Saturday, January 03, 2009

He Almost Made Sense

Chuck Zaglanis, Rick Moore, and I were sitting around talking about writing. Rick looked at me with his soulful eyes (he keeps them in a breast pocket) and said: "You can tell me how to correct a golf swing over and over, but ultimately the player is the one who has to make the transformation."  Chuck stopped me from throwing coffee at Rick, but I had to admit, it got me thinking.

I have been a member of writer groups and have given feedback to numerous people. A few even talk to me after. But perhaps the issue isn't just a matter of looking at mechanics, but looking at the person and asking the person to examine how they do something. Writing is, after all, an internal voyage. We can criticise and critique the final result, but its the process where the magic happens.

So, is there an element that's missing in critiquing? Of course going to that level of personal transformation is something beyond the relationship most possess with the person whose work they are reading, and the depth of involvement required is beyond what most people are willing to give or receive.

It sounds all too zen, doesn't it. Still, at some level I think I agree. No one changes unless they have to. Telling someone to work on economy in style or theme is meaningless; the person has to make that discovery and internalize it. Someone might be ready for feedback, but others will keep writing, continuing to struggle with the same issues over and over again.

As a teacher, I immediate considered the educational issues with Rick's assertion. If we take his premise and apply it to students struggling through school, then we have to stop and look at the student and seek transformation through the individual and through the family. Again, something that most are not willing to do. If I told a mother "I think you should work with your son to examine those elements in his life that are blocking him from studying and dedicating  himself to the lesson", she would point a finger at me and say: "Be a teacher and teach. If I want psychiactric advice I'll hire a shrink."

So the transformation for many students doesn't occur until later in life, and by then look at how much they've missed. Think about how many people feel they really started learning "after" they left school. As I've said before, school is a small portion of life's experience. Mostly, school only teaches a person how to learn. The bulk of the learning comes afterward, and in many cases, only when the person really feels the need to apply himself or herself to a desired discipline.

I'll end here.  I'm going to go think about this some more, and maybe write an article...sell it somewhere. Pretend I have some insight. I just wanted to free associate and think out loud. Okay. I invite your own interpretations on Rick's statements. I'm going to get asprin.


Anonymous said...

Hi Stewart,
Followed up back from Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin' Blog because I liked your Cruise comment. I saw Valkyrie with reservations, but when I settled into the movie, he was great and became von Stauffenberg. I also enjoyed the post about Saltsman(what a goof!) and the golf swing/education post(very zenish),as an educator myself, you can tell someone all day how to do something, but until they know the rest.
Great blog...I'll be back to visit.

SQT said...

Oh man. This is the kind of post that makes one introspective.

I don't like criticism much but I'll take it when it comes to writing-- especially if I think it'll improve the end result.

Well, let me amend that. I take criticism well if it's from a another writer. If my husband reads something and has a critique I can get snippy because he doesn't read much and he doesn't read the style in which I write. I always feel like he misunderstands what I'm trying to do. But when someone like you, or Charles, or John offers advice, I'm really open to it because I know you understand what I'm trying to achieve. I also respect your talent and I know that you know what you're talking about. It makes a big difference.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Having a writing mentor helps with that inner transformation. Most critique groups or partners are unwilling to invest themselves that deeply in the process of another.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thank you Dot...good to meet a fellow educator.

SQT..I think the issue that Rick brought up is that critiquing can only help address some bare mechanics. His stance was that transformation must come from within. We can WANT to be different writers, we can WANT to change how we do things, but first we must look within and find out what is causing us to write a certain way in the first place.

Now that being said..I am not sure I agree with his statement, although there are elements in there about motivation that sparked my thoughts about education.

L.A...I love writers groups, but recently I've been thinking that for the good of the group and for my own sanity, that it's better off staying away from them. At least for me. As for mentors? I'm all for them. I know that HWA used to have a mentor system. They still may. I think the issue is time. People have full schedules.

I feel I've actually gotten some mentors in the last few years and they've helped me enormously.

SQT said...


The analogy makes me think of advice you get when dealing with family members who are addicts-- you know, about denial, and how people don't change unless they are good and ready. I think that does apply to writing, or any craft, to some extent. I think people will accept criticism when they're ready to admit they need help.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't consider myself terribly bright, but I realized way back in 'school' that school was useful to me. Not at the high school level, but at college. I so wish I could convey that to my students, but you are right. They have to be ready for it.

Akasha Savage said...

I am a member of a writing group...and this small clutch of people are the ones whos opinions I will actually take most on board. But even then a lot of my answers to their comments begin with: Yeah but...

I must admit, over the years, I have learnt (as I mention over at the darkside), that you can't please all of the people all of the time. I can change one element of my story on someone's say so, only to have another person critize the change. Nowadays, if | like what I've written, it mostly stays unchanged.

Akasha Savage said...

Goodness me, we've all gone a bit deep and meaningful haven't we?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles....I think that is the core of the problem we see in education. We are so busy focusing on what is being taught that we lose sight on the student. The problem with a student centered approach is that it sometimes focuses too closely on the student, isolating him from his homelife, treating him as though he comes into the classroom from nowhere.

There is an alternative ed program in is probably the only charter school I respect...its students have to live in the school, removed from families and friends. They are taught ettiquette and social skills. Their graduation rate is astonishing and so is the number of students going onto college and continuing into post grad programs.

Akisha, the issue with so many groups is that you are getting feedback from people who do not necessarily have the educational or writing background to help you. Furthermore, I think that too often we hook up with a group which isn't right for us, mostly because it is the only one available. For instance, if you write horror, or genre, wouldn't it be perfect to hook up with a group where that sort of writing is the focus?

SQT, I think people are threatened by the idea of introspection. So, yeah..usually that sort of confrontation or soul searching only happens when a person is dealing with deep dysfunction .

Rick said...

Don't forget the great metaphor using backswing in golf and backstory in writing. Really. Maybe not.

aubreii said...

This whole entry made a really great point. It's true that one can only really improve their skill or talent if they understand why they need to and how they need to go about it. I can see a writer's group being so beneficial for someone going down this path; I'd like to think it is for me, on some level. But at the same time, I see what you're saying about finding a group of equals, in genre or in a educational sense, for it to be useful for all involved. Very thought provoking!

Stewart Sternberg said...

You know Aubreii...I'm not even sure it's about equals as it's about people who are on the save wavelength. It wouldn't make sense for me to go to a Christian Writers group; they would stare at my horror pieces and mostly likely, some of them, would shake their heads. I don't want to stereotype, but I am using hyperbole to make a point.

In a group where the dominant theme is high literature, where the members are focused on trying to be avante gard, where they are trying to reach that elite core where the audience is those few who read literary magazines or scholarly journals, the genre writer will find himself or herself in a precarious position. It's ironic that on one hand people will express the urge to publish but then they will step back from writing that which most people will read.

People love James Joyce..but I wonder what Ulysseus did for sales against the likes of George R.R. Martin, Caleb Carr, or Peter Straub? People point to "Gravity's Rainbow" as a phenomenal work of art, but broad an audience do think there was for that work of literature?

Is art for the masses? Is it for a select few? Should we be looking for the new Medici?

Steve Buchheit said...

Experience = Something you achieve just after you needed it.

I think critiquing can help, but only if we are willing to change. That type of critique is much harder as it is mostly leading someone by the hand to show them the new world. Although I have had the experience of the Homer Do'h (slap to head), "Now it makes sense" in a critique. This was because the person giving the critique provided the missing link and all the other advice fell into place like tumblers in a lock. I don't think you can plan that sort of thing while giving a critique, it just sort of happens.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Steve, I agree with the importance of critiquing, but I think the issue of transformation is one worth examining. A critique is superficial, it tells you what is done with a certain piece, and it focuses on one thing, but it might not necessarily help address that weakness causing the problem.

Gwendolyn said...

Someone at our writer's group tonight made a wonderful observation: If Faulkner had joined a writer's group, he might have been told to work on the length of his sentences... I think there is a fine line between a writer knowing him/herself, and what works for them, and being able to accept what doesn't work for the reader(s). A quality writer can walk that line and be true to him/herself while gaining in readership. A quality reader, conversely, knows him/herself and what works, and is able to articulate what doesn't and why. Very much like the teacher-student relationship, both the reader and the writer learn from each other in the workshop relationship. There is a lot of power in each of the roles, but only if there is vulnerability. SO... I think the key is trust. A workshop, mentor, or teaching opportunity only succeeds when there is a mutual relationship built of trust, honesty and respect.

I hope you don't mind me commenting, Stewart. I thought the post was extremely insightful and thought provoking.

Virginia Lady said...

And then there's the issue of thinking the person giving the critique is right. If you don't believe they are, no amount of wanting to change will happen.

I've seen it coaching in little league. One coach tells a kid the proper mechanics of throwing, but the kid doesn't listen. Another coach, seemingly more experienced, says the exact same thing, and suddenly the player makes the change.

There's more to critiquing than just giving advice. For everyone involved.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Gwen, I agree. I worked with someone once who wrote incredibly long sentences. I remember taking a deep breath, but when I actually looked at them, I realized they worked and that it was a manifestation of that person's style.

I love the idea of trust in critiquing and talking about the roles in terms of power. That, in my opinion, is dead on.

I was just talking to a student today about trust. I gave him the following definition and asked him to think about it: "Trust is the absence of fear".

The fear for the writer might be that the person is giving him advice for selfish persons or that the person giving the advice doesn't have the skill set that they can rely on.

What has been fascinating to me about the dialogue traveling through these comments is the number of ideas that have emerged. I'm currently focusing on teacher/student motivation for obvious reasons. I have already started outlining an essay on the topic.

And Gwen, your comments are always welcome.

Virginia...if the more qualified coach makes the same observation then what is the factor sparking the transformation? How much of it is truly external? I have no idea. It's the thing about this topic that has my head spinning and which has given me so much foor for thought over the last several days.


spyscribbler said...

Funny about the parent, when home life is SUCH a huge thing in whether or not they learn. One of my parents joked, in front of her daughter, about how she'd heard her daughter's Christmas piece ten million times, hah-hah-hah, so sick of it, giggle-giggle, can't wait until Christmas is over.

Five weeks later, she's calling me and asking me why her daughter has lost all motivation to practice and what can I do to fix it.

Rick said...

Stewart, also, in martial arts, there is a saying among teachers that "if you want a student to learn, teach him one new technique shown from three different perspectives that illustrate how it can be important to that student. If you have a student that you don't feel is ready to learn, instead confuse him with more than three techniques, explaining how important they are in and of themselves."

Writers try to help other writers sometimes by giving them a plethora of techniques, emphasizing how important they are to the craft of writing, instead of showing how important they are to the writer who they are trying to help.

For example- "Economy is critical (fill in the subject writer's name) to writing well. Everyone agrees that without economy, a story can't be good and therefore you must write economically. Your piece isn't economical for the following reasons (fill in the critiquer's personal judgment). This process neglects the writer by referring his or her works to an outside standard and thus too frequently makes very little impact on the writer themselves. The critiquer feels validated and empowered because they have quoted the group canon. The writer feels dis-empowered by having been judged against standards leveled against he or she by "powers unknown." The writer themselves is left out of the process, judged against standards they may or may not legitamitely embrace.

We try to teach students to think; we try to teach writers to follow subjective standards by rote.

I have taught martial arts for twenty years, and I've never failed to be amazed at how often the student is left out of the process. Also, much of the martial arts canon is subjective, but taught as objective.

Great writers don't embrace teachings delivered to them by people quoting the accepted canons, so why do we except average writers to do so?

Again, writers are the source of their stories. Referencing they and their stories to external proclamations about theme, economy, POV, etc has a place in learning, but a unchanged writer will produce the same material they did before we critiqued them.

And learning takes time and pacing in martial arts as well as other arts. We too seldom dismiss lack of progress in writers because we do not develope the empathy with them to see the incremental changes. It is very difficult to develope empathy for a student we are lecturing and referencing to outside standards over and again while leaving them as people out of the learning process.

How's that for economy?

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

Rick, you could have said all that in four sentences, less if you used active voice. : )

Rick said...

Well, yeah, but then I wouldn't have had so much fun twisting the words around to torture Stewart.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Rick, your statement is one big manifestation of a defense mechanism. But let me address "The writer themselves is left out of the process, judged against standards they may or may not legitamitely embrace."

A writer may or may not embrace a standard, but that is completely unimportant. The only standard that matters to publishing is the editor's.

And you write: "It is very difficult to develop empathy for a student we are lecturing and referencing to outside standards over and again while leaving them as people out of the learning process."

Uhm....let's stop and think about something. Again, it depends on the student and to what degree does a teacher have responsibility for that student? When do people take responsibility for himself or herself.

And what about you? What is your take on critique? If you feel that you cannot learn from critiques, then why do you ask for them?????

Rick said...

Chuck- You see what I mean about how easy he is to torture?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Okay, sucker...I'm coming over to your blog...I can't wait to see what depth of pithy we're digging into.

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