Thursday, November 20, 2008

Benign Criticism

This fall, I have been both a student and a teacher. I've been teaching the usual 6-weeks, 6-essays class for Grub Street, and I've been teaching a memoir class to senior citizens in Mission Hill, also for Grub.

In addition, I have been taking a fiction class, in part to see what I can do in that form (so far, not much luck). Also, I've been hoping to hone my narrative skills and this seems like the appropriate way in which to take some aggressive risks. I'm hoping, too, that being a student will make me a better teacher. And it does, in that I give much more direct criticism to students in my classes now that I've been a student. I've realized that students who really want to improve want honesty. But it has to be smart honesty, the kind that makes them want to try again because they feel someone understood what they were up to (even if it went splat). 

I used to be too timid about this. When I started teaching I was writing primarily for magazine editors and let me just say that for the most part, they have no manners at all.  Editors have written THIS IS STUPID in all caps, in red ink, on paragraphs that I've written. Or they write YOU'RE PUTTING ME TO SLEEP HERE. Or PUH-LEEZE.  (Okay, I get it. Rewrite. I can rewrite.) Magazine writing is a factory of sorts. The editors package the text, copy edit it, put a title on it and send it off. They don't spend a lot of time prettying up your feelings.

In my memoir and essay classes, we tend to be much gentler. Not to say that we don't offer comments that might seem bizarre to the uninitiated. In a recent class I remember saying to someone about her essay, "Wow, my favorite thing here is that, you know, while we obviously know your husband is dying, we don't actually know that he's dead until that last line when you walk up to his body. That's amazing." And to everyone in the class (I hope) that seemed like an appropriate way to comment on the story, and on the storytelling at work, which was remarkable.  The woman who wrote the story didn't need therapy from our workshop; she needed real advice about--and appreciation for--the savvy way she had constructed her piece.

In a fiction class, the critiques tend to be all over the place. Unlike memoir, the facts of the story are up for grabs. So people might comment on how a character should behave differently or say different things or be a different gender in order to make a bigger splash in the story. It's scary. I'm struggling with this, too. For the first time, I look at someone's story and have no idea what to say, no idea at all what they're trying to do. On top of that, some of us are getting little lectures about how our stories aren't big enough, important enough, how they don't represent an aggressive artistic stance, an attitude about the world. (Yowza! Where can I get one of those?) Anyway, I've gone from confident writer and workshop participant to nervous neurotic in seven short weeks.

Stay tuned.

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