For this English professor, teaching and writing novels feed each other
By Erika Fredrickson
The way Kevin Canty sees it, if you don’t really want to write — that is, if you won’t sit down and commit to it — there’s nothing he can do to make you better. And if you don’t read other people’s writing, your own writing will fall flat.
“That’s the ironclad law of the universe,” says the University of Montana fiction professor. “If you don’t read, you don’t know where the target is.”
Beyond those basic tenets, Canty says, teaching students in a writing program is a strange endeavor that requires creative and varied approaches.
“Bill Kittredge said in an interview once that teaching creative writing was the only profession made up entirely of tips,” Canty says. “It’s kind of true. When someone comes to me, my advice is always super specific to whatever is going on in their story.”
Canty is a renowned author with four novels and three short-story collections under his belt, plus pieces in high-profile publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ and The New York Times Magazine. He started teaching at UM in 1995 and currently facilitates writing workshops in both undergraduate and graduate programs.
His latest novel, “The Underworld,” is based loosely on a real event: a disastrous fire that erupted in an Idaho silver mine in the 1970s. It’s the first novel Canty ever has done research on, though some of the details are plucked from his own experience working near the mining town in his younger years.
Canty sees his role in writing workshops as a coach rather than teacher. What he’s mastered over the years is how to ask the right questions of his students — the kind of questions that unlock key aspects of a story, jar them loose and help them come into focus.
Ben Fowlkes, who now writes for USA Today, was included along with Canty in the 2015 Best American Short Stories anthology. But back in 2006, when he was a student in Canty’s class, he navigated his short stories through those questions Canty liked to ask.
“I remember him saying, ‘Is this a story or is this a situation?’” Fowlkes says. “Or he’d look at the action your main character was taking and say, ‘What kind of person does this?’ Then you’d realize you didn’t know because you hadn’t thought to ask, and that’s why the character didn’t feel fully developed yet.”
The connection between what happens in a writing workshop and how it plays out in Canty’s own writing provides a way for students to understand the craft.
“It really helped that you could see him applying that in his own work,” Fowlkes says. “He’d sometimes hold up a story and ask, ‘Does this world feel as big as the one we know?’ That’s a high bar to clear in fiction, but he consistently does it. The worlds of his novels feel rich and complex and fully fleshed out.”
Canty’s path to becoming a writer involved back roads and side treks. He initially came to Missoula in 1972 from Washington, D.C., to go to college. He took poetry classes at the time, studying under esteemed professors Madeline DeFrees and Richard Hugo.
“I was no poet. I managed to prove that,” he says. “I sort of slipped sideways into the fiction classes.”
Acclaimed author William Kittredge often allowed undergrads to sit in on his graduate workshops, and Canty took advantage of the opportunity. Still, he didn’t have much focus for school, so in the summer of 1973 he traded in the classroom for some real-world experience, working for the Milwaukee Railroad in Avery, Idaho. During his time there, he met people with friends and family who had perished in the mine fire. Writing “The Underworld” was an exercise in remembering this time: the songs on the radio station, the old highway through Wallace and the whorehouses still in operation even up through the 1980s.
For a long time he didn’t go back to school. He played music and worked for the U.S. Forest Service, but after he turned 30 he had a moment of reckoning. “I realized I wasn’t going to be in my 20s again, and if I wanted to be a writer I needed to do it now,” he says.
After finishing his UM undergrad degree, he went on to get two graduate degrees, an M.A. in English at the University of Florida and an MFA in fiction at the University of Arizona. He taught two years in Wilmington, North Carolina, before a job opened up at UM and he returned to Missoula.
Canty got his first real break during his second year of grad school at the University of Arizona. One of his workshop professors, well-known author Joy Williams, had taken an assignment in Africa with Outside magazine. She asked her husband, L. Rust Hills, the fiction editor for Esquire, to fill in during her absence.
“He saw one of my stories in a workshop and basically ran it in the summer fiction issue of Esquire,” Canty says. “My first published story, in Esquire. So when my students ask me, ‘How does this work?’ I just tell them to get as lucky as possible as often as possible.”
Luck is just the ticket through the door, though. Habit is what has kept Canty going. Every morning he wakes up, reads The New York Times and gets a bite to eat. But he’s at his desk writing within 45 minutes or an hour. He ignores the outside world — emails, bills — until he’s done. This is the kind of wisdom he passes onto his students.
“The good news and the bad news about writing is the same news, which is that everything is soluble in work,” he says.
In his undergraduate classes, Canty sometimes gets the chance to watch a writer blossom from raw talent.
“You can sometimes be the first to put the sword on that person’s shoulder and say, ‘Arise! You are now a writer,’” he says.
In graduate classes, students are more polished and focused — and even then it’s still about jumping into the deep end. Canty teaches a class in which students work toward writing an entire novel in one semester. It’s a lofty goal, but the real value is the marathon-like exercise and the conversation that develops.
“The workshop itself is smarter than anyone in the workshop,” he says. “The ideas are kicking around, and everyone’s feeding off each other, and we’re all leaving the workshop with ideas we didn’t have when we started.”
Even then, Canty says, graduate classes end up being launchpads for the real work that happens later when writers go out into the world.
“Like all really great writing teachers, Kevin taught us about life and humanity as much as about plot and character,” says former student Sarah Aswell, who now writes comedy pieces and has appeared in McSweeney’s and The New Yorker. “Years later, I apply a lot of his lessons to my life as well as my writing. For example, when creating characters, ‘find the virtue of their faults’ — in other words, remember that the things that make us special are often born from our imperfections.”
There’s sometimes a sense in the writing world that academia takes away from a writer’s time to create, but Canty doesn’t see it that way. The conversations his students start in a classroom often reveal a solution to a problem he’s dealing with in his own writing. It keeps him challenged and it gives him hope.
“To watch people go out into the world and succeed and have fulfilling lives and do fulfilling work,” he says, “that is a pleasure of working with people who are at a really pivotal point in their lives.” •