I am not a very good teacher

One of the thing that I find the hardest to communicate to my students is that their story or poem can be fairly good…but still need to be about half as long. For instance, T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” has one of poetry’s most famous opening lines: “April is the cruelest month.” However, most members of the literati know that Ezra Pound very famously cut the first 54 lines from poem. Here’s the original beginning and the final beginning

Unaltered

Final

First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place

There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind,

(Don’t you remember that time after a dance,

Top hats and all, we and Silk Hat Harry,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

These are two very different ways to open a poem, and, depending on which opening is used, the rest of the text will be read very differently. The first way was obviously more in line with Eliot’s original vision. Nonetheless, the second version is much better, because it gives you something immediately. It convinces you to keep reading.

Ezra Pound was one handsome Fascist.
Ezra Pound was quite a handsome Fascist.

Although I am probably not excellent at this in my own work, when I read other peoples’ work I am usually fairly good at finding the story within the story: the parts of the story that hold together and form a complete statement. Oftentimes more than half the story isn’t really doing much: it’s setting up things that are never really developed or it’s restating things that the rest of the story has already stated.

The problem is that I am absolutely awful at conveying why my half of the story should be the entire story. I know I am awful at this, because my students never cut the parts that I tell them to cut (they rarely cut anything, in fact–they’re good at adding in…not so good at cutting).

And it’s easy to say, “Oh, they’re too in love with their own words…they have to learn to get over that.”

Like, yeah, duh…of course, they have to learn it–I’m supposed to be the one who teaches it to them. And I’m not doing a good job. I think that’s because no matter how many words I say, I can never communicate that essential feeling of superfluousness that is so obvious to me. Like, when I read their poems, my eyes often just skip right over the unnecessary lines or I glance at the first line and then automatically flip ahead to the place where the story really starts.

It’s not something that can really be communicated with words, because discussions of aesthetics can, essentially, only be settled by agreement. If I say something you’ve never thought about before, and it seems true to you, then we’ve covered some ground. But if it seems false to you, then we’re nowhere–there’s no way for me to convince you that I am right. Similarly,  the mind can come up with all sorts of rationalizations for why a given piece of the story is necessary and beautiful.

The workshop is not a very good format for communicating this kind of wisdom because it’s all words. The words go in and then they’re transmuted into whatever the listener is capable of hearing. For the first time, I understand all the people who’ve ever taught me: they were telling me exactly what was wrong with my stories…the words just didn’t make any sense to me, because I hadn’t yet felt the things that they referred to.

I think the only way to really teach something like this is to force the student to do an exercise that makes their mind do the thing that your mind does when it reads their work. At first, the exercise will feel very artificial to them. But the faculty that it calls to mind will slowly be strengthened, and, eventually, will become natural.

The problem is designing the exercise. Most exercises are exercises in composition: they’re about producing words. In that case, the student pretty much does whatever they normally do…they simply attempt to do it in a way that superficially satisfies the instructor’s requirements. I think a different kind of exercise is needed–an exercise that doesn’t allow for shortcuts. Like, maybe taking published poems and a pair of scissors and cutting off pieces that could stand by themselves.

Students would hate it, I am sure (I know I would), because it would feel so externally-imposed, but maybe that’s the point. Creative-writing classes are too often seen as places for students to showcase their creativity, rather than places where they learn the skills that they can use, in their own time, to create original work.

4 thoughts on “I am not a very good teacher

  1. nmwhitley

    Interesting post! Permit me to quickly add my two cents. Coming at it from a language teaching angle, one of the most famous (and in some circles, most thoroughly discredited) tenets of foreign language pedagogy is the idea of PPP. Present, practice, and produce. Present examples of a language point (for example, simple past tense or the passive voice), have students practice it in a controlled setting, then they attempt to produce it to complete some task, using the language point in question in a less controlled, more natural setting.

    Perhaps it might be interesting to try to isolate a specific technique or idea (oh, i don’t know, “show don’t tell”, “in late out early”, insert whatever easily-summarized writing.workshop nugget here), present an example of it to the students (you could use a comparison of the two versions of The Wasteland, or even take a text that exemplifies one of these techniques really well and produce another version alongside it which you’ve doctored to make it crappier in a specific way and let them work out why it’s crappier). Then, as you’ve suggested, let them do the same to another text by cutting it down or adding things in to make it worse(sometimes doing something consciously bad makes you more aware of what not to do???). Then ask them to concentrate on the point you’ve just looked at in their next story or whatever.

    But then again, don’t mind me, I’ve just opened a bottle of wine and am just spitballing ideas here…

  2. Rob Cobbs

    My lit crit teacher used to say that all criticism started with the question, “This is so, isn’t it?” to which the answer is always “Yes, but . . .”

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