Monday, January 8, 2018

The Short’s Story Doesn’t End There

I can be pretentious, and we all know I adore me some odd phrasing from time to time. My most common form of feedback is some rendition of, “I love your voice, but sometimes it’s a little jarring.” And confusing. And even outright incorrect.

When I was  a youngin’, however, I distinctly remember when I turned in an essay with the word “enigma” in it. Perhaps it was my love of Batman, but I never even questioned the commonality of the term. It was a word I knew as just as well as “mysterious,” “problem,” or “The Riddler.” When I received it back, I, coincidentally enough, had a huge “?” next to the paragraph with this tender little word in it.

Now, one of my most hated forms of criticism is the “?”, or “Huh?” or “What?” because of the reviewer’s expectation that I will understand what they don’t understand. That it’s just SO OBVIOUS what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense that I myself should be fully aware of its gibberish. No explanation required. But, in this case, like many cases, the issue could have been anywhere from, “This word doesn’t mean what you think it does,” to “I don’t agree with your point.”

(When giving feedback, always remember that a writer never does something without reason and never writes something that didn’t make sense to them at the time. Your job is to be clear why it didn’t work for you to help them see it from another angle. Universal claims are typically overstated, oversimplified, and vague.)

I approached my professor, asking what the question mark meant, when he blinked at me matter-of-factly, replying, “I don’t know what enigma means.”

That sounds like a YOU problem.

Knowing your audience is a talent (and debate) into itself. Some people, typically not writers, will insist that I know what words are common, that I know what words “a fifth grader would know.”

Why would I? I’m not a fifth grader, nor have I interacted with one since 2001. But not only that, I’ve found that people tend to assume stupidity onto younger people. I once wrote a manuscript at sixteen, workshopped it at 20, and was told by a 60 year old that 18 year olds wouldn’t understand the wording. Ironically enough, my younger peers understood it far better than the older gentlemen who were obviously projecting.

Quite frankly, I find that younger readers are more likely to accept words they don’t know while older readers are more likely to get hung up on them.

Today an author commented on her fifteen-year-old daughter’s writing class in which the prompt, the end of the world, lead her to write a story that was “too sad” for the professor. In order to get a good grade, the student was required to alter the ending to something more happy.

Obviously I’m only getting one side of the story, through the lens of a third-party no less. But I have definitely met some controlling people, those who thought that “teaching” meant, “do it my way.” A lot of critique partners will believe that getting someone to make a change is the end-all, not worrying about instructing the person to critically evaluate what edits can and should be made themselves.

However, while I agree this is a ridiculous requirement for the teacher to make—basing a grade off of the ability to take feedback to heart instead of on effort and improvement—I think it’s a good lesson. Most importantly, it’s brought me to one wrongful assumption that writers make in creative writing classes: That their story lives in a vacuum.

As I say to any writing students, “I am not here to make you write a great story, but to teach you how.” I often ask them to ‘mess up’ their work. “Keep all your drafts. Make erroneous changes. See what happens.” I ask them to make edits that may not solve any problems. To rewrite it as all dialogue. To rewrite without any was’s. To make it a sad ending. To make it a happy one. Then, at the end of the course, submit the version that contains the best elements of each experimentation.

Being a sci-fi and fantasy writer, the conversation of academics' hatred of the genres comes up a lot. I agree with the stupidity of some professors thinking that fantasy isn’t real writing, and there are times when I suggest to stick it to the man and do what you want.

But the real use of a classroom is to get OUT of your comfort zone, to understand subjectivity, criticism, and writing for your audience. When not to write for you audience. When to stick with what works. Whose opinion you care about and what you want to happen. Do you change a story for a closed-minded grade, or do you keep it for what it is. And why? It’s a learning experience to tell you more about yourself and help you make better decisions in the future.

Most importantly though, just because you wrote something in one context does not mean it is restricted to that context. Just because your professor didn’t like something and you had to change it to get a good grade does not mean you can’t take the original version and put it out there.

I suggested to the mother to go to have her daughter submit the story elsewhere. Help her understand that sometimes writing is about finding your audience, not catering to the one right before you. And just because you have to compromise your principles when the cost isn’t worth the reward doesn’t mean that your story has been fossilized in that version, doomed to sit on a Happily-Ever-After Nazi’s desk in perpetual optimism.

For that matter, a story that did well in a classroom shouldn’t stay there either.

Get your work out to the world. Understand that context and place matter, that one person’s opinion isn’t an end all. Classrooms are not to create the perfect art’s form, but to force you to start writing, critically evaluate yourself, and learn how to deal with shit heads.

If you liked this post, want to support, contact, stalk, or argue with me, please consider...

Liking Charley Daveler on Facebook
Following @CharleyDaveler on Twitter
Following @CDaveler on Instagram
Following Charley Daveler on Pinterest

Or sign up for my newsletter!