Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Learning from Writers You Don't Like

I teach in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. One of the assignments the students have is to write responses to books by authors they’re not familiar with. I sometimes find that if a student does not connect immediately with an author’s work, the student dismisses that writer offhand. “I just couldn’t relate to this author’s preachy style.” “I found this writer’s diction very stilted and old-fashioned. “I couldn’t see the point of this author’s work.” By painting with such a broad brush, those students could be missing out on an important experience for a writer.

I think we actually have vital things to learn from writers whose work we don’t like. Why bother? Because sometimes the authors we don’t like have exactly the quality, theme, or tone that our work is lacking. Even if we don’t want to write like authors we find uninteresting or distasteful, we may learn from then how to tweak our work so it contains features that we don’t often include in our own writing. I’m not saying we should surrender to the enemy. But I am saying that we should learn why our enemy’s army has better boots.

Here’s an example. When I was in grad school in a writing program, I was studying with the poet Joel Oppenheimer. He assigned us to write a sonnet. At the time, I felt that sonnets were just the most outdated, boring thing a person could possibly write. I didn’t even want to read any more sonnets, except ones that were exploded, unrhymed, free-verse versions of the form, such as Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, with its collaged, Buddhist moments.

I absolutely refused to write a sonnet in Joel Oppenheimer’s class, and that occasioned a heart-to-heart talk from my instructor, which was maybe what I was really after, without knowing it. I could have learned a lot from writing a sonnet in Joel’s class, but I was too stubborn then to realize it. At the time, I was rebelling against traditional verse, to the point where my poems were prosy, disconnected, and self-consciously loose. Sonnets, on the other hand, have tightness, conflict (between the premise stated in the octave and the conclusion in the sestet), and require careful word choice. Writing a sonnet was exactly what the doctor ordered to correct some of the imbalances in my writing. Not that I needed to become a formal poet, but I would have done well to develop certain skills that were lacking in my work. By studying the poets whose writing is opposite from ours, we can often learn to make useful adjustments to our own work. That doesn't mean we're going to prefer writing we don't like—I wouldn't wish that on anyone! But it does mean that we can learn from any writer.

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