Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning From the Worst

I took my first creative writing college course in 1986. I had a really bad teacher. He could be described by many of the clichés as far as bad instructors* go, and yet I learned a lot from him. Some of the lessons he taught were unintentional, but much of his good advice had a solid foundation and he had some idea of what he was talking about.

So, even if you happen to end up in a really cruddy class or you pick up a book on writing and it's, let's say, almost completely wrong, you can still get a lot out of it, and not just the right parts.

For example, that really cruddy teacher? He told me that my writing was outstanding (yay!) and he suggested that I not waste my time in 'genre fiction.'

Though I was a rather impressionable young thing at the time, I silently disagreed. I also didn't argue with him. I did, however, learn that I had talent from someone who disdained my subject matter. Normally writers can't hear praise and focus on the negative, but in this situation I didn't hear the message that my story was crap because it was fantasy. Instead I heard the message that he loved my writing even though he didn't like the story. That was a very valuable lesson, though I didn't realize its importance at the time. I also learned that no matter what anyone said, I would write fantasy. I might have suspected that about myself, but I didn't know until this instructor applied pressure.

I try not to say bad things about books, so I won't name names, but I'm reading a book about writing technique that had a lot of muddy and poorly-illustrated examples to support flimsy points that weren't helping me learn more about writing. I persisted and now I'm in chapters of that same book that are fantastic and will hopefully improve my writing game.

This book inspired this post because the author admitted that he gave very bad advice in previous books and during creative writing courses he taught for various universities. (No, he wasn't my instructor, although that would have been fun if he had been!) I'm learning a lot from him, despite the fact that he's flawed, is occasionally unclear, and has admitted that he (potentially) led impressionable young writers astray. And that's important to realize and accept when we learn anything from anyone. Not everything someone teaches will work for us. And some of the instruction will be absolutely wrong for everyone, including the person doing the teaching. That person, like my first college creative writing instructor, might be working on an insipid, self-absorbed piece of so-called literature aimed at a small section of society he feels nothing but contempt for (this really happened, and as far as I know that thing was never published, thank goodness) but he may be the right person at the right time to talk about the use and abuse of adjectives and adverbs in writing, or active voice, or economy of language, or any of the gizillion things that need to be in a writer's brain working in the background while we take a roller coaster ride on the chemicals zipping between synapses in our brains.

You can learn just about anything from any instructor. Even the worst ones. It may not be the lesson they're intending to teach, but you'll learn just the same. And, there's always the chance that what you think is wrong and awful is actually right and good. You might not know enough yet to tell the difference. So it's important not to rely on one source for learning. More importantly, it's a good idea to look beyond the instructor and focus on the material itself. After all, it's not the teacher who is the focus of your work. Your work is the focus of your work, and the teacher is there to help you decide how to accomplish it, either by way of good example, or sometimes, by bad example.

*The bad college creative writing instructor cliché is as follows: has never published except perhaps a thesis or academic paper, worships 'literature' and disdains all other forms of prose, is ostentatiously well-read and reads all the correct literary magazines (preferably ones you haven't heard of with very small distributions,) helps edit or is senior editor of the university's own literary magazine that no one reads except the contributors, has a small stack of form rejection slips from the New Yorker that collect dust because the writing goes very slowly, and is very sure of self despite limited or zero credentials. Optional: has a substance abuse problem, is involved in an adulterous relationship or a relationship with a student, believes s/he is disliked because s/he is too intelligent to be understood by the common person, and consciously or subconsciously dislikes the characters about which s/he writes (which leads to a rather unpleasant form of writing where the author tortures or destroys that unlikeable character for no apparent purpose).

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