Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Directive to My Graduate Students: Don't Proofread

[This post relates to graduate creative writing students only.]

As a creative writing teacher, I prefer incomplete pieces, unpolished, embarrassing messes. That’s one of my basic world views: sloppiness is a good thing. It should be cultivated. It’s an affirmation of your own mortality. You’re not pretending to be a god.

When I teach a graduate creative non-fiction classes, I require them to have written at least eight full pages of new material for their first workshop; fifty is the limit.

Recently after a student turn in her piece, she said to me: "I'm embarrassed. I only wrote eight pages."

Do the minimum amount of work, I believe. That’s what I tell my students.

I looked at my student and said, "Good. That's all I would have turned in. Sometimes there are more important things to do than write."


Once another student told me that in one of her other classes, the teacher required them to turn in finished pieces. “But I'm not that teacher," I said, "I don't care."

Workshops encourage you to complete things. That’s bad for an artist. I remember taking fiction workshops as a graduate student, and as it grew closer to the time to turn in your story, people would ask, “So have you finished?” As if the point was to find an end to the story. Isn't one of the perks of being a graduate student that you have the leisure time to fumble and pick yourself up again?

People with real jobs can't afford to take a deep breath. They have stuff they must complete. Or else people can become hurt. Or sad. Or both.

This is a horrible confession: I don’t care if my graduate students proofread their stuff. In fact, I wish they wouldn’t. Better time can be spent simply getting the words out on the page. Why take the time to polish something that may not be worth it? And usually isn't.

Maybe it’s something you needed to write simply because you needed to write it. You needed to make room for something else to enter a psychic space.

In fact, that’s something I should encourage more. Let’s see all those misspellings, bad grammatical structures, misplaced punctuation. Let’ s admit those errors freely and without judgment. That kind of stuff can easily be cleared up. The soul needs more attention.

To want our graduate students to proofread is to ask them to create a finished product. That’s the worst thing we can teach young artists: you need to finish. Isn't the fun in writing that you are in a sense always are always are at the beginning?

I like the dumb, sweet idea that in Time, you might find the perfect arrangement of words.

When I was a graduate student, I remember racing to create a completed story for the workshop deadline. I missed out on the fun of writing. To have fun you need to lose track of yourself, lose your self-consciousness. That’s very difficult for an artist. Writers suffer from being too sensitive. That’s why they become depressed. You let too much of the world in.

If we, as teachers, force our students to come to an end, turn in something finished, then we’re ruining their fun. Their art becomes an assignment. With assignments come deadlines. And shouldn’t young students who take our creative writing classes feel they have all the time in the world? That if they relax and take a deep breath, they'll lose consciousness and find themselves in their own imagination?


  1. Lovely. Thank you, Steve, for reminding us that the creative act should be about exploration, expansion, and soul-satisfaction, and that we need to resist the academic pressure to create formulaic solutions to problems (the "problem" usually being, how do I get an A out of this class?).

  2. But what if they never get good at it? What if they never learn how to write a beautifully constructed grammatically correct sentence?

  3. I'd never thought about this idea this way. I think you're on to something, Steve. After all, who wants a polished piece of crap? Personally, I spent hours, days, months as an undergrad, adding commas to pure poo.

    On the other hand, I kind of like commas. I guess I'm still torn

  4. I don't the context of a creative writing workshop-- the context in which this discussion seems to be situated--I question wheter grammar and sentence structure should be foregrounded. I would certainly hope that everyone (not just creative writng students) acheive a basic mastery of language that would ensure well-crafted sentences. But that's a mechanical skill that one can learn by reading (really reading) Strunk & White. You can't learn creativity in the same way, but you can blunt it by emphasising the production of a tidy manuscript. I do believe in the necessary interdependence of form and content ("Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room...")but I think that can come later, with revision...or not. Look at all the unrully beauty Shakespeare created by rupturing the line and disturbing the formal requirements of the sonnet.

  5. What a great post. I love that you are allowing them to be artists before they become editors of their work. This type of guidance will produce writers and artists that think for themselves and who love to make art for art's sake.

    Yes, the soul needs more attention. I like your view on this. Thank you.

  6. You asked me about my "crazy talk" comment on FB: Preferring/encouraging students to turn in unproof-read messes. I feel as a reader that if the writer doesn't have/show respect for his or her writing, what's my motivation to? Embarrassing is fine. Incomplete is fine if not encouraged. Proof-read, if not "polished," material helps me as reader (and teacher) to concentrate on the writing without being distracted by careless messes (if they care, I will be more likely to). Especially if I've more and more and more by others waiting for my attention. (I hope I proof-read this carefully enough.)

  7. Hi,

    This is my problem, and I'm trying to use this post as a way of solving it.

    I find that my graduate students are writing streamlined narratives--stories with a beginning, middle, end--there are no flashbacks, no back story, nothing except a drive to finish the plot in a way that "feels" complete. Very, very rarely they'll go off on the smallest tangent!

    Those tangents are usually the best part of the story.

    I don't know how to get them to move beyond Plot into the deeper trenches of their unconscious where their true creative powers are.

    And it's esp. difficult to teach grad students; they feel that they know everything, and I'm sure to a certain extent they do, but the stories are suffering as a result of the institutional pressure To Finish.

    When I was a grad student I did the same thing (and still do). I also made messes that I didn't show anyone when all I did was write a page on the computer without editing myself at all in terms of grammar, punctuation, etc.--just going and going.

  8. Yah. Let's trust the mess a little more. Essayists write to be considerate to the reader. Real art configures itself in ways that ask the reader to sit up and pay attention, even if it's a struggle. When I first read the Wasteland, I was so pissed off, I literally threw the book across the room. And that text had been even been edited (by E. Pound, mainly). But if Eliot had not written a mess, there would have been nothing to edit. This is an age where everyone feels they can look up the proper form and the formula online. What is getting pushed out of the frame before the first draft is even written? I am especially interested in this because I know that I am a victim. I'm so hyper conscious, so careful, so precise. Oh goody. I'm almost always right, and people come to me when they need a solid piece of writing. Oh goody. It's flawless. Spot on. And usually has nothing to do with authentic voice, vision, creativity. Bleh.

  9. I love this post and am embracing this philosophy already.

  10. I agree with ya' Steve--Allowing in mess and uncertainty, to wander and veer and get it wrong is the only way to get it wild, which is where the life is.

  11. Heidi,

    I have fond memories of you.