Friday, December 7, 2012

On Teachability


Two creative writing students came to see me yesterday.

The first, I'll call her Claire, looked like a skier: long, thick blonde hair, healthy, vibrant complexion, hearty Patagonia fleece jacket, fur-lined boots.  She'd written an essay for my food writing class about going to the Naples Grape Festival with her father; the essay was all over the place and badly needed revising.  I spent about 30 minutes with her, going over it paragraph by paragraph, and in the process learned that her dad was a pole vaulter (what?), that she was a vegetarian who ate chicken wings, and that she was obsessed with the Hunt Hollow murders that'd taken place at an Allegheny ski lodge in the 1970s (decades before she was born).  There was a warmth about her, an openness, and I noticed her turning her head just slightly to read the book titles on my shelves.  Rarely did I have students who seemed this self-possessed, curious, whole. But what was even more extraordinary about her was that when I suggested cutting whole paragraphs of her piece, instead of balking, she said, "Yes, yes! That's so much better."  Revising on the scale I was suggesting takes bravery and trust.  When I tried explaining why readers didn't need a rundown of all the vendors at the festival, she lit up, and said, "I know!" with such  heartfelt conviction that I was momentarily flummoxed.  It wasn't usually this easy, and I was puzzled. She was definitely not a brown noser, and had always kept a professional distance in class.  What had made her so receptive? I wondered.  We talked for longer than we needed to, and by the end, she was the one coming up with things to slash from and add to her essay to make it better.  Embarrassingly enough, my cell phone rang and I told her I had to answer it because my son was home sick.  She nodded and kept checking out my bookshelves.  "He has pink eye," I said.  She nodded sympathetically. "Well, at least he doesn't have lice!"  We laughed about something else then—I can't remember what—but soon it was time for her to go. As she walked away, I noticed her backpack, neon green and hot pink, DaKinea famous ski boarder brand. Complexity, mystery, followed her out the door.  

The second student, I'll call her Becca, came in and perched on the edge of my overstuffed armchair.  Everything about her read "rigid":  her slender nose, the way her purple beret sat like a perfect bubble around her head, her pale, waxen skin, the silver wire-framed glasses.  In class she got frustrated when I didn't call on her every time she raised her hand, which was constantly.  Her essay was about going to the Rochester Public Market with her R.A. and a bunch of people from her dorm.  Like most first-time creative writers, she included superfluous scenes like riding the elevators down to the van and giggling with everyone on the way there.  When I told her she should cut that, she couldn't understand why and I could feel her whole body repelling away from me.  "Because it isn't very interesting.  It has nothing to do with your experiences at the public market.  And," I said, "it makes you sound juvenile."  She argued with me that college students are juvenile.  She crossed her arms.  I knew this territory well, and felt my impatience flare.  I wanted to get home and go running before my daughter got off the school bus.  I had eaten only a yogurt and felt jagged and empty.  "I noticed there aren't any sensory details in your piece," I said, taking a new tack.  "You say you tried an empanada, but you don't describe anything about it—no taste, smell, texture—nothing."  She had a quick answer for this.  "Well, that's because I don't usually eat things like that and I don't remember anything about it."  The way she said it, arms crossed, indicated the burden was now on me.  I knew I should just let it go: there was no reaching her.  Would she go on to become a passionate and devoted writer?  Probably not. "Well, writers need to be extremely aware and observant of the world.  It's pretty much a job requirement."  She stared at me and nodded blankly.  I body languaged that we were done, shuffling papers and turning to my computer.  "Thank you very much," she said, then stormed off with her friend who had been lurking outside my door and listening to every word.