John McManus is the author of three short story collections—Fox Tooth Heart, Born on a Train, and Stop Breakin Down—and the novel Bitter Milk. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature, Oxford American, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Fulbright Scholar grant, the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award, and a Creative Capital Literature grant.
MFA in Creative Writing, Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas at Austin
MA in English and Creative Writing, Hollins University
BA in English, Goucher College
Areas of Expertise
- Creative Nonfiction
I was born in Knoxville and grew up in Blount County, Tennessee, in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Since then I’ve lived in Baltimore, Roanoke, Austin, San Antonio, New York, and now Norfolk, Virginia. I’m the author of three books of fiction: the novel Bitter Milk (2005) and the short story collections Born on a Train (2003) and Stop Breakin Down (2000), all with Picador USA. I won the Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000 following the publication of Stop Breakin Down. My stories have appeared in Ploughsares, The Harvard Review, The Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Tin House, StorySouth, and Grist, among other journals. I’ve been teaching at Goddard since June 2007.
Describing my teaching philosophy can seem almost as difficult to me as writing a novel (which is to say, difficult!) but I’ll try. In a writing class I like to start by asking each student what she most ardently wants to accomplish, so that I can devise an individual strategy to help her see that goal to fruition. It’s my aim as a teacher to foster an environment in which no one abandons an idea simply because its execution seems too strenuous. I urge writers to keep the stakes high in their work and explore without fear, because I firmly believe learning to revise in the true sense of the word—seeing anew—can result in startling and remarkable effects that may have previously seemed impossible. A great teacher of mine, the novelist David Bradley, organized the class I took with him around the principle that “Anyone can write; professionals revise.” When I tell students that I throw away more than ninety percent of my own output, it gives me a platform for encouraging them not to deem a page precious simply because they’ve written it. Several times I’ve taught specialized revision workshops that aim to revise how students think about revision, starting with the etymology of the word revision itself. A writer brings in a story that has lain untouched awhile; after it has been examined, the class generates assignments for new scenes, conversations, and descriptions that must be written. Given a story in the point of view of X, who murders her husband Y because he’s been sleeping with her sister Z, the class might direct the author to “write the scene where X goes to buy the rat poison,” or “write a paragraph in Z’s POV describing Y physically,” or “write the scene where X, Y, and Z all head to the beach to play mini-golf,” because while these are experiments rather than prescriptions, in my experience the average X-Y-and-Z story draft fulfills only a smidgen of its tragic, comedic, and situational potential.
I realize it can seem anti-artistic to treat a text as a mechanic treats a car on the hydraulic lift—something to be scrutinized, disassembled to find out what is and isn’t working—but that is how I’ve most often succeeded in revising my own work. As a child I was lucky enough to attend a Montessori school where we literally cut up sentences and arranged the fragments in piles marked adverb, prepositional phrase, noun; sometimes I think back on this exercise when helping students identify elements of a story that help it to cruise forward, lurch, or screech to a halt.
I grew as a writer by paying heed to other writers’ techniques, but I also became a better reader by learning to read like a writer. Once I’d developed a writer’s sensibility, reading seemed to me like an aspect of the craft, as did other activities in my life: observing, dreaming, walking, waiting. Thus I try to impress upon my students that refining how they conceive of the act of writing can transform the very way they regard themselves and the world around them—and of course I tell them I believe this is a consequence to be desired.