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What do you tell young writers? A response to Nick Mamatas.

Although I think of myself as a writer, I am a teacher by trade. The ideal form of education, of course, is to develop the highest intellectual faculties of the students at all times — to be Socrates to each student. There is an optimistic vision of pedagogy (I first encountered it in Postman & Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity, but it goes back at least to John Dewey) that imagines that all teaching, at all levels, should be like a graduate seminar: all topics open-ended, all students doing their independent research, everyone contributing clever, challenging, highly critical perspectives.

It’s great work if you can get it. But one of the things you learn in any profession is that the idealized form of the work is typically not what one spends 70% of one’s time doing. There are so many poorly prepared students in the world (insufficient prenatal or neonatal nutrition, insufficient attention to reading at a young age, lackluster preschool, kindergarten or lower elementary school training, uninspired work at the middle or high school levels) that one often gets college students who are simply unequipped to handle that level of complexity and subtlety. So you give them basic skills, backfill missing knowledge, bring them up to speed, hoping eventually that they’ll get to that graduate-seminar level. Usually they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. This is enormously satisfying work that makes a huge difference in the lives of the students, and I’m proud of myself and my colleagues for our success in doing it. My point is that subtle, sophisticated advice and training isn’t for everyone — or to be precise, it isn’t for everyone yet. I once expressed irritation (at the age of 42) with boring elementary school practices like memorizing multiplication tables and other rote learning, only to be told angrily by my then-boss (a gifted electrical engineer) that without that rote learning he never would have made it to where he was. For beginners, you often need to give simplified, facile, even rote instructions, so that they can gain the basic skills to get to the more complex stuff.

And so it is with the training of writers. At the master-class level, as at the Clarion or Odyssey workshops, one does not give simple rules or facile advice. Every principle has an exception, every rule is nuanced, every discussion is complex. But these workshops have something like a 1-in-6 acceptance rate, based on manuscript submission; the people who get into them are pre-screened for the quality of their prose and their abilities for characterization, plotting, dialogue etc. The advice you would give them is not the advice you would give a novice. A novice needs to unlearn bad habits and learn good ones, so that she can begin to produce the sort of work that would qualify her for master-class training.

This is my primary objection to Nick Mamatas’s (nihilistic-kid‘s) LJ post back in January, “Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers”, in which he purports to burst the bubbles of standard pieces of advice one learns early, such as “Show, don’t tell”, “Write every day”, and “Revise, revise, revise”. He shows how each of them is an oversimplification, that it doesn’t apply to everyone, that it could be positively the worst advice in some cases. He’s really emphatic about it.

Now, at the graduate-seminar level, Nick is absolutely right. None of these principles holds up 100% of the time for someone who is already doing good work, and one would never hear them told without caveats at Clarion — just as you would never tell a law-school student that the roles of the three branches of government are strictly and consistently separate, or that the First Amendment engenders clear rules that can be memorized. (Indeed, you practically never tell a law student anything — you make them argue with each other about it.) But it would be a mistake to try to get middle schoolers to grapple with the subtleties Lemon test or the paradox of “local standards;” they’re not ready for it yet.

The reason writers started telling young writers to “show, not tell” is because so many of them were telling without showing, all the time. The reason they gave the advice to “write every day” is because so many newbies were waiting for lightning to strike before writing a word. The reason they said “Revise, revise, revise” is that the youngsters write their first draft and send it off without a second look. (Nick’s post tacitly acknowledges this in his puncturing of another piece of advice, “Write a million words of crap.”) They have, in other words, inculcated a series of really bad habits that will, if left uncorrected, permanently hamper their ability to do quality work.

Once you get the young writer to start writing regularly, whether or not she’s inspired by the gods that particular day; once you get her to begin demonstrating the truth of things via the experience of the character, rather than through essays by the narrator; once she’s able to practice putting the layers upon layers that come with revision instead of assuming that whatever came to her the first time is perfect — once she’s shaken off those crippling habits, you can then pull back and say, “Okay, now you know that the ‘show don’t tell thing’ isn’t always true, right?” (I remember having that very conversation with Stan Robinson at Clarion.) All things in their season. One step at a time. Don’t assign graduate work to a seventh grader.

What irritates me about Nick’s post is the same thing that irritated my boss about my blithe remark concerning multiplication tables. It’s the sort of thing that comes out of the mouth of a sophisticated, experienced, skilled writer who believes that anyone can do what he has done if she just pays attention. It is the dismissive attitude of the clever and quick towards the slow and pondering. It is the very attitude I myself had (as a privileged, exquisitely well-educated, over-intellectual, upper middle class white boy) before I became a full-time teacher and saw how things were for most students. It isn’t that Nick is wrong — at my level, he’s right — it’s that he doesn’t seem to see the steps aspiring writers need to go through.

Read Nick’s post when you’ve got some experience under your belt and are confident in your abilities and skills. Meanwhile, those simplistic rules are just fine.

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