Wednesday, December 11, 2013

tell it to me straight

Today, I'm going to tackle two Reverb prompts at once, in an attempt to catch up:

1. Who inspired you in 2013? And why? What gifts did they give you? And how will you carry these forward in to 2014?

2. What challenges lie ahead in 2014? How might you meet them boldly?

I have always gravitated toward straight talkers. This is probably because straight talking is a quality to which I aspire. Not blunt, tactless straight talking; more of an honesty that is filtered through sensitivity to people’s feelings. I practice this art in my comments on student papers (“I see an attempt at analysis here, but you haven’t quite explored this question to the best of your ability. . . .”), but when confronted with a direct question, I am more likely to mumble a neutral response. So, while my intent is to spare the other person’s feelings, what ends up happening instead is that my true meaning gets lost in the vagueness of my reply.

This has sometimes led to consternation on the part of my students. Under our program at Quinnipiac, students do not receive grades on individual assignments. Instead, they receive a grade on their portfolios at the midterm and then at the final. They are left, in the meantime, to interpret my comments on their work. Caressed by gentle, encouraging (but still critical) words on their work all semester, they have, at times, been confounded by the grade, even though I also use a rubric to let them know where their work falls with regard of our curricular goals.

A couple of years ago, in a Reverb post, I resolved to be more of a “hard-ass” in my teaching. My ass is definitely harder than it was then, but there’s room for improvement. Still a little cushy on the outside.

Fortunately, the older I get, the less tolerant I am of lazy work. I sometimes tell my students about two of my favorite professors in college, Dr. Bucco and Dr. Lindstrom. Both were notoriously hard graders. But Dr. Bucco, for whatever reason, decided early on that I was an “A” student, no matter what I did. If I got an answer wrong on an exam, he would give me points for making a “clever guess.” On an essay I wrote at 3am (I worked the overnight shift in a group home), barely awake and certainly far from lucid in my thinking, he wrote, “Good enough!” and gave me an A- rather than the C I surely deserved. Lindstrom, on the other hand, had no favorites, though he was my advisor and we got along very well, in spite of his sternness (we still correspond to this day). He taught 18th Century British Lit, and could refer to passages and page numbers in thousand-page tomes without even picking up the books. His was my first English class at Colorado State, and I was terrified. I had taken a few years off from college, and I was sure this would show in my writing, that I would be laughed right out of the English program. But I found myself with an A average. So I began to rest on my laurels. I wrote my essay on Fielding’s Tom Jones in an hour. “This is just getting too easy,” I said to myself, with a congratulatory pat on the back. I got the paper back a week later, and written in Lindstrom’s curt handwriting were the words: “Very straightforward, Tricia. And dull.” Boom. B-minus. I couldn’t believe it.
I went to Lindstrom’s office—not to ask him to change the grade, but to try to salvage my ego. Ostensibly, the visit was to talk about my transfer credits. “By the way,” I said timidly, “I was surprised at your comments on my last essay. It’s the lowest grade I’ve gotten.”

He did the facial equivalent of a shrug: a smirk and a raised eyebrow. “So fix it.” That was it. No “Don’t worry too much about it; the rest of your work has been great.” Just straight talk.

In relating these stories to my students, I always ask, “For which professor do you think I worked harder? The one who had decided my work was ‘good enough,’ or the one who was willing to call me on my laziness?”

My friend Elizabeth is a straight talker (read her post “Being Out There Again”, also part of this year’s Reverb project). My first interaction with her was at a writer’s group, several years ago. She had recently moved back to the States from London, and was brand new to our meet-up. The day she arrived, my story was up for discussion.

“I was late getting here tonight because of you!” one of the readers exclaimed breathlessly, pulling my story out of her shoulder bag. “I just loved your story! The descriptions of the mountains were so beautiful, and I really enjoyed your writing style.” She gushed for a few minutes, flattering me, but not really saying anything very specific. Though I am generally very self-critical, I was enjoying having my ego stroked. “Thank you,” I said, with the self-satisfied air of one who has written something meaningful.

Then it was Elizabeth’s turn. She smiled her pretty, direct smile. “Well, it was a nice story, and I met a lot of interesting folks along the way. But it’s not going in any editor’s ‘yes’ pile.”

I took a sip of my beer, my cheeks coloring. Elizabeth—bluntly, and with all the wit of one who had begun to consider herself a Londoner--pointed out all of the places where my description was too wordy (an annoying, persistent trait of mine), and where I relied on cliches rather than coming up with my own similes and metaphors. The protagonist was likeable enough, but mushy. I heard, for the zillionth time, my former Creative Writing prof’s voice in my head: “Your writing is lovely, but you need to get your characters off the couch.”

When Elizabeth had finished, she smiled again. “Would anyone else like to borrow my soapbox?” she asked, looking around at the other members of the group.

My ego had long since retreated and was now curled up in fetal position with the shades drawn. I laughed it off, said a polite “thank you,” and finished my beer. I didn’t write for a week or so. At first I was angry, thinking her comments unfair. But when I picked up Elizabeth’s copy of my story later on, I had to admit that the criticism was not unfounded. Because she was right. What’s more, she had done me a favor in grabbing me by the shirt and saying, “Stop being so lazy, girlfriend. Have you read any literary journals lately? Do you even know what the market looks like? And what’s up with your tired imagery?”

Bryan's a straight talker, too. So, while I am sometimes frustrated by his inability to lie when I ask him something like, "Does this shirt look okay with these pants?" at the same time, I know I'm getting an honest answer. His compliments mean that much more because I know they are sincere.

I have noticed a common characteristic in straight talkers: they also tend to be doers. Elizabeth has started her own “demand poetry” business. She and her husband took in a family of four foster children, all at the same time, all of them under 6 (they have since adopted the kids, who are gorgeous, intelligent, and always polite). My friend Kristen, a wonderfully sweet straight talker, built a chicken coop with her own hands, using power tools I’m scared to touch, let alone operate. And I’m not talking about a crude little box; she built these lucky chicks a two-story deluxe condo, with flowers painted on each side. The next spring, she constructed a sprawling garden, where she grows everything from pumpkins to edamame to strawberries and purple beans. While I was dreaming of a home in the mountains “somewhere in the future”, Kristen said, “I want to live in New Hampshire,” and she was gone in six months. When your talk is uncluttered, so is your determination.

I have learned, in my writing, to get rid of the extraneous crap that only distracts the reader from the meaning of the sentence (my friend Kathy is very adept at taking what she calls her “machete” to my semi-final drafts, cutting them down to Raymond Carver size). And I’m not afraid to tell my students when their work is “non-passing” (I’m not yet bold enough to say they’ve written “utter shit,” as my friend Roger has done. He’s British, so the phrase sounds charming). I plan to continue to learn how to use this straight-talk tool in effective ways, with the goal of transforming direct talk into direct action.

So, how will I “boldly go forward in 2014”? I probably won’t take such an extreme approach to commenting on my students’ work. But I do find that when I am blunt with them, they are more likely to see that resting on old habits is not an option. And I explain to them that my comments aren’t “corrections”: they are the suggestions of someone who cares enough about their work to see it shine. Whether they believe this or not, I can’t always tell. I still use what Roger calls the “praise sandwich”: praise, followed by critique, followed by praise. But instead of rich chocolate Oreos on the outside, I now use ginger snaps. They’re sharp, and they go right to the taste buds.


Kat McNally said...

Straight talking (with compassion) is a powerful way of "boldly going"! x

Elizabeth said...

HOLY CRAPBUCKETS! Did I really sound like that? No wonder I have no friends. Sigh. I guess I know what MY post will be about... trying to be kinder. I am glad you got something out of it anyway. Don't change too much sister, because your writing on this blog is great! It's so clear and direct. Thanks for sharing this horrific story to me in such clear, precise writing. ;-)

tricia said...

You are kind, my friend! Your honesty was a gift, and I never considered it cruel. It was honest and spot on, and I love you for these qualities. You really have been an inspiration.

tricia said...

You are kind, my friend! Your honesty was a gift, and I never considered it cruel. It was honest and spot on, and I love you for these qualities. You really have been an inspiration.