Two new experiences

snow on the roof, yesterday

New experience #1: I marked my first assignments this past week. My goal is to reward effort and engagement, as well as skill and effect, and I erred on the side of generous, which is probably a rookie mistake. I have my students handing in a finished piece along with two drafts and discussion of the editing/writing process, with comments supporting their revisions. The projects that showed greatest improvement between drafts were without exception those critiqued by friends or peers. I thought that was interesting, and shows the importance of sharing work, and of editors, even if your editor is your roommate. Even if you disagree, another perspective gives you something to argue against, and more often than not provides insight into weaknessess that are impossible for the writer to see in a time-crunched situation. I explained that I'm very private with early drafts (which are terrible, let's be honest), and I set my work aside for a month or even longer, and then return with fresh eyes; but my students don't have the luxury of time. I have a system of trust worked out: my first reader is always Kevin, who has to say (mainly) nice things, and of course the book never comes near publication without having been first seen and commented on by my agent (who is my second reader), and by professional editors, including copy editors and proofreaders. That's a lot of eyeballs! And I rely on them to lift my work.

Lately I've been happily re-reading favourite books to find stories to share with the class, partly to add variety to the evening (I read passages outloud), and partly to demonstrate the different ways writers successfully do what they do -- particularly in terms of technical considerations. Last night, I read the opening to Eden Robinson's "Traplines," what has very flat, stark delivery and description, with a rare punch of a metaphor to shock the system: the reader is tipped immediately into the action. I wanted to show them that, too. Then I read the opening to Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?," which begins with a long section describing furniture, zero dialogue, no flash, yet is highly suspenseful. How does he manage it? The furniture is outside on a man's front lawn and driveway, set up like it would be inside the house, with everything plugged in, and it's clearly no garage sale. Why? Wouldn't you like to know? Again, even though it's done with seemingly straightforward description, the story tips the reader immediately into the middle of something.

dog crate as end table, in living-room

I find myself talking about plot, especially in stories, as something that can be found most naturally through setting and character, through relationships, through characters' reactions to situations; suspense is created by partial telling, by those bread crumbs dropped on a trail. Too little, and the reader is confused; too much, and the reader is bored. It's a balancing act. A student asked me to provide a rubric for story-writing, but I can't. You can't go down a checklist and write the perfect story. (Besides, forget perfection!) I have the feeling I might not be a great creative writing teacher, in all honesty, because my thoughts on the subject tend toward broad and vague rather than prescriptive, but my goals, as the course has progressed, have changed slightly: I want them to get time to write, in class, because writing is all about practice, and I want them to hear/read good writing.

Yesterday, before class, I read a fascinating essay on Raymond Carver's relationship with his first major editor, whose name was Lish (I've forgotten his first name). Lish, a writer himself, claimed to have rewritten the early Carver stories so thoroughly that he felt he should have been considered a collaborator or even co-author rather than an editor. The essayist, who reviewed archived materials, had to agree that Lish's fingerprints were all over Carver's first two collections, which were lauded for their minimalist style. Carver's style changed in his later collections; not coincidentally, he'd distanced himself from Lish at that point. The essayist felt that Lish's changes (which included actually writing new endings, and removing up to 70% of the original text) strengthened Carver's work -- at least, his early work.

At the end of the essay, for comparison, were two Carver stories: the same story, but very different, and published at different times. The first version ("The Bath") is striking for its brusque almost brutal style: it's short, clipped, and has an ambiguous ending. The second version ("A Small, Good Thing") is more than twice as long, and striking for its flirtation with sentimentality that allows it an ending of enormous emotional power. Guess which one I liked better? Yet it can't be denied that Lish's influence took Carver from obscurity and brought him to a level of fame and success -- and confidence -- that allowed Carver to drop Lish and head off in his own direction.

Long tangent. It's kind of a puzzle, isn't it. What would I do if a student handed in a finished story that had been essentially rewritten by another student? Yikes! Don't do that, students! That's not the kind of editing I'm advocating. And yet, Carver's stories exist and I've loved them ever since I started reading them: does it matter how they came to be? I'm not sure, actually. I found myself wondering if it was Lish I was reading rather than Carver as I read "Why Don't You Dance?" to the class last night, and did Carver have a different version somewhere else that maybe I would have liked better (since I rather like stories that flirt with the sentimental).


New experience # 2: I spent Tuesday evening marking in my office on campus. When I checked my mailbox, look what I found: actual mail! My friend Nath sent me a postcard from England, where she's living this year. I was touched. And excited. And I must admit that I approached my mailbox with slightly more expectation before yesterday's class, but found it once again in its natural state. As an aside, I'm really liking my office. It's a weirdly comforting place to come to. I'm essentially unplugged there, and undisturbed by technology. It has no personality except for that fabulously awful brown easy chair, which I can't look at without thinking "bacteria," but I will miss it when the term ends.

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