Thursday, August 25, 2011

Work in Progress: Can You Tell a Student Not to Write About That?

I have a question that I’ve been pondering—and I’ve been pondering this for a long time, so if you’re a current student of mine, please don’t freak out and imagine that I’m talking specifically about you and your work.

My question is:  Can—should—I as a teacher tell a student not to write about a certain topic?

I don’t mean out of a fear that a topic is taboo in society (ha, if anything is anymore) or because I personally don’t care for stories about family vacations.  I also don’t mean the blanket statements that you find on the syllabi of many beleaguered undergrad creative writing teachers:  “No vampires, no ghosts, no gnomes, no protagonist suicides to end the story.”

There are several different times that trigger this question in my mind. First would be a story that (I’m guessing, but I know it’s a good guess) is very close personally to the student’s life in some way, but that’s a topic that is terribly overdone and hard to make fresh:  an adult thinking back on his parents’ divorce, say, or two sisters cleaning out the house of their dead mother and discovering a so-called life-changing secret.  Obviously there are always ways to make these stories interesting, but the student isn’t finding those ways (despite my excellent teaching skills!).  Or maybe the student is a good writer—the skill is there—but the story itself is just plain dull.  And is there a difference if by “story” what I mean is “novel-in-progress”?  It’s one thing to work for several weeks on a twenty-page trite story, but a far different picture if the student is setting forth on a years-long journey to complete a trite novel.

On the other hand…do I really know with absolute certainty that this book will “never” get published?  Is that the only goal for a writer?  (Most students state that this IS their goal, of course.)  I wrote some novels that didn’t get published and learned quite a bit about writing from the experience.  Wasn’t that enough?  What would I have done if someone told me the stories were trite?  Honestly, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the exact flaw of these particular works, but someone surely could have pointed out many other gigantic flaws during the process.  Would I have listened?  Would I have wanted to hear that?  Would that have been helpful?

In these situations, I often focus my teacher comments on ways to deepen the story and find more complexity, look at the hard parts of the story the writer is leaving unmined.  When the story is too personal, that approach can be a problem, as the student writer may not want to discover (via a writing workshop) that, OMG, my relationship with my father is more challenged than I realized!  They like their simplistic story as is, because that’s the story in their head.  In real life that’s fine(ish), but not on the page.  Is it my job to assist a student toward writing a dull, simple novel that (I know) will never be published?  Is that a good day at the office for me?  If so, shouldn’t I be drinking more?

Another tricky time that makes me wonder about whether I should tell a student to choose another topic is when the student is turning in competent stories about, oh, married couples in Washington, D.C., but I happen to know that in real life this person has an amazing past of some sort that would provide material that I, as a writer, would KILL to have access to.  When I mention this interesting other stuff they might write about, there’s usually a response along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and sometimes, “I would never write about that,” and then the full stop:  “Not while my mother is still alive.”  I always murmur some sort of encouraging something and say, “Maybe someday you’ll be ready for that” and reiterate that I, personally, think that stuff would make an AMAZING book or story, and we go back to the competent stories.  While I harbor hope that someday they’ll be ready and that I’ve planted a seed, I’m still sort of sad watching them struggle away, mired in competency, when they could soar.

And what about the student who isn’t a very skilled writer (yet) who is determined to tackle a giant subject—sometimes personal—that he/she just isn’t able to handle right now?  I long to say, “Can’t you practice writing on a smaller canvas for a little while?  You’re not Tolstoy.”  On the other hand, none of us are, and what’s the harm?  I think a lot about this one while I’m writing up critiques that focus on first level things—commas, details, characterization—when on a smaller canvas, this same poor writer could also start learning from me about bigger issues like structure and conflict that would better serve the writer-in-training.

Our culture is so bound and determined not to harbor any quitters…is this why students feel that need to plow through these novels that aren’t working?   Is there no way to bow gracefully and admit defeat?  To step back and gather new resources before returning into the fray?  To pause, instead of constantly plow forward?  And yet, I’ve said it to classes a thousand times:  Writing a novel is a marathon…sometimes you don’t feel like writing, but you just have to…persistence will triumph over raw talent.  Blah, blah, blah.  I know I even use the word “plow.”  Often.

I remember meeting a very accomplished writer who told me about a time in her MFA days when she had been struggling for months on a novel, bringing in chapters to workshop, and finally her instructor spoke with her privately and said, “You know, you just shouldn’t be writing that.  It’s not a novel.” 

“Wow,” I said.  “That must have been hard to hear.”

The accomplished writer said, “Actually, it was very useful to hear.  I stopped writing that novel and wrote something else instead.”

Could it be that simple?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.