Monday, March 12, 2007

Problems of Young Writers

This is not the venue for this sort of thing, but no matter. It is a brief essay directed towards young writers, with problems.

I have seemingly been critical of my peers in the past, saying that their writing has often failed to impress or compel me, and that they bring a great amount of seriousness to it, not in content, but in attitude, that they cannot yet justify. I’ve had a deal of trouble articulating what it is that I take issue with and will try to write out, which I suppose is distantly ironic. What validity or significance does my opinion have? Only what you choose to give it.

The simplest problem with a young writer is that they have no sense of what is good and what is bad art, in a very general artistic sense; general by necessity of the trade. Writing workshops are based on this premise, that no one really knows what they’re doing and that good fiction can only emerge once a group of peers read it and critique it. This is a process done at all levels of creative writing, at all institutions with such a program. The highest levels of the department will tell you how necessary it is, and how writing is inherently a social, communal activity. I can disagree with them easily because I am a self-important, opinionated jerk, or something to that effect.

The amendment to their claim towards cooperative writing needs only be that the communal nature of it is essential to new, young writers who don’t have much to build on, and who are trying to understand how the form works, but not to the experienced writer who wants to go beyond what that process offers. The process of understanding can take years, decades, depending on dedication and other more uncontrollable, intrinsic factors. That’s part of why workshops are considered necessary at all levels; the process can be so long that it is not clear when the workshops are no longer needed. Understand that a writer is never finished learning from his work and from the work of others, and that the workshops are training-wheels, essential for only as long as the individual feels they are, and are eventually a limitation.

In workshops, if you do not know, a work in-progress is given to the other writers to read and critique; they make recommendations on how to strengthen the story. This experience is necessary to the young writer because you learn from the stories that don’t work and the ones that do and it’s really quite pleasant. Once you get into it, after a few years, you must learn which advice is good and which advice is bad, and if you don’t learn when to ignore advice, your piece will lose its sense of authorship. Or I suppose you’ll lose your sense of authorship over your piece. Ignoring the wrong advice is essential, and I’ve personally found at the undergraduate level, where writing for many is an occasional, cathartic hobby, that the creative judgment of my peers cannot always be trusted. I will expound on this in a moment.

There’s a fairly specific form of the short story that we are taught to obey, in dealing with orienting the reader’s expectations and guiding them to a specific, surprising peak, at which point they are made to sigh. But it is only an abstract necessity rather than a needed, practical form, and often workshop can force a story into a methodic form, superficially pleasing and pleasing the ‘graders’ of the story. (I certainly don’t mean to downplay the instructors; they are usually very talented, but talent cannot be taught). It is like baking cookies, and holding the notion that all good cookies are circular. Your squiggly-shaped cookie can work just as well, and can perhaps work better if the crevices allow for more chocolate chips, but for practical reasons you are taught that circular cookies are the ‘correct’ cookies. This is not the first time I’ve thought of writing in terms of cookies and professors have never really embraced this mode of discourse.

Occasionally I have seen some very talented people understand that the structure only needs to function on an implicit level, and write some darn good stories. Unfortunately I cannot articulate what the ‘form’ or structure that I’m purporting is advocated in workshops really is, not because we have a code of silence, but because it cannot be generalized and discussed outside the context of each individual story, unless you get into a Hollywood-esque discussion of plot points. The form is useful for inexperienced writers but becomes limiting later on.

Consider Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, which is essentially devoid of plot and so potent in all other inarticulatable things. It fits nowhere into the realm of story-telling that I’ve been taught. I’m no good with the mechanics of it but know that story to be something that succeeds greatly and could not come from a workshop. If it was workshopped, people would make all the wrong recommendations and ruin it, if the writer didn’t know to ignore it, because you cannot just trust the creative of judgment of people willy nilly. I think later on when you’ve invested much of your energy into your writing, and you still like to workshop, like so many published writers do, it might be to elucidate what the weak points of the piece are, to yourself. But because of the nature of our undergraduate workshops, in which we, the inexperienced, make recommendations in order to get credit for the class and to fill the space of a page, the critiques are done haphazardly and excessively. In the Hemingway story, young workshoppers would read it and ask, who are these people? What is their contextual situation? Where are they coming from and where are they going and why are they the way they are? What matters is answered in the story with precise ambiguity and what doesn’t matter is left for you to fill in. I’m half joking, as the story would probably be appreciated for what it is, but I thought I would mention a famous story so as to have an air of class.

Another problem with the young writer’s indecisiveness or ignorance of what is good or bad art, in the context of short stories, is that they do not know whether their own writing is of any sharable quality. This splits the young writers into two groups, not including those who simply don’t care about this sort of thing: those who assume their writing to be of worldly importance, containing profound truths, because no one tells them otherwise, and those who assume nothing of their own writing. The worldly group enjoys sharing their writing and often travels in flocks, and does public readings and that sort of thing, regardless of the quality of what is written. The second, more reserved group shares their writing only when they feel they’ve hit a good note, when the quality might be there. They are both perfectly good groups of people, you understand; the first group just doesn’t know better. A bit of self-advertisement is necessary no matter how humble you are, because a writer has no reason to keep going without readers. It’s a difficult paradox; you need long bouts of solitude to write, and yet afterwards, you desire the largest audience you can acquire for your work.

Trying to produce some good writing can be close to a full-time job, which means that college is a rather unfortunate time to try to make a lasting arrangement of words. You rarely have the opportunity to write because there are too many other deadlines to be concerned with. Of course outside of school, there’s virtually no way, financially, to pursue it as more than an after-hours hobby. I suppose you just have to manage work and play quite well, or consider prison, which would allow for the necessary time and solitude. But then I’ve read some limp manuscripts from incarcerated men as well.

I suspect an additional common flaw among young writers is our ignorance of past writing. This can be considered a flaw of the creative writing focus of this specific university. While reading published material occurs in the workshops, it isn’t much, and it’s usually contemporary stuff. There is a single class in the major devoted to reading short stories. Outside of that, there is no time for most young college student writers to read classic stories, and so we are often, in terms of past writing, blind mice with pens, monkeys with typewriters working at an invisible something. Some people do read a fair amount of modern writers, but using the contemporaries as the sole ingredient in the foundation is the same as walking through a modern art museum and then saying you know the history of art. It depends on what you want to do next, but there’s a bit more to it and it’s best to understand the past before moving on to something new.

In simpler, sparser words, if you are a young writer, read as much as you can and write as much as you can, and only share a bit of it.

If you choose to scoff at the thought I give to these sorts of things, then this essay does not concern you; if you wish to know about me and my own writing, well, I’ve not much to yet share with you, but I’ve some free time coming up.

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the end of something.