Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I tend to get unreasonably upset when faced with blind encouragement as a writer, and with seeing other writers blindly encouraged. When people say to writers this'll be the bestseller and well of course you'll get published and I know you'll win the contest, I get mad. Not because it's so far-fetched or hard to do these things, I don't think, but because it seems to equate generalized talent/effort/good behavior with rewards, and if someone's going to lift me up, I guess I want it to be based on them actually reading my work.

It's not that I don't understand where the praise comes from. Good-hearted, well-meaning, smart-thinking people are often surprised at the wishy-washy way I talk about publishing and shopping myself around--surprised, because they always thought of me as a good-hearted, well-meaning, smart-thinking person, and their feeling is that I deserve to get published and succeed at what I'm doing. So why the lack of confidence? Coupled with the fact that I'm in a graduate program and to most people of my acquaintance this means I must be a pretty advanced practitioner, I get a lot of general encouragement when I talk about my pursuits, and a lot of faith that I'll simply succeed--why wouldn't I? I've succeeded at pretty much everything else they've seen me do. I've, you know, graduated well from things. I've held down a job.

This logic even makes sense in a lot of other disciplines. If you've done well at school and you've excelled at all your business classes and you've always had a real knack for leading people, you'll probably do well in your field. It's not that writing is harder, but that everyone who wants to can kind of do it, and a whole slew of people who did and didn't go to graduate school can do it pretty well, and then more people are really pretty great, and who knows how that happened. Who knows how you "earn" it. Then there's editors--people whose jobs are assessing your work for all sorts of factors like greatness, yes, but also for appropriateness to venue, and style, and length, and all those things. And, also, for liking it, personally, and wanting other people to read it. The system for success is different. Success in writing is a very private measure until it is very, very public--accepted, printed, sold, reviewed. You can feel very confident in your work and have very good reasons for being confident, but never get published once.

So I guess I get a little peeved at the assumption that if I'm working up to my admittedly exacting standards, everything should work out. And I don't like seeing people artificially inflated to believe that they are assuredly publishable--because they work hard, they do well. The fact is that you're not in the equation at all--not really. It's not like getting into college. Your work is in the running. It wins the race against totally unknown odds or it doesn't. That's the attitude I want to have, anyway; naturally I don't always succeed at that either.

But as a teacher of young writers, I wonder about my position on this. I'm a profuse encourager of my students. And I have a reason: I don't think it's worth teaching a writing class from the perspective that every student wants to become a writer by profession, and I don't think it's useful to harp on imperfections and certain definable missteps from a publishing perspective (one almost certainly limited by personal tastes and experience with publishing) when you have no idea (at least at the outset) where the students want to take their writing. I've heard tell of professors who take it on themselves to tell students whether or not they've "got it," whether or not they can realistically go forward in writing. I think this is very dumb at the undergraduate level, and pretty dumb at the graduate level, where hey, if there's a talentless hack in your program, you're the one who put 'em there.

I think encouragement is the way to go in teaching writing--but is that the best way to serve students? How does one best be a teacher of creative writing, as opposed to an editor, a critic--or, on the other side, a blind encourager? Is it our duty to warn students of the unpredictability of the process, or do we simply hold them personally accountable for the gradeable quality of their work, as in most other college classes? What's more fair to learners who do mean to go on as writers: teaching tied to ability, teaching tied to performance, or teaching divorced from both--teaching that emphasizes the product over the person? I think there's potential pitfalls with each. Certainly I don't want to falsely buoy my students up just because I like them and they work hard, but it seems foolhardy to discount that work, to downplay it as something that doesn't matter when, over time, such work can in fact make the difference.

I think there's a peculiar nature to our work that requires a bizarre mix of roles: teacher as encourager of young sensitive writers, teacher as source of book knowledge and field experience, teacher as gatekeeper to the professional practice of writing. How do we navigate the role of teacher while acknowledging and teaching to the realities of our field? Should we try?

These clocks, by the way, really exist, if you feel like you're not currently getting enough encouragement from your office supplies.

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