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06 July 2012 @ 10:11 am
What do you tell young writers? A response to Nick Mamatas.  
Although I think of myself as a writer, I am a teacher by trade. The ideal form of education, of course, is to develop the highest intellectual faculties of the students at all times -- to be Socrates to each student. There is an optimistic vision of pedagogy (I first encountered it in Postman & Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity, but it goes back at least to John Dewey) that imagines that all teaching, at all levels, should be like a graduate seminar: all topics open-ended, all students doing their independent research, everyone contributing clever, challenging, highly critical perspectives.

It's great work if you can get it. But one of the things you learn in any profession is that the idealized form of the work is typically not what one spends 70% of one's time doing. There are so many poorly prepared students in the world (insufficient prenatal or neonatal nutrition, insufficient attention to reading at a young age, lackluster preschool, kindergarten or lower elementary school training, uninspired work at the middle or high school levels) that one often gets college students who are simply unequipped to handle that level of complexity and subtlety. So you give them basic skills, backfill missing knowledge, bring them up to speed, hoping eventually that they'll get to that graduate-seminar level. Usually they don't.

Don't get me wrong. This is enormously satisfying work that makes a huge difference in the lives of the students, and I'm proud of myself and my colleagues for our success in doing it. My point is that subtle, sophisticated advice and training isn't for everyone -- or to be precise, it isn't for everyone yet. I once expressed irritation (at the age of 42) with boring elementary school practices like memorizing multiplication tables and other rote learning, only to be told angrily by my then-boss (a gifted electrical engineer) that without that rote learning he never would have made it to where he was. For beginners, you often need to give simplified, facile, even rote instructions, so that they can gain the basic skills to get to the more complex stuff.

And so it is with the training of writers. At the master-class level, as at the Clarion or Odyssey workshops, one does not give simple rules or facile advice. Every principle has an exception, every rule is nuanced, every discussion is complex. But these workshops have something like a 1-in-6 acceptance rate, based on manuscript submission; the people who get into them are pre-screened for the quality of their prose and their abilities for characterization, plotting, dialogue etc. The advice you would give them is not the advice you would give a novice. A novice needs to unlearn bad habits and learn good ones, so that she can begin to produce the sort of work that would qualify her for master-class training.

This is my primary objection to Nick Mamatas's (nihilistic_kid's) LJ post back in January, "Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers", in which he purports to burst the bubbles of standard pieces of advice one learns early, such as "Show, don't tell", "Write every day", and "Revise, revise, revise". He shows how each of them is an oversimplification, that it doesn't apply to everyone, that it could be positively the worst advice in some cases. He's really emphatic about it.

Now, at the graduate-seminar level, Nick is absolutely right. None of these principles holds up 100% of the time for someone who is already doing good work, and one would never hear them told without caveats at Clarion -- just as you would never tell a law-school student that the roles of the three branches of government are strictly and consistently separate, or that the First Amendment engenders clear rules that can be memorized. (Indeed, you practically never tell a law student anything -- you make them argue with each other about it.) But it would be a mistake to try to get middle schoolers to grapple with the subtleties Lemon test or the paradox of "local standards;" they're not ready for it yet.

The reason writers started telling young writers to "show, not tell" is because so many of them were telling without showing, all the time. The reason they gave the advice to "write every day" is because so many newbies were waiting for lightning to strike before writing a word. The reason they said "Revise, revise, revise" is that the youngsters write their first draft and send it off without a second look. (Nick's post tacitly acknowledges this in his puncturing of another piece of advice, "Write a million words of crap.") They have, in other words, inculcated a series of really bad habits that will, if left uncorrected, permanently hamper their ability to do quality work.

Once you get the young writer to start writing regularly, whether or not she's inspired by the gods that particular day; once you get her to begin demonstrating the truth of things via the experience of the character, rather than through essays by the narrator; once she's able to practice putting the layers upon layers that come with revision instead of assuming that whatever came to her the first time is perfect -- once she's shaken off those crippling habits, you can then pull back and say, "Okay, now you know that the 'show don't tell thing' isn't always true, right?" (I remember having that very conversation with Stan Robinson at Clarion.) All things in their season. One step at a time. Don't assign graduate work to a seventh grader.

What irritates me about Nick's post is the same thing that irritated my boss about my blithe remark concerning multiplication tables. It's the sort of thing that comes out of the mouth of a sophisticated, experienced, skilled writer who believes that anyone can do what he has done if she just pays attention. It is the dismissive attitude of the clever and quick towards the slow and pondering. It is the very attitude I myself had (as a privileged, exquisitely well-educated, over-intellectual, upper middle class white boy) before I became a full-time teacher and saw how things were for most students. It isn't that Nick is wrong -- at my level, he's right -- it's that he doesn't seem to see the steps aspiring writers need to go through.

Read Nick's post when you've got some experience under your belt and are confident in your abilities and skills. Meanwhile, those simplistic rules are just fine.
 
 
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J. Kathleen Cheneyj_cheney on July 6th, 2012 02:41 pm (UTC)
When I first started teaching 9th grade math, I had a weird day where I was working with a student after school, and watched her do multiplication. She carefully multiplied out each column, and finally got the correct answer.

What was weird was that she was multiplying 290 x 0. She didn't need to mulitply out each column...but she just didn't make that connection. Yes, this was a ninth grader.

I guess that my point is that if she hadn't had those basic long division rules, she wouldn't have -ever- figured out an answer that most more experienced mathematicians can simply jump to. It's a crutch for her, but she needed it at that point....

Edited at 2012-07-06 02:43 pm (UTC)
Ken: Giggleken_schneyer on July 7th, 2012 01:08 pm (UTC)
That's a fantastic story, Jeanne. Thanks!
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on July 6th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
I'm a teacher by trade as well (in two MFA programs, plus a writer's club style set-up) and an editor. Two things I think you miss:

1. "young" writers aren't. The overwhelming majority of them are fully developed adults capable of understanding bits of advice more complex than "show don't tell" so long as someone in authority doesn't insist that "show don't tell" makes sense. A lot of the errors made by beginning writers are made thanks to attempting to follow this advice. (An example.) Giving adults correct, useful, and nuanced advice is not at all analogous to telling kids to skip their multiplication tables and get right to the proofs. If the elementary stuff is analogous to anything, it's really "Learn to read complex compound sentences", which anyone who wishes to be a writer should have already mastered. There's little to be done for a would-be writer who refuses to read, no matter how much oversimplified advice we can construct for them. Seventh-grade curricula won't help them.

2. My work as an editor, which has involved reading thousands of stories, books, synopses, etc. over the course of twelve years led me to conclude that your claims as to the validity of the basic advice is just incorrect. I don't think it is true that "show don't tell" came out of aspiring writers telling all the time, and I know it is not true that in my many and varied slushpiles that "show don't tell" has helped anyone who didn't intuitively get it from reading that one should not always-show-never-tell.

Edited at 2012-07-06 09:18 pm (UTC)
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 7th, 2012 02:20 pm (UTC)
Interesting! An MFA program has the same pre-screening/master-class characteristics as a writers workshop, so maybe my observations about Clarion etc. apply to that situation as well.

I probably shouldn't have used the word "young" quite so often in the post. My students (I'm not a writing teacher) are mostly 19-to-22, but I have a substantial number in their 30s and 40s. Among both, I observe a similar difficulty with complexity in subjects with which the student is not familiar. Therefore I don't think it's a matter of brain development, but rather of experience with the material.

What we may be talking about, really, is the difference between whether to give advice in the first place, and how one follows that advice once it has been given. As a teacher of college students who submit written exams and papers (not creative writing), I have been driven nearly to distraction by two habits inculcated earlier in their training: The five-paragraph essay and the mirrored short-answer response.
(Sidebar: The "mirrored short-answer response" goes like this:
Question: What are the elements of negligence?
Answer: "The elements of negligence are duty, breach, damages or causation."
This is okay so far as it goes, but it gets used in situations where it makes no sense. For example:
Question: Explain the law that most strongly helps the plaintiff.
Answer: "The law that most strongly helps the plaintiff is this: a person owes a duty of care to all of those who could foreseeably be affected or harmed by the paintiff's actions."

In the latter case, the repetition of the question in the answer serves no function whatsoever, but is useless verbiage that wastes the student's (and the instructor's) time. End of sidebar)

My students use these tools in situations where they are neither helpful nor desired, and they do so because that's what they were taught earlier. It would take serious effort on my part to break them of it (effort I don't expend, because I'm trying to teach them something else altogether).

But I understand that both of these rules were taught to the students in order to develop certain skills and awareness that were/was not yet present. The five-paragraph essay sensitized the learner to the structure of arguments, the need for factual support and logic, the relationship between conclusions and beginnings, etc. The mirrored short answer sensitizes students to the use of actual sentences in their work rather than bullets or fragments. They are, in their time and place, useful and necessary steps.

The problem is not that they were taught in the first place, but that the students don't have the experience (or maybe the wit?) to realize when it's time to abandon or adjust those rules. One sees similar problems among inexperienced people in all areas: the basic principles become commandments rather than starting places. Show undergraduates the racial politics that underpin contemporary culture, and they react not by developing a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay of race, identity and ethics, but by reflexively calling everyone they meet a racist. (Then the press blames what it calls "political correctness" on the instructor who points out the racial politics in the first place, rather than on the intellectual rigidity of college students.)

[Continued in next comment]

Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on July 7th, 2012 03:10 pm (UTC)
An MFA program has the same pre-screening/master-class characteristics as a writers workshop

Well, some do, and some don't. Clarion isn't actually all that difficult to get into at all; it's the commitment that keeps people away. Some MFA programs really aren't competitive—they're just small thanks to being out-of-the-way and having non-famous faculty like me. All that said, I've also taught at Grub Street Inc. in Boston, the Writing Salons here in Berkeley, and now online at the UCLA extension—the only screening in these sorts of writer's clubs is that you have to be able to write...a check. And I've not noticed a significant difference in quality of the students at all. Those that read deeply as well as widely are much much better than anyone else; some of them are just loonies and won't ever get anywhere, and most folks just muddle through. Of the three people to whom I've said, "You don't need to workshop this material; you need to submit it," all three have been here in Berkeley. The university and the dot.com economy just attracts smart and careful people who also read obsessively. At least two of my Salon students were Clarion grads who required further instruction.

Therefore I don't think it's a matter of brain development, but rather of experience with the material.

Ah, but any adult with a reasonable shot of being a writer is already familiar with the material-books! Remember, it doesn't take a class of any sort to be a writer—it just takes lots of reading, followed by some writing. The lots of reading should already be in place when a student enters a workshop, and when it isn't, it hardly matters how the advice is structured.

So I would say creative writing pedagogy is different even than composition—though I have enormous problems with the way composition is taught, as the students rarely get more than one or two samples of term papers before writing their own. Imagine a novel-writing workshop in which students who have never read a novel are still kept from reading novels, but rather go to class a few times a week and listen to someone simply describe what novels and the novel-writing process is like. Of course they'd end up slaves to whatever the teacher said, just as those poor five-sentence graf suckers you encounter are.

Ken: Worriedken_schneyer on July 9th, 2012 12:49 pm (UTC)
Clarion isn't actually all that difficult to get into at all; it's the commitment that keeps people away.

I feel obligated to correct this one, as this is a topic I know something about. Of course "difficult to get into" is a relative thing, but: the self-selection due to the commitment occurs before people apply, and currently the acceptance rate is about 18%. That's on a par with some of the most competitive colleges in the country (e.g., the current rate for my alma mater Wesleyan).

(Of course that rate is high compared to the acceptance rates for stories at magazines, but that's not a sensible comparison, since magazine submission is now easy and cost-free, while application to the workshops involves a fee, a lengthy application form and two stories from applicants who are bidding to spend $5,000 more dollars and six weeks of their lives.)


Edited at 2012-07-09 12:50 pm (UTC)
Nick Mamatas: fortunadonihilistic_kid on July 9th, 2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
If eighteen percent is the current rate, it certainly isn't the historical rate. In one early 1990s class, 24 people applied for 20 slots. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the acceptance rates I heard most frequently were never less than fifty percent. Clarion West in particular has taken to the blogosphere with promotional efforts and plenty of alumni turned goodwill ambassadors; it's no surprise that this has led to an increase in applications. However, from my reading of recent grad work, I have to say that I suspect that most new applicants aren't handing in very competitive applications. That is, I wouldn't be surprised if the tail is swelling rather than the head. Perhaps four years of economic doldrums has perversely made it easier to dedicate six weeks to a workshop as jobs are scarce and job-hunting often futile?

Edited at 2012-07-09 03:41 pm (UTC)
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 7th, 2012 02:21 pm (UTC)
[Continued from previous comment]

Because I started writing seriously at 46, I don't know how various pieces of advice would have worked for me in my biologically developmental period. I do know that the three pieces of advice I quoted above ("Show don't tell" etc.) were enormously helpful shortcuts that got me to the point where I was able to benefit from Clarion three years later. I am not, perhaps, a typical example, as I was voracious reader of contemporary short-form SFF before I started, so that the natural limits of any one "rule" were already apparent to me. (Was that age, maturity, previous education, or the fact that I'd read a lot of SFF? Dunno.) The still-persistent flaws in my own writing (such as a tendency to indulge in unusual voicing at the expense of things like plot) would be amenable to cure right now by some of the simplistic advice I received back then (e.g., "There must always be a conflict, and it ought to resolve one way or another"), if only I would follow it.

Of course it's possible that my quick adoption and then abandonment/alteration of those rules are the results of native intelligence and intuition; as a self-satisfied egotist, I sometimes think so. But as a teacher, I try to have faith that it was the result of experience, practice and long reading, and to believe that my own students will grow out of the slavish obedience to any single principle.
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on July 7th, 2012 03:20 pm (UTC)
Ah Ken, I would say you did ninety percent of the work yourself with the reading, as does anyone else who comes out of workshops or MFAs and then becomes "successful." At this point, after pleasantries, the first real question I ask my students is "Do you read anyone who isn't famous?" and if they say "Uh...no, just [a list of contemporary bestsellers in their genre]" I know their workshop stories and/or chapters will be terrible. It hardly matters what I tell them, advise-wise. I can only bury them in novels and tell them to get back to me when they're done.

My other claim is a bit more difficult to prove if only because "show don't tell" is ubiquitous—I first heard it in third grade, I think—but I bet that the AU Ken who had never heard such advice before heading to Clarion would have been just fine, because of your deep reading.
Words, Words, Wordsdavidkudler on July 7th, 2012 11:01 am (UTC)
My daughter just graduated from a Dewey-esque middle school, and the truth of what you're pointing out here was played out there on a large scale. The school is, I think, very successful on the whole--it certainly served my wants-to-talk-about-everything daughter well. Where the teachers (and students) struggle the most is in the subjects where scut work is the order of the day. The math teacher, who's wonderful at getting the kids to see some really complex mathematical concepts, has been finding that graduates of the school -- especially those without an innate interest in math -- have struggled with arithmetic. The same is true of the Spanish teacher. Kids were very good at conjugating the preterite, but had holes in their understanding of basic grammar and vocabulary. The other parents of Julia's classmates were upset when their little geniuses placed in the introductory levels of their high school classes. (We were fine; our eldest, who came out of the local public middle school) was placed in a couple of advanced courses and nearly drowned.)

No surprise, but I think your thoughts are dead on. The writing taught in high school and college creative writing classes needs to start with inculcating a sense of discipline and craft, even as it exposes young writers to more advanced techniques and encourages them to find their own voice. Young painters are still taught the same kind of classical drawing and painting techniques that the Old Masters learned before they are encouraged to dive into the abstract or expressionistic; it should be the same with artists of prose.
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 7th, 2012 01:10 pm (UTC)
Interesting! As a footnote, we're currently designing a lot of online courses over here right now, and we find that it lends itself well to subjects where a lot of research and discussion are useful. Generally the students hate it in areas like math and accounting, where there are techniques you just have to learn. My suggestion has been that they adopt a "Khan Academy" method, putting videos up showing instructors completing problems.
Words, Words, Wordsdavidkudler on July 8th, 2012 03:13 pm (UTC)
There you go! My wife's school too has been experimenting with the Khan Academy technique of "flipping the classroom"--having the teachers lecture/demonstrate particular concepts or techniques online, where the students can view it as many times as they need, and then having the class sessions take over the more typical "homework." This way, the teacher is involved in pointing out to students where they've missed a step or misunderstood a concept, and the worksheets/whatever become far more than simple make-work and rote.

It seems to work best for exactly the kinds of courses I mentioned above, where there are a discrete, definable skills or concepts that need to be learned: math, introductory language, science. For the humanities, the approach seems to be less effective, and, obviously, you can't "flip" an art class! ;-)