In Praise of Criticism, Or How Criticism Can Be The Best Kind of Praise

My sophomore year of college, I followed a crowd of hundreds of my fellow students to the board where class lists were posted, and found myself lucky enough to have a conference course with one of the best poets on our campus.  I half-walked, half-skipped back to my dorm room, smiling at no one in the street-lamped night and unable to believe my good fortune.  Then I went into my dorm room, closed the door, and began to cry a very loud, very ugly cry.

The problem was that this professor was not just one of the best poets on campus — he was also one of the harshest critics.  I’d learned about him the previous year through rumors that rose and swirled and fell over the snow globe that campus became in the winter.

“He’s terrible,” Mirabelle said as she took a jittery drag from an unfiltered Parliament.  “Terrible.  He literally lives to make people cry.  Like, literally.  Our tears are his sustenance.”

“I heard he told Johnathan to get out of his office and not come back until he’d developed talent or shame,” Annabelle said.

“He threatened to kill Gabe’s hamster,” Jacqueline said, and Jocelyn nodded in teary agreement, unable to speak herself.  I didn’t even have a hamster, and I was terrified.

 

Here are the three most memorable moments from my conference course:

 

  1. I started reading a poem about what my housemates and I did on Friday nights.  I got three lines in.  “Stop,” he said.  “Just stop.”  I stopped.  He looked at me and I looked at him.  He held out his hand for the poem.  I gave it to him.  He slipped it into the trashcan under his desk.  “Next,” he said.  I cleared my throat and shuffled through that week’s poems until I found one that involved no Friday-night-on-a-college-campus activities.  I got all the way through the poem that time.  After I
    This is a picture of a taxidermic piranha just to prove such things exist.

    This is a picture of a taxidermic piranha just to prove such things exist.

    read, he leaned back in his chair and said, “Okay.”  We got to the work of revision.

  2. A few weeks later, I brought in another poem about my housemates and our activities.  This time, the subject was a Saturday evening, which I apparently thought was different enough.  I started reading.  I got a line and a half in.  “Stop,” he said.  “Just stop.”  I stopped.  He looked at me and I looked at him.  We both started laughing.  I handed him the poem and he slipped it into the trashcan under his desk.  “One more time,” he said, “and I’m making you put your hand in the piranha’s mouth.”  The taxidermic piranha that sat on the fireplace mantle stared down with its bead eyes and tooth-triangled grin.
  3. I brought in a poem that I’d been writing and re-writing and writing again for the past three years.  I didn’t involve my housemates or the mention of a weekend.  I read the poem.  He looked at me and I looked at him.  He held out the trashcan.  I ripped the poem in half and threw it away.  “Now,” he said, “doesn’t that feel better?”  I smiled and nodded and shuffled through the rest of the poems I’d brought for that week.  I didn’t speak because it did feel better – it felt like I’d been freed from a trap of my own making.

These moments were important because they should have been terrible.  They should have been the kind of moments that belong in a story that ends with the sentence “and that’s why I stopped writing poetry.”  The moments are important, and the story is important, because they lead to a very different ending, a very different sentence: “and that’s how I learned to love poetry.”

That’s exactly what these moments did for me: they helped me to love poetry more than I had ever loved it, to develop a new devotion to poetry, a deeper and more important commitment.  Through them, I learned that I loved poetry, the art itself, not just whatever I managed to put down on the page.  I learned that very little — if anything — that I wrote would be perfect, and I learned to love my own imperfections.  I learned that I would make mistakes, and a lot of them.  I learned that this was okay.  More than okay – I learned that mistakes made me human, made my poetry human, and I learned that mistakes are the way that I learned.  I learned that recognizing my mistakes was most of the road towards recognizing – and writing – good poems, and I learned that if I ripped a poem in half and threw it away, I’d still live.  More importantly, my poetry would still live, and it would live more strongly, more beautifully, more honestly.

My professor was right: I did feel better after I recognized what worked and what didn’t work.  I felt better when I was able to move on and away from the labyrinth of trying to make something work that just wasn’t going to work.  I learned to make my way out of that labyrinth much earlier in my writing process, and I learned that this would save myself from a lot of frustration — and it would save my poems, too.

For years, I thought criticism was the Minotaur, raging and waiting in the middle of the labyrinth so it could destroy me.  In my conference course, I learned that I was the greatest danger to myself and to my writing.  If I listened only to praise and not to criticism, I’d keep turning the same corners, circling and circling my words and myself into destruction.  Criticism wasn’t an evil bull-beast: it was the way out.

We all, I think, come to creative writing workshops for praise.  I know I did.  Let’s face it: writing isn’t easy, and it’s easy to look only for validation.  We all want to be told that what we’re feeling and thinking is normal – or better, interesting – better still, extraordinary.  We all want to be recognized, to feel seen.  I’d like to argue, though, that praise is only the half of it.  When a fellow writer critiques my work, I, of course, like to hear the good parts.  But if I only hear good parts, I feel dissatisfied, disappointed.  I want more, and what I want is to hear how I can do better, write better, how I can better communicate the normal-or-better-interesting-or-better-still-extraordinary things I think and feel and write.  After all, a critique says that someone believes in you and what you’re saying, and your ability to say it, enough to want to help you say it better – and there’s no greater praise than that.  By the end of my conference course, I was eager for criticism, even if it meant putting my hand in the mouth of a taxidermic piranha.  I was eager to revise and revise again, to tear apart the small buildings of words I’d built on the page and re-build them, to make them better and stronger and, hopefully, just a tiny bit extraordinary.

And that’s how I learned to love poetry.

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Ways to Get Your Writing Noticed – Christine Lengel

Although writing can become a mundane task that squeezes your hands and tires your eyes, it is a passion of my colleagues and I. As I spoke in a previous post, we spend our days filling pages and pages of blank paper with creative work. We use our words to express ourselves, to tell our story. Once our words are on paper, we are left wondering if we are the only ones who will ever read our work. Luckily, Georgia Southern offers several ways to for new writers to get their work noticed.

Miscellany Magazine of the Arts is a magazine that relies on student submissions for publication. Miscellany publishes short stories, Prose, Poetry, and also art submissions including drawing and painting and more. This magazine offers an amazing opportunity for student writers on campus to publish work written inside or outside of the classroom. One major benefit to this magazine of the arts is that there is no submission fee. I encourage all students to look into submitting to this magazine for the arts, which is taking submissions until February 22, 2013.

Fledge is a journal of outstanding first-year writing. The majority of students entering the freshman class at Georgia Southern University are required to take English 1101 and English 1102. These classes are built to teach students about research writing, pushing students to delve into writing assignments and research papers throughout the semester. Fledge is looking to find the excellent writing that comes from these classes, giving freshman students a publishing opportunity. This journal is published twice a year, but takes rolling submissions and nominations.

The Roy Powell Awards is a, once in a year, way for Georgia Southern students to get their finest writing recognized. This writing competition includes three entry categories; poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. One or more professor in the Writing and Linguistics Department carefully examine each writing submission and a winner is chosen in each category. The winner receives recognition at Honors Day, their winning piece published in Miscellany Magazine of the Arts, and they win a one hundred dollar prize. As I said before, this contest is a once in a year opportunity taking submissions until this Monday, February 18, 2013.

All of these opportunities to get your writing noticed by others and possibly published is right at your fingertips. Consider taking a chance. Who knows your name could be the one published next.

For more information about the Miscellany and Fledge check out there websites blow. To see The Roy Powell Awards submission guidelines check out the news page on this blog.

Miscellany: http://gsumiscellany.wordpress.com/

Fledge: http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/writling/fledge/

What’s Up, Doc? A Professor’s View – by Laura Valeri

Newton HallwayLast week, our talented intern, Christine Lengle, posted a lovely account on what goes on inside the Newton walls.  Since she offered a current student’s perspective, let me give you a little bit of my perspective as a professor.

When you approach our building, you will invariably see students clustered in the airways between the Newton wing that hosts classes and the wing that holds offices.  That little strip of concrete is softened by benches and corkboards announcing events, club meets, rooms for rent and sundry opportunities.  There are a few benches and two sets of stairs leading to the building’s upper level.  Between classes, you will always be welcomed by the cheerful chatter of students taking a short cigarette break before they run to their next appointment, or walking a professor back to her office still discussing their ideas: for a next story, or for a project they’d like to get involved with, or sometimes just to have something else to say about the discussion in the class that just ended.  There will always be a cluster of smokers huddled just far enough from the building to respect our non-smoking ordinance.

Visible from the airway are a zigzag of pathways crossing the zero-scaped gardens, students in flip-flops and shorts almost all year long in spite of the fact that the weather isn’t always ideal.  Everyone is walking with purpose to their next destination, some wile talking into a cell phone, others engaged in conversations with each other, while others still seem fixed and focused on their destination, the wheels of their thoughts churning, etching intensity on their expressions.

When I walk into Newton building to start my day, it cheers me to see so much purpose and so much congeniality.  I go to my office knowing that no matter what some of the drudgery of the day may be (the life of a professor is filled with meetings, emails, forms, paperwork, etc.) my purpose here is to help these young people achieve their dreams of becoming writers, and in light of the objective, there is really very little that can persuade me to miss a day.  And to be perfectly honest, I look forward to walking into the classroom, seeing the familiar faces of my students, laughing with them as we discuss our day’s reading and find that our tastes, our hopes, our ambitions aren’t all that different after all.

By the time we’re into the second or third week of the semester, we have all already shared enough writing and enough discussion time to feel like we know each other well.  Many of my students develop close friendships outside of class from the bond begun there.  One of the most delightful moment of my teaching was receiving an FB message from my class, late at night, with a picture attached of them working on a group project due the next day.  Pizza hung half eaten from opened containers.  There was clearly more fun going on than the project warranted, but I was glad they were thinking of me even at that hour.

For me, the relationship that I have with a student can last years beyond the last time I see them in class.  I hear from them through email, stay in touch in Facebook, sometimes get solicited for a letter, and that’s fine. I like all of that.  The fact that a student still thinks of me years after she’s moved on is a privileged thing.

Our writing classes are intimate, and this raises the stakes for me:  having only 15-18 students to interact with, I am keenly aware of the differences in style, personality and learning process of each of my students, and I try (admittedly, not always successfully) to personalize the process as much as possible, to make everyone comfortable while also encouraging hard work, and to cater my teaching style to the chemistry of each particular class.  Almost every semester, by the time I get to the last day I feel that the class is the best that I ever had the pleasure of teaching.  Almost every semester, I go into my new classes worrying that they won’t be as fun or as stimulating or as enjoyable as my last semester’s classes, and every semester I’m proven wrong.

I also teach some advanced classes. That means that I get to see students who are on their last semester, only weeks from graduating, ready to leave Statesboro and go on to bigger and better things.  And as I teach these inspiring sets of seasoned writers I try to guess their futures: this one will become an academic; that one will go Hollywood;  and that one, I’ll see her bestseller in the papers some day.

The level of talent that I encounter in these classes is often intimidating, from the knowledge that these young men and women have already accumulated, to the lyricism of their prose, to their eclectic and expansive reading tastes.  Some, I admit it, are better writers than me.  Many have already reached a maturity in their style that would have changed the course of my career had I possessed it at their age.  Every time one of our “wonder” students graduates, I am certain that there won’t be another like him or her.  But every semester that a new set of freshmen and sophomore come in, there she is, the next honored student in the major, and there he is, the next award winning writer of our little program.  There seems to be a secret, inexhaustible source of talent pouring into our classrooms.  We have an unusually high level of awards, publications and honors in just our small pool of creative writing majors.

We meet in the hallways, we professors, trying to take credit for the success earned by our students, hoping that their next publication, award, or special honor is a product of our class. And you’ll hear lots of this in the mailroom:

“Hey, do you know X?”

“Oh yeah, she was in my class last semester.”

“She’s amazing.”

“Oh, yeah, you should read some of the poetry she writes.”

“Does she even know how good she is?”

Don’t get me wrong: teaching isn’t always so inspiring and smooth.  Sometimes, a student and I just won’t see eye to eye: whatever I try to suggest will be discarded as useless, and every piece of writing she turns in will cause some frustration between us, on my end, for not being able to get through, on his or her end, for feeling misunderstood or under-appreciated. Or sometimes I may be certain I am being helpful and encouraging, but find out belatedly that the student thought I was being too critical or uncaring.  Coming into a class is a little bit like coming into an arranged marriage.  You have to work at it. From both sides. It takes a lot of communication and openness.  Sometimes it can be the most effortlessly productive relationship; more often than not, we all have to work at it a little bit: Give and take. Adjust.  Make room for errors. Try to learn from them and move on.  Always look forward to the next day. And most of all, try not to take it personally.

But that last bit of advice has one exception.  When you graduate, no matter how much time has passed, I’ll be thinking about you.  What ever happened to Jenny P? I wonder if her book’s come out yet.  Wish Patrick S. would let me know whether he’s in grad school or…what is he doing? He should be in grad school.  And Rucker M.  I don’t want to be a stalker on FB, but I wonder what kind of movies he’s written.  Did Johnny S. ever finish his detective novel? Would love to know how it’s going for him.

So, here is a note for you, current student: your professors are like your old, forgotten distant relatives. We don’t need a phonecall every week, but we’d like to get a note from you once in a while.  Just to let us know you still remember.

What’s Inside Those Newton Walls by Christine Lengel

As a student of Georgia Southern University, I come to campus every day prepared to learn and ready to have professors challenge me. Each day as I walk along the cobblestone paths past the numerous brick buildings, I notice the ominous feeling these buildings leave me with. As I approach the Newton building, I examine these bricks even closer and think about the off white classrooms waiting inside, realizing that Newton is just like any other building on campus.

When I reach my classroom for the day, I remember that unlike math or biology, my writing classes are a special place. It’s a time where my professors, who are novelists and poets with multiple published books, challenge me to make a difference. They pull me into a world where my words make a meaningless conversation into an enticing piece of art that leave people wanting more.

As a class, we do not memorize terms or examine graphs to learn, we read world-renowned poems, short stories and novels analyzing the published work. We come to class and fill pages of blank notebook paper with words drawn from writing prompts. We share our writing with the class and find ways to build each other’s work. A classroom setting in the Newton building feels like a writing family, a support system.

Over the past three years and seven writing classes, I have grown to love those off white classroom walls and each time I leave I anticipate the next time I am reunited with the inspiration that I am greeted with inside them. As a voice of the students in the Writing and Linguistics Department, I believe that I can say, the professors of our department have shaped me into a better writer. Although inspiration is a huge part of writing something moving, there is a craft in writing and this craft must be taught. I can now take writing sprung from inspiration and comb it into an incredible piece of writing. I owe this and so much more to my professors in the Department of Writing and Linguistics.