"You're kind of cranky. But in a good way."
Last night, the final night of an 11-week memoir and personal essay class, a writer who attended each session (despite complicating situations in her life), said this to me by way of explaining why she'd always turned up. "It's partly because you're a bit of a grouch, in a good/funny way," she said, and she wanted to see what I might grumble about each week. She assured me my crankiness was limited to instances of lazy writing, sloppy editing, and last minute, half-hearted revising, and that otherwise I'm a nice person.
Okay, I'll take that.
Which gave me a chance to reiterate what I say on the first day of every class or workshop, but students tend to forget: I'm not the sort to spend our scarce few hours together telling you how wonderful your precious prose is, how talented and gifted you are, that your every word sparkles. I don't tell writers, or frankly, expect writers to believe, that I love everything about their work, that they are going to get published somewhere wonderful and quite soon, that an essay or chapter is nearly perfect as first submitted.
I don't laud praise all over a manuscript, and then slip in a few small quiet words about something that you may, perhaps, possibly might consider changing just a bit, because, at least in my opinion, and I may be wrong, it could use, you know, just a bit of tweaking.
I developed this philosophy from having been on the other side of the table for years, sitting across from all kinds of writing teachers, workshop leaders, and editors. Long ago I concluded that if I wanted to grow as a writer, praise is lovely but not entirely helpful. And, it's not what I'm paying for, what I'm there for.
If I'm in the student/client chair, I'll take cranky and tough--which I'm fairly sure is mostly another way of saying demanding--over sweet and nice. Mind you, cranky/tough/demanding has to come along with: helpful, resourceful, encouraging. So I may be cranky but I try hard to be all those things, too.
Cranky/tough/demanding works if backed up by precise feedback, and focused, specific editing suggestions; with questions that help/force a writer to re-think, re-imagine, re-see (revise!) their work. So I work hard to do a lot of that.
Cranky/tough/demanding, when coupled with genuine interest in seeing the student writer challenge him/herself, also requires a willingness--in order to push that writer's craft toward growth--to sometimes not be liked. (Kind of sounds like parenting teenagers, huh?)
I'm occasionally, no maybe frequently, not liked by some folks in the early stages of working together. Most of the time, they like me again later on. But not always. That's okay.
My students and clients can think I'm grouchy or a bit of a crank, or tough or demanding, and I don't mind. As long as they also think I'm helping their writing develop, go new places, leap forward.
Growth, development, leaps forward usually aren't the result of patting anyone on the head and telling them how wonderful their work already is. Let's face it, you can get that from Mom, your best friend, your sweetheart.
The teachers, mentors, workshop leaders, and editors I had who were tough, who seriously challenged me, who were daring and smart enough to draw a line through a paragraph of mine and write in the margin "Who cares? Rewrite," are the ones who propelled me to work harder, to revise, rewrite, shred, and start again-- and to raise my own standards. The ones who were sweet and soft left me feeling good for a few hours -- and then very soon after, I felt cheated, out of money and time.
Anyway, I'm not always cranky. Sometimes I do tell students how much I admire their writing, but this typically occurs when writers have gotten through three or six or 16 drafts, and by then are beginning to be a little tougher, a little more demanding too, of their own work.
When I can see how hard a writer has worked to make each word sparkle, each page shine – and that they've moved on in their writing development, I've been known to say, "This is GOOD."
I could say "great" I suppose. But let's not get carried away.
Image: Flickr via Creative Commons / mootown