From: Doubled Shadows: Selected Poetry of Ouyang Jianghe
[translated by Austin Woerner]
From: Flash Cards: Selected Poems from Yu Jian’s Anthology of Notes
[Translated by Wang Ping and Ron Padgett]
Update: Here’s an interesting and positive development. Shortly after I posted this, K.M. Weiland read it. She’s the author of the textbook for this course. She apologized and even offered to personally reimburse me for the tuition fee. I thought that was pretty cool. A very decent, kind and professional person. I thanked her, but I couldn’t accept because my issue was with the school–they took my money, so I felt they should refund it. She said she would get in touch with them, and soon after that, I received a refund (minus an administrative fee). Of course, now I feel silly about this entire episode. Now that I’ve cooled down a bit, I’ve also tweaked this blog post a few times to clarify things.
A few weeks ago, I signed up for “Outlining your novel,” led by Gloria Kempton. It was not a good experience, and I would not recommend it. I’m trying to find humour in the situation, so at the risk of sounding like a rant, I’ve written this review.
(I’m conflicted about it. Part of me thinks I should stop taking stuff like this seriously. Another part says don’t take crap from anyone. I also know I often get triggered by what I perceive to be bullying and condescension, so maybe I’m over-reacting. But I wish I’d read something like this before I considered taking the course.)
The short version: Taking this class felt like saying, “Hey, I have an idea,” and then someone interrupts you with, “Nope, terrible, horrible idea,” and if you ask why, the person says, “Because I’ve been doing this for many, many years.”
Usually, I like taking classes. They’re interesting and help me get work done. I took this particular one for two reasons:
- Of primary importance by far was simply the desire to force myself to meet deadlines. By paying the (for me) exorbitant fee, I was obliging myself to finish some form of outline, regardless of the feedback.
- The secondary reason related to the most positive aspects of other writing courses I’ve taken, namely encouragement, engagement, and interesting ideas/constructive feedback, in that order.
This class took the form of weekly written lectures, assignments and discussion board topics. Two things that struck me as potentially bad signs right away:
- The lectures were written well in advance (the references to “your instructor” suggested they were written by someone else), and didn’t feel like they were going to respond to the discussions and needs of this particular group of participants from week to week. The lectures seemed like they were going to be impersonal.
- Each week, the instructor picked one participant, asked that person to come up with a question, and then stayed out of the discussion. This seemed to skip over any potential guidance, facilitation and encouragement from the instructor.
My cynical side suggested this was a course where the instructor might get away with doing the bare minimum, and engaging as little as possible, but I decided to give the course a try anyway. She also attempted early on to sell us her other books about writing, dropping several mentions of her books and where to buy them, but whatever. I would probably do the same. Go, capitalism.
The next sign came with the instructor’s feedback on the weekly assignments (all taken from K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining your novel, upon which the course is based). In each piece of feedback, it seemed as if the instructor would restate the parameters of the question, and then raise rhetorical questions and platitudes about story structure and character motivation.
It seemed like the instructor treated the assignments (which were just about preliminary ideas for an outline to a longer story) as final submissions to a publisher or a critic. Nothing really wrong with that, but the strange thing was that it sounded like she was angry with every submission, or insulted. It was kind of funny, and verged on surreal.
It would be like completing an assignment to draw a square, and then receiving feedback that said, “Clearly you don’t understand how to draw a circle. This was about drawing a square. Why isn’t this a cone? Don’t you know the history of geometry?”
That said, any feedback is helpful, and I appreciated the time she spent reading my stuff and sharing her thoughts. I reacted badly to what happened next: the instructor’s responses to questions and suggestions about the feedback.
After the third week, I (and I later found out, several others) raised concerns privately with the instructor. Sincerely and respectfully, I suggested that she consider including a bit more encouragement and motivation alongside her regular feedback, and explained why I felt that was important.
It wasn’t about receiving criticism–in fact, everyone asked her not to hold back. This was about a weird sort of discouragement at the earliest possible stage of developing a story, and the effect that was having on the participants. No one was outraged. They just asked questions and made suggestions, and everyone who participated seemed respectful and eager to engage with the instructor.
Then she seemed to vanish from the course for a week, until she created a thread on the message board to discuss the issue of her feedback. It opened with this statement from her:
Okay, you guys, let’s just get it out on the table here so that we can all discuss it, if we need to. A couple of you have now told me that my feedback has discouraged you.
Nearly half the participants expressed similar concerns, which raised more red flags for me: one participant said apologetically that she’d given up on her idea for now, based on the instructor’s feedback; two others seemed to apologize to the instructor simply for voicing concerns.
For whatever reason, I didn’t like that people felt they had to apologize just for respectfully asking questions, and it bothered me that the instructor seemed to be steering everything towards a potentially mean-spirited discussion. (It’s hard to get that across here without more excerpts, but that was the sense I had.) To me, the instructor’s responses felt defensive and condescending.
I’ve been doing this many years, and as I told one of you, it’s better you hear this stuff from me than from an agent or editor somewhere. And most of the time, they’ll just reject you and never tell you why.
I know what agents and editors are looking for, and the competition is so stiff, you wouldn’t even believe it.
In the context of a class where, three sessions in, almost half the participants (who all paid quite a lot of money) said essentially the same things about the instructor’s feedback, it seemed wrong for the instructor to talk down to everyone. The participants were all adults, many of whom had significant experience with writing and publishing. No one seemed naive about hard work and publishing.
It was also a class about creating only an outline for a long story. It shouldn’t have involved second-guessing whether every idea was “publishable.” In her book, even K.M. Weiland emphasizes that this stage should be fun, and that writers should allow themselves to veer from their outline as they choose, and to follow whatever format works best for them. At least, that’s how I read it.
Here are my two cents on that matter, which I wrote in the discussion board:
I believe that for the writer, telling a story is its own reward. Everyone should be encouraged to write the stories they want to write, and their passion for storytelling should be fueled. It’s not about publishing at this stage, for me–that’s an entirely separate set of issues and concerns. This is about the early stages of telling a novel-length story–with the goal of simply completing it, and with the knowledge that it will evolve through revision.
I tried to make it clear to the instructor that I wasn’t asking for my hand to be held, just that some consideration be given (or made more apparent) to where everyone was in the process of creating a story, and why everyone was there. I also reiterated that I respected and appreciated the amount of time and effort the instructor was spending on giving us feedback.
On the discussion board and elsewhere, it started to sound like the instructor was responding to every question or suggestion with, “I’m right, you’re wrong, because look at my credentials.” In their contexts, the comments sounded impatient and almost parental:
I’ve been doing this for 30 years. And I decided a long time ago that I couldn’t really ‘win’ with new writers because if I was too harsh, they got discouraged, and if I was too encouraging, they thought I was being false, they didn’t believe me.
My mother was a professional freelance writer, and I learned from her that when my work was critiqued, I had a choice–to take in what resonated for me and let the rest go.
I know that many instructors tell their students mostly positive things. Probably a way to keep them coming back for more. That’s not me.
Admittedly, I was in a bad mood about things at this point, but it felt like the instructor had no respect for the participants. These comments were directed at individual students (including me) who had expressed agreement with each other:
I don’t know if you and Oliver have taken many other classes, but I learned early in my writing career to be respectful of those who are giving us feedback.
I don’t do this for the money, by the way. You wouldn’t believe how much money I don’t make.
I’ve been doing this many, many years, and I happen to know that, unlike you, most do come into these classes wanting to publsh [sic] their work.
I have to admit that for those or [sic] you who have told me my feedback has discouraged you, going forward, I will feel like holding back. But that would be a shame, and you would end up wasting your money here, so I hope I can overcome that tendency.
It seemed like we weren’t supposed to ask questions anymore, and it all started to feel like a sham, so I walked away. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. On the Writer’s Digest University website, she has an “About the instructor” page, which includes this:
Is getting published your goal? Many of Gloria’s students are achieving their publishing goals. Recently, after reviewing a student’s literary essay seven times, the student emailed that it was being published in The Boston Globe. Another student, just last year, received a three-book contract and a six-figure advance for her young adult series. Many others have been published in national magazines and received contracts from publishers. This could be you.
If I’d read that first, it probably would have made me leery. It sounds too much like another dime-a-dozen, writer’s self-help scheme.
I’ve complained to Writer’s Digest a few times over the past week.
No response yet. I’ve asked for a refund, but I doubt that’s likely. [Update: See above.]
Maybe at another time, I wouldn’t have reacted like this, but I hated the idea that at this point in my life, I still might have had my time and money taken by someone who seems to prey on the insecurities of people who want to write stories.
Coleman Hawkins said, “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” I’ll consider this a lesson learned.
I’m very happy about having a poem in issue #32 of Carousel Magazine. In relation to that, I’ll be part of a reading on April 3, 2014.
“The Tale of the Eyeball Tree” is a 12-page story by Brice Hall and me. I printed a proof-reading copy today. It looks amazing! I can’t wait to share it with people.
Here’s all of Part one: Stonefacehugger…
And here’s Part two: Harpalien…
We came up with a short story in two parts, along the lines of “Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx versus Alien.”
The first issue of Heady Mental (available at the Comic Book Embassy and the Comic Book Lounge and Gallery) contained part one of our story, and today I saw that part two has just finished being serialized online.