Talking about writing, characters, humanity


In creative writing classes, people say many things that make little to no sense. It turns out that, no matter how much someone loves to read and write, most people are ill-equipped to talk about writing (want proof? Read Billy Collins’ poem “Workshop”).

It’s easier to talk about craft in those lower-level composition classes. You can discuss an essay’s arguments and structure—at least how screwed up the works cited page is. With fiction and poetry, however, so much is subjective. So much is style. So much is subversion.

Learning how to analyze one’s writing, diagnose the problems, and prescribe a treatment is one of the most important things you learn in creative writing workshops. It’s almost as important as putting words on the page. And you don’t learn it all right away.

This past spring, I re-took Intro to Creative writing as a Teaching Assistant. It was a rewarding albeit peculiar situation. I wrote in the class on the same schedule as the other students, though my page counts were twice as high as my mostly freshmen and sophomore classmates. However, teaching was part of my grade, and while the professor was away, I sat behind the desk and gave my two cents about Barthelme’s “The School” or Junot Díaz’s “Fiesta 1980.” But my two cents aren’t the two cents that matter here.

Students from that intro class invited me to read in November. I read my new short story:

Students from that intro class invited me to read in November. I read my new short story, which you can read by clicking on this photo.

A story I wrote for class had some dopey characters, a family called the Murdy’s. They had taken on an exchange student, who was actually tricking them. The family try to address her culture in intelligent ways, but fail incredibly. Their failures seemed slightly mean spirited to some people in the class, and also to my professor. As someone who does know how to talk about writing and crafting stories, he gave me his two cents:

There’s a difference between letting characters do stupid things that we can laugh at and singling them out to mock them relentlessly.

It made a lot of sense in the context of my story—and a lot of sense in life. Mercilessly hounding characters, showing how stupid or rude they are, shows that the writer hasn’t tried hard enough to understand the characters. It shows that the writer only cares about the hero’s humanity.

In the real world, we know that no one is all bad, all terrible. Like Kurt Vonnegut wrote about studying anthropology in Slaughterhouse V:

Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know—you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’

I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.

Writers have to treat characters like people who do stupid things but have motivations and reasons. (Vonnegut also said that every character should want something, even if it’s just a drink of water.) That doesn’t mean we can’t have a good laugh. But like students still figuring out how to talk about writing—we have to learn to do it right.


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