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A good friend sent me an article published in the July, 2005 issue of Harper's magazine, entitled "Doing Time: My Years in the Creative-Writing Gulag" by Lynn Freed. It was interesting to see a perspective on teaching Creative Writing from another 'working writer' who has found herself teaching. However, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement more often than I was nodding.

That doesn't matter, by the way: a well-written essay pulls you into a dialogue with its words and its viewpoint whether you agree with them or not. It engages you and causes you to examine your own beliefs. In that, the article was eminently successful. As I read the article, I began to wonder why the author and I had such divergent views of teaching, and how we each approached that work philosophically and pedagogically.

Ms. Freed begins the essay by relating how she felt after landing a teaching job after graduate school and teaching for a time: "...I was asking myself the question I had been asking for as long as I could remember: Is this what you really want?... No. This was not what I wanted, not now, not ever."

My, those are harsh words. I wonder if that's not the core of any difference in attitude I have with Ms. Freed. Teaching is something I always wanted to do -- not just as a method to keep a steadier income stream flowing into our household than is possible as a freelance writer, but as a vocation with its own unique rewards. In fact, given the salary of adjunct instructors like myself, I know that there must be some additional reasons for becoming an teacher...

Ms. Freed dropped out of teaching, only to return to it a decade and a half later after she'd published two novels, traveled a bit, and had a 'career as a part-time travel agent...' But she found herself still struggling to balance teaching with writing: "Every time I switched on my computer, I remembered the student stories I had to grade. And then, once they were read, it was as if all the vigor had dropped out of my own desire to write."

There's no question that teaching does involve far more time than just the in-class work -- I find that I spend four to five hours in preparation/grading/response for every hour I'm actually in the classroom. But I've never found bad student stories (and most of them are indeed bad) to affect my own writing, anymore than watching a trite, stupid TV program affects my ability to enjoy a decent play. The bad student story isn't my story, after all, and one doesn't bleed into the other. If anything, escaping for a time into my own fictional world feels good after immersion in student fiction.

She also seems to have issues with the students culturally. "When I had instructed the students in my class to remove their baseball caps, they had complained to the chairman... At this point it began to dawn on me that the inmates were running the institution."

Does she want a dress code in college? Does she want them to sit straight in their seats with their feet on the floor and use a #2 pencil with narrow-ruled notebooks only? Does she want them to raise their hand before asking a question? Frankly, I figure that my college students are adults. They can wear what they want; it doesn't affect what I have to offer them, nor does it seem to affect their attention. If someone wants to drink something in the class, do it -- heck, I'm usually drinking water throughout the class myself. If they want to challenge what I have to say or ask questions, speak up: that's wonderful, because then at least we can get into a discussion and go deeper into the issue. Classes where the students just sit there and listen are boring, both to them (I'm sure) and to me. If they want to waste the exorbitant tuition they're paying by not attending my class, I figure that's their choice -- I'm not going to chase after them, and they'll get the grade they deserve. If they want to waste their time by not doing the reading or the writing, well, again that's their choice and they can deal with the consequence of a lowered grade. I take no offense if someone drops my class -- it's probably better for both of us.

What I have to offer my students is me: my experience, my education, my input, my time. It's theirs to take.. or not. Their choice. Ms. Freed writes that "Week after week they come in with their stories—some just committed to page, some rewritten so many times and under the aegis of so many different workshops that the writer himself has lost all sense of the authenticity of the piece. What can I do about this? How can I help someone breathe life into a flat and pointless piece of writing? I cannot."

I'll admit that my first (snarky) thought on reading that last bit was "Well, if you can’t help them, then you should get out of teaching, shouldn't you?" Still, admittedly much of what Ms. Freed bewails is all too familiar. I've seen the horrible first drafts, the stories where the student put little-to-no effort into the work. I've read the over-workshopped story on which five different teachers have given five different pieces of advice, and that has so confused the student they no longer know what to do with the work. I've seen the 'flat and pointless' writing of students without a great deal of native talent or experience.

She's right, too. You can't fix those stories for them. In my view, all you can do as a teacher is serve as a guide. With a totally flat piece, you're wasting your time as a teacher and the student's time as a potential writer if you tear the piece entirely apart -- because all you'll do is confuse the student and/or make him/her feel hopeless as a writer. Instead, find one consistent flaw. It could be the dialogue, it could be the lack of precise description, it could be just cleaning up the technical mistakes. But find one type of problem to point out, and have the student work on revising that. Then, in the revision, focus on a different flaw. If the student can take a single step, and then another step, and then another.... well, all the sudden they're somewhere else in their writing. The story may never be a success, may never stand a chance of being salable. But they'll have learned from the experience and the next story will be better for it. If you instead look at their wretched effort and tell them they have to be WAY over there, and point out every last mistake they made... they won't have a clue how to fix all the issues and they'll will despair of ever making that journey.

Most students aren't that hopeless. Often there are just a few major components that are missing or flawed, components that do indeed make the story an utter failure, but are the result of mistakes or gaps in their craft-knowledge that with work and rewriting and research and true effort they might be able to learn. Will they? Realistically, most of them won't ever get there or even make the attempt -- but that' s never up to the teacher; it's always up to the student.

"The happiest teachers are, perhaps, those who are most comfortable in the role of parent or mentor." I found that to be the most telling sentence in this article. She may well be right there... because I know that I am or have been a mentor for a few of the students in my class, and it's a role I don’t mind at all. I don't want to be their parent -- I have enough trouble being the parental figure for my own children. But a mentor... yes, I'll be that if it's a role the student will let me fill -- many don't want that; I'm just another instructor in another class for them, and that's also fine. But for the others, the ones who want more... I feel strongly that I have an obligation to "pay forward" for the help I've had from other writers who have served as mentors and influences and advisors for me, and this is one way to do it.

I'll admit, too, that there's an ego feedback loop involved: working with new writers and seeing them progress and succeed makes me feel good. Having a class that's alert and listening and responding and involved in a lecture I'm giving gives me pleasure. Getting occasional letters and e-mails that tell me that I've made a difference to someone gives me an endorphin kick. If it didn't, I wouldn't be doing this -- because the financial compensation certainly isn't enough on its own. (It's the same with writing, too -- I'll freely admit that part of the 'compensation' in seeing my work in print is mental: I love hearing from readers that they enjoyed something I wrote or found that it affected them in some way.)

"I am not a natural liar. I find it almost impossible to pretend to admire a poor piece of writing, either in a manuscript or in print, even if it is written by someone I like." We'll ignore the implications of a fiction writer saying that she's not a 'natural liar.' Beyond that, though, I think she misses the point, or perhaps can't see it. First, you can't conflate a 'manuscript' and works 'in print.' A student story and a story that has found publication are two very different beasts. I can appreciate and enjoy a published story or not. I've certainly read published work by writer friends that I found flawed, sometimes fatally, but you know what? -- I'm not going to tell them I didn't find their story successful unless I'm asked directly. Even then I might hedge my opinion. Here's why: once a story is in print, they (or I, if it's my story) can't do a damned thing about it. The story’s now set in stone, and it can't be changed. If I really liked it, I'll tell them so (and I'd love them to tell me if they read something of mine they thought was good). If I didn't like it, I'm not going to mention it because it only makes them feel bad and it doesn't help them. A writer's always long beyond any story that's been published.

It's different when someone hands you a draft of a work in progress. I'm happy to tear that apart... because in that case the writer wants the criticism and because they can make changes.

And as for student work... Student work invariably has problems, by definition. You don't have to lie and pretend to 'admire' it wholly, ever. But I know that a good teacher for me is one who gives me equal parts encouragement and criticism. I would hate a teacher who gave me only unalloyed criticism. I'd also hate a teacher who gave me only praise and never changed a word I wrote. Either way, I'm not learning much: from the Endless Critiquer, I'm never learning what's good in my writing; from the Endless Praiser, I'm never learning what I'm doing wrong.

As a teacher (I believe), you have to find what's good in a terrible piece of prose, and point it out. I think it's incumbent on a teacher to find something to admire. I've yet to find the student story that was so bad that there was absolutely no place to say "Hey, you did that nicely. Keep it up!" You don't have to admire the whole in a student piece; it's enough to admire a sentence or two.

That's not being a liar. That's being truthful -- just as it's being truthful to point out the mistakes.

Perhaps Ms. Freed and I are coming at teaching through what we both want in a teacher, and that's causing the disconnect in attitudes. She relates an anecdote concerning finding a piano teacher for her daughter. She approached a Japanese teacher "of fierce and uncompromising standards" who spoke little English. "When...I asked the teacher to please take her on, she refused. I never teaching a Caucasian children, never a Japanese either, she said. Too middle-class, too looking-around. I teach a Chinese. Chinese understand excellence."

"I was delighted by this," Ms. Freed relates, and kept after the teacher to teach her daughter. After a time, the woman relented. "And so began my daughter's seven years with the only teacher she was ever to encounter who maintained a standard of perfection unadulterated by false encouragement."

That sounds perfectly hideous to me, and not just because of the blatant racism of the teacher. "False encouragement.." What, I wonder, is that? Telling someone they're getting better? Telling them they're making progress? Telling them that, hey, this revision is an improvement over the last draft? The anecdote, I'm afraid, makes me suspect that Ms. Freed is exactly the same type of teacher for her students.

Devon, my son, had a piano teacher who was of the same ilk as Ms. Freed's piano teacher: a fierce, dour, incredibly critical man who rarely gave encouragement and who had extremely high expectations of perfection. Devon hated those lessons. That's not to say he didn't learn from them; he did. But he also stopped playing piano for a long time... because he stopped enjoying playing piano.

However, I don't make the mistake of thinking that everyone wants or needs the same type of teacher. I know (from the surveys my students dutifully fill out every semester) that the majority of my students feel that they're getting something from my teaching, but I also know that some would respond better to other teaching methods. Some people want brutal criticism; others will wilt and give up under the mildest criticism. A student needs to gravitate to the type of teacher who serves them best.

But a teacher also has to feel satisfaction in what they're doing or I don't believe they can be an effective teacher... and I'm not certain that description fits Ms. Freed as a teacher, at least from her statements in this article. In a vocation where the expectation of financial compensation is low, you'd better enjoy what you're doing... or you won't do it well. That includes nearly all the creative arts: playing music, painting, writing. And teaching.

A final quote: "...to my mind, writing cannot be taught... the best I can do as a teacher is function as a good editor, to help a student train his ear so that he can come to edit himself."

Along with the exclusively male pronouns she uses throughout this piece (which annoy me), I quibble with that statement, though perhaps it's mostly a matter of semantics. I also wonder how someone who claims to be "not a natural liar" can state that they feel writing can't be taught yet would continue to teach it...

It comes back to what I said in my "formula for success" essay (elsewhere on the “On Writing” page): there are aspects of writing you can teach, and aspects you cannot. You can't give someone raw talent who doesn't possess it. You can't give someone luck. You can give them your perspective and the lessons of your own experience. You can correct the technical mistakes. You can give them examples of what you mean when you talk about voice and characterization and setting, You can give them your feedback 'as if you were their editor' -- in fact, one of my workshop tools is to tell them where (if I were a harried editor going through the slush pile) I would have stopped reading their work, and why. I can let them know that my opinion is one opinion, and that eventually they're going to have to be strong enough to listen mostly to their own voice and not other people's opinions... and that (contradictorily) they're also going to have to be strong enough to listen to someone's criticism when it's justified -- and that it sometimes will be justified.

I can teach them the craft. I can't teach them the art. They have to find that themselves.

I'm a natural liar. I write fiction. I teach fiction. There are certainly aspects of academia that drive me nuts and that I hate. But I don't hate the teaching itself. The teaching, I love. Working with fledgling writers who also honestly trying to find their fictional voices, I love. Seeing the light start to go on, seeing the nascent wisps of competence, seeing raw talent begin to bloom, I love.

That's why I do it.

 

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