Teaching Megan Abbott in a Creative Writing classroom
This year, I assigned Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything to my MA cohort. I’ve taught her novel Bury Me Deep many times before in an undergraduate module looking at historical writing. None of the MA students are writing crime, although I assigned it over the summer before I knew exactly what they’d all write.
Choosing reading for a Creative Writing class is always tricky. You need to be able to talk about craft choices the author has made, to link it to your module and session aims, and hopefully to get the students to read the whole thing! Giving over their money and investing more of their time in a novel seems to make the stakes higher – students are far more predisposed to hate a novel than a short story.
As a result, I’ve gone through phases of assigning novels I don’t actually care for very much, but I find interesting in terms of craft. It helps me to mute my desire to fly into an impassioned defence of the work. I certainly have a stack of ‘never teach, always recommend in supervision’ books.
However, with The End of Everything, I decided to go for it anyway. I love the way Abbott has embedded noir in suburbia, and I find her depiction of an adolescent narrator brilliant. And for once, the students agreed! They had all finished it, and the discussion was wide-ranging, particularly focusing on sensory details, and the first-person narrator and Lizzie’s sense of loss. The discussion of Mr Verver’s intentions became rather heated, with strong opinions on both sides.
I asked the class to focus at one scene of Lizzie’s family having breakfast, near the end of the novel (pp 226-227). The scene is eight paragraphs long, and only one paragraph starts with ‘I’. Indeed, that one sentence is the only one in the entire scene that begins with ‘I’. It’s a beautifully skilled section (as is the whole novel) and a great teaching point. So often students – and all writers! – fall into the trap of first person must mean I do this, I see this, I feel this. The scene certainly tells us what Lizzie experiences – ‘Dr. Aiken, could he really have such magic in him, could he cast spells and glimmers and make my mother shine like a piece of fine brass?’ – but Abbott’s writing has embedded us as readers so fully in Lizzie’s point of view we don’t need the prop of ‘I think’.