The Writing Critic’s Singularity

Now that I’ve had a contentious post to prove that I’m not afraid to criticize the writing of others-because that needed further proving, apparently- I’m going to retreat back to the comforting trenches of introspection. This time, I’m going to chat about the reasons why I don’t think I’ll ever take a job teaching writing, and probably some other stuff. There’s always something else, yes?

I’m an adult by any legal definition now. I’ve spent almost all of my life up to this point alternating between trying too hard to please people and deliberately pushing them away. I’m starting to reach a bit of a middle ground, and I’ve come to embrace the idea that it’s okay for writers to disagree with each other. As I already mentioned, we don’t get anywhere good without some painful revisions- both of our writing and ourselves. Most of the time, the worst that can come out of this process is a (mostly) harmless grudge, in the relatively rare event that two writers, having actually put in the time and energy to meet up and hang out for a while, suddenly discover they find each other a tad grating.

But there is one sort of meeting where things can be much, much worse. You may already have guessed what I’m going to say: writing classes. You see, here the dynamic is different. Here it’s not okay for the student to disagree with the teacher- not on style, and not on ideas if the teacher has no oversight and feels like taking the pillbox approach. But even if the teacher has all the best intentions and would never consciously mark Little Miriam down for doing something differently, we humans have all sorts of subconscious tomfoolery going. A silent whirlwind of biases lurks in just about every brain. They’re often pretty measly and not worth worrying about, but what happens when the disconnect is bigger?

Art, in all its forms, tends to go through some huge stylistic shifts every few decades or so. In the last two hundred years, we’ve gone from Romanticism to Realism to Modernism, Postmodernism and now… I’ve heard the term Ultra-Postmodernism, and that just seems obscene. I like where the Modernists were coming from, back in the 1930s- they wanted to throw off the rusty, purple-inscribed shackles of literature past, and let all writers just write their own way. That didn’t happen. If I had to pick a predominant style today, I’d call it Reductionism.

Be concise, they say, be efficient with your words, make the reader do some work. I’m not saying it’s a bad method- but it isn’t right for everyone. This brings us back to my classroom analogy. Let’s say our hypothetical Miriam is a fairly competent writer, by elementary school standards; she’s in the 4th grade, and she’s finding all these lovely new words. She’s started experimenting with them, trying to get a sound she likes, maybe even one she can call her own. But her teacher responds with a sort of uncomfortable, vague disappointment; when pressed, Mr. Richter (so I’ll call him) mentions that he doesn’t like how many adjective Miriam used; it’s padding, he says.

Maybe he’s right, from an academic standpoint. Now, in my case, I was actually a relatively apathetic student, and this may have saved me from losing my own style; when I got a B- on a paper that felt like an A- or A to me, I chalked it up to some disconnect between the teacher and myself, and moved on. By the time I got to college, I’d learned to write in a way professors would appreciate, then immediately revert to my own babbling style the first chance I had. But Miriam is an A student, and rightly proud of it. She wants to do things right, and she’s not old enough to realize just how many right ways there actually are.

So she takes her teacher’s instructions. Over time, she does this again and again, until whatever style she was working on is lost, transplanted for this gray gestalt style mashed together from all the things various teachers have told her. Over the course of a decade, she won’t even remember the times they contradicted each other. Maybe her style is still a very good one- but maybe it isn’t.

Now, Mr. Richter never meant for any of that to happen. He never meant to crush little Miriam’s prose-spark, but he did. When you’re dealing with such a broad medium as writing (everyone uses it at least a bit), operating by any one set of rules just won’t work for everyone. To be clear, I don’t think writing teachers are terrible people or deserve to lose their jobs, or anything like that. I just don’t think our current education system handles personal quirks very well. It’s not so bad for people in hard sciences where ‘right’ is clearly defined- bridge that weathers well and holds the needed weight load, rocket that carries satellites well, theory borne out by research leading to other meaningful discoveries, etc.- and any other career where creativity is a plus, but not immediately crucial.

But even if you subscribe to the idea that there’s nothing original left to be created (people keep saying that every century, I’m still not convinced), artists still need to have some idea of how to, let’s say, assimilate the ideas of those who came before, and make them seem new and original again.

This is why my ideal solution, using ideal to mean ‘not practical, but something nice to work towards,’ is more of a mentor-student one. This more personal relationship will make it easier for the student to take criticism, but simultaneously make her/him feel safe enough to challenge his/her mentor. The mentor, in turn, will be more likely to respect the student’s unique traits, and help to cultivate those quirks while still challenging the student to work towards success. I don’t doubt there are plenty of these relationships in more rote writing classes, but I’d say they’re in spite of the system, not because of it.

Either way, I won’t be taking a job teaching writing, because I don’t want my students to suffer for my biases. I’m terrified of pushing my views onto them and quashing their own. If I had to give grades, I’d find myself playing favorites- maybe not consciously, but that would hardly mater to my students, would it?

Granted, if in five years I’m starving and abusing my Masters seems like the only way out, I may change my tune. I do have to concede that. On which note, tune in next week-sorry, I mean tomorrow- to hear (whoop, read) my discussion of what I think makes a great villain, at least for the role of genre-fiction Scheming Scumbag #582.

… the Internet involves frequencies, I think, so I can still say tune in, right?

Say something, darn it!

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