Our author Johnny Payne is Director of Mount Saint Mary University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. We have a conversation with him about writing and teaching the art itself. Check out his novel Confessions of a Gentleman Killer to read his writing!
City of Light Publishing: What are some of your biggest concerns and issues with how writing is typically taught?
Johnny Payne: I came of age in a graduate program stuck in realism. There was pretty much one way to
do things. The lackadaisical pedagogy was mind-numbing. We read no books, simply brought in our
work and “kicked it around” like a half-deflated soccer ball. Nobody possessed a precise critical or
conceptual vocabulary. It was strictly intuition, seat-of-the pants, blind leading the blind. Theory was non-
existent. The inherited Iowa model was pernicious, yes, but more than that, it represented a general
mistrust of ideas and intellect. There was nothing to feed our curiosity except the actual literature courses
we took. I learned more from Chaucer than from my workshops.
COLP: What do you think is the biggest disservice to a creative writing student as far as it relates to their education?
JP: Teacher: be prepared. Bring everything you’ve got to each session, prepare the ground before you
walk in the door. That also means me as a teacher pushing against their complacency. I teach humility and
openness to instruction and new ways of going about writing. The worst thing a teacher can do is to cater
to that sense of entitlement and reliance on old vices and halfway reading. You are in graduate school to
apprentice yourself, not so much to a person as to a method that gives you an objective approach to your
COLP: In education there are teachers with varying skills in terms of teaching writing as well as in approaching and applying their pedagogy in ways that go outside of institutional ideology and the proverbial box. What do you think is critical for these educators to understand and practice in the classroom to ensure their teaching has value?
JP: Right now, it’s just as important to push against the strong forces in the university that make
everything about STEM and “workforce training.” They put no value on the arts or on humanistic
inquiry. It’s much worse than when I began, which now looks like a Golden Age. Even writing teachers
have begun to share this zeal for “practical learning.” I am weary of the overuse of “craft” as a description
of what we teach. I’m not a carpenter; I work conceptually. There are many ways to be a good teacher.
I work a lot off wit and comedy, but others who are more earnest can be just as effective. You are
always working, necessarily, out of some version of yourself. Be true to it. I encourage teachers to
have objective material that has to be addressed, but not to lose themselves in pursuing “coverage.”
You may not get to everything. It is equally important that you establish a gestalt for your class, and
stay within it, following the motion of what is unfolding before your eyes, what you are helping to
create: a space of discovery. Some things get left undone each session because other more important
ones present themselves.
COLP: How do you teach writing?
JP: I have developed a method that is objective, based on close reading of literature, theoretical essays
about form and structure, and students developing a precise critical vocabulary and mode of analysis that
is descriptive rather than evaluative. Subjectivity has little value. Taste and preference are excluded, as
are personal agendas based on the observer’s value system. We make statements in an if-then mode, first
understanding what the student purports to do, and only then making assertions that are intended to
illuminate what has happened on the page. This is counter-intuitive for most students, who come in believing that the goal is to praise or blame. They have no understanding that critique is a
philosophical gesture, not a personal one.
COLP: How do you determine that a teaching strategy is effective?
JP: I always tell students to “stay in the process.” That is my mantra. Like all mantras, it seems self-evident but is not. I am less about evaluating a product than I am about tracking the development of their understanding. Students want a reward structure, but I de-emphasize that. Perfection is not a goal; diligent practice is. We are not focused on “making a thing.” I tell them that once they develop proficiency, they can go write as many novels as they want with the skills they’ve acquired. The novel, play, or book of poetry is merely a by-product of our endeavor.
COLP: Arthur Melzer notes in “On the Pedagogical Move for Esoteric Writing,” that within the last thirty years, Western society has been “fundamentally suspect” of secrecy. This is evidenced by a publishing hoax perpetrated by the physicist, Alan Sokal. He submitted an article to Social Text which was published with the title, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” It was not based on actual research. Sokal, in his revelation of the hoax in the essay published by Lingua Franca, “Revelation: A Physicist Experiments with Cultural studies,” wrote that “(a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” How does this teasing of the humanities and post structuralism by the hard sciences relate to problems within the academy as they relate to teaching students written creative expression? To go further, John Duvall writes in the Introduction to The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945, that minimalism is the unacknowledged hegemony of the creative writing program. With limiters like “show don’t tell” and professors on occasion preventing students from exploring genre fiction because it “isn’t literary,” how can students be taught to write in a commanding way when they are neither nurtured to tap within to find the space of intuition where the life of story is, and when many are not provided with a smooth transition or work models that safely bring them beyond their comfort zone of assigned classics and Harry Potter type books? They find themselves in a class where they are told to read Peter Taylor and then write a short story.
JP: I was schooled in post-structuralism and critical theory and I enjoyed reading Derrida, though I don’t
take his actual ideas that seriously. I do consider him a great stylist. But I always saw deconstruction as a
secular religion. However, it was a healthy antidote to the minimalist drudgery I had to endure in my
MFA, and which you describe well. My favorite writers are thinkers, and the best novels are in some way
novels of ideas. Minimalism comes out of an anti-intellectual bent, its premise that “plain talk” is
somehow more “real.” One version of that are the faux-blue-collar stories, popularized by Raymond
Carver, that singlehandedly ruined short fiction in America for many years. It was all about “clean, clear”
writing. Rabelais, Cervantes, and Dante would have been ejected from that company. The other side of
that is “genre” writing being treated as a separate category. On some level, writing is writing. Codifying
a set of conventions and essentializing it, e.g. “horror,” “romance,” immediately creates a ghetto, which
gets commercialized while being passed off as a transcendental imperative. It’s hard to get rid of that
thinking once it’s in your blood, and it leads directly away from art. Harry Potter is a wonderful series; I
read it to and with my kids. J.K. Rowling writes well, just as Tolkien did in another time. But legions of
wannabes draw all the wrong lessons from her books. They recognize the formula and miss the subtle
charm and the outstanding characterizations. She wasn’t following a recipe. My favorite book ever
written—and I’m quite serious about this—is Harold and the Purple Crayon. It is absolute genius.
James Joyce would have loved it. Text and image together are positively metaphysical, while quite
offhand. I don’t see it as a “children’s book.” As a new professor, I had my undergraduates read the
collected stories of Kafka. As a reward for suffering through, I took crayons and construction paper to the
next class and read it to them while they drew pictures. They were thrilled.
In my seminars, we don’t separate “genre” from “literature.” You always strive to write with elegance of
endeavor, and to push yourself to be as capable within whatever mode of writing you explore, emulating
the best practitioners of each. There is no default style in my classes. I want students to acquire, rather, a
repertoire of style. There is no reason any of us has to settle for a single style that is to last through our
entire career. Otherwise, we keep writing the same boring book, which ends up being the same book a lot
of other people have already written. Read with equal attention Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Octavia
Butler, and learn from each. No “genre” exempts you from writing well and using language nimbly. You
can’t hide behind fantasy to justify your underdeveloped characters. Don’t stick your characters in
spaceships, which are as uniform and dreary as hospital rooms. My students in a single semester might
read A Clockwork Orange, The Good Lord Bird, Manhattan Beach, Suttree, and Conversation in the
Cathedral. I try to choose novels that each proceeds in a way that is radically different from the preceding
COLP: The Sophists used the Dissoi Logoi, also called dialexeis, to consider each side of an argument in hopes of coming to a deeper truth. Would such a strategy or another type of hands-on practice be useful in the classroom to teach intuition for writing and also revision (or any other dimension of the writing process that can be shown in a procedural way to students)? An example might be for a teacher to write a paragraph and show this writing on a projector one week, take notes on the paragraph, and then the following week revise the paragraph in two different ways that distinctly differ in story. The question is then asked: which story is better. There wouldn’t be a definitive right or wrong answer but students could think about the difference and then write and revise their own work.
JP: I like your example, but I approach it in a different manner. Dialexis is critical to artistic
development. I am an avid reader of philosophy and I consider myself a good logician. I am also a
provocateur. Essentially, I let students explore a certain thought wave, but at some point, as their thought
becomes soft or rigid, I go beyond being merely Socratic and openly engage them in dialectical thought,
pushing them to use terms precisely and not have logical lapses. My goal is to expose their unexamined
prejudices and gaps in understanding. I would not say I’m mean, but I don’t mind getting them riled up,
mad at me if necessary, because teaching is a transactional activity that requires insight into students’
emotions and psychology. Usually, after a session of strenuous exertion, they come back clearer and
better prepared for the next bout of dialexis. As for procedure, one of the VR experiences, “Quartet,” is a
four story, graphic novel-style set of moving images, coupled with a specific, detailed scenario to be
followed. This means that all students are writing “the same” story. When they are done, we have 15 or
more versions of those stories. The students realize how radically differently a single narrative act can
COLP: A follow up question pertains to the idea that successful writing, just like anything else that is successful, is rooted in fundamentals. The idea of the beginning, middle, and end, while an extremely fundamental concept to story crafting, has as much to do with more experienced years of writing as it does with the early years of writing. After writing for a decade or so, competent, patterned structuring can truly be as creative as complex metaphors and symbols. For example, the way that The 120 Days of Sodom is structured is meticulous when it comes to the different storytellers and passions but it is fundamentally rooted in a writer knowing that the ending won’t just happen – it has to be envisioned, prepared for, and earned. What are other fundamentals of writing that writers and teachers of writing might take for granted and assume that it is not worth teaching? And further, for teachers of writing, how can these fundamentals be drilled?
JP: I sometimes feel conflicted between wanting my students to throw off all shackles and experiment
wildly, and on the other hand, keeping them within bounds to master fundamentals. I usually have to
focus more on the latter, because they have so much to learn quickly. I focus on structure a great deal.
However, much of what they read shows them a different, less orthodox path, and those who venture
there get encouragement from me and I consider their work on its own terms. I have certain essential
beliefs. 1)Language matters. If you have a bad prose style, it doesn’t matter how “interesting” your story
is. 2) Without a setting that is believable and compelling, readers won’t enter your pages for long.
Everything happens somewhere in particular. 3) The main reason people read novels is for the
storytelling. Always be telling a story. But don’t forget how point of view, tone, and the creation of well-
structured scenes can advance that goal. 4) Your novel is only as smart as you are. Use the full force of
your mind and don’t pander to “the market.” 5) Not everybody has an ear for dialogue; you have to practice it, just like you do a tennis backhand. As to how teachers can inculcate all this, it’s as simple as
understanding the relation between theory and practice and honoring both sides of that proposition. Form
is often impoverished in the classroom or simply left behind. I have spent my career experimenting and
trying to make each book as different in form and style from the previous one as I can. However, I call
myself a neo-classicist. That means there is always a desire for elegant form and symmetry, no matter the