“How did you even get into college, let alone this class, with this lack of a writing ability?”
This was a question I once posed to one of my classmates in an “Intro to Creative Writing” class I had taken a year or so ago. The class had been asked to construct a piece of creative nonfiction and present it for a critique. Enrollment was comprised predominantly of students who were taking the course as an elective, considering it was an introductory level. Nonetheless, I still laid into the classmate until the professor cut me off, rightfully so, for my ad hominem attacks. A day or so after my scathing remarks, which went well beyond the first sentence of this article, I began to feel incredibly awful about how I had given such an irreparable indictment.
It’s not that the story was good; and it’s not a matter of subjectivity. The story was poorly constructed and completely lacking any element of synchronicity. That, of course, was no excuse for me to chastise and degrade a classmate, who, as it turned out, was not even an English major.
I came to find this out on the last day of class when I went up to the student who I had verbally lambasted. As they looked up at me in horror, I began to open my mouth and form the beginning of a profuse apology. The student was a forensics major and they were taking the course as a means to improve their writing skills. I felt my cheeks flush red in embarrassment, expecting the student to call me any number of expletives, if not aloof and self-aggrandizing. The student didn’t though. They instead asked me if I wanted to get a coffee. I agreed and we’ve remained acquaintances since.
From that encounter I’ve learned so much about not only myself, but my major. I’ve come to find that majors where the right side of the brain is utilized more than the left rely heavily on personal taste, a.k.a subjectivity. It’s a major where an individual’s ability to create effectively and efficiently makes or breaks your career. Perhaps, most importantly, it encompasses fields where the “artist,” for that is what anyone who creates truly is, must defend their work at all costs.
Since defending your work at all costs is something inherent of genuine writers, artists, animators, and musicians, it is sometimes easy to refuse to listen to advice from the world that exists outside of your own academic bubble. For example, when put into small groups where collaboration and communication were supposed to lead to a better final draft, I would doodle in the margins and secretly roll my eyes as my classmates who didn’t even know when to use quotation marks told me what my story needed to be most effective.
What I didn’t realize then is that you do not have to have command of grammatical functions to be a writer. You do not have to play several instruments to be a musician. An artist is not more of an artist because the paint on their easel is brighter than the one next to theirs. There are no rules to what makes something good. These arts belong to any one who can use them to the best of their ability.
William S. Burroughs wrote of a “sterile and assertive ego that imprisons us as we create,” saying it must be cast out of a field that is dependent on a void of ego. When I realized this, it became much easier to be less critical of my peer’s papers, though I admittedly still struggle in upper-level English courses when some classmates seem to be disinterested in writing anything but sappy, overly sensationalized memoirs.
Perhaps most importantly, that jarring experience nearly a year ago, combined with a rather coincidental Buzzfeed article, helped me become a better student and classmate.
The reader might have also come across the Buzzfeed piece about writing workshops and Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” by Shannon Reed, titled “If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop.”
“Dear Jane,” the critique begins, “I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (also about a road trip — check it out!).”
I won’t lie. I like to think I’m not as sexist and priggish as this “Some Guy in a Writing Workshop” character. Still, parts of Reed’s piece made me cringe in self-recognition. I winced while reading it not only for myself, but for other classmates who now have repute in their major for being overtly sanctimonious.
In a writing workshop, in a studio, in a concert hall, it’s easy (at least for me) to develop the exact tone (superior, amused, hurried) that Reed satirizes here. In a workshop, for example, you’re drafting your response in a hurry, you feel like you grasp profoundly what the writer should have done differently, you have a clever theory about story-making that you want to recount. If only you just say it clearly, you think, your classmate will get it and the story will be so improved.
But you’re scribbling comments fast, just putting down ideas as they come.
The article continues, “So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet?”
Reed’s choice of “Pride and Prejudice” is particularly brilliant (as the subject of this dude’s illadvised advice), because “Pride and Prejudice” is pretty much the perfect story. It can seemingly be translated into any other narrative medium — it can be re-told and re-shaped endlessly. Turn the book into a film or a comic book? Make Mr. Darcy a vampire? It still works.
Two hundred years ago, people in England did not have running water, or telephones, or passenger trains. Darwin and his theory of evolution were still 50 years in the future. Life in Austen’s time, in other words, was almost unimaginably different to our own. And yet, 200 years after Austen created him, Mr. Darcy is still alluring! We appear to respond to the novel’s characters exactly as Austen intended. Thus, literary critics have been able to deem “Pride and Prejudice” an aweinspiring achievement.
The tragedy of Reed’s imaginary workshop guy is that he can’t see any of this. He is busy talking about motifs and motivations when he should be kneeling in awe. He has his own capacity and experience of writing fiction, and he assumes that everyone else shares it: he can’t imagine that he has encountered an infinitely more advanced model of writing. So he subjects it to his own limited take.
This is what makes working in this field, or any field where creativity is at the cornerstone, so frustrating. Obviously, I’m not trying to say that the student’s whose work is judged negatively is the next Jane Austen, suffering their dues before they become the next best-seller. Rather, I’m trying to get to the core of what education should be about — civil dialogue that intends to shed light on the truth. Whether the dialogue is through a symphony or a painting, a novel or even a mathematical formula, as students of the world it is not our place to belittle our peers efforts at uncovering their own truth, regardless of its universality.
So, here’s to the student who keeps on working even when people like myself push them down. May you always stand back up.
Emma Giering is the Voices Editor for The Spectator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org