A writer I know, Randy Susan Meyers, wrote an interesting blog on her website a few weeks ago called “Writer’s Groups: Don’t Drink and Read.” Randy touches on a variety of issues that resonated with me as a writing teacher, especially since I have encountered a few of the same problems in my classes. So I thought I would make some comments about my writing classes.
(I should explain first that I teach writing for adults. Although I have had students as young as just out of college, most of them are forty and up, with a fair number of them post-retirement. Also, these are classes with a bona fide teacher—me—and I do act as at least a symbol of authority, which makes class different from a writing group, such as Randy writes about.)
First, writing class is not therapy. At least my writing classes aren’t. I know that some classes are meant specifically to be therapeutic, and I think that’s great. Probably if more people sat down every once in a while and wrote—either to vent some anger or hurt, or to reveal their feelings for another person, or because they had this amazing dream and they want to explore what it meant to them—the world would be a bit of a better place. I do not, however, view my writing classes as places for people to work out their problems. The classes are for people to work on their writing.
Also, I warn my students never to ask someone who has just presented material: Is this true? Did this really happen? Aside from the privacy issue, it doesn’t matter. If the students want to hear each other’s life stories, they can go out for a beer after class.
Whether something is true, though, leads to a point that Randy brings up. That is, the question of believability. There are a couple of sides to this issue, and I’m going to rely on clichés here. One: life is stranger than fiction. And two: willing suspension of disbelief. I’ve had students defend an unbelievable story with: “But this really happened!” And I’ve had students critique a story by saying: “I don’t believe anyone would ever act like this.”
It would be easy for me to say that the fault always lies with the writer in not creating a convincing plot line or believable characters. For example, if a writer wrote a description of Fifth Avenue, between Thirty-Third and Thirty-Fourth Streets, that was precise and filled with accurate sensory details, and then went on to describe the ten-foot-long pink lizard that was climbing up the side of the Empire State Building, the reader would nod and say, I can believe this.
Sometimes, however, the fault lies with the reader. A vital aspect of my writing classes, as I tell new students, is that the students learn about critiquing as well as about writing. Critiquing requires people put aside some set-in-stone opinions and to ignore their prejudices of how they think a person would act in whatever scenario the writer has created. We all bring deeply held opinions and prejudices to what we read; we all have knee-jerk reactions to certain types of characters, or language, or situations. Learning to critique well requires learning how to distinguish between those subjective responses—“I don’t believe this would happen”—and a more objective response of “You did not convince me that this would happen.” So when one student says, “I found this character unbelievable” and another student says, “I completely believed this character,” the writer probably didn’t do a good enough job with the character, but the students also brought their own beliefs to bear on their critique.
A final point. Sometimes a student simply doesn’t like something, or a piece triggers a difficult memory, or a writer’s use of harsh language is too offensive. I had a student write about the death of a child once. Another student who had lost her own child to SIDS simply said nothing, only that she couldn’t critique the essay. In another class, a student was writing a fantasy novel in which the main action revolved around battles between humans and ogres. None of us responded well to the material, and it was a struggle to come up with worthwhile critiques about the characters and the plot.
I do use what Randy calls the in-the-box silent-writer rule. That is, the writer whose piece is being critiqued cannot respond to the other students’ comments. I bend the rule when an important issue needs to be settled. (Once, during the critiquing of a new piece from a longtime student, I realized that half the class thought they had read a short story and the other half, the start of a novel. Obviously, the student had to clarify.) By and large, though, I find this is a sound rule. If the writer’s intentions are not clear on the page, what is the point of her explaining them? She won’t be able to do that to an editor or someone who buys her book. Occasionally, the writers’ frustration with this rule can be clear on their faces, as they realize we really didn’t get it. But then, sometimes they come back with a much-improved revision of that piece.
I’ve had uncomfortable moments in classes when a student makes his critique all about how he feels about what we just read instead of about the writing. I’ve had students not participate at all during the critiquing, or maybe only exclaim, “I really liked it!” I’ve gotten angry emails from students when they felt their writing had been misunderstood, or that they hadn’t gotten their fair share of time, or that the other students’ comments were worthless. None of these students ever come back. That’s okay. The students who do participate in class, who put thought into their critical comments and who work hard at improving their writing, are a joy to spend a couple of hours with, and I’m always delighted when they return to class.