POP: THE ONLY CREATIVE WRITING COURSE RULE THAT SHOULD BE UNIVERSALLY MANDATORY
*POP: What it is.*
In the courses Judith and I teach in the UCLA Writers program, we have only one immutable rule. Wecall it POSITIVE ONLY (for) PEERS, so that it sort of forms itself into the acronym: POP. It is a very easy rule to state: everything you say to another student about that student's work *must* be positive and supportive. This doesn't mean you have to lie and say something is good when it isn't good. But there is almost always some part of a writer's work that stands out above other parts, something you can say something good about. That is what you *have to* do for others in this course. And that is what you will get from them.
You will get this not only from the other members of the class. You will get it from me. And the miracle of this rule is that everyone in the group will learn faster and write more when POP is in effect. I'll explain the reasons why the rule is so important and why it works. I will also give you some examples of how to POP and how not to POP.
This rule isn't unique to me. Every good writing instructor knows it. It ought to be obvious to anyone who thinks about what makes a writer keep on writing. Point to someone who is suffering from writers block and almost invariably you discover the onset of the malady can be traced to a negative comment.
*Why the Masochists worry unnecessarily about POP*
'But how will we learn if nobody tells us what we are doing wrong?' Some people think training is no good unless it hurts. This may be true for weight lifting. It is not true for creative writing. Positive-only peer-reinforcement not only facilitates better learning; it encourages the process of creative inspiration.
Mainly we learn by sensing, for ourselves, what works and what doesn't work. Your task as students is to point out the things that *work* in somebody's writing. That person assembles the accumulated data. The gaps between the positive statements point to where it isn't working so well.
But nobody had to *say* it! It is so important that writers make this discovery about their own work and not have negative judgments inflicted upon them by a specific comment.
Of course, the masochists, and those who were trained in Jesuit institutions (which in the last analysis may be substantially overlapping categories) will whine a little longer before they catch the wisdom of *POP.* But my experience has been that it is this group that often ends up benefiting the most from a nurturing environment.
*Why POP is essential for students of creative writing.*
*1. The Creative Urge*
A writer writes because of an impulse deep inside that whispers 'Go, ahead, you have something important to say! Get it down, so that it can be communicated to others, who will be vitally interested to learn it!' People call this the Creative Urge. Some attribute it to egotism or even exhibitionism. The mystics see it as a calling from some higher force. Whatever it is, it is what distinguishes us from those who stop at wondering whether they could have been a writer if they'd taken English in College instead of Political Science.
We don't know why some people are visited by the Creative Urge, but we thank the Deity when the Creative Urge produces works of Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Toni Morrison, and on and on. Whether one rides this impulse to the rarefied realms the Great Ones attain, or whether one crashes on the rocks or shoals of tedious mediocrity, it all begins with the Creative Urge.
In the last analysis, the Creative Urge may indeed be the prime fiction, but it is like the old joke about the Grandfather who thinks he's a chicken: we don't dare tell him the truth because we need the eggs!
Negative criticism destroys the fiction of the Creative Urge as effectively as a needle pops a balloon. That is why it is forbidden by all of the masters of creativity.
The Creative Urge frequently leads writers into new directions in creativity that don't become recognized at first as art simply because the directions are so new. Consider Emily Dickinson, whose early submissions were sent back to her with comments that she hadn't gotten the rhymes and meters right. She never submitted again. Fortunately she did not simply give up, but it wasn't until her sister decided to defy her deathbed instruction to burn the deep box of her hand written poems that the world was treated to her brilliance.
*2. The Impact of Negative Atmosphere*
Imagine your favorite author trapped in a room and forced to listen to what other people have to say about his or her work. Everyone could find something, in even the most perfect writing, with which to find fault. "Mr. Salinger, I really liked your story in *Catcher in the Rye*, but don't you think you could give us a lot more about Holden Caulfield if you didn't tell it in the first person?" And then imagine someone else chiming in: 'I agree for a different reason. I had a lot of trouble staying with your story because I found your narrator, what was his name, Holden Caulfield, such an obnoxious adolescent. You really ought to choose a more attractive narrator. ' Or, "Did you have to make Iago such a mean guy, Mr. Shakespeare? I mean, it just didn't ring true -- .'
Writing well is risky business. It places a chunk of the writer's bare soul on display, and we have to be ever-cautious about the risk of damaging tender sensitivities. My experience is that negative criticism is almost always corrosive. Even the greatest of writers could be worn down and profoundly discouraged.
The important rule to be drawn from all of this is that nobody, and certainly not members of the legion of creators who have been touched by the Creative Urge, has the right to do something to interfere with another writer's pursuit of the Creative Urge. Negative comments almost always challenge the very premises of the Creative Urge.
I'll say it using a more dramatic metaphor. It is an act of literary homicide to kill the Creative Urge in any writer. Literary homicide is a crime in this course, as is attempted literary homicide. These should be crimes wherever writers gather to share their work. And it is not a defense to say 'I was only trying to help make the work better.'
*How NOT to POP:*
All of this having now been said, I am going to give you some examples of attempted literary homicide, because some of you don't know what the face of murder looks like. And some of you come from experiences with teachers who ought to have been put away in literary prison years ago. Review the weapons so that you can honor the rule. Here are the prime offenders:
1) 'Your piece just didn't WORK for me.' literary poison: a very subtle weapon that sometimes inflicts no pain upon entry but soon devastates by releasing a strong poison within a writer's internal system.
2) 'What I DIDN'T like about your piece was --' This is a literary dart. Alone it might not be lethal unless it targets a vital area (and everybody has different 'vital' areas when it comes to writing, so you can never really aim it to avoid damage). But the fact is that every other pygmy from your tribe may be simultaneously firing a separate dart at the victim. Don't get started. Negativity even in small quantities can be lethal.
3) 'I had the same problems with (dialogue, narration, description, etc) when I was starting out.' This weapon bludgeons the victim to a creativity death, using the classmate's ego as a blunt club. Even when writers survive the ego bludgeon, they are known to suffer a delayed-reaction inferiority complex, fueled by their own insecurities about their talent. Don't say it; it is wrong. And it is no defense that 'I was only trying to help by sharing my own experience.'
4) 'I was bored with your piece until -- ' This is a literary caning, and it stings, even though you are going to stop whipping. Who wants to know about your own level of inattention? You don't redeem yourself by finishing the sentence in a supportive way. No writer wants to be told that what she sweat bullets creating turned out to be boring to anyone. This is just another way of saying: 'I really liked your piece when you got to --' Say it this latter way, and prevent the sting of the lash.
5) 'Everything was good except --' This is a literary hand grenade that blows up all the good stuff that may be around it. It has also been called the stinger at the end of the scorpion. You just don't get to say this, even if it comes at the end of a long compliment. Insecure people, even secure people, tend to remember only the negative.
6) 'Do you call THAT writing?' This of course is the nuclear warhead in the arsenal of weapons of literary homicide. Don't ever, under any circumstances, say this to anyone who writes.
These are not the only weapons of literary homicide. Writers, being the creative types that they are, come up with all sorts of variations. Avoid them from both ends.
*And finally, the secret process: HOW TO POP*
Here are a few proper positive responses and a breakdown of the way the learning process works when you use them:
1) 'I really liked <quote the line or lines from the writer's submission which you liked the best>.' And tell the writer why you liked it, what it did to you, how it made you feel. Sometimes a line or two stand out from a good piece.
Sometimes the rest of the piece isn't nearly as well written. Saying you liked parts A and B doesn't commit you to a rave review of C, D, E, or F. If a writer learns that everybody focused their positive comments on A and B, at least that writer knows what is working. The writer also may take a look back at the parts that didn't get any notice, for a more critical self-review.
2) 'I like the way you handle (dialogue, description, style etc.) in this piece.' (Point to the element the writer used best and tell the writer why you liked it, how it made you feel. This last part is important because it gives the writer a concrete means of evaluating how the techniques are working. Again, if everybody comments positively about the same element, this not only encourages the writer to emphasize the same positive element in future work, it also signals the possibility the writer should take stock of why other elements haven't been noticed.
3) 'You really got my attention at -- ' (Identify the part of the piece that called you into it, and explain what it was that did it for you. If what you identify occurs late in the piece, this may put a writer on notice that she should re-evaluate the narrative order or that she should incorporate suspense-building devices earlier on in the piece. But it does so by honoring the writer for having reached you.
I hope you are getting the idea from these examples. This is a creative writing course. Be creative in framing your positive responses. Include substance, so that the writer has something to go on in figuring out how she is reaching you. Let the writer, after receiving all the comments from everyone, be the critical one.
Trust me. It works. Comb the hair; don't yank it out.
If after reading this you decide you simply will be unable to abide by these rules, then go somewhere else. This isn't the only writing course in the world, and the Marquis de Sade probably would disagree with everything I have just said, if not for himself, at least for his lovers.
Writing well is just about the most difficult art. Everybody who writes creatively strives for optimum quality in written communication. It isn't just a function of style and technique. It is a function of inspiration, of stimulating the smoldering creative core, bringing it to full heat, and then tapping its molten treasures.
Everybody who writes creatively is capable of improvement. Nobody reaches perfection. Nobody! Most people who have been seriously trying long enough know this better than anybody else. And even when a writer has it right, there is always going to be somebody else who has an idea about how it could have been done differently.
In the last analysis, writing well thrives on freedom, especially the freedom to fall short of perfection while you are trying out new techniques and ideas.