~ Interview by Tyler West
Virginia Hartman has taught writing at George Washington University, American University, and the Smithsonian, and has been teaching at The Writer's Center for the past 10 years. Her writing has been anthologized in Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press), and she is the co-editor, with Barbara Esstman, of a literary anthology called A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories About the Modern Wedding(St. Martin’s Press). Virginia's next TWC workshop, Advanced Fiction, begins on March 25. In the interview below, Virginia explains the inspiration behind the course, and how her unique teaching approach will bolster seasoned writers' literary toolkits.
What was your motivation for teaching an "advanced workshop"? What sets this class apart from other fiction classes?
I had a few participants in my other workshops who were ready to take their fiction to the next level. They had taken several of my workshops and were improving all the time, so a more challenging session seemed inevitable for them. It surprised me, as well, how many other writers were enthusiastically ready for an advanced-level course.
The thing that sets the Advanced Fiction Workshop apart is that participants submit work before registering. This is not meant to create an exclusive club, but rather it's a way to assure that everyone is well-prepared before entering the room, and that everyone around the table has more or less the same amount of previous experience with fiction workshops. For this session starting on March 25, the deadline to submit pages is March 10.
How do writers know if they're ready for an advanced course?
If writing fiction is a consistent practice in your life, if you've received encouragement from previous workshop leaders, if your day doesn't seem complete if you haven't worked on a story, and most especially, if you've taken several fiction writing classes at The Writer's Center or elsewhere, you may be ready. The only way to know for sure is to send in your best five pages.
You require students to send a manuscript by March 10th, before the class starts. How does this pre-workshop requirement enhance the experience for students?
Here's the feedback I've received. Students are extremely gratified when they feel they're at the same level as their colleagues in the workshop. It usually means that the critiques they get on their work are thoughtful and considered. And because participants are reading complex and interesting fiction from their classmates, each person's ability to critique is sharpened. This then helps them look at their own fiction with a critical eye as they progress.
If you could ensure that students leave your class with one "writing takeaway," what would that be?
I'm very big on community. It's what The Writer's Center is about. And within my own teaching ethic, it's what I'll call my "prime directive." Because writing is so solitary, when we come together, we absolutely have to support and encourage one another. I always promote the idea that workshop participants keep meeting after the course ends, to carry forward the deadline-giving, the mutually supportive critiques, and in many cases, the friendships that have formed.
We just have to ask this question: what's your favorite piece of fiction and why?
That's sort of like asking which is my favorite child. So I'll skirt it and tell you instead what I've liked recently, and felt I could really learn from. I read The North Water, a novel by Ian McGuire, which is much more brutal than most fiction I read, and yet I couldn't put it down. I also sank my teeth into Michael Chabon's Moonglow, which is masterfully told, and Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, which I didn't think I was going to like at first, but she does such interesting things with structure that I found myself wanting to follow her crooked path. And I'm a little late to Mary Kay Zuravleff's Man Alive, which came out in 2014, but at times her style feels like Virginia Woolf has come back to life and is writing about a family in Bethesda. It was tasty. Every novel or short story I read makes me a better writer, and I encourage students to have a novel or a story collection on their night table at all times.
Click here for more information on the Advanced Fiction workshop. Each student is expected to send the instructor a manuscript of five pages by March 10, and the workshop itself begins on March 25. We hope to see you there!