Writing, as in life, is about being flexible. Whether you’re talking about love, work, or writing, the ability to recognize differences between us and to not only accept them but to embrace and celebrate them are keys to a long, healthy life. This is not earth-shatteringly new wisdom by any stretch, but for some of us it does hit like a 9.0 magnitude quake when it becomes a part of the internalized thinking.
I started thinking about this in a fiction writing class I’m currently teaching. In that class, I often give students the opportunity to write about certain prompts I give them, being careful not to restrict the general topics that they choose to focus on. I will, for example, try to get them to focus on sensory details, or setting, or dialogue, but won’t tell them who or what specifically to write about. Being naive or idealistic, I figured that they would branch off and explore various character types, different situations, etc. They didn’t. In fact, even when I deliberately tried to get them out of their comfort zones by dictating a change (i.e you now must write about a character of the opposite sex, or you must now write about someone much older than you), the results still ended up the same, sort of. I still had my handful of gangster characters spouting vulgarity and whipping out their nine millimeters or glock nines, albeit the characters were now women, or old men. Teen girls were still wrapped in the overwhelming angst of teen love, and, even in later entries when the girls became boys, the angst still lived on, and the dialogue still resonated like it was shot right out of cable television. These kids stubbornly held onto the images, characters, and dialogue patterns they were comfortable with.
Which got me thinking. Maybe in writing, like in life, people gravitate to what they really like, and, despite our best efforts, we can’t change them. We can try to dictate the circumstances surrounding them, or make an impassioned plea for them to change, or levy ultimatums (ugh, a last resort), but, in the end, they are the ones who have to make the change. I can ask my kids to write about different characters all I like, but until they are willing to embrace the idea of a new character, the story,as it were, remains the same. Again, not revolutionary pedagogical thinking. Not really even new age life thinking. Just, I suppose, old knowledge that came back to me at this point in my life.
But new or not, this revelation did make me realize, no matter how long I teach, that I need reminding of the basic principles. Students want to learn. Writers want to get better. But until they are ready to break out of their comfort zones, the best efforts of the instructor are, for the most part, wasted. I decided, instead, to celebrate the characters and situations the students were writing, rather than try to make them change. This is an introductory course after all. If they choose to pursue creative writing in college, then fantastic, but, for now, if I can engender a love of writing and being creative in kids who are really reticent most of the time to writing anything at all, well, then I have done my job.
Of course I’ll still try to expose as many students to the varied elements of writing as I can. And, yes, I will still talk about broadening horizons and getting out of comfort zones. But I think I’m a little smarter now. Now I realize that some students aren’t ready to move, and are happy right where they are, and developmentally that is just fine. They’re young still, and they have time to learn.