Heart to Chart: Helping Students Visualize Our Responses to Their Fiction
Donald Secreast | May 2014
At some point in a creative writing class, a teacher must talk to a student in fairly concrete terms about the flaws in his or her writing. I prefer to conduct these serious evaluations as a personal conference in my office. As a rule, I ask students to sit through at least one workshop critique of their writing before we schedule our first individual conference. However, I have been in workshops that require students to confer with the teacher prior to each workshop in which the students’ work will be critiqued. My own workshop experience leads me to believe that graduate students benefit more from the pre-workshop conferences while undergraduates respond better to the individual conferences after they have had a chance to review responses, both oral and written, provided by their classmates.
Ideally, I like to stay away from assigning letter or number grades to individual assignments, particularly in the early stages of our workshop. I’m a serious advocate of all creative writing classes being taught on a pass/fail basis. For administrative reasons, my own institution insists that undergraduate classes must have a definite grade attached to them. Consequently, I use the portfolio method for arriving at students’ final grades. To get students’ work ready for their portfolios, I spend a great deal of time in my fiction writing classes working as an “editor,” engaging in a fairly close reading of the students’ drafts, providing a great deal of marginal comments and a summarizing evaluation at the end of each writing assignment.
In preparing students for my close reading and marking, I discuss with them at the beginning of the semester what I consider the three main sources of every narrative: their identity or their personal experiences, their writing style, and their sense of story. To help them visualize the relationship among these three basic elements, I provide them with a Venn diagram, to which I will add a few modifications during our discussion of my evaluation philosophy. Depending upon a teacher’s personal grading requirements, the modifications can carry an implied grade value or they can simply be attached to subjective evaluative terms.
The largest element of the diagram is the circle that represents a student’s identity, what I refer to in our conferences as the ego-centric quality of the writing. Obviously, this section includes their personal histories, their psychological development, their memories, their dreams, aspirations, fears. During this discussion, I try to emphasize that good fiction must engage the reader on some level. Because most students have already heard, possibly from their freshman composition classes, that the best writing comes from their own experiences, I insist that they ask themselves to consider what part of their own lives will be entertaining enough to engage a few thousand strangers who are trying to decide whether they will read this story by an unknown writer or just turn on the television.
Certainly, most of us who have written stories or who want to write stories do not lead highly adventurous lives. Fortunately, the most adventurous events do not necessarily provide the highest form of literature. One writer who makes an extremely clear distinction between purely entertaining or slick fiction and “literary” or serious fiction is Rust Hills in his book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. According to Hills, plot-driven fiction is always going to be somehow inferior to character-driven fiction.1 Importantly, student writers need to understand that even when writing out of their own experiences, they must recognize the vital role that other people must play for them.
All too often, when students begin constructing a plot, they confuse what genuinely comes from their own experience with something they have picked up from a secondary source in their lives—television, movies, literature. Although I permit students to write the sort of fiction they most like to read, I usually run into problems with students who want to write genre fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, vampire fiction, and most recently, zombie fiction. Paradoxically, the difficulties usually occur because students have read either too much of the literature or not enough. If they have read too much of the literature, their own stories might feel very derivative. If they haven’t read enough of the literature, they run the risk of writing a story that’s already been done—and done quite well by someone else.
Essentially, I try to get students to see in the course of our discussion that the basis for writing an engaging narrative is to bring something new to what they’re writing. Practically all writing textbooks point out the limited choices writers have when it comes to choosing plots. From early Russian Formalists to Latter Day Structuralists, the actual number of different plots is relatively limited. To provide the sense of newness that will distinguish their stories from all the other stories available to readers, beginning writers should put more effort into collecting or creating engaging characters. A writer has a better chance of catching a reader’s attention with an unusual person than with a somewhat familiar plot. This is the reason why writing teachers, despite all the potential pitfalls, should continue encouraging students to explore that abundant material within their own experiences.
However, when we assure students that they should turn to their own minds, hearts, and memories in the process of collecting raw material for their stories, we need to warn them about thinking of themselves as literature’s greatest source of interest. Even accomplished writers can succumb to the dangers of egocentricity. Despite the ongoing debate over the usefulness of writing workshops, they do provide one indisputable service to every writer: workshop participants are forced to look at their work through the eyes of other readers. While the occasional egomaniac might endure a workshop and come away convinced that all of his colleagues are idiots, a much larger number of students do learn, to varying degrees, about putting some aesthetic distance between themselves and their own writing.
The second element of the Venn diagram, style, provides another avenue through which a student can bring newness to his or her fiction. Obviously, style is almost as complex an element as identity. From word choice to syntax, from scene construction to paragraph logic, from rhetorical strategies to manufacturing metaphors, style provides a student the quickest access to establishing a distinct voice. In many ways, style can be used to regulate the wayward tendencies of the identity element. Style can rescue the unique from the generality. Style can separate the individual from the type. It can distinguish the mysterious from the confusing. Style determines the memorable.
Of the three narrative elements, style most lends itself to being taught. In the Venn diagram I refer to during my conferences with students, the circle of style is referred to as method-centric. For purposes of discussing student performance, I prefer the term method-centric to style because for beginning writers, referring to their style often feels more personal than referring to their methods. Fundamentally, most beginning writing students are still trying to discover their style. If I tell a student that his or her style is rough or confusing, I can easily come across as condemning that student’s talent. On the other hand, if I require students to think about their writing as a true process by referring to a particular method on this specific occasion, then my criticism partakes in the process of improvement. In other words, style—like voice—must be viewed as a goal, while method is the process for reaching that goal. For all practical purposes, method lends itself better to describing a student’s developing awareness of his or her writing.
Very early in his discussion of linear narrative in Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell convincingly argues that fiction writing workshops should not be confused with therapy sessions. How we collect our experiences and process them is much too deeply a part of who we are to give it over to a workshop experience.2 It’s such a messy endeavor to descend into those drippy dark mental passageways of reconstructed emotion that we are willing to pay psychiatrists, preferably with plumbing experience, huge fees to guide us through them. Many fine writers have learned all they needed to know about style simply by reading widely and carefully. I always require my students to buy at least one book for our fiction class: Heidi Pitlor’s annual anthology The Best American Short Stories. At the back of the book, the authors describe how they came to write the stories that have been chosen as the best by Pitlor and her guest editors. Frequently less than a page long, these discussions of how specific stories have come into being tend to emphasize method over inspiration, composition rituals over psychoanalytical exploration, and vocabulary over free range imagination.
Another book about writing that argues compellingly for the importance of basic literary skills is Stephen King’s On Writing. Although King does spend a great deal of time probing his own psychological theories about why he writes so obsessively, he takes a very clear stand on the importance of reading—and reading widely--if one wants to be a writer. Students who do not hesitate to tell their writing teacher that they aren’t really all that interested in reading but still want to be famous writers are compelled to reconsider their assumptions when Stephen King insists, “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.”3 Equally satisfying to every writing teacher is the time that King dedicates to discussing the importance of proofreading, rewriting, and editing.
I like to use Stephen King as a transitional figure in moving from the element of style or method to that third and most difficult element of fiction: the sense of story. Obviously, the “story-centric” element sets fiction apart from all the other forms of writing. Yet, writing teachers must remind students that poems and plays can also tell stories. After all, drama theory, starting with Aristotle, still shapes what many editors expect from any story’s plot. I feel very strongly that all fiction writing teachers need to spend at least two or three class meetings clarifying for students what Aristotle’s Poetics really has to say about constructing a story. All too often, students have a very limited concept of what conflict means. Frequently, they come to a writing class assuming that a good story must be about drug deals going bad, a close relative dying, or someone being abused as a child.
To understand the typical student writer’s basic sense of plot, a teacher must understand the student’s fascination with death. Next to death, students see the most profound drama in destruction. And after destruction, they are drawn to the drama of loss. Of course, anyone who has read a great deal of classic drama can’t help but realize that on a certain level, students actually do have a grasp of story dynamics. Unfortunately, their natural appreciation for conflict gets diluted by their own inexperience with reflecting on their personal experience. What happens then in students’ stories about death is that they neglect to process the event effectively. If they have had a grandmother or uncle or best friend who has died, the event, which they hold as something sacred, will resist all the devices of art and come off sounding more like an essay or a newspaper account. In contrast, if a student has no personal experience with death, then he or she will likely resort to deaths witnessed on television or in a movie.
On more than one occasion, students have asked me what’s so wrong if a story’s account of someone’s death does sound like a newspaper article. After all, newspaper accounts of events can provide a daily source of fiction material. At this point, we should come to our first seriously important understanding of “story.” In order to even think of an event as a piece of fiction, the writer must have worked some sort of change upon the occurrence. In and of themselves, facts are not stories; events are not stories; ideas aren’t stories; memories are not stories. Not in and of themselves—not without structural and thematic changes that shift the facts or events into a larger and more layered narrative movement.
Years ago, in one of the worst classroom experiences of my teaching career, we were discussing a student’s story based on a true event that happened when she was a high school senior. In the final quarter of the homecoming football game, a close friend of hers on the football team died during a play. Clearly, the event, which had occurred three years earlier, still provoked strong emotions in the writer. She had provided details of her school’s homecoming preparations, the anticipation of the game with their major rivals that night, the popularity of her football player friend, the tension of the close-scoring game, and the shock of the young man’s death. Nevertheless, despite the details and the death, the sense of story was missing. Her narrative would have made a wonderful newspaper account, I pointed out, but it wasn’t fiction.
In a defensive maneuver very familiar to most writing teachers, my student replied, “But that’s the way it happened!” At this point, I should have recognized that the young woman was warning me I was about to trespass on sacred ground, but I chose to ignore her state of mind because this was an advanced fiction writing class, and all semester long, I’d been telling the students that I did not accept “the way it happened” argument as a valid substitute for aesthetic processing. Besides, this student had taken my introductory fiction writing class in a previous semester, and I felt somewhat betrayed by her resorting to what she had to know was my least favorite explanation. Unintentionally, I wound up reducing my student to tears and alienating a large number of the other class members.
Now, after a few years of working through my own guilt, I try to be sensitive to where particular classroom discussions are carrying us. Certainly, I try to anticipate such problems in pre-workshop conferences. From the very beginning, I warn students, especially in the introductory fiction writing class, that they should choose their story ideas carefully. If they write about an event that troubles or disturbs them deeply, they might want to refrain from having that piece discussed by the workshop. Then I tell them about the death of the football player story because I want them to understand that fiction is not about taking the reader into the author’s private world. Fiction is about toting the author’s private world out into the public world. In a workshop, the writing process functions more like a yard sale than a confession booth. For the most part, readers—especially college readers—do not want to be breathless witnesses to our rawest emotional moments. They are more like bargain hunters who will inspect our literary wares and then ask us what we’ll really take for this insight or that literary observation.
The sooner students learn to think of plot sources as raw material that must be transformed and manipulated rather than as personal experiences that they want to share, the sooner they will actually begin to create fiction. Once they achieve the aesthetic distance from their own egocentricity granted to them by a conscious application of literary devices, they will see story telling as essentially an exercise in subordination. In fiction, scenes should not be linked by and. The true linking principle should be then with its implied escalation of consequences. In addition, those underlying thens need to create a narrative instability, what John Barth once described in a class discussion as “a sort of literary homeostatic field theory.”4
To help students visualize Barth’s theory of constructing a story with the idea of each scene adding more and more instability to the narrative structure, I bring in a set of building blocks, although any collection of items that can be stacked will produce the same effect. I tell the students to think of each building block as an individual scene. When I stack the first three or four blocks, most students don’t see the point of the demonstration. However, after about the fifth or sixth block, the class realizes that the stack has begun to sway. At this point, they realize that I’m creating an unstable structure. Here, I point out to them, is the essential element of structural tension that Aristotle talks about in Poetics. The basic question in any dramatic situation is “Which scene is going to introduce the incremental instability that will finally cause the whole story, the whole world of Oedipus or Lear or Ishmael or Bigger Thomas to collapse?” That’s what the climax of a story really is, after all: when the catastrophe finally occurs.
Another possible visual presentation of how to create tension or escalating dramatic pressure in a story can be developed by asking students to think of each scene as a water pump. Into the first scene, the author squirts his or her main characters. Through events or the actions of other characters, pressure is applied to the main character. Everyone who has read Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian has witnessed one of the most meticulous dramatic pump actions in literary history. A young woman, Jeanie Deans, travels from Scotland to London to try to get the king to pardon her sister, Effie, for getting pregnant out of wedlock. (Effie is being held in the grim prison in Midlothian, awaiting execution because she refuses to tell the authorities the name of the man who got her pregnant.) Eventually, the pressure in scene one reaches such intensity that the main character gets squirted to a pump of higher pressure in scene two. More pressure is applied until the main character gets squirted into scene three. This process is repeated, dramatic tension escalating every time the main character changes location, until the climactic scene when so much pressure has developed that the system ruptures and the protagonist spews out into freedom or death, providing the readers with their long-awaited catharsis.
Possibly the best discussion of how to build instability into a story can be found in John D. Fitzgerald’s essay “So Wrong to Tell the Truth.” Fitzgerald’s argument that structuring an engaging plot requires all the skills of telling effective lies provides a convincing antidote to the “that’s the way it happened” theory of narrative. According to Fitzgerald, the author’s job consists primarily of introducing increasingly serious complications into his main character’s life. To clarify his point, Fitzgerald deftly takes his readers through just such a plot development. Step by step, Fitzgerald introduces critical lies that make his protagonist’s situation worse and worse. The point, Fitzgerald argues, is to make the character’s life so desperate that it can’t get any worse. When the worst situation arrives, the author must provide the climactic moment, the catastrophe that will liberate the characters from the complications. Now if the author has actually brought his main character to the most complicated point in his life, the solution to the plot’s dramatic knot should be found somewhere in one of the lies that helped create the knot in the first place. All the writer has to do is go back and look closely at each narrative junction when the action clearly began to rise. Somewhere along that slope is a detail or an instance that contains the release mechanism for all the story’s tension.5
Once I have clarified for students how “story” separates itself from simple reportage, I tell them that the best stories contain three stories: the story based on plot, the story based on character, and the story based on style. In our Venn diagram where the ego-centric, the method-centric, and the story-centric overlap occurs a fourth circle much smaller than the other three. This spontaneously generated element we can call intuitive story telling. The intuitive element represents that perfect story in which the other three main elements blend in exactly correct proportions and give rise to a narrative that charms with compelling characters, entertains with a fresh presentation of plot, and delights with unexpected linguistic turns.
I like to suggest to fiction writing students that most human beings want to tell stories. We do have an intuitive desire to share our experiences and opinions. That’s why in my Venn diagram, I like to superimpose that fourth circle over the intersection of the ego-centric, the method-centric, and the story-centric elements. Human nature itself is the centripetal force that pulls these elements together. Certainly the rare, truly gifted writers don’t need any further motivation to produce their masterpieces. Unfortunately for that large majority of writers who are not so perfectly in tune with their narrative forces, readers won’t naturally find their way into the middle of those writers’ narratives. Our efforts will lack, initially, the balance, focus, and emphasis that give such power to the intuitive writer’s fiction.
Our flaws as writers create a centrifugal force that pulls our fiction away from the core of our desire to tell stories. In one story, we might be more concerned with proving a philosophical or political point and forget to provide dramatic development. In another story, we might be careless with sentence structure or word choice. On another occasion, we might get so involved with trying to work out a plot that we neglect to provide believable characters to convey the action. Losing one’s narrative center throws the story off balance and disturbs the reader in much the same way as the thumping of an out-of-balance washing machine disturbs the entire household.
To represent the centrifugal movement that often occurs in less-than-perfect stories, I have added a fifth element to my Venn diagram: a set of lightly drawn concentric circles that enable me to provide a physical location for the imbalances I might find in a student’s story. If a student insists upon talking about his or her story in terms of the grade I would give it, then I can insert grades that correspond to how far removed from the intuitive center I judge the story to be at this particular drafting stage. On the other hand, if a student is more interested in constructive commentary, then I can provide a set of diagnostic terms that correspond to the deviations from the narrative center. Each teacher should employ diagnostic terms that best fit his or her teaching theory.
The sixth and final element of my Venn diagram consists of two intersecting lines which bisect the concentric circles, including the intuitive storytelling circle at the core of the concentric circles. These two perpendicular lines clarify the value I place on originality, style, and audience awareness. To be perfectly clear to the students, these lines should be drawn as arrows pointing away from the intuitive core of the story. The vertical line represents how much originality the student brings to his or her story. The horizontal line, as it moves left from the intuitive circle, represents an increasing degree of self-consciousness in the student’s writing. As the horizontal line moves right from the intuitive circle, it represents an increasing degree of awkwardness in the student’s method (or style).
By tracking the amount of originality a student story contains, the vertical line moving upward from the intuitive core allows me to provide the student with a visual point of reference for my evaluation—the degree to which I find the story derivative or not. Although my own appreciation of a story depends largely on how original it seems, I want students to understand that just telling a good story does not necessarily mean they haven’t derived it from another source. As essential as “sense of story” is in narrative art, students will always run the risk of dealing with highly derivative story ideas until they have read enough fiction to recognize when they’ve begun to tell someone else’s story and adjust their narrative strategies in order to offset the derivative motion by introducing new characters or new rhetorical patterns. Even a good story loses power if it’s moving along the derivative line.
The lower half of the derivative line measures how much originality a student brings to his or her treatment of personal experience. For example, when I read the student’s story about the unexpected death of her football player friend, I was reminded of all the other stories I’d read about an athlete dying young, from A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” to Chariots of Fire. Except for the fact that her friend played football, I really didn’t know her athlete. Of all the facts that she probably could have used to particularize her friend’s character, this student author presented him exclusively as an athlete dying young, thus hobbling her narrative with a high degree of derivation. Of the two directions that can be taken along the derivative line, movement along the bottom half of the line causes me the most frustration because a student who neglects to provide originality through characters or through style has missed the two most reliable elements for injecting freshness into a narrative.
Unlike the vertical, derivative line, the horizontal line actually tracks two separate flaws which weaken student fiction. If a student story drifts to the left of the perfectly balanced intuitive narrative core, then too much of a student’s identity pushes the story away from effective fiction. As a result of this slide into the ego-centric element, the student story begins to sound more and more like a memoir, usually propelled either by the “that’s how it happened” defense or by the conviction that personal revelation or confession is going to be entertaining to the reader simply because it is personal. At its extreme limits, the self-conscious can be embarrassing or even incriminating. Depending upon the class dynamic, the self-conscious outer limits almost always make the other workshop members uncomfortable.
The horizontal line that runs to the right from the intuitive center and measures how well or how poorly a story’s methods operate usually provides the most familiar area of student/teacher conferences. In the actual workshop discussions, I prefer not to spend much time discussing the grammatical issues with which a student might be struggling. However, this is the element on which I will spend the most time as an editor. I don’t know any writer, student or professional, who does not, at some level or stage of composition, need to become a proofreader of his or her own work. Certainly, all writers must hold themselves responsible for word choice, sentence structure, paragraph construction, scene design, rhetorical strategies, and plot conception. All these choices pull the writer deeper and deeper into the craft, the method. When students begin to veer right from the intuitive core of their stories, I want them to understand that grammatical competence is only the beginning of their responsibilities to their fiction and to their readers.
At first, this Venn diagram does seem to be a more complicated grading system than intuitively assigning a letter or number grade to a student’s story. This apparent complexity really doesn’t have to be a problem if the teacher introduces students to the six elements over a series of class discussions. When we begin the semester by discussing stories in Pitlor’s anthology, I use the diagram as part of my commentary. We spend two or three class meetings getting used to looking for the three essential elements of narrative: author’s ego, style, and sense of story. Most often, a class can spend an entire fifty-minute period discussing which element the author uses best and which one is used worst. After we have read and discussed several of the stories in the anthology, we can shift our discussion to determining which story provides the most effective intuitive core. Even if the general class consensus maintains that none of the assigned stories work inside that charmed intuitive core, we can explore the centrifugal forces that have pulled the narrative off center. Once the class feels fairly comfortable with locating the approximate problem areas of the stories, we can move to the more specific areas of the concentric circles and the two intersecting lines. After a couple of class meetings, students arrive at a clear understanding of the derivative vertical line and the horizontal lines of self-consciousness and mechanicalness. Depending upon the particular attitudes of each class, we can provide other evaluative terms that might further define potential narrative flaws.
For example, in the quadrant formed by the self-conscious line and the upward moving derivative line, that section of the Venn diagram which contains the intersection of the ego-centric element and the story-centric element, students have suggested narrative characteristics such as “spontaneous” and “exploratory.” In the quadrant formed by the intersection of the method-centric with the story-centric, students have suggested such traits as “structured” and “experimental.” In the two lower quadrants, on the ego-centric section, students see “contrived,” “affectation,” and “indulgent” as recurrent narrative characteristics. On the method-centric lower quadrant, students encounter “formulaic,” “artificial,” and “ostentatious.” Overall, once students have worked with the Venn diagram, they find it more helpful as a grading/teaching tool because first of all, it provides a visual representation of my grading and evaluative process. As soon as they understand that grading their fiction is a subjective process—but not one that I’m trying to hide from them—they have surprisingly few problems with how I respond to their writing. More importantly, they come a step or two closer to grasping the complexity of their own responses as both author and reader.
- Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977), pp. 43-56.
- Madison Smartt Bell, Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), pp. 9-10.
- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p. 147.
- John Barth, Class Lecture, November 14, 1978.
- John D. Fitzgerald, “So Wrong to Tell the Truth,” In The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing, eds. Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1981), pp. 117-124.
- Barth, John. Class Lecture, November 18, 1978.
- Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: A Writer’s Guide to Structure. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1997.
- Fitzgerald, John D. “So Wrong to Tell the Truth.” In The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Short Story Writing. eds. Frank A. Dickson and Sandra Smythe. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati: 1981.
- Hills, Rust. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular: An Informal Textbook. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1977.
- King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner: New York, 2000.