Some Notes on Student Manuscripts

13483495These days I’m trying to think more about how I might better use my imagination, or create something new in the world, or both, not just when I sit down to write, but when I go through my day-to-day life. I’m also listening almost exclusively to The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, for what it’s worth. I’m reminded of something my friend Peter asked a visiting writer back when we were both teaching in Alabama:

“As an artist, do you feel impelled to act artfully in everything you do?”

Peter mentioned he himself did, and wanted to see how another writer (I’m feeling pretty sure this was a fellow poet) thought about it. I passed it off at the time as poet/artist silliness, but now I see it as a pressing question.

Most of the work I do every day, other than read the books I picked to teach, is to sit with a pencil over double-spaced manuscript pages of 12pt Times New Roman and figure out what to write on it that both expresses my reactions to what I’m reading during the act and also encapsulates my response to what the piece has said or done as a whole. Also: I have to do something with my pencil to help the student learn how to develop either the piece in front of me (in revision) or just personally as a writer (when it comes to write the next thing). I’m not complaining about my job. It’s very hard work.

It’s not creative work. In fact at times it seems like destructive work: Here’s a map of all my confusions about what you’ve done, also lots of corrections of things you neglected to proofread. I do what I can to be encouraging and to point out successes, but even that seems destructive. It emphasizes that the point of having made this thing is to see how teacher responds.

It can easily become work I dread. In fact, right now I’ve got 20 projects to start reading and marking up and rather than get started (and but also to give myself a sense of purpose when I do start) I’m here writing a blog post about it. Anything to get out of doing the actual work. What I dread isn’t my students’ writing—when I get into it their stuff is continually surprising and great and worth sharing—it’s the role I have to step into. It’s not a foreign role. I’ve been doing this for ten years now. But it’s not my role, or it’s not a role I’m eager to understand myself as.

Yesterday on Twitter I asked, “What if marking up student manuscripts were more like a collaboration between two interested writers?” and it got precisely one favorite. (Thanks, Chris!) It’s one way to bring a sense of the creative process to this job of mine. The danger, of course, is for Teacher to lord his creative self all over the student’s work, but this happens all the fucking time in creative writing workshops, doesn’t it?

Here, finally, are some notes on what this theory might look like in practice:

  • Understand the student not as a subordinate but as a fellow writer asking for my help and advice as a fellow writer.
  • Continue using a pencil, because I will mess up and be wrong in some of my responses.
  • Stop correcting grammar and usage and typos, but point it out when it leads to genuine confusion about what’s being said, because I’m not an editor, and I know so many great writers who fuck up in this regard and there’s no correlation between proper grammar and moving art.
  • Suggest in notes at the end that the student look up some business of grammar or usage s/he consistently gets wrong, and name a good and useful resource for him or her to do so.
  • Point out what I’m jealous of and wish I’d come up with.
  • With flat/boring parts, which we all end up with in our drafts, be honest and clear about why I’m being bored and what I’d try as a writer (as opposed to what I need as a writer or what I expect as a teacher; that is: suggest tacks always out of a spirit of creativity and invention).
  • Be clear on syllabi about my philosophy or rationale when it comes to responding to manuscripts, and invite students to stop by office hours to collaborate in person and address their concerns, or if that’s not convenient do it over email or via Skype—i.e. be available.

There’s more thinking to be done about this. But I’m done thinking that the chief way students learn to become writers is through the feedback they receive on their manuscripts. I did this last term and I’ll do it every term coming up: assign students a revision plan to be turned in with a draft and you’ll be amazed at how much of “your work” they’ll have done before you even get a chance to.

UPDATE: I’ve at least partially solved this problem.

One thought on “Some Notes on Student Manuscripts”

  1. Very insightful and thoughtful and the best way, since you opted to think of a way to be better at helping others, even when you didn’t need to.

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