Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.
We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”
And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.
As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.
“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)
“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.
But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”
We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.
This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.
When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).
In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.
Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.
Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.
I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.
It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.
So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.
But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”
Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.
Great post – I like that you turned the question back to him – does he think his writing is any good? I think I’d add – good enough for what? and good enough for who? In my opinion, if a writer can critically engage with those questions they’re probably on a more fruitful path than trying to meet some imaginary hypothetical and uncontested standard of “good” writing.
Yes, Ailsa! Those are excellent questions. What makes it complicated in my role as a teacher is that I’m in the weird position of grading his writing based on its relative ‘goodness.’ 🙂 Thanks for your comment! -kelcey
There were a few times during peer to peer reviews I encountered that question. My answer was succinct. Yes you have talent when the writing shone. Or, yes you show promise when it was obvious the writing was mediocre. If it was mediocre I was quick to offer advice on how to improve, as I feel sure you are.
Thanks, Talia. That’s a nice, straightforward approach! Sometimes I over-complicate things…