It is my privilege to teach writing in a university, something I thoroughly enjoy. This semester I am teaching a class called Narrative Writing, which is a lot of fun. We have 10 students who take turns submitting their short stories (at this point; novel pages later) for critique by the class. It’s tough to be critiqued by your peers; it’s also tough to always find something to say. The process involves those doing the critique to talk about the manuscript’s strengths first, then we talk about what needs fixing. I am continually encouraging students to say at least one positive thing with every review. Egos are easily bruised, especially when you haven’t gone through this process before. But it’s a necessary process for growth.
The group has some pretty good up-and-coming writers; it also has some beginners. And inevitably you get those who write stories about Bigfoot, or elves or dinosaurs on South Sea Islands. There is nothing wrong with such stories; I have written plenty of them. But I always remind my students to balance the mundane with the outlandish. You need material that will excite you, but you also need to tie it into reality enough so that we can care about what happens. You need a sense of intimacy, rather than writing about stuff over there.
Tomorrow we are embarking on an exercise that is both frightening and exciting. Exciting because I have consistently seen good things come out of this exercise. Frightening because it calls for two things: intimacy and vulnerability.
The challenge is to write from that place in your soul that you don’t let anyone else go, to unveil the skeletons in the closet. It is by doing so that a strong, raw element of emotion typically flows into the student writer. The more intimate, the better. I tell my students that when they are done, they don’t have to share what they have written. But many do, and many go on to have their work published.
I won’t lie. It scares me too. We all have thoughts we don’t share, incidents and acts we wish we could forget, intimacies that are hidden in the family closet. And I will tell my students that it doesn’t have to be a tell-all of every secret that the family has. But it is important that they tap into that raw emotion that flows from memory of the event, or incident, or thought.
I will be doing the exercise as well. It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t. And I will be the first to admit that I am scared.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.