Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nearly Cross-eyed

This week is marking week (or grading, if that's what you call it). Giving students a number or a letter for their writing is always a tricky business - after all, I'm not a publisher, so how will my HD or Credit or 15/20 really have any bearing on what a publisher might accept? But it does, somehow. As a professional writing teacher, part of what I am supposed to know is the elements of good writing. I would hope also that I recognise great writing when I read it. The one thing I try not to be is subjective. Therefore, although a horde of really bad vampire novels from students a few years ago completely turned me off the genre, if a current student wants to write a vampire novel, I'll give it my best as a teacher in terms of comments and constructive critiquing. I must say, though, that anyone who still doesn't know how to use commas and fullstops after two years drives me nuts!

One of my favourite quotes is "All the colleges in the world cannot turn a bad writer into a good one. But good teaching can teach you how not to write." Alistair Cooke. I've seen quite a few students over the years who have started out as fairly ordinary writers, but worked hard and eventually found their own voice and style, and then surged ahead in terms of producing very good writing. I've also seen students who have talent and can write terrific pieces, but don't have the persistence and stamina to complete a whole novel, or even rewrite a short story to a publishable standard.

It's as if they thought it would happen like magic - that they'd come into the course, write a few gems that would gain instant acclaim, and then a novel would appear. Without having to actually sit down for hours and days and weeks and write the darned thing, of course, or (heaven forbid) rewrite it several or a dozen times. I've also seen one or two talented poets who have written some great poems that everyone has raved about, they've had a couple published in magazines, and then decided they don't need to rewrite anymore, or even take much notice of comments. And their poetry has started to die on the page and become messy or unfocused.

After a whole year of working with three classes (an average of 40-50 students usually), it's interesting to sit back at the end and think about each student and where they might be heading and what they'll do next. There are some who never surprise me - a couple of years later I meet up with them and they're often doing some job like shop assistant or takeaway cook. Nothing wrong with that, but they're not writing either.

So it's this time of year also where I ask them - how are you going to keep writing after you graduate? Who is going to make you write? No one. No one except you. If you want to be a writer or a poet, now you have to set your own goals and deadlines, practise your craft, read widely, and continue to feed your inner writer with words and images and writing. Self-discipline and perserverance are the hardest skills to acquire and, in the long run, may well be the most valuable. Your writing will continue to improve, forever and ever, if you feed it regularly and write on a regular basis.

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