Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of Wench: A Novel, published by Amistad/HarperCollins in 2010. USA Today called the book "deeply moving" and "beautifully written." People called it "a devastatingly beautiful account of a cruel past." O, The Oprah Magazine chose it as a Top Ten Pick of the Month, and NPR named it a top 5 book club pick of 2010. In 2011, the paperback reached the New York Times bestseller list. Dolen's fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, StorySouth, and elsewhere. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dolen serves on the board of the Pen/Faulkner Foundation and was awarded a DC Commission on the Arts Grant for her forthcoming second novel. A graduate of Harvard and a former University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA, Dolen lives in Washington, DC with her family. Find her online at facebook.com/writerdolen or twitter.com/dolen.
How I teach:
I am always aware that the emotional investment in one’s fiction runs psychologically deep. I understand that I occupy a unique position in which I must, especially when offering criticism, honor the sensibilities of apprentice writers. Our fictional dream-worlds are built on fragile foundations, and we must not tear down our fellow dreamers. Instead, we must tread that difficult balance between encouragement and criticism, praise and analysis. I have a penchant for raw honesty in my feedback to student work, but I do so with a loving touch and an ever-present awareness of our writerly sensitivities.
I begin reading an unpublished story with a presumption that it will be published and become a success. This approach results in a deep appreciation and respect for the work. I encourage students to disagree with me when necessary and fight for those parts of their work they believe to be true.
I respond to submissions with a 6-8 page single-spaced letter followed by a final page for discussing annotations. I provide line edits by citing page numbers within the body of the letter. The letter is separated into craft sections such as, Story/Plot, Character, Point-of-View, Dialogue, Sentences, Setting/Place, Scenes, Description. Sometimes the sections may include genre-specific headings, such as a Research section for Historical Fiction. The benefit of this approach is to clearly identify specific areas of craft that need attention, thus shaping the selection for the subsequent Packet. My belief is that fiction is built on the nuts-and-bolts of craft, and if these aspects are mastered, any story can be successfully rendered.
The beauty of the low-residency structure is that the traditional physical borders of a classroom with chairs and desks extend and mutate in pedagogically thrilling ways. When necessary, I attach handouts and photocopied excerpts from outside sources. I might also link web articles into the letter. I am always available via e-mail, but midway into the semester, I schedule a phone call with each student to discuss progress, goals for the remainder of the semester, and any other concerns.
I hope to build a relationship with students in which all perspectives and viewpoints are valued. My belief is that the craft of writing can be learned, and I will do all I can to teach everything I know.