Helpful Critique

As I prepare to turn my hand again to writing short stories, I am reminded of the first creative writing course I took. At the time I was in my third year of college. The course was specifically directed at writing the short story. For my first assignment, I dug into my memory, drawing from my experience (limited though it was as a twenty-year old college student) and faithfully followed the dictum: Write about what you know. I have since discarded that rule (I think wisely) in favor of the imagination.

From the well of memory I extracted my experience as a three-year old child of sitting before the small white casket of my baby brother who had died a few days after birth. This was the nexus of my story. The intent was to portray that the little girl had no sorrow, no real tears, only anger at the adult world that did not want to open the coffin so that she could see the baby she had been promised. Of course, it wasn’t a good story. Not much went on except in the head of the little girl. No dramatic tension was created and dialogue probably was scarce. So what help did my professor offer me after he read my story and handled it like “a dry turd,” as Holden Caulfield described his teacher doing in The Catcher in the Rye?

The professor suggested that I read a James Joyce story, supposedly to learn how Joyce handled something similar. I can’t recall the name of the story. “Araby” sticks in my mind, but I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t read the story. I was rather nonplussed, mainly because the professor did not diagnose my problem and gave me no indication how the Joyce story was supposed to doctor my problems.

Why is suggesting that an aspiring writer read a particular author’s work, unhelpful critique? Because the critic has not tried to deal with the story on its own terms. Does he have any idea in the first place what the writer is trying to do in the story? If he is unsure, has he asked the writer about his intent? A writer wants to write his own story, not someone else’s or the story that the reader would like to write himself. Once a critic grasps what the writer wants to do, he can offer advice on ways to better produce those effects. Then he’s not proposing another story  be written, but helping the writer to write the story that he intended to write, but which may have missed the mark.

I am not gainsaying the fact that wide reading helps the would-be writer. When it comes to improving a specific piece of writing, remedy for its deficiencies comes from understanding authorial intent. If the author does not know what the hell he was trying to do, then it’s time to throw that attempt at writing into the circular file and begin from scratch. The thinking that goes on in the head probably is more important and more time-consuming than actually writing the story.

Today I would diagnose my problem as not thinking out my story well enough in my head before I started to write.





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