process of guest editing practices all the skills we are trying to build, and given my belief that writing should be demystified and democratic, why shouldn’t a group of bright young writers—and SmokeLong readers themselves—be trusted with determining the most worthy journal submission? In my experience, students—like all people who want to be successful—thrive when challenged, when trusted with responsibility, and when they feel their work is meaningful. Finally, it’s logistically more feasible to ask our students, who have little time between academics and extra-curriculars, to read 60 flash pieces in a week than full short stories.

Wade Geary teaches creative writing and academic writing courses at Amsterdam University College. In addition to his teaching duties, he is a tutor. His academic interests lie mainly in literary minimalism, a subject he researched while earning degrees at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa. After his studies, he taught composition, literature and fiction writing courses for seven years at the University of Northern Iowa.

Born in the Bay Area and raised in Salt Lake City, Huan Hsu is the author of The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China. As a staff writer for the Washington City Paper in Washington, DC, and the Seattle Weekly, he won two Society of Professional Journalists awards and received recognition from the Casey Foundation for Meritorious Journalism. His essays and fiction have appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Literary Review, and Lucky Peach. He received his MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and currently lives in Amsterdam where he teaches journalism and creative writing at Amsterdam University College.