Saturday, February 19, 2011

Learn from Others' Mistakes!

I decided to do a short post this week, mainly directed to participants in writing groups or teaching, but also workable for the self-taught writer when reading published fiction.

In an interview from The Middlebury Initiative, writer Julia Alvarez, a former student of Middlebury, brought up the fact that she continues to learn from her students. "You learn to solve problems because you didn't create them," she said. "You may think you're reading and evaluating this story for someone else, but in trying to figure out what this story needs to take off, you're learning how to do that in a way you can't in your own story because you're inside it." This method is something I have been grateful for throughout my twenty years of teaching creative writing. Not only am I collecting a paycheck and being rewarded with student enthusiasm and creativity, but since the learning process never ends, my own trial and error has been partially conducted vicariously.

Once the printer has been employed, the words and ideas have already taken on value for the writer, both for the time expended and the fondness that develops with rereading. I don't need to tell you that making changes is painful. Much more fun to observe a misstep and avoid it!

Not to mention, people in general enjoy digging in and finding errors in others' work more-so than in their own. In addition to the needs of ego, I think most opposition to rewriting is due to the work involved. The more we can find wrong, the more work we have to do, and no matter how severe we try to be on ourselves, when it comes to making a fine judgment, the voice that wants to save time and effort sometimes prevails. Or it might work the opposite way for some: the more work I do the better it gets. Not always the case! However, when you're finding problems for others, you have no pull either way, are free of bias, except what your own taste leads you to prefer.

Taste. That's a necessity that can be taught. Maybe I'll have something to say on taste next week. I hope so.

Meanwhile, keeps your eyes and ears open. Writing fiction is a twenty-four hour job.


  1. To me, that's one of the great attractions of writer's groups: critiquing other people's work helps you learn to critique your own. It's helped me, anyway.

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