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.


Justus said...

This is a really difficult issue. I definitely agree with some of what you're saying, but I also feel like it's impossible to ever get completely away from some sort of value judgment. Even in your post, you fall into the trap. You say there's no good or bad, but you try to make suggestions on how something could be better. Well, if it can be better, then isn't that moving up on the continuum between bad and good? Doesn't the idea that something can improve mean that it isn't as good as it might be? And where does the advice come from? Doesn't it come from some sense that there is a good and bad and that some things are better or worse? I totally agree that this is an issue worth thinking about, but with any such issue it's challenging to ever reach a definitive conclusion.

Justus said...

Another thought: One of the values of workshop is not in specific suggestions for feedback but rather in simply finding out how others read and understand the piece. If somebody comes up with an interpretation you'd never considered, that's good to know. If you write a womanizer character and somebody reads him as overcompensating to hide his closeted homosexuality, it's probably a good idea to consider that interpretation as you revise. So in that sense, I absolutely agree that it's not about good or bad but about considering how to revise to make the story what you want it to be.

Ashley Cowger said...

Yeah, and to some extent I think the line does get blurred more in an intro class because there are stories that get turned in that are just entirely cliches - every single thing that occurs in this story you've seen before and none of it is done in a new or surprising way. But I guess what I'm saying is I don't look at those stories as being "bad" so much as they have various possible avenues they could go down and it's our job in workshop to help each writer see those possibilities. By "better" I mean more than anything how to make it better in the writer's eyes, and even though I don't think there is such a thing as universal "good" or "bad," I do think that every draft ever written could be better (for the writer) than it is - it's just up to the writer to decide what they think would actually make it better and whether they're willing to put the work in.

Ashley Cowger said...

Also, an interesting thing that I heard a professor say the other day: I revise my stories first so that I can please myself and then I try to figure out how I can please as many people as possible without losing what I want the story to be. This idea acknowledges that there is no universal good or bad but also accepts that there are things that you can do that might make it "good" in a lot of people's eyes, which is part of what workshop helps you with, too, I think. It's sort of a sample group that can let you know how people will take your story when you put it out there in the world. If most of the class agrees on a particular issue, whether you agree or not you should probably at least accept that this is what a large portion of readers will feel.