JoAnna Novak is an assistant professor in the MFA in Creative Writing program and the author of the novel I Must Have You (2017) and two books of poetry: Noirmania (2018) and Abeyance, North America (forthcoming in 2020). Her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, and BOMB. She is founding editor of Tammy, a literary journal and chapbook press.
Tell me about one of your favorite moments in teaching?
One of my favorite moments happened yesterday. I asked students to revise one of their short stories in a way that it’s not recognizable any more: same characters, same situation, new story. It’s incredible how difficult it is to teach revision, revision that goes beyond cutting a few sentences or changing a detail. When students take on that challenge, and wind up with stories that are so much better than their originals — when the stake is bigger, or the character is realized, or the world is fleshed out — it’s really gratifying. The act of revision is so powerful and if student writers can experience that power themselves, I feel like I am doing something that is preparing them for a life as a successful writer.
How does your own writing process inform your teaching?
You have to be able to throw things out and start again and again as a writer. In writing for the New York Times, I wrote one draft in a day. Then I wrote another draft. I showed it to a reader. Then I wrote another draft. When I used to teach first year writing, there was the saying, “first thought, best thought.” That if you came up with it first, it must be the best idea. I tell my students that your original intention has some glimmer that is interesting, and now you use all the tools you’ve gained to bring this piece up writing up to a level that is not just writing, but art.
Why should someone study creative writing at the grad school level?
In grad school so much of what you are doing is developing your autonomy as a writer. You are basically in an apprenticeship, asking, “How do I become a working writer?” “How do I take this thing I love and turn it into a sustainable part of my life?” It’s about taking a passion and bringing rigor to it.
What are you most proud of in the Mount’s Masters in Creative Writing program?
I have started two projects in the MFA program that complement the student experience. The first is “The Rush,” a student literary magazine I began two years ago. We get 500-600 submissions for each issue, and students learn what it means to see work from an editor’s point of view. I also founded a visiting writer series, The Parlor, which brings five or six writers to campus every year to read their work. We’ve hosted National Book Award finalists and Pulitzer winners. I love that students learn from writers from all over the country and often in advanced stages in their careers.