As you can tell I again was unable to make it to the poetry reading tonight. Next week I’ll get back on track with readings every Tuesday. This week, to make up for it, I wanted to share a piece I did almost three years ago now. Behold, my first and thus far only attempt at erasure:
As you can tell, I whited out the name on top, but the version of this I have framed still includes said name.
The story behind this goes as such: while taking a Creative Writing class, I was also taking Approaches to Comparative Literature, in which we explored many of the different ways people might approach analyzing literature. One of the essays we read was “On Erasure” by Mary Ruefle, and after reading that short essay I became somewhat entranced by the idea of erasure. I wrote at least one essay about it (which I would share if I still had a copy — alas, it would seem I do not) and I referenced it in both my Nomad essay and my honor’s thesis.
As I said, this happened around the same time that I was taking my 300 level Creative Writing class, a requirement for my minor and one of my favorite classes. The idea of the Creative Writing classes is that they’re a workshop: instead of turning in a story and just being graded by the teacher, you turn in a story and everyone in the class gets a copy. They all read it, write notes on the copy they have, and write a one page response commenting on the story. The idea is that the feedback helps the writer revise their story, and giving feedback acts an exercise to help the writer’s peers, who are also writers themselves, figure out how to identify why works, what doesn’t, and why.
So why did I desecrate something so useful? Because this was literally the most useless feedback I ever received, and I’ve taken a lot of Creative Writing classes.
In these responses what you are ideally doing is detailing to the author what you liked about the story and why it was working so that they can know what was working in their story, and on the flip side you give constructive criticism. Typically my constructive criticisms took the forms of asking clarifying questions about character/motivation/story arc, pointing out things that didn’t make sense or word choice that wasn’t working, etc.
The writer of this response managed to not do any of those things. To be clear: it’s not that she was critical (I can take critical, and often welcome it when it comes to my writing — how else am I supposed to get better?) and it’s not even that she was mean. She was critical, but not mean about it. It’s just that the form her criticism took was entirely unhelpful to me.
First, she summarized my story to me. Summarized. My own story. To me. This is a big no-no in a workshop like this, as the author of the story obviously knows what he/she/they wrote about and summarizing their story for them is a waste of your time and theirs. Plus, it makes it super obvious that you’re just trying to fill up the space without saying anything of any merit.
Second, she couldn’t give me much more feedback than “I didn’t like the characters” and “I was uninterested in the story.” Why is this bad, you might ask? Let me tell you: as a writer, when you say these things to me, it means exactly NOTHING. You don’t like my characters? Cool story bro, you don’t have to. It’s not the job of the author to write likeable characters, it’s the job of the author to write interesting characters. For more on this, let us turn to the ever-wise and ever-eloquent John Green:
“I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make you’re brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.”
As far as why she being uninterested in my story goes, you might inquire why this unhelpful if I’ve only just finished saying that my job as a writer is to write something interesting. The reason is that she gave me no concrete reason as to why she was disinterested in my story, meaning that I had nothing to work off of in order to make the story more engaging during revisions. If you ever find yourself in a writing workshop and you’re tempted to tell one of your peers that you just don’t find their story that interesting, that’s all fine and good as long as you can give them examples of what bored you, or at least areas they might be able to work on. Don’t tell them how to spice up their story to better fit your tastes, rather learn the art of asking leading questions. This provides the author an opportunity to consider those questions and come up with answers on their own. Their answers may not be what you wanted them to be, but at the very least the author will have something concrete to work with which will enable them to make their writing better. Otherwise, we have to assume that this just doesn’t fit your personal preference for no particular reason and it is very easy for us to shrug and say, “There’s no accounting for taste.”
Now that I have turned this post into a mini tutorial for Creative Writing classes/workshops, I’ll go ahead and wrap up with this: if you have the opportunity and means to take a class or a workshop, do it. I would never have learned how to revise without those classes, and the feedback you receive can help you develop the thick skin you’ll need to cope with all of the rejections you’ll inevitably receive while seeking publications.
If you get feedback that’s just plain stupid…make art with it.