If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably met this Flannery O’Connor quote: “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” My teachers loved to use these three sentences of O’Connor’s to bolster their sometimes savage approaches to student writing. I’m not a fan of the quote, or the idea that a teacher’s job is to stifle. Writing, after all, is subjective. If a teacher hates your work, it may not be because your work sucks. I hate all kinds of things that other readers love. I find most of the classics tedious and overwrought. Ann Patchett is my favorite writer, though half of her novels don’t work for me, and I get bored by her nonfiction.
When I was in writing workshops, I never savaged anyone else’s work. We were there to learn, weren’t we? I looked for what worked, and tried to encourage what worked to be developed. That was the whole thing. Find what works, and develop that. Writing is a trade; we’re supposed to get better at it. We’re also supposed to take risks. Some of those risks will work, and some won’t work until we have the skills to pull them off. And when you see a work in progress, it’s like seeing someone naked: you had better be kind.
That’s not to say that I’m a judgment-free zone. Years ago, as personnel manager at a bookstore, I was given a huge stack of applications to weed through, and I tossed anything with a spelling or grammatical error. I have an infinite set of pet peeves about writing, and I get upset when people don’t know the difference between possessives and contractions. If someone writes “loose” when she means “lose” I have to stop myself from correcting her. It’s almost a reflex to correct people. But it’s a reflex that I do everything I can to quash.
For me, everything changed when I read Jane Goodall’s biography by Dale Peterson. Goodall is, without question, one of the most brilliant humans of all time. She discovered that chimpanzees use tools and eat meat on her first research trip to Gombe. That was UNTHINKABLE when she discovered it. We had to change our definition of humans after her discovery. Nevertheless, when she began to pursue her doctorate in an effort to give more credence to her science, the gatekeepers criticized her for naming the chimps she was studying. They told her that real scientists are objective. They hated that she was a woman. They hated that she was a terrible speller. They decided that she didn’t measure up to their notions of a scientist. And it was savage.
I read her poorly written letters. I read the many versions of “friend” that she tried out because she just could not spell the damned word. And I realized that hating on people for their grammar or spelling is as shitty as savaging a writer’s work in progress. Or lambasting a student for his attempts at a poem. It’s art! There are rules, but the point is to be moved. And if you are moved by someone who broke the rules, that’s more vital than being bored to fucking death by someone who follows them.
I don’t want to be a gatekeeper. I don’t want to tell other people what they are not. Not smart enough. Not educated enough. Not talented enough. We’re all still learning. My mother had to correct my pronunciation of “machinations” when I was thirty for christsake. If you can’t help someone improve without humiliating them, you’re an asshole.
Is your meaning clear? That’s the first objective. The engine may need work, but you won’t know until you test it.
I make judgments about writing all the time. I love all kinds of stories. Have you ever read Sandra Boynton and not felt your heart lift? What qualifies as good for me, may not work in any regard for you. Like when people tell me they don’t read YA, or watch superhero movies, as though something is only art if it lives at a particular height. There’s beauty everywhere. And natural talent is self limiting. In the end, you have to work hard to improve. Get the work out first, and then get a good editor to help you polish it. Find what works, and develop that. Don’t let people bully you with out-of-context quotes that happen to support their own philosophies. Flannery O’Connor also said: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”