Monday, October 11, 2010

Guest Post - Lori from In Pursuit of Martha Points

Today's guest poster is Lori from In Pursuit of Martha Points. She does not have a degree in Creative Writing. Does it matter? Read on:

How An Education Can Ruin Your Writing

Once upon a time, before the speech pathology degree, before the lab coat, and long before the blog, I was a creative writing major at the University of California at Santa Cruz where, I am proud to say, I voted for the banana slug mascot. (Hey, it was Santa Cruz. We ate all-organic, if you know what I mean.)

Here is what I envisioned a creative writing department to be: a cross between the Algonquin Round Table and an academic decatholon, but with hip, college clothes and mascot-voting-herbology (if you know what I mean). It was going to be a place to discuss the big questions, to root each other on to the writing of the Great American Novel (to be known from hereon out as the GAN), to sweat out learning the ropes of character, voice, plot and to help shape immature writing into powerful, Virginia-Wolfe-Worthy stuff.

What the creative writing department turned out to be was a handful of professors disillusioned they hadn’t already managed to write the GAN, and a bunch of students who were clearly the Major Writers of their high schools, who were destined to write the GAN, and who had about as much collective maturity as the cast of “The Real Housewives of {Insert Name of A Major American City That Has Abandoned All Dignity Here}.”

There was snark, sarcasm, jealousy, popularity contests, nit-picking, back-biting and obscenely angsty-drama. What there was very little of was constructive feedback, analysis or skills development. Submitting your piece for class analysis was taking your ego in your hands and risking a bashing akin to a pay-per-view boxing match.

My own pieces were all over the map, in terms of the feedback. In general, I was praised for my imagery, voice and dialogue and criticized for my lack of plot development. But I already knew these things about my writing, and nowhere in any of these skin-toughening sessions was there anything that taught me how to do it better.

The problem, fundamentally, is that very few people know how to critique. “Critique” means to provide feedback in a way that facilitates improvement. Creating a list of “I don’t likes” about something is not a “critique,” it is criticism.

We knew what we liked, or was good, but we were not given the tools to help improve those things that we didn’t like or were bad. If someone is bad with voice, what guidance should we give the writer to sound more fluent? If the characters are one-dimensional, what instruction will we offer to help the author flesh those creations out?

It was when I realized I would not get that from my department that I decided I could develop raging insecurities in other, less angsty, places. I knew that if I truly wanted my writing to develop I had to look elsewhere.

This is not a condemnation of every CW program. A close high-school friend of mine is a CW instructor at our local junior college, and she attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. In comparing notes, it is clear that her experience was vastly different from mine. She left her program as a writer. I left my program and decided to become a speech therapist.

I fear that many departments, courses and seminars toss a bunch of unqualified writers into roles as “critiquers” without teaching them how to be effective at it, and I caution you to be aware when this is happening. I’ve attended writing workshops where we were instructed to be positive and courteous in our critiques. Ok, that means we all know to not rip people to shreds with harsh words or snide comments, but again that is not teaching how. If you find yourself in such an environment, be aware that that the input you get may be about as helpful as that from the woman who looks at your hair and says, “You should really do something about that,” without telling you that the shape of your face screams for something short and sassy.

Don’t fret that you didn’t get a creative writing degree. Don’t demean your writing because you weren’t “formally trained.” You’re a writer, not an opera singer. Know how many best selling writers were CW majors? Almost none.

Find the people who understand how they do what they do and can give you instructions. Find the people who can help you turn a few paragraphs of weak prose into strong prose. Improving takes practice, honest analysis, and constructive feedback. The best editors help good writing evolve into great writing not by saying, “that doesn’t work for me,” but by saying, “That doesn’t communicate, add more description without using any passive voice.”

When you find those people, love them like they are your long-lost-sister and keep them around at all cost. Offer chocolate. Or spa-days. But most of all, listen. We are always wedded to our words, and sometimes when we say we want feedback what we really want is praise. Praise has its place, sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps us going. But it doesn’t make us better. Actively seek out the people or communities that focus on the tools of improvement or serious analysis, they are where you will find your writing grows the most.

Got it? Good. And when you do write the GAN, I want to be mentioned in your “couldn’t have done this without” page.