My question: 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, haha). 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 15-page story that’s trite, but a far different picture if the student is setting forth on a years-long journey to complete a novel that’s trite.
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,” or the 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.
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.”
Could it be that simple?