Sunday, March 29, 2009

There Is No Good and There Is No Bad

Recently in workshop a student asked the professor: as a teacher how does he deal with stories and writers that simply aren’t any good? The professor responded that as a teacher he sets aside notions of good and bad completely and just looks at stories based on how they can be revised. This is something I’ve been doing as a teacher this past semester in my Creative Writing class. One of the professors at UAF always says that the purpose of workshop is to tease out the possibilities of the work submitted and now that I’m teaching Creative Writing I really agree that this is the best way of looking at it.

I find that every single story that gets submitted has the potential to become better and without even realizing it, I’ve been checking my personal tastes at the door. I don’t read my students’ stories with any thought of whether or not this would ever become a story that I, personally, would consider good. I don’t even think about whether this would be publishable – there is a wide range of publishable fiction and a lot of it is well outside of what I would consider worth reading (one of my students recently did a presentation on a mystery genre literary journal and pointed out that almost all of these stories were terrible if you look at them from a craft perspective, a useful thing to have brought up in class since it spotlights that very question of whether or not there is such a thing as “good”).

So instead of assessing the stories based on whether or not they are “good,” which would be impossible in my opinion, they need to be looked at with the assumption that any of them can become better than what they are now – and we’re going to try to help the writer get them there. An idea that goes hand in hand with this assumption is that any writer has the ability to make their stories good – the purpose of the creative writing class is to help writers learn the elements and technique of craft so they can make their stories become whatever they want them to be.

Possibilities, as that UAF professor puts it. It all comes down to possibilities. Where could this story go from here? What could be changed to bring out this idea more, or to get rid of that one? What about this story is creating this effect? What might be added to create that effect? Good or bad doesn’t even enter in to the equation.

It’s true that some drafts may seem further along the scale than others – one student may turn in a draft that already has all kinds of tantalizing things going on and it has less far to go to reach some of its potential than, say, another student’s story that reads, in that early draft, bland and clichéd. But that doesn’t mean that Student A is a “good” writer and Student B isn’t. Student A may spend very little or no time on revision and Student B may work exhaustively improving that story, working toward a final product that is much better than Student A’s. Does that mean that Student B is indeed a “good” writer and Student A isn’t? No. It means that Student B is doing what a real writer does and Student A isn’t. It means, in my opinion, that there is no “good” – there is only hard work.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pushing Yourself

Perhaps it’s the fact that I won’t be going to school next semester (yes, that’s right, it’s been officially decided that I’ll be moving to Ohio so my husband can begin study at a masters program there. I’ll try to find the least undesirable job that I can and focus my attention on getting my novel ready to send out) but this past week I’ve suddenly had a heightened sense of the value of the feedback that you get and the things that you learn in an MFA program.

Feedback is something I’ve struggled with I would say my entire time in the program. Sometimes I want to ignore some points of feedback altogether – write it off as that person simply not being in my audience – and I know that other people are prone to this as well, often directing their peers with what sort of feedback they’re looking for when they turn something in to workshop (and I’ve been guilty of this, too). But I’ve been thinking more and more lately that that sort of attitude will hold you back from getting to be the writer that you have the potential to become.

I don’t mean that I’ve decided that from now on every single suggestion that anybody gives me I’ll just mindlessly take. But ignoring bits of feedback altogether isn’t useful either. Ultimately, whether somebody would be in your audience or not has very little to do with whether or not you should consider their points. They are readers and writers and how they react to your piece is worth knowing – even if you won’t change the piece accordingly.

What I mean is that, you learn, as a writer, every time somebody misreads something that you wrote. And no matter what, people will always misread things. Even if it’s ready, even if you get it published to great success, there will always still be people who read it differently than you intended, get hung up on certain parts that you put in as mere background, or just plain dislike it for whatever reason they may have. And it teaches you a lot about writing to know these things.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, with my time in the program very near to its end, I’m finding myself more and more interested and willing to try to crawl outside of my comfort zone as a writer, to stop saying, “Well, I’m just not interested in writing like that” and begin to experiment around with some of the techniques that I used to consider pretentious and now realize can be really effective, if done well.

I still believe that experimental writing is overused and that most readers aren’t interested in it, but I do think that, if something nontraditional can be done in such a way that it doesn’t seem experimental – that is, it’s so flawlessly integrated into the text that the reader doesn’t even notice the experimental quality of it unless they stop and think about it – it can be effective. It’s true that most of the experiments that we see in workshops aren’t being done well yet, but if you think about it, of course they’re not – they’re drafts! And I think you learn a lot from trying these things, even when they don’t work out.

But experimental isn’t really the right word. I guess what I really mean is not being afraid to move beyond what sort of writer you’ve always been and instead opening up to the possibilities of what sort of writer you have it in you to become. There are certain things that I feel afraid of trying because I think, “I’m just not a good enough writer to pull that off,” but really, the only way I can get to be a good enough writer is to push myself and try those things and learn from my mistakes until I get to a point where I can pull them off.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Writing without Workshop

As March charges steadily toward its end I’m beginning to face the likelihood that I’ll be joining the real world next semester instead of continuing on as a grad student in a new program somewhere. So far I’ve gotten lukewarm responses at best – ranging from getting in to a program without being offered a TA to making it onto the wait list to getting flat out rejected. There are still two schools I haven’t heard back from but one of them I feel 99% certain I would have heard by now if I had gotten in and the other it’s likely will be a rejection, too, judging from the responses I’ve received from the other programs.

What does this have to do with workshop, you ask? That’s a very good question. I’ll tell you. Even though my preference would have been to get into a literature program, I had been planning on trying to take workshops as electives so I could continue getting feedback and being forced to grow as a writer. With the realization that I won’t be in school comes the realization that neither will I be taking workshops. And I’m starting to recognize this as a positive opportunity instead of something scary – something ominous – in my future.

I’m sure whether I’m taking workshops or not, I’ll share my work and get feedback from other writers (I’ll have to force myself to be brave about asking them is all). But instead of the broad range of readers in a workshop setting, it’ll just be the people I choose to share my work with and feel confident will give me the sort of feedback that will be helpful for me, personally, as a writer. I’m starting to see that this may actually be better, since I tend to take feedback very seriously – possibly too seriously – and it may be in my best interest to limit the feedback a little bit.

And aside from the obvious fact that it will be liberating to write whatever I want, revise it as I see fit, and not think about what a huge group of people with varied tastes would say, I think it’s also going to push me a little bit harder as a writer, too. I’ve spent the past three years taking into serious consideration the openly voiced opinions of my fellows workshoppers. I’ve learned a lot from it both as a reader and a writer and I’m able, now, to look at my own writing much more objectively and anticipate what major concerns a reader might have.

I think not taking part in the workshop environment will force me to put this skill to better use and force me to practice it, hone it. Instead of having the comfort of letting somebody tell me whether my suspicions about this or that aspect of the story not working are founded, I’ll have to work it out for myself – pinpoint the problems and figure out how to fix them. And I think it’ll help me take that next, necessary step forward as a writer.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Spring Break

My mom's in town and I'm spring breakin' it old school. So I'm going to take a break from my blog, too.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Back to the Basics

This semester, I’ve been given the honor of teaching Introduction to Creative Writing – Fiction, a class that grad students in my program aren’t usually allowed to teach. I should add that my being offered to teach this class was largely based on luck, a right time right place sort of thing.

Already in the first half of the semester I’ve gained so much from teaching this class that I now firmly believe that teaching creative writing should be a requirement of all MFA programs. Not only is it much easier to teach than academic writing (and I actually believe that the regulations on who is allowed to teach academic writing should be much tighter, at least at my university – come on, these classes are essential for these students’ future success in college and a lot of TAs don’t take it seriously at all, but I digress) but you also learn A LOT as a writer from being on the other side of the desk. After all, the best way to learn is to teach.

I’m sure my teaching experiences will be a frequent subject in my blogs for the next few months because there are numerous interesting and useful things that I have learned (and probably will continue to learn) by teaching creative writing. Perhaps the best place to start – and probably the most useful thing I’ve gained so far – is how useful it’s been to go back and revisit the basics.

That’s right. The basics. Working from an introductory level textbook that focuses on the fundamentals – plot and conflict, tension and resolution, revising and re-imagining – I’ve been reading about things that I haven’t thought about in years – since I was an introductory student, myself, and it’s funny how much some of this stuff has sort of slipped into the back of my mind as I’ve been taking more advanced workshops and forms classes.

I had an epiphanic moment (that’s right, epiphanies do happen in real life) when I was doing the reading and planning my lesson a few classes ago. There’s a story that I’ve been working on recently where I was focusing all my attention on exploring certain themes and working out the main character’s voice. Since all my attention was going into some more advanced techniques I was working with, I inadvertently allowed a sort of basic, beginner level mistake to seep into the writing. The reading that I had assigned for my class addressed the very same mistake, laid out in concrete terms why this doesn’t work, and talked about some alternative techniques that can be used instead to greater effect.

At first I felt like an idiot. Here I was teaching creative writing and here was this stupid mistake that I myself made in a recent story. I finished planning my lesson and then went back and revised my story. Even though when I wove the problematic technique into the story I had very specific reasons for doing it, the story is better off without it. As with most experimental writing (in my opinion), it was a cheap and easy way to try to get at the character’s voice when it’s actually much better – much more difficult to write and therefore more rewarding to read – if I get at the character’s voice through more traditional methods.

Going back to the basics is something that I think many MFA writers could benefit from. The textbook includes what has probably become my new favorite writer-on-writing quote. Flannery O’Connor said that as a writer, “you can do anything that you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” While many of us like to believe that it’s only by breaking the rules that you can achieve genius, I think the rules are there for a reason and while now and then breaking or bending one or two of them doesn’t hurt, totally abandoning the basics by the wayside is really just sort of arrogant and pretentious, and it isn’t likely to impress more than a handful of arrogant and pretentious readers.

So I’m excited to be taking a refresher course at the introductory level – by teaching it. Already my writing has dramatically improved by going back and restudying some of these things that I learned so long ago.