Our first semester at the CUNY Writers’ Institute officially ended with a reading at reading at the KGB Bar, where I read from the prologue of my novel, “Men With Beards.” It’s been a really fun and challenging semester, and even though I’m still not quite happy with the fact I even have a prologue (I rarely read them in novels), it’s a pretty huge deal that I’ve even gotten this thing moving in the right direction.
If it hadn’t been for the CUNY Writers’ Institute, I’d still be dawdling about letting other things take priority. But really, if it wasn’t for my amazing wife, Sona, who forced me to apply as soon as I found out about it at a reading with John Freeman (who we’re supposed to meet next semester), none of this would be happening. As with any program, there can always be improvements, but my expectations were more than met.
I already have an MFA in creative writing, so wasn’t looking to replicate that program, and I’d taken workshops in the City, which didn’t quite cut the mustard. I liked what the Writers’ Institute was offering: a chance to interact with top editors at the literary magazines and publishing houses, to learn from them, and quite frankly I was curious how they would run their workshops. An MFA workshop is fairly standard from one writer to another. You submit your work, other students read it and give you their feedback, then the professor chimes in.
Andre Aciman, director of the program and also a writer, put it quite eloquently during the welcome party. He said that a writer can only guide you in a limited way, by giving you feedback on how he or she would write a scene, or perhaps from a handful of writers they’ve read. An editor, however, reads manuscripts day in and day out, and reads voraciously, so they know a hundred different ways a scene can be written. They know what the publishing trends are, and the genesis of a book – how it even came to be.
I can’t explain how exciting that was to hear, and how grateful I was when we had our first class that it wasn’t just a crock of shit. In addition to all of that, I also wanted a program with some level of vetting, so the students weren’t just half-arsing it, or turning in gibberish, but actually had some passion and a goal they were trying to attain (even if it was vague like my, “gonna finish that novel”), and most importantly I wanted to learn from these editors and see how and what they thought of stories and publishing in general, as well as what they thought of my writing. I wanted a sense of community. And I got all of those things. I even have a small group of friends from class that I tweet at, and a handful who I hang out with before or occasionally after class. So, here are my thoughts on our two fiction workshop instructors and Andre Aciman, the head of the program.
Jonathan Galassi (Farrar, Straux, and Giroux)
The first assignment was to imitate the style of a writer whose work we liked; the second assignment was to make ourselves into a character, taking traits of ourselves, and the third was to submit a work-in-progress that incorporated all of these techniques. I quite liked the first two assignments and felt I learned a great deal from the process. I attempted to imitate Franzen’s, “Freedom,” in the way he paints a picture of an entire town and people in one sprawling long chapter. It didn’t quite work and I learned that I fucking hate the third person. Still, a great exercise. The discussion surrounding it, especially the first class, was totally useless and revolved around how amazing Charles Bucowski was, and some students going out of their way to prove how well read they were. But soon enough, we became more comfortable with the fact we were sitting at a conference table at Farrar, Straux, and Giroux, surrounded by books they had published, and the president of the company waltzed in every Tuesday evening with a Diva coffee mug.
In the second week, we had a makeup class held on a Friday and Jonathan made the mistake of bringing a bottle of wine he had in his office, along with plastic cups for everyone. And then it became a thing. Every Tuesday evening, he would have a bottle of wine and a single malt whiskey. It was pretty epic, and got us talking very quickly. Nadia, a writer who would fly in from Detroit every week just to be part of it (I kid you not) brought in brandy soaked chocolates once, and I brought in some heavy handed jello shots. I keep things classy.
Towards the end of the semester, he remarked, “I’ve never had a class who drank so much.” That’s the mark we left. Not “what a talented class,” but the class that drank a lot.
I thought the class was run very efficiently and the feedback was very interesting because often he wouldn’t comment directly on the piece, but on the genre or on the style. He’d question the use of skaz (integrating speech as part of the narrative, without quotation marks) or magical realism. For my last piece, I had some really over the top bits about 9/11.
He called me out on some factual information and then instead of saying, “This isn’t working,” which it clearly wasn’t, he brings up narrative strategies other writers who used 9/11 as a theme used, and suggested it is easier to not directly talk about 9/11, but he very casually made the statement that, although it’s more difficult to write about 9/11 the way I was doing, “it’s not impossible.” And during discussion of my piece, in which everybody told me I should write it as a flashback, he gave me a copy of “The Submission,” a first novel by Amy Waldman. It was quite a thrilling moment and a lovely way to end the semester.
One last thing about Jonathan: In November, I went to a writing conference at the New School with Sona (CLMP) and Jonathan was part of a panel with Michael Cunningham. I’m so used to seeing Jonathan every Tuesday night that it didn’t seem like a big deal he was there. As soon as he sees me, he smiles, and slaps me on the shoulder an says, “You been here all day?” And I say, “Yup.” Then he introduces me to Michael Cunningham as “this is my student.” And everybody starts crowding around me, wondering how on earth I know these guys.
Matt Weiland does not pull any punches. If he thinks a story is not working, he will call you out on it. His first words on my first story was, “great story, but what a mess.” Then he repeated the last bit a couple times, and used the word, “snow herring,” because I’d used snow way too many times in the story. It was incredible feedback, and of course, there were couple of students in class who wanted a teacher who was nicer and less real in his feedback. I thought his feedback was great. It was incisive and straight up gangster, which is the first thought anyone who meets Matt thinks.
The workshop was run very similar to an MFA workshop, except without the bullshit comments without any support. He wouldn’t let you get away with saying something like, “the voice needs work,” without some solid proof, and had no problem disagreeing with people, and continued to keep it real even if the students thought their work was ready to be published and got a bit grumpy with the feedback.
I also liked that it was all about writing and unless there were students who insisted on speaking and rationalizing every single comment that was received, the general rule was to sit there and listen. In Jonathan’s class, he didn’t have a problem if the writer wanted to yap it up. The assignments in Matt Weiland’s class were basically submissions, and he would give us his feedback. The class was very much leaning towards the short story, although there were some novel excerpts. I liked the class, but you really have to be ready to submit and be ready to take criticism. The alternative is to receive a generic, “not interested,” letter from an editor of Matt’s caliber.
This is the dude that makes this whole thing happen. He’s a one man army and I think he likes it that way. He’s the head of the Comparative Lit program at CUNY, and has a very entertaining story about how he got into academia.He’s funny and really good with kids – Kavya had some in-depth conversations with him about her nailpolish on several occasions. It’s amazing that he manages to teach, write his novels, and still find time to do some level of marketing for events like a literary agent panel, a welcome party, or a reading.
And he’s a great moderator at these types of events because although he has a Ph.D, he is by no means an academic. He’s a straight up writer and asks questions that only a writer would ask, and has very funny anecdotes. For the agent panel, he tackled the fundamental question of why you even need an agent by relaying how he managed to publish an article in the New York Times. He tried without an agent, was promptly rejected, and that same day got an agent who submitted the very same piece, and it was accepted. His version is a lot funnier.
A program like CUNY really can only exist in NYC. I can’t see this being anywhere else, where you have access to editors who can pop over after work, or in the midst of traveling to Germany for a book festival. And it is, for the most part, largely unknown, because there isn’t enough funding for a huge marketing team, so it is strictly through word of mouth that people get to know about the program.
I found out at a random reading I went to with John Freeman of Granta, who made an offhand comment about him teaching at the Writers’ Institute, and then Sona forced me to apply, and my former MFA instructor, Steve Yarbrough, saved my ass by sending out a letter of recommendation in record speed. For the first semester, I am really pleased with the progress I’ve made and also realizing that I need to develop a strong work ethic for next semester, when things are going to get even more real.
I do wish there were more events and panels, but this is New York City, where there are events happening almost every evening. The only negative thing I have to say, is the sushi. I don’t know what the hell is going on, but every event we’ve had this semester has involved exactly two things: sushi and wine. And everytime I nibble at it, I always think the exact same thing, “Samosas would hit the spot right about now.” And then I go get some more wine and forget all about it. So far, my experience has been nothing short of amazing, and I’m looking forward to one more semester!
Vitals: The CUNY Writers’ Institute introduces talented writers to New York’s finest and most prestigious editors. The Writers’ Institute offers a one-year intensive course of instruction capped by a certificate and priceless tips straight from the intricate workings of every editor’s mind.
Short Link: http://ow.ly/imBi8