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Part of a series of personal musings on reading and the art of writing

I remember my first creative writing classes, workshops I took as an undergraduate. These were introductory courses and so we were pretty much all terrible writers. Though, that’s a relative term. We’re all terrible when compared to somebody else, and within the confines of the classroom we had our own versions of literary geniuses. We’d write something like three or four stories over the course of the semester and by the third story we’d become familiar with our classmates. If you had been bad in the past you might get panned over in critique and if you’d done well you could expect your next story or poem to be anticipated.

I was one of the latter kinds of students. Praised by my professors and with almost perfect commentary from my peers, I literally had students demand that I go last on critique day because they didn’t want to follow whatever I’d written. And despite the fact that the stories I was writing at the time are ones that I cringe to so much as look at now, I was convinced at the time that I was pretty good. And if I was good, then they were bad. So while I was getting feedback on my pieces that said things like “I really liked it!” and “Don’t change a thing!” and “Thank you for writing this” (none of which, by the way, turned out to be particularly helpful in the long run), I was pushing my red pen to the limits and tearing the work of my peers to shreds:

Awkward word choice here

Blah blah blah, your story doesn’t even start until page 3

I can’t figure out if this character is unnecessary or just uninteresting

LEARN TO SPELL!!!

And plenty of meaner things I won’t repeat here but which would likely come as no surprise to anybody who’s taken a course like this. Beginners are by their nature not very good, and it’s a perverse but genuine pleasure to judge others. It’s fun to criticize and to insult and to have a feeling of superiority that’s justified by something on paper. Tell enough people how much (and precisely how) they suck, and you start to feel like an expert. It’s a trap I fell into, and one my early instructors (who were themselves graduate students who had themselves probably been in these classes just a few years prior) had also fallen into.

Fast forward to the end of my undergraduate career when I took an advanced fiction course taught by a tenure-track professor who had published a handful of books and won various awards of assorted prestige, and the first piece I wrote received (as expected) universal praise from my peers, who enjoyed all of its interesting plot twists and the narrator’s eerie voice. And then I read the notes of my new professor.

Telling a story in the form of journal entries doesn’t make sense if at the end you suggest it’s all been a dream. I mean, if this isn’t real then what the heck are we reading? B-

I was hurt by the first B I’d received on a story (It’s no secret that creative writing is a land of easier-than-average A’s due to the subjective nature of art), but upon reflection I realized that I had indeed made a terrible blunder. It was junk. Junk with interesting plot twists and an eerie narrator. But still junk.

So you can imagine my surprise when the critique of the next story (which I’d deliciously given merciless notes to the night before) began with my professor’s praise of a particular description made about halfway through. Something about a sunset. And it was an okay description, interesting to read, but it had nothing to do with the otherwise unsalvageably bad story. But this professor went on and on about it and started a whole conversation about how that kind of imagery could be used throughout the piece, and by the end of the workshop, this other writer had the other students clapping for him and he’d earned himself a B of his own. A full, minus-less, B.

So of course I had words with my professor, who I felt was not taking the class seriously enough (how else could he miss out on the clear talent gap separating me and what’s-his-name?). And if you’ve ever heard a story about an arrogant student and a professor you know already that by the end of things I learned my lesson and it turns out the writer-professor with twenty plus years experience knew what he was doing.

What he’d asked me to try and do was to write only positive comments on the next three stories we workshopped. As part of our grade was based on volume and thoroughness of commentaries, this meant that I not only had to write positive comments but I had to write a LOT of positive comments. On these terrible awful stories my peers were jerry-rigging together in what must have been the hour or so before class started.

If you’re an aspiring writer, you might feel pressured to read ‘good’ writing. Or at least writing that challenges you. But as it turns out, it can be just as much of challenge to find genuine praise in a first-time writer as it is to find fault with somebody like Nabokov.But doing so forced me to examine the stories I was looking at differently and I realized that Good and Bad are just points on a spectrum, and with experience and editing and revision any piece has the potential to get better: even Vladimir’s very first drafts probably had their cringe-worthy moments!

Being a good writer means reading a lot and reading indiscriminately. The exercise of reading good and bad writing equally has helped me to view stories as being collections of parts, and that new attention to detail means that not only can I separate a good description from a bad story, I can more fairly judge anything in front of me, whether it’s a new book I’m reviewing or a classic of western literature or even, yes, my own stories.

And while I wouldn’t say that anything I’ve linked to here is by any definition “Bad Writing,” it is the sort of writing that asks you take a certain chance on the authors. These are students and emerging writers, and most of them don’t have big awards or glittering book reviews (or even books yet) to entice you into investing time into reading them. They’re still experimenting with style and form, many of them, and there’s no big guarantee that you’re going to like whatever you read. Heck, you might even find something that makes you roll your eyes. But there are a whole different sort of lessons you can learn from art you don’t like, lessons of what not to do and ideas of how to fix what you see as common problems (read through a slush pile and you’ll quickly learn all sorts of mistakes to avoid). And if my work here at MFA Stalker has taught me anything, it’s that there’s sometimes more I can learn from students than from the masters.

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