When explaining how to prepare adequately for creative writing workshops, I ask new classes to take their peers’ work home and read it more than once, to make generous line annotations, and to write one-page letters on the back for more global concerns. All this is prelude to the verbal discussions that will take place when we reconvene for workshop.
I remind them that most good writing is supported by detail, so when they make critical assertions they should back them up with evidence from the texts themselves. Then I do a little patter on what I call the poles of critical commentary.
The North Pole of student comments goes like this: Dear Peer, this story is great. I’ve never read such a great story, and it’s going to get you an A in this class. In fact, when you walked in on the first day of class with your hat turned backward, I thought you were a published author and knew I could spend the rest of my life basking in the glow of your work because it’s so really very great. I love you.
The South Pole of commentary is no more helpful: Dear Peer, your story sucks. Never in all the sucking world has a story sucked as bad as this one sucks….
Both poles are sterile. Obviously, what you want instead is commentary from the fecund tropical zone of criticism, lush with insight and details, equatorial in its balance. I do my best to help students find their way there.
But yesterday I started the South Pole thing and heard myself saying, “…never in my life have I sucked anything that was so….”
I froze, reminded instantly of a faux pas I committed once in a lit class several years ago. I’d meant to say, about a murder in a film version of Frankenstein, “The guy whacked him.” But I got confused with the phrase “bumped him off,” and what I said aloud was, “And then the guy whacked him off.” The classroom erupted in a riot. I managed to regain control, if not my dignity, after I laughed and said that was another thing entirely.
But it does raise the question of what a teacher might say or do unthinkingly in the classroom from which there would be no recovery. My acquaintance Crazy Larry says: audible fart. You?