Revision Notes and Cultural Craft: Teaching Revision Part 8



This is a continuation of my posts on teaching revision, specifically this one and this one. If you’d like to contribute a guest post or response, please contact me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

Last week I wrote about revision versus drafting and the idea of teaching writing as teaching revision—that is, teaching students how to make more conscious decisions as they go back and revise their (more) subconscious drafting. (I also believe that conscious decision-making can help as we draft, but this may be more a matter of how a particular writer drafts, how much s/he plans or not.)

I began to touch on instituting Revision Notes in my courses and how a record of decision-making can help with teaching writing and with acknowledging the cultural nature of craft.

I believe these two things are related: conscious decision-making and acknowledgment of culture in craft. That is, as students record the decisions they made in their daily writing, they also write about how they employed, personally, things like “plot,” “arc,” “characterization,” etc. This helps me to get a sense of how they are interpreting these terms an using these tools in their writing and to be able to talk about the differences between how one student may be using “plot” versus the way another student is using it. It also helps me get a sense of how—specifically—one person’s writing process might differ a lot from another’s.

I’ll give an example from a course I taught over the summer. One student (white, male) might say something about trying to follow a Hemingway model of what details to include and what to leave out (this student called this “texture,” a term he had been taught in an earlier course). Another student (hapa, female) might discuss using more description partly because she wanted to capture what she loves about her home and how it is linked to who people are when they come from Hawaii. The latter student also worried that this description came out of homesickness. She worried that there was too much of it. And she expressed a concern that it might be part of writing historical fiction—her story was set in the sugar cane plantations of the early 20th Century.

To me, these are two very different understandings of craft. While the Hemingway model might seem to dominate MFA programs, the richness of the description was a huge plus in the story the latter student wrote. She also made it clear in class that she was writing for middle schoolers in Hawaii, who would recognize a lot more of the context and natural world than the folks in our course did. Many students in the workshop wanted to talk about references, even to flora and fauna but also to the world of the sugar cane plantations, that they didn’t understand. A number of them had taken the same course the former student had taken, in which “texture” was discussed.

It was clear to me that people were talking about “texture” both in a very specific and a very vague way. It would have been impossible, I mean, to pin down one clear definition of what texture was. So we took a few minutes to try to do this, to demonstrate how the term had become cultural even to the culture of the previous course that some of the students had taken together. With this in mind, we moved on to talk about how the description used in the story fits a certain context and audience, and how our understanding of what makes description “good” or not is a cultural understanding that might or might not be useful to discussing the story at hand.

The Revision Notes are helpful for this. We were able to see from the Notes (and from what the author talked about in class) what was of concern to the author and her story in its intended context and to redirect the workshop to talk about the story in these terms.

This is an example of one particular element of craft, and perhaps one that does not take up so much time and discussion in the classroom as what a plot is or whether a character is supposed to change (or fail to change) in a story.

Let me say a little more about how the Writing/Revision Notes can be used before I end here for this week. Each week in class, we talk about a specific element of craft and a normative way (in American literary fiction/MFA programs) of thinking about it. For instance, we discuss plot as a chain of causation, as E.M. Forster described it. I encourage my students to think about causation and to see that many people find causation pleasurable and entertaining, and to expect causation in a story. We have largely been taught to read in this country in a way where we don’t love coincidence as a tool to wrap things up. We think of it as deus ex machina, a term many American high schoolers are taught from Greek drama, and taught to think should not occur in a well-crafted contemporary American story. But I also mention that the Greeks believed in deus ex machina because they believed that (I forget where I am taking this idea from, but it’s not mine) stories should explore how humans cope or not with the chaos created by—to them—gods.

This seems as worthy a goal as any, to me. It’s certainly a cultural understanding of craft and story and what makes something a satisfying story. I wouldn’t rule out of my reading fiction that functioned through coincidence and dealt with coincidence as a theme and a force. Recently, Alexander Chee came through Houston to read from his wonderful novel, The Queen of the Night, and he talked about writing about coincidence and coincidence’s role in opera. He also said he had been criticized for the coincidence, and called this a misunderstanding of the book.

These are the kinds of misunderstandings I want to avoid in my workshops, because most students (in my experience) will listen to the normative way of doing things and might even change their stories to reflect someone else’s intentions and someone else’s cultural understanding of craft. The Notes they write, in which they might say they want to write about coincidence and believe that it is important to do so for x reason, help us to discuss workshop stories and learn revision as cultural.

I’ll continue on this topic in the next post.

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