It’s what I’m trained to do (three advanced degrees in Fiction Writing) but it never ceases to drive me nuts when college students apply a whole different standard to their own work in the workshop than they do to published masters’ work. I can’t figure out what makes me crazier, in fact: the casual dismissal of great writers’s work (“boring,” “I didn’t care at all about any of the characters,” “I was confused by the structure,” " I had trouble getting through it") or their insane praise for each other’s drivel (“I didn’t need anything to, like, happen here–but the writing was so beautiful. I liked the images about the sun being yellow and round and all…”)
Last night’s seminar had this exchange:
Me: “Okay, what areas does Nessa need to work on if she wants to continue working on this?”
Nessa: “Are you saying that maybe I shouldn’t continue working on it?”
Me: “You’ve got the option, don’t you?”
Nessa: “It sounds like you’re saying you think this [an exercise I assigned to the whole class, mind you, not an original story] isn’t worth more work on.”
Me: “It’s your call. Every writer has carloads of unfinished material.”
Nessa: “So you’re saying this is junk?”
Me: “I’m saying it needs work, and you may be better off putting that work into something you care more about.”
Someone else: “I think it’s brilliant.”
Me: “As is? After a few hours of working on it? Listen, if this weren’t assigned reading for this seminar, would you have finished reading it to the end?”
SHOCKED COLLECTIVE GASP, followed by “of course!” “It’s wonderful,” “I loved it,” “I thought it was amazing” etc.
Me: “Let’s talk standards, folks. When I read an anthology of published work, like ‘Best Short Stories of 2005,’ culled from hundreds of magazines for their excellence, I usually get bored or confused by some of them. When you read a magazine on a plane, when you have some choice in finishing a story or moving on to something else, don’t you often opt not to? If you read Nessa’s story outside of this seminar, would you really finish it?”
Guess their response.
Are they being collectively defensive about the quality of their work, or are they genuinely clueless and can’t tell the difference between quality literature and pointless, cliche-ridden student exercises? I get “I deliberately made it confusing” or “Does it matter whether he killed her or not?” or “It’s more of a mood piece, it’s just supposed to be depressing, not to have a plot or anything” or “I wrote that dialogue so that both characters would sound identical to each other, I thought it would be funny if you couldn’t tell them apart” so much it’s all I can do not to berate them in class.
The killer part is that I’ve created all these exercises (model plots) so they would have less investment in the story, and there would be less ego and preening, allowing us to focus on techniques to achieve specific goals. (They’re also supposedly working on original stories, which we’ll discuss after mid-term. Presumably spending the first six weeks working on the originals, while producing these stylistic exercises, will bring the quality up from where it’s been in the past, but I’m not holding my breath.) Maybe I just need to teach grad-level classes where this sort of “creative writer” would be weeded out before the course begins.
I usually start by thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give all fifteen of them an A?” and by mid-term I’m thinking “Can I pass any of them in good conscience?” That’s an exaggeration (I have two or three students who are talented and trying, but they’re mostly quiet in class) but that’s what it feels like.