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When is a Mistake Truly a Mistake?
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This post first appeared on March 31, 2014.
Sometimes, as a creative writing professor you just want to put your foot down. My colleague, Kate Schmitt, told one workshop if any of them used the word flow again, they’d have to go stand in the corner. One of my beloved professors, Ron Carlson, told us we weren’t allowed to put clowns in our stories. Or twins. Or rain. Naturally, one of my friends wrote a story about twin clowns in the rain. Once I banned a student from using colons. What had started out as a unique grammatical touch had spread throughout her work and then throughout her classmates’ work like head-lice in the second grade.
Over the years I’ve noticed that beginning writers gravitate toward certain things—things I would call writing mistakes (melodrama, sentimentality, clichéd descriptions, familiar language)—and sometimes as a teacher, you want so much not to read another story in which a single tear drop runs down the face of the heartbroken that you put your foot down. But is this teaching? I have often said about beginning writers that you have to let them make their mistakes. But do I believe it? And even if I believe it, do I practice it?
As an undergraduate I wrote a story that was all a dream, I wrote a story about an abused woman who was keeping her pregnancy secret, I wrote a story about not being able to get my homework done. And my teachers were Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates. Can you imagine? Joyce Carol Oates could probably have written a whole ‘nother novel in the time she had to read the dreck I was writing. Russell Banks was writing Cloudsplitter, one of my favorite novels of all time, at the time. Certain of my stories must have been an agony to them. And yet neither of them banned me from doing anything. I wouldn’t say they praised me either, but they did let me make my mistakes. And one of the best stories I wrote as an undergraduate—which became the first story I ever published—was about a couple with a dying baby. Exactly the kind of story I might now discourage an intro student from writing for fear of sentimentality and melodrama.
Those of us who teach creative writing often get asked if creative writing can be taught. And one of the common responses is: a good teacher can get you further faster. Things you’d have to determine on your own, you learn more speedily in class. But what happens if you don’t make your own mistakes? I feel sometimes like I am asking my intro students to learn from the mistakes of intro students past—and that runs the risk of their writing a certain way because I have told them to, as opposed to deciding for themselves what is good writing. And that might well discourage innovation.
MFA programs get accused of this a lot—an absence of innovation, a wealth of mediocrity. But MFA students in this day and age have often been through several years of workshops by the time they get to graduate school. A fear of taking risks can be taught or encouraged very early on.
I’m about to start a new semester of Introduction to Creative Writing. It’s my tenth year at my university. And all this time I’ve stated as one of my goals, on every creative writing syllabus that I’ve ever created, that I want students “to start developing your own aesthetic as a reader and a writer.” I try to encourage this by choosing a range of readings from writers of different backgrounds, writing in different styles. But like many faculty, I’ve fallen into teaching the same stories year after year—especially in the intro class. The ten-year mark seems like a good time to take stock of my own aesthetic, and how I might be over-selling it to students. I know some of my prejudices—I’m wary of overly large plot points, I’m a sucker for a little magic, I worship at the altar of voice—so I think as I finalize my syllabus for the semester, I better look for a story with a big plot, a realist tone, and a near absence of style. Maybe I’ll even try to write a story like that—after all, it’s been awhile since I allowed myself to make such a mistake.
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