Let go of things you wrote while you were in undergrad

These are three of the actual human beings we saw in this play

Just went with my MFA classmates to see a production of Seminar at the Roundhouse Theater in DC. This is a play that’s about four aspiring writers who are in a workshop with a crusty old instructor who alternates merciless abuse with tepid praise. It was extremely enjoyable. However, most of it was not specific to writing. It could’ve been about any creative profession. You could have replaced “writing” with “coding” at any point and made the whole thing about computer programmers and it still would’ve worked (well, except for how computer programmers don’t really struggle economically).

One thing, though, was specific to the writing profession and rang fairly true. The very first week of the seminar, the professor critiques a woman’s story for being incredibly dull and lifeless. And after he leaves, she rails about how she’s spent six years working on that story and about how all these other well-known professors (she mentioned Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff) had really loved it.

That’s something that definitely happens, and I think it’s very particular to the way that people begin writing. When people begin writing, they often only write for class. They might really like to write and really like the feeling that being a writer gives them, but they haven’t yet processed that writing is something you should do all the time and do on your own. They need the motivation of class to produce anything. And, for many people who sort of thought about beginning writing careers, their first writing classes were in college. And then when they leave college, they stop writing, because there’s no more class.

Many writers go through a several year long fallow period before they start to realize that they’re going to need to write for themselves now (I think this also happens to writers who leave their MFA programs). And during this time, they’ll reread, revise, and polish their best undergrad pieces: the ones that brought praise to them from their professors and that made them feel like they could be writers in the first place.

These pieces, though, are, almost invariably, not very good. What people don’t understand is that when a professor says something is “good,” what they really mean is “better than I expected.” And sometimes (oftentimes) professors’ expectations are very low. It’s certainly a good thing to write one of the best stories in an undergrad workshop (better than writing one of the worst ones), but even the best story in an undergrad workshop usually doesn’t come close to actually being a good story.

Part of the process of becoming a writer is learning to replace the professor’s judgment with your own. Because, in most cases, professors aren’t going to be nearly hard on you as they ought to be. In most cases (and for most people), it would be counterproductive for a professor to be as hard on you as they ought to be. You will accept criticism from yourself that you would never accept from another person. I can dismiss an entire novel as garbage. But if another person told me it was garbage, that’d be devastating (and I probably wouldn’t listen).

I’ve never really heard another writer talk about this (in fact, I’ve heard the opposite. I’ve heard many writers talk about how they don’t know when their work is good and when it’s bad), but I think it’s very important to have your own independent sense of your work’s value. I don’t understand how people can write something if they’re not, on some level (even if it’s only in a relative sense like ‘this part is better than that part’ or ‘this story is better than that story’) able to evaluate it.

Anyway, part of the process of acquiring your own sense of judgment is learning to let go of stories that your professors told you were good. There’s something very comforting about that seal of approval. It feels like a promise. But it’s not. A professor’s judgments are meant to guide you; they’re not meant to override your values.

Being willing to learn whatever the instructor is able to teach

My class had its first workshop last Friday. My students performed admirably. Their stories were interesting and their comments were perceptive. And, in the process of conducting the workshop, I learned something about what it means to teach writing.

In some ways, it’s a little odd that I’m allowed to teach people how to write. I’m not bad at most aspects of writing, and I’m very good at some aspects of it, but there are plenty of areas where I don’t really know how to fix someone’s issues. Like, if someone’s sentence-level writing is awkward or their characterization is thin or their descriptions are redundant, I can (sometimes) note the problems, but I’m not very sure how to fix them.

This is a picture of a blackboard that I inserted in order to spice up the post, because I do that now.

But, as I was teaching, I realized that there are plenty of areas where I can immediately diagnose a problem and can offer solutions. For instance, I’m fairly good at structural issues: seeing how the parts of a story fit together and figuring out how to move the plot along. I also understand when a story is hampered by exposition and when it should be written in scene. And I’m down like the devil on cliché story elements, characters, etc. Not only can I diagnose these issues, but I also have some sense of how to fix them.

In some ways, I think the way that I’m focused on these things could be frustrating for students. Because even as I make these suggestions, it’s obvious that they’re not universally true. I mean, it’s obvious that many clichéd stories work very well (every character and story element in Jhumpa Lahiri’s work seems, to me, to be quite clichéd). And there are many less-plotted (Joyce) and/or primarily-narrative (Borges) stories that work well, too.

The common rejoinder to students who want to do these things is, “Oh, well, if you’re as good as Lahiri or Borges or Joyce, then you can do that stuff, but until then, you need to learn how to do it the ordinary way.”

I don’t agree with that. I’m not sure that there’s a hierarchy of writing, and that you need to tick off all the lower boxes in order to get to the more advanced stuff. Actually, I’d say that the way writing works is that you do what you want to do, and you do it very badly for a very long time, and then you finally start doing it right.

But refusing to make that excuse leaves an instructor in a hard place, because it strips you of the authority to make the suggestions that you know how to make. I tell my students to search harder and look for more original premises and write in scene, because I know that if they do those things, they’ll write better stories. And I’m right, they will write better stories…but they won’t necessarily write the stories that they want to write.

Having this experience gives me a lot more empathy for everyone who’s ever critiqued my own work. Even in the cases when they were flat-out wrong (in terms of offering suggestions that would not have furthered my vision for my story), they were trying to offer me to the wisdom that they knew how to offer. In many cases, I’d probably have become a better writer if I’d been capable of integrating their perspective on things.

My teaching experience has made me realize that while the instructor has a duty to try to understand and assist a student’s intentions, a student should also do their best to learn whatever the instructor is capable of teaching. For my intro to fiction students, that’s not important, obviously. They’re just beginning their education. But I think it’s very important for someone at my level to be able to just relax and really try to understand the instructor feedback that he receives.

Actually, it’s a bit annoying that I didn’t get my act together and post this yesterday, because now this looks like a response to my own workshop experience yesterday evening. That is certainly not what it was intended to be! However, I will say that being workshopped was very interesting and helpful and not at all painful. I think I’m going to learn a lot this year. Workshop has taught me a lot about all the kinds of different things that it’s possible to learn. I don’t come from a workshop-heavy background, so perhaps everything I’m getting is just a workshop truism, but I think my classmates and our workshop leader bring some very interesting perspectives, and I am looking forward to learning what they have to teach me.


P.S. I think I’ve made progress on my horrible sleep problems! For the first time in five days, I think I’m going to eschew the Nap Option.