This post first appeared on Popcorn the Blog on July 9, 2012. Read it there. Or like us on Facebook!
Never am I more reminded that writing is instinctive than when I teach it. I don’t mean that writing well is innate, a hardwired talent, though often that’s true too. But I mean that good writing relies on feeling your way to the right choice. Since I am one of those people who believes that writing can be taught, I think this is what, ultimately, I’m teaching my students: to make the right choices at the right times. To call on what they know, what they feel, what they sense.
I call this mythical superpower “instinct,” and I reference it all the time when I teach. I often find myself telling a student she has “good instincts” about storytelling or writing a good argument or even grammar or sentence structure; and I urge students to call on their “instincts” when they’re critiquing someone else’s work. Just the other day, a student emailed me. How, she asked, can I give a good critique of a fellow student’s short story when I have no idea what I’m doing?
You do have an idea, I said. You know when something doesn’t ring true. You know when a story feels incomplete. You know when a description isn’t right. Follow your instincts, I said!
Doesn’t it sound empowering? Shazam!
But here’s the thing. When those same stories are staring at me from the online portal that, this summer anyway, is my classroom, I find that instinct helps to this degree: I know what works. I know what doesn’t. Done.
This has always been my challenge with teaching. Teaching is a little bit like standing in front of a room of two-year-olds in the sense that they always want to know why. Why does the comma go there and not there? Um, because, uh, well…because, I want to blurt out, I am terrible at math but I have excellent instincts for grammar and it just does go there, so learn it!
(Instead, I have learned to look up that comma in the grammar book ahead of time and explain why it lives where it does using technical terms they will all soon forget, but which at least give me ethos in the moment. As a teacher, you have to explain your instincts, and I’m pretty sure this has something to do with “norming” and “rubrics.” But I digress.)
This summer, my instinct is being continually tested. I’m teaching fiction writing online, and I’ve just finished reading first story drafts. Sometimes, reading a student story that fits into what I think of as Category A., I feel a great sense of relief. Category A is the story that has a clear and easily identifiable flaw. Clearly the butler, not the boyfriend, has to commit the murder!
The challenge with a Category A is getting the student to come up with this revelation—or a better one! Maybe it isn’t a murder, it’s a car theft!—on her own, using her instincts. So I ask a question like, “what would happen if the boyfriend didn’t actually commit the murder? What would happen then?” (Come on, I’m nudging. Make the best choice.)
The greater challenge is Category B: the student story that just really, really isn’t working. Your instinct tells you so. But you have no idea why. So you read it again. Maybe it’s that the vampire emerges too late in the story? Maybe that the main character is not “round” or “dynamic” but “static” and “flat?” Yes, you think. All of the above. And more. Usually the student writing this story is enthusiastic, vivid, and has a terrible penchant for gore, plus they’ve told you they’re really eager for your feedback. Try as you might to summon your instincts, they’ve gone out for tea. You stare at the page.
That’s when you haul out your toolbox. Because when instinct fails, you have to have a toolbox. In mine: phrases like “Have you asked yourself what your protagonist wants?” and “Try starting in a different place” and “I can’t identify the central tension. What do YOU think your story is about?”
I whip out a couple of those phrases and, by golly, I’ve given something resembling feedback. I’m actually, maybe, understanding what’s wrong after all. The central tension is unclear; I don’t know what the character wants. Shazam, I think. And what do you know if the next story isn’t a Category C? Category C: a story that shows talent. Good instincts, I write. Very good.
I’m sure there’s a lesson here for me, too, not the teacher me but the writer me: when instinct fails, I need to haul out my tools. The more I write, the more I realize that writing is not just about strokes of brilliance or good instincts but hard work and the willingness to try different things. This, I guess, is why I believe writing can be taught: because talent, and even good instincts, only get you so far.
And if you’ll excuse me, I have papers to grade.