Good Shit – In Pursuit of Empirical Quality in Student Creative Writing
“Excrement!” This from John Keating, the radical teacher played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society (1989). He’s maligning the fictional but damn plausible J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D., arbiter of excellent poetry. “We’re not laying pipe,” Keating insists, “… How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand—‘Well, I like Byron – I give him a 42 – but you can’t dance to it.’”
Notwithstanding the wit of that observation, as new student associate editors like Katie Winters from Montclair State come on board at First Inkling, and more student writers approach us hopefully, manuscripts in hand, both groups wish direly to discern how our e-board determines what makes for “good” writing. They would love it if we could provide them a Great Poem Graph, a la J. Evans Pritchard, on which they could plot a poem’s perfection and importance. But even if such a framework existed in some authoritative tome somewhere, we might shout, as Keating does, “Rip!” Rip it out, boys! “Be gone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!”
On the other hand, how handy would this GPG be? It would be superfuckinghandy. At the risk of degenerating into Pritchardesque pedantry, we consider it important to refine an FI GPG, albeit one less algebraic, to stand proudly with the manifold artists and critics who understand that “good writing” indeed derives from two seemingly disparate metrics: Writing We Like, and what we might call “Quality” Writing. And either way, it’s worth trying to convey the elements at play. Take a poem. If we just dig it ’cause we dig it, that’s fine – that’s awesome, in fact – but couldn’t we (shouldn’t we) try to figure out why? Wouldn’t that pursuit help us hone our critical skills, get to know ourselves better, even learn to appreciate a broader spectrum of attributes of “good” writing, so we could “dig” more by uncovering more reasons to dig? And after we’ve accomplished that – and then surveyed how others have done that over millennia – couldn’t we search for patterns in those analyses, and come up with at least something of a stab at the empirical (post-J. Evans-approved) elements we readers and critics and artists all look for and find when we sift amid the good stuff—and miss in the shit stuff? Sure, we can. In this way, couldn’t we bridge the arenas of Stuff We Like and Good Stuff, so that we begin to like more stuff and better stuff, and block off quicker that stuff that should not get by our internal gatekeeper of quality to find a place at the dais “when it belongs in the dirt”?
In a previous blog post, “They Can’t All Be Gems,” I set forth some parameters for what we at FI slaver over. The writing we seek and publish (and pay for) sings to us of Novelty, Quality, Maturity, Subtlety, and Ingenuity. I wrote, “Watch this space” for more—and here it is:
Recollection/Reflection. We can tell from the work that the writer has moved through the world not so much as quotidian participant but singular observer. He has not truly experienced what others might call his “real life,” because he lives in his artist’s mind, where all the time some paramount quest and calling requires him to re-render alchemically an ostensibly ineffable world with the raw material of 26 squiggles in search of meaning. “Life” becomes real to him only once he processes it into art. The advent of that art – his stories and poems – atones for our lack of such inward vision, and provides us reflections of our archetypal, existential quandaries and anguish (along with some suggestions of concord, truth, and purpose). This is what Wordsworth, in his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, was talking about when he wrote, “ … all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that are “recollected in tranquility.” Read: re-collected into new being—not merely “experienced” then aborted or spilled onanistically.
Representation/Realization. Regardless of genre, in plot and tone and mood and his choice of words and so on, the writer has recreated (re-presented) from imagination and experience a complete and consistent (yet unpredictable) and altogether believable universe. When we read the story or poem, we’re there. We want to remain there. When we leave the piece, we miss the place. To cast this magic, the good writer realizes it isn’t important to slavishly catalog every detail of the world he creates. Only those salient particulars that both pack a punch and allow the reader to complete the picture need fall into the hat. “Caress the detail,” Nabokov oft repeated—“the divine detail.”
Revelation/Revision. The writer either finds a new lens through which to look at the world, or tilts and focuses the telescope at some oblique angle or perspective that tweaks our view uniquely. He makes “new things familiar and familiar things new,” as Samuel Johnson in 1781 wrote (of Pope) that good poets should. More recently, Stephen Corey, the legendary editor of the venerable Georgia Review, met with the FI student associate editors, and reminded them of the necessity of “surprise” in good writing—and this, in part, is what he means. We might be delighted or repulsed or merely intrigued by the surprises we find behind the writer’s eye, but in any case, we see something for the first time, like the dark side of the moon or the view from Lhotse when the mist lifts: a re-vision.
Resonance/Revisitation. The piece endures. No matter its style, it strikes us as timeless and indelible. This happens because it reverberates through our own lives, thereby shaking our footing, and altering our vision of the world. The former Dean of Westminster, Michael Mayne (a great writer, thinker, and theologian, and a friend of mine I dearly miss), writes in his 2008 book, The Sunrise of Wonder, “All real poems, all great novels and plays, begin and end in the mystery of who we are and how we relate to each other and the world. It is as if they verify how singular and special we are.” Long after you first read it, you keep going back to the piece because it helps you negotiate your way in the world; it offers you what Robert Frost in his 1939 essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes,” famously called “a momentary stay against confusion.” It helps you as a reader and a human in the universe to become a better, happier, more well-rounded you. If you sucked the poem from its suspension, the world – and we – would be worse for it.
Exemplars of such remarkable pieces are not absent inside the ivy-addled gates. Ostensibly light and fun, Duncan Lennon’s short story, “Canned Ravioli is People Food” (Dickinson College) stands as a paradigm of the qualities enumerated above. So does Ryan Cannon’s poem, “Daniel Gunther at Lot Y” (U-Conn). Check them out.