Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Corrections, or, Impassioned Red Pen

This post is coming to you live from a writing marathon that I am participating in today...and it seemed timely, so I thought I would throw it in here and move on. Had a bit of a hiccup with my writing self-esteem last night, but as with any great challenge, you can let it stop you or use it for good. So I'm using it for a blog topic.

I have never known many readers or writers in my circle of friends, regardless of where I've lived. Back in the States most people are either armchair sports or movie fans, and here the primary focus seems to be technology (says the girl with the Kindle) and socializing. There are book clubs, but the time spent on the books themselves seems cursory--"let's get on and talk about our lives." I am surrounded on busses and trains by people who read, but they are reading--who wants to discuss with a spur-of-the-moment stranger? This was part of the reason I went back to college as many times as I did--that, and with most literary dialogues outside of the classroom people are sometimes talking to sound smart and not to freely exchange ideas. If someone walked into one of my college classrooms with that agenda the professor usually cut them off--we're not paying good money so that one person can hear their own voice. Something that also fascinated me about critiques in the classroom vs critiques in a book club is that in the classroom if you are dealt a crappy book, you make the best of it. If you are dealt a crappy book in a book club you either don't show up for the discussion, don't participate when you do show up, or diss the book the entire time in response to passages others were passionate about.

There were several books that I adored in college, particularly in my upper level classes. I got lucky--I had an advisor who had nearly the same tastes in books that I did. He was just different enough to lend challenge. Occasionally he picked a book that stopped me short--like choosing Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier." He recognized the fight of that book, and at our first discussion session he asked, "Okay, who wants to throw this book as hard as they can against the wall?" My hand shot up and my face had frustration written all over it. "Ooookay...so WHY do you want to throw this book against the wall?" And so began the study of a book I hated and a story and discussion that I loved. In a book club we probably would have never known the effectiveness of the why, whether it rooted for the negative or the positive. In the classroom we learned out loud, and had a dialogue.

Strangely, I can make a similar comparison in my writing courses and writing experience. My best writing teachers guided me to write a better message and recognized what I was trying to say, without stopping me on syntax, grammar, and spelling. As difficult as it is to believe now, I used to shine at mechanics, so if I missed something it wasn't monumental. I don't think my instructors were ignoring my mistakes (like they weren't going to ignore my dislike of a book I was assigned to read)--I think instead they recognized that the message was important to acknowledge and develop first, and then we'll repaint the ship with mechanics. They knew that I was only human--dangling modifiers escape us all occasionally. On the flip side, some of my worst writing teachers didn't want to address my grasp of concept and instead dwelled on whether I ended the f-in' sentences with prepositions. Forests vs. trees. In addition to repainting the ship before it was fully built, these instructors would flog me publicly for such mechanical errors--"Look world! She says she is a good writer, but she changed tenses in the third sentence! Send her to the gallows of failure!" That kind of behavior made me never want to write for that person again.

Which brings me to the second part to this sequence, which is non-writer and non-reader impressions of me as a reader or writer.

For nearly all of my life, even when I was a child, people have avoided sending me written messages of any kind. When I ask why, I get the response that they think I sit on my end of the exchange with a fat, brightly- or brazenly-inked pen and mark all of their mistakes on the page. Hardly. Mind, I DID do that briefly during my studies getting my Associates degree, but I found that people I did that to (including, I'm ashamed to say, my mother) stopped writing to me. I craved written words like water. So I stopped the critiques of letters and e-mails and just gazed at the picture, happy with it regardless of syntax. People still think, though, that because I am a writer I will correct their mechanics. Simply by being a writer I am, in their eyes, in a default position of written perfection.

Not by a long shot, obviously. And I don't even strive to be that way. I strive to be an accessible artist.

The same thing goes for my reading choices. I do get a lot of reading suggestions, but others hesitate to suggest something because a) they feel that I'm going to laugh at them, or b) that I won't be able to understand their sophisticated choice. Again, I can understand the misconception--an intense reader of literature is the fullest form of story snob--but I read mainstream stuff too. Harry Potter, Carl Hiassen, Dennis Lehane...etc. Do I like crime? Do I like mystery? Do I like fantasy? Not as a rule. Do I like the character of Harry Potter? Honey, I'm in love. Do I like the works of Dennis Lehane? Nobody tells a story like him. I won't be limited by genre and I won't avoid pieces within a genre, either. I just want a story well-told.
I find, too, that I gravitate to authors and readers who want accessibility in the story and can overlook a flaw or two in the mechanics for the moment. Can this person relate? Or are they looking for a reason to be superior or dismiss someone?

If you can relate, dear reader...keep reading and writing. My red pen is never used for correction, unless you want me to use it on you, and I will read a dime store novel if the plot keeps me.

Carry on.

1 comment:

mike of concrete said...

Interesting post. Thank you for sharing.

I've pretty much vanished from Goodreads because I do think of other readers in exactly the way you describe -- my list of GR friends is just long enough that now I'm unwilling to own up to reading, well, anything, for fear of my reading choices seeming offensive, risible, or geeky.

I imagine a vast Venn diagram of readers. I'm willing to own up to reading anything that falls in the intersection of what I think they'll find "acceptable." But increasingly I think of a book, and I debate putting it in GR, and I think, "no, so-and-so will think it dumb / outlandish / inside-baseball" and so nothing gets put up.

I'm glad to know that I can make your Venn circle bigger. But I still have a perception problem. Or, a perception of perception problem.