Top Ten Peeves of a Creative Writing Teacher

Here’s an interesting and amusing post by Melodie Campbell at Anne R. Allen’s blog: Top Ten Peeves of Creative Writing Teachers

Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one. I’m definitely on the kind side of the equation. The last thing I want is to be a Dream Killer. But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated. So when Anne suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted. (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

Here they are, briefly — more expansive comments on each point at the link. From her comments, Campbell is plainly aiming her class at would-be professional writers; she’s not teaching a class for students who just need an English elective and might just as well have taken Modern American Lit or whatever.

Ten Pet Peeves:

1. I don’t need no stinkin’ genre. I can imagine just what Campbell means — though it’s a bit hard to imagine many people using the phrase “selling out” in this day and age. Although as far as I’m concerned, “literary” IS a genre and I would present it that way if I were teaching the class.

2. The memoir disguised as fiction. Another good one.

3. My editor will fix it. Even I have encountered this and I don’t teach creative writing. But people SAY this. I hear it not just now and then, but pretty often. I’d make this my number one pet peeve if I were teaching a class. If you’re a writer, then the English language is your tool for telling stories (presuming you’re writing in English). You don’t get to declare that you’re no good with grammar but your story will work anyway. Why would you think that could possibly be okay?

Campbell agrees, btw, so I’m not sure why she didn’t make it her #1 point.

4. The Hunger Games Clone. All right, now listen, I can see where Campbell is coming from. But if it’s well done, *I* am not tired of Hunger Games clones and I bet many other readers aren’t tired of them either. Mind you, “well done” means not a clone-clone. But no big trope is so overused it can’t be done really well yet again, imo.

Also, here Campbell adds, “There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing. For me, it’s the ‘harvesting organs’ plot. Almost every class I’ve taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs. It’s been done, I tell them. I can’t think of a new angle that hasn’t already been done, and done well. Enough, already. Write something else. Please. Leave the poor organs where they are!”

This instantly makes me want to think of brand-new twists for organ harvesting stories. I’m not well read in this sub-sub-sub genre, but let’s see:

a) Eating someone’s heart really does give you their courage and strength, like eating an animal’s heart was supposed to do in some cultures.

b) Eating even a small portion of a mathematician’s brain means you just know algebra yourself.

Didn’t mean to go on a cannibalism kick there. I told one of our high-level math tutors that if you teach a flatworm a very simple maze and then feed it to other flatworms, they know the maze as well. This old experiment is not flawless, I realize, so don’t bother pointing that out; however, the conversation went in predictable directions from there. We basically agreed that it’s just as well algebra students can’t learn algebra from eating a bit of pureed brain or we’d be in trouble.

Moving on:

c) Some people have a special organ that lets them (i) cast spells, (ii) teleport, (iii) be telepathic, (iv) live forever. Instant market in organs, coming right up.

d) Old people can live practically forever by rejiggering their bodies with young, healthy organs. That sounds a tiny bit familiar. Has anybody done that one already?

How about it? You think Campbell’s seen those kinds of twists on organ harvesting? I bet not. I bet she’s thinking about contemporary stories that deal with economics, not about fun SF plots. How about it, is the trope so common all these options have already been done?

Okay, moving on:

5. The Preacher Who Wants To Teach A Lesson. I myself have seen this several times and I’m not a creative writing teacher. This impulse just seems to be really, really common.

6. Literary Snowflakes: students who ignore publisher guidelines. Yes, as a creative writing teacher I’m not sure I would care. I would just be all, Sure, maybe your debut novel will sell to a big-five publisher even though it’s 250,000 words long. If that doesn’t work out for you, maybe try writing something that fits their actual guidelines?

7. Students Who Set out to Break the Rules. Uh huh. Someone got me to look at their self-published book a few years ago, and it was like a cross between a novel and stage directions for a play. No description, no transition scenes, no dialogue markers such as quote marks. It was more like

JANICE: Why, look, we’ve walked through a portal into another world!

RICHARD stares around in amazement.

I have absolutely no memory of the plot, just the format, but it was fantasy of some kind. I had no idea what to say, except that readers generally know what a novel is and this wasn’t one, so how could that work?

8. Students who don’t write.

Oh, now. I get where Campbell is coming from, but let’s not make this into a pet peeve. Sometimes someone’s hobby is thinking about writing, not writing, and that’s pretty much okay, though it’s a shame they’re paying tuition. But not infrequently a student signs up for a class and then their life gets totally insane and they can’t keep up. A Creative Writing class is an elective and just not important compared to, say, Algebra. Cut ’em some slack, is what I say.

9. Other creative writing teachers who steal our material for their own classes.

This one seems like a stretch. (a) It can’t be common enough to be a pet peeve. (b) Who cares? What difference does it make if some other teacher wants to see how you approach your class and maybe use some of your methods? That sounds fine to me, though it might be more efficient to invite you out for lunch and talk shop.

10. Students who don’t read. Oooookay. This one totally deserves to be a major pet peeve. I didn’t even see it coming, though I’ve heard of the phenomenon — would-be writers who don’t read. I don’t understand it (I don’t understand ANYONE who doesn’t read), but I gather it’s not super-rare.

I guess I wouldn’t let it bother me? I would just be like, Well, this isn’t a bit likely to work out for you, but hey, feel free to try. And then I wouldn’t spend a lot of time critiquing their work because just why?

Click through to read the whole post if you’ve got a minute — Campbell’s got more to say about each point.

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5 thoughts on “Top Ten Peeves of a Creative Writing Teacher”

  1. The original post makes me wonder if the specific goal of her class is to train saleable writers. Otherwise, remembering the ’10million words of drek before you get good’ adage, why worry (much) about the publishing angles such as genre, manuscript requirements, etc? And what about indie?

    I don’t read much in the organ harvesting sub category, but wasn’t your choice (d) eternal youth, the point of a highly pushed and praised book by a Japanese(name started with K) guy some years ago? It was told from the POV of the clones who were raised indoctrinated in the desirability of what was going to happen to them.

    I think there was an early OS Card that worked that angle, too, but I may be wrong.

    Sherri Tepper’s True Game nonology had shape shifters with a special organ that let them do it. No one tried to harvest, them, though.

  2. The eternal youth thing is just not ringing bells for me, except you made me think of the clones from Bujold, who are made to believe that having an old person’s brain inserted into their skull is a great idea. Of course that isn’t organ harvesting exactly … unless you think of it as the old person harvesting all the organs at once, including skin and bones and stuff.

  3. Organ harvesting to stay alive — including for longer than normal, but not too much longer — shows up in Niven’s future history, most visibly in a Gil Hamilton story or two; the technology is obsolete by the time of his mid- and later-era stories.

    Harvested organs as a youth treatment are a key element in Normal Spinrad’s BUG JACK BARRON, though I think that was just glands. I’d be surprised if it didn’t show up here and there in older SF.

  4. Brandon Sanderson has a variation on stealing abilities via organ harvesting, but it’s more like chakra point harvesting.

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