Thursday, August 13, 2009

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

“High-school and college teachers of “creative writing” (what other kind is there?) often are too gentle with their students. Their idea is that students should be encouraged to write, no matter what. In the early stages, writing may be a joy, as long as you don’t realize how badly you write. When you find that out, it becomes painful. But students really want to know what’s wrong with their writing. Patting them on the head for everything they do is a mistake; it merely frustrates the students, because they sense they are not getting any better.

I bring all this up in order to warn you that in studying technique you may go through a period when you have lost sight of the things that made you want to write in the first place. The joy will be gone…”

From Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction
By Damon Knight

I quote these passages from the craft book I am currently reading, because now I can identify what I have been going through since starting school in January. I feel like I am forced to put my nose in my own shit. All the critiquing that goes on focuses mainly on what I do wrong, as I should, I guess. I mean why did I go back to get my MFA? It certainly wasn’t to get the proverbial pat on the head. But the problem I have is, I am a teacher of writing who believes that when I approach my students I must come from a place of believing versus doubting. A place of lets see what you have done wrong in your writing, but more importantly, what you have done right. Help you amp up what’s right and help you fix what’s wrong.

But all the critiquing of my work coupled with all the study of craft has taken the wind out of my “believing” sails. I don’t approach my work from a place of believing, but rather a place of doubting. At first, from January until July of this year, first semester, all it did was kill my writing ideas and spirit. I kept rewriting the same shit over and over, saying not what I wanted to but these dribs and drabs of shit I didn’t believe, shit I didn’t like. I don’t know why…The thing was, I never stopped writing, even when it all felt wrong. Even when I wanted to quite school. It was only my tenacity that kept me going because it certainly wasn’t my love for writing.

Then I had a shift…recently, after I came back from our summer residency and began second semester. It was subtle…it wasn’t prompted or triggered by anything in particular. I just was writing, in that same kind of stuck way for a while, and gradually the stuckness gave way and the critical voices in my head just faded….Instead, I just heard my story, and when the voices would return and try to cloud the story or muffle the story, I just would stop writing, and I would just ask them to quiet down a minute so I could hear my story.

I began to not take all the criticism, the voices in my head, personally. I began to focus on the criticisms that resonated and dump the stuff that didn’t. I began to approach my work from a new kind of believing versus doubting, a believing in my self.

So when I think about the passages above, about where I was, and, still, at times, where I might drift off into, I think about how it’s the intense focus of craft and writing– the very things you are supposed to do to become better– that are also the things that can kill you…but only if you take it all too personally. After all, how does a ballet dancer get better? Study and practice, and they fall down a lot. The get injured. They even take a break sometimes if the injury is too serious, but over all, they never stop.

I never stopped.

1 comment:

Joanne Carnevale said...

Very interesting to see the subtle change in how you describe this MFA journey. Previously I thought: If you find it so demoralizing, how could I ever do something like that? Now I'll be reading with renewed curiosity because I foster a perception that your story is a barometer for what mine would be like if I ever do it. Of course, that's a very big IF. Rock on, my friend. I will certainly do the happy feet dance when you get that MFA.