One of my stronger fiction students approached me a few weeks ago and told me that he wasn’t sure how to actually make his writing better- and did I have any advice? He had just had a piece work-shopped, and the class had raved. His piece was clear, and easily followed. He used a nice level of detail, and wrote believable dialogue. So his piece was workshop-proof, it seemed, meaning that a lot of the basic suggestions of workshop: Slow this Down! Give us More Description! Make it Clear What is Actually Happening! were not relevant to his piece. I told him two things. The first was that he wrote good sentences, but that he was not yet writing sentences that were entirely his own either. He is a Raymond Carver fan, so we discussed how Carver’s sentences were different than any other writers. I also told him that not everybody always needs to die in stories, something that happens in his piece, and that sometimes making them stay alive and deal with their problems yields more interesting fiction. He nodded, and wondered off, leaving me standing on the sidewalk unsure whether I’d answered his question.
And it’s something I’ve been pondering for a few weeks now. We’ve been having more discussions in class about what makes a story a good. We’ve been talking about how great writing has a surface, like paintings, that it is beyond clear and detailed prose. But I wonder if I’m not missing something. As a teacher and an editor, I know the difference between a piece that gets a gold star in workshop and one that actually gets published, but how to help my students transcend that gap? How to really make them push their own boundaries? I’ve often thought good writing can be taught, and people saying otherwise might be slightly overestimating their innate abilities, forgetting they weren’t raised in a box, but in terms of really great, heart-stopping writing, I admit I’m at a loss on how to teach it.