I’m teaching three writing classes this term, and what this has brought home to me, besides the fact that I need to manage my time better, is the fact that when it comes to writing — or any other endeavor that involves creativity — is that the vast majority of writing students are much better writers than they think. On the first day of class, I ask students to introduce themselves and say a little about why they took the course. Inevitably, most of them say they lost confidence in their writing long ago, but they’ve had an urge to return to it. A lot of them are so terrified of their writing that they don’t want to read their pieces aloud in class. Then I get to read their work myself, and I find a string of delightful surprises. Most of them are great, some of them are astounding, some, I think, are better than anything I could write. If you sign up for a writing class as an adult, chances are you have some sort of aptitude. I don’t sign up for woodworking classes, thinking, “Oh, here’s a weakness of mine, I should really shore that up so that I can be good at every single thing on the planet.” No, I think, oh, woodworking is not really going to happen for me, but I do have some potential with this writing thing.
Probably most of these people are great natural writers who had some fifth-grade teacher tell them they were terrible at it, or a college professor who criticized the rambling style that, it turns out, is exactly what makes them wonderful.
That said, the not-great can improve, and the naturally good can become great, by focusing on some basic elements that make me sigh with delight when I take my red pen to a student’s work:
Specific observations I haven’t heard before. I’ve read a million times about the New York streets smelling of garbage or urine, but someone recently noted a perpetual smell of burnt toast. That’s new and different and evocative.
Focus. Even if I don’t know where a piece is going at first, or even when it surprises me, I still find that when I look back on it as a whole, it stuck with one idea. When I finish, I can look to the start of it and see that while I didn’t expect what happened, it had been there from the start.
Paragraphs or sections that end with a twist. Things seem normal, and then, boom, something just a little unexpected. Then I get used to that, and, boom, I’m going somewhere else again. This can be subtle, and god knows it shouldn’t happen every single paragraph, but that’s what keeps me reading instead of wishing I could check my email or play on Facebook instead.
They teach me things, but not necessarily by stating those lessons explicitly. This is a variation on the old “show, don’t tell,” rule. Don’t tell me that sometimes the obstacles are the best part in life because they make us better people; show me that through a good story that illustrates the age-old idea while surprising me with insight along the way.
Something to relate to. I’m not a gorgeous, debonair, 20-something, single British guy, but when such a person in my class writes about his struggle not to hurt other people’s feelings, I feel it. Even if someone is writing a gothic love story, or a futuristic thriller, the best ones give me something to hang onto — the longing to touch a lover’s beautiful hair, the annoyance of not having any good food in the house for breakfast.
A personality. This is both the easiest and hardest to master, but I think it’s what comes naturally to those most natural of writers. They sound like themselves. We’ve started doing this thing in one of my creative writing classes where we mix up all the papers, then I pass them out randomly so they end up each reading someone else’s aloud. Most of them are shy, and I was getting a lot of terrified stares and silence every time I tried to get them to share their work, so this did the trick. But it also turned into an unexpected game: They love guessing who wrote what, once it’s read out loud. What’s surprising is how obvious it is most of the time. The goth novelist is always obvious, but so is the middle-aged, Jewish mom, and the woman with the deliciously poetic imagery, and the Liverpudlian, and the Israeli expat. That’s not just because of colloquialisms, which of course occasionally tip us off, but more often because of their sentence structures, formal or casual approaches, and subject matter. The best writers are their special-snowflake selves, which is a pretty comforting thought.